Festival organisers in the UK have always tried to secure a weekend for their event where there is little competition. The first Isle of Wight festival was in 1968 and the organisers grabbed the last weekend in August, a traditional British public holiday.
The first festival was a relatively low-key affair, lasting for from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning, and attracting around 15,000 people with a very varied line-up. Among the support acts were Plastic Penny, The Mirage (their main claim to fame is they included future Elton John band stalwart, Dee Murray on guitar), Blonde on Blonde, Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, Halcyon Order (a local band), Smile – with Chris Spedding on guitar and Fairport Convention.
The Fairports was one of the last acts to play, just as the sun began to come up. At this point they had both Ian Matthews and Sandy Denny on vocals; this was a magnificent incarnation of the band that recorded What We Did on Our Holidays.
The Pretty Things, The Move and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were there too along with Tyrannosaurus Rex who hadn’t at this point gone electric or shortened their name.
Topping the bill was the only overseas artist to appear – Jefferson Airplane, with lead singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin, Paul Kantner on guitar, and backing vocals that made them one of the greatest vocal bands of the day. The rest of the band was Jorma Kaukonen on guitar, bassist Jack Cassady and drummer Spencer Dryden. There were few bands in the world that could hold a candle to Jefferson Airplane at this point, and despite the atrocious weather anyone catching this gig should feel privileged.
The 1969 festival was in a different league, a two-day event that was held just a few weeks after Woodstock took place; the Isle of Wight could boast having both Bob Dylan and the Band to headline their affair. Among the support bands were Blodwyn Pig, the vastly underrated Eclection, Family, Fat Mattress, Free, The Nice, Tom Paxton, The Moody Blues, Pentangle and way down the bill King Crimson a few weeks after their appearance at Hyde Park with the Rolling Stones.
It also included three artists that had played at Woodstock, which of course at this point had not crossed over the line to mythology to become the stuff of legend; the album and the movie were still months away from release. Richie Havens, Joe Cocker and The Who – the second day’s headliner – are the three acts that played both festivals. Roger Daltry was wearing his famous fringed jacket, and Pete was in his white boiler suit but much of the effect was lost as it was still light when they played.
The Friday was very much the acoustic/folk day but given the fact that Dylan and the Band were the headliners that day tickets cost £2; Dylan was reportedly paid £35,000. For the Sunday, when the Moody Blues were second on the bill, a ticket was a mere £1.25. A ticket for the entire weekend was £2.50.
John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, as well as Keith Richards and Charlie Watts were all there to see Dylan play. George wrote a song inspired by the event and dedicated to Dylan, ‘Behind That Locked Door’ appeared on his All Things Must Pass album
In 1970 the festival had grown significantly to the point where it actually outgrew itself; for 32 years after this the isle of Wight did not see another large scale music gathering. It’s estimated that the crowds were well in excess of half a million. Fans were drawn to what was one of the most ambitious line-ups ever put together for a festival on British soil, with artists from both sides of the Atlantic.
Even before the festival officially opened there were some bands that played for free on Wednesday and Thursday, including, Mighty Baby, Kris Kristofferson, Supertramp, The Groundhogs, Terry Reid and Gilberto Gil.
At the festival proper on Friday it was had Chicago topping the bill with support from Family, Taste, Procol Harum and James Taylor as well as bands that have largely been forgotten, including Arrival, Fairfield Parlour, Cactus and Lighthouse.
Also on the bill on Saturday was Miles Davis who had reinvented himself as a jazz rock artist in the wake of his Bitches Brew album that was released in April of 1960; Davis’s band included Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Other acts included, Tiny Tim, ELP (set included ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’), and John Sebastian. The tye-dyed one was the first of the Woodstock alumni to play the festival.
Sebastian’s appearance, along with the others who starred in the film, which had recently been premiered in the UK, as well as having Matthews Southern Comfort’s version of ‘Woodstock’ topping the charts a few weeks earlier, all significantly added to the draw of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. It was as though people could not risk missing the next Woodstock.
Sandwiched between these acts and the notional bill-toppers was supposed to be Cat Mother, but they didn’t show, Sly and the Family Stone and Joni Mitchell. Mitchell’s set was especially challenging and was interrupted on several occasions in a rowdy atmosphere, which later led her to say that “they fed me to the beast”. Third top was Ten Years After; their Woodstock appearance had turned them and in particular, Alvin Lee, into box office gold. Joint top were the Who and the Doors – it was not by all accounts the latter’s finest hour and less than a year later Jim Morrison would be dead.
If Saturday was impressive, Sunday was stellar. With Melanie, Free, The Moody Blues, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Richie Havens Joan Baez and Jethro Tull among the big names with Jimi Hendrix topping the bill. It really was an extraordinary coming together of talent.
Joni Mitchell’s 1970 landmark early performance will be released on DVD and Blu-ray, titled Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now: Live At The Isle of Wight Festival can be bought here.