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Isle of Wight 1970: Is It Socially Significant? Print-ready version

by Dave Humphreys
Winnipeg Free Press
September 1, 1970

LONDON: The pop festival to end all pop festivals has ended on the Isle of Wight, off Britain's south coast. The organizers are moaning about losing money as 250,000 fans head for home in Bedford and Bordeaux, Ottawa and Denver.

If only because of sheer size, this festival leaves behind plenty of controversy, and numerous interpretations. It was obviously good material for the moviemakers who may yet rescue the management from financial and moral despair.

For Ron Foulk, joint promoter, it literally is the end, meaning the prospect of losing $150,000 or so on an investment of $1,250,000 - unless those movie men can bail him out.

Mr. Foulk is also disillusioned to learn that lovers of pop music cheat. More than 10,000* of them climbed up a hill overlooking the 200-acre site for a free view of the stage, depriving Mr. Foulk and his Fiery Creations group of essential revenue.

You don't bring in $500,000 worth of talent, including Joan Baez ($30,000), Leonard Cohen and Tiny Tim and 42 others, for love alone. And when you play host to 250,000 and need supporting services of military proportions, like 3,000 security men, about 100 shops, 750,000 hamburgers, a field hospital and half a mile of toilets. Surveying it all before the crowds descended, Mr. Foulk declared: "This affair is so huge it's frightening."

By the end of the English long "Bank Holiday" weekend, his worst fears were realized. Tired and depressed, Mr. Foulk surveyed the desolation and pronounced his disgust: "To think I spent nine months defending these people, saying how peaceful they were, fighting for them. Now look what they've done. They're vandals, nothing else. I would certainly never organize another festival."

But there was hope that Mr. Foulk's bitterness would fade with the memories. One of his officials said that "a few hundred" unruly types rampaged during the closing hours, wrecking a dozen shops, fences and installations, adding insult to the monetary injury.

That very vandalism may contribute to the moviemaker's joys as they process the footage of the action. A pop festival with just music would be a pretty tame affair for movies, after all. And this one had so much more. Early morning nude frolics in the sea. Drug arrests. Disappointed and broke young people heading for home. Outcasts who refused to smoke pot and had all their belongings stolen. Mass and Holy Communion celebrated hippie-style in the fields.

If anything ever was a "happening" this must be it. Whether this or any pop festival deserves to be treated as an event of social significance is another matter.

It is too simple in the world of 1970, searching for terribly subtle meaning in everything, to leave it as a happening, where 250,000 young people (inevitably, in a crowd of that size, including good and bad elements) come together in a field to camp for five days and enjoy some of the world's best pop music.

One of the sophisticates is Karl Dallas who, reviewing the program for The Times of London, writes: "One would become more willing to accept the significance of an event like the Isle of Wight if we were not being so constantly reminded how significant it was, and if those who criticize the customs of the old order did not play the same old games themselves."

Whereupon Mr. Dallas promptly becomes overwhelmed by the significance of it all. "What is truly significant about this coming together of a quarter of a million young people to demonstrate what could well become an alternative lifestyle is the fact that the old organizations, the old ways of preaching, and even the old cash nexus are as irrelevant to them as the old kind of Moon and June pop."

What a pity for The Times' readers that Mr. Dallas omitted his interpretation of the inner significance of Tiny Tim leading the wildly enthusiastic throng in Land of Hope and Glory and There'll Always Be an England. The wildest Tory's mind would boggle at the sight as Tiny Tim's falsetto voice was joined by what must be the largest single crowd ever to sing Land of Hope and Glory in the history of the British Empire.

What about the significance of the considerable Canadian contribution? .There was the intervention of Joni Mitchell, whose roots go back to Regina and Fort MacLeod, Alberta, who silenced noisy interruptions with a devastating: "It seems to me you're behaving like tourists, man. Give us some respect."

Leonard Cohen, probably more popular here and in France than at home, played near the end because of his popularity, and thousands were then on their way home or had already left.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Foulk, seized by the cash nexus, temporarily no doubt, should have maligned the image of his patrons. For them it really was the end that is great, man.

Most were there to enjoy the music and the outdoors like Bill Stevenson, a student at Carleton University, Ottawa. He appeared to be a normal student, ending a summer in Europe. He thoroughly enjoyed the program. So, no doubt, did scores of other Canadians, not conscious of participating in the evolution of the new lifestyle.

Douglas Osmond, the 56-year old Hampshire chief constable who donned hippie disguise and walked among the fans, said people become unduly anxious. "In fact the vast majority of those who attend are very decent young people. They are here for the music and to enjoy themselves." He said about 200 thefts was not high considering the crowd and "the way they leave, things lying around."

And 64 drug charges must be measured against the crowd too. The several hundred troublemakers could be no more than the 700 attending the two church services. The 10,000 who watched from a hill broke no laws or property and were rather more ingenious than the management."

If Isle of Wight 1970 is the end, there will be a wake of monstrous proportions. Size alone would be enough to daunt men more easily frightened than Mr. Foulk and his colleagues. Maybe they have proven that you can't bring together 250,000 young men and women without some stealing, some cheating, some vandalizing and some taking off their clothes. Let the sociologists ponder that one.

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Added to Library on September 2, 2009. (7708)


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