40 years ago on the isle of wight

It has often been referred to as the British Woodstock, a mammoth sized music summit designed with the high intentions of defining a generation’s artistic and social identity.

For many, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival did exactly that, but in ways no one, least of all its audience or organizers, could have foreseen.

Four decades ago this very day, the event got underway. Unlike Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival entered its third year in 1970 having already triggered excitement enough to draw 6-digit attendance figures and ample animosity, especially among the locals in what has been termed “a haven of the yachting set.” Relocated at the 11th hour to the hillside East Afton Farm following residential protests , the festival notoriety’s bloomed along with its audience. The turnout was generally quoted at 600,000, though many estimates went higher.

Like Woodstock, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival is best viewed today as a timepiece of a rapidly imploding counterculture. Attendees tore down gates and crashed the largest pop party of its generation, insuring a financial collapse that was all but inevitable in the first place. There were no melees, no riots. But the vibe wasn’t there.

By 1970, the idealism of the late ‘60s has vanished along with the decade itself. It was a greyer, meaner time. At Woodstock, promoters welcomed gate crashers to the party. At Isle of Wight, emcees openly branded patrons as “pigs.” American songstress Joni Mitchell cut to the chase, dismissing the crowd as “tourists.” 

jimi hendrix at the 1970 isle of wight festival.

jimi hendrix at the isle of wight festival.

The music, of course, was glorious. It reflected the dark energy of the times (in a very literal sense, during a dimly lit evening set by The Doors), mirrored the intensity of Woodstock’s greatest moments (with a volcanic set by The Who, still at the height of its powers) and introduced a new legion of artists that would carve out stylistic turf of their own throughout the decade ahead (Rory Gallagher, Free, Jethro Tull).

For some, Isle of Wight was a beginning. Prog-pop eccentrics Emerson, Lake & Palmer played what was only its second gig as a band there. For others, it was a farewell. A mere 18 days after his performance, Jimi Hendrix died.

A mountain of recordings have surfaced from Isle of Wight, much of it within the last few years. Complete DVD festival sets by The Who, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Miles Davis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and, most recently, Leonard Cohen are available.

Two video documents serve as essential viewing/listening. The first is Message to Love, a remarkable documentary filled with sublime performances and often deflating insight into the festival’s set-up and the collapsing generation it was designed for.

The second is Wild Blue Angel, which chronicles Hendrix’s performance. The guitarist sounds technically ragged throughout. But stylistically, it’s an amazing set that suggests a powerful rhythmic shift away from the flash and fire of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and a growing fascination with jazz and funk. Clearly, Hendrix’s creative drive never faded during his final weeks.

The Isle of Wight Festival has been resurrected in recent years and lives today as a comparatively modest-sized gathering. This year it was held in June with Paul McCartney headlining. But for a vivid glimpse into an altogether different pop mood, search out any of the eight available DVD recordings of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, an event that encapsulates a generational spirit that was fading almost as fast as the late summer nights that surrounded it.

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