The First Isle Of Wight Festivals: A Tradition Was Born

Since 1968, the Isle Of Wight Festival has gathered every iconic UK act and from the States, making it one of the most prolific festivals in music history.

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Joni Mitchell Isle Of Wight Performance
Photo by Tony Russell/Redferns

The Isle of Wight Festival is one of the most famous music festivals in UK history, an event that has gone down in the history of rock and popular music. The event began in 1968, taking place on the last weekend in August, a traditional British public holiday.

The 1968 Festival

The first Isle of Wight Festival was a relatively low-key affair, lasting from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning, and attracting around 15,000 people with a varied line-up. Among the support acts were Plastic Penny, The Mirage (their main claim to fame was 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.

At this point, The Fairports had both Ian Matthews and Sandy Denny on vocals. It was a magnificent incarnation of the band, and they fittingly played just as the sun began to come up. Also appearing at the event were The Pretty Things, The Move, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown 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 and 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 who caught the gig should feel lucky.

The Doors - Trailer (Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970)

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The 1969 Festival

The 1969 festival was in a different league, a two-day event that took place just a few weeks after Woodstock. Bob Dylan and the Band were the headliners. Among the support bands were Blodwyn Pig, the vastly underrated Eclection, Family, Fat Mattress, Free, The Nice, Tom Paxton, The Moody Blues, Pentangle, and 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: Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, and The Who – the second day’s headliner. Roger Daltrey was wearing his famous fringed jacket, and Pete was in his white boiler suit, but much of the sartorial effect was lost, as it was still light when they played.

Tickets for Friday, the day that Dylan and the Band were headlining, 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. In fact, George eventually wrote a song inspired by the event and dedicated it to Dylan. (“Behind That Locked Door” appeared on his All Things Must Pass album.)

The 1970 Festival

The 1970 edition was the biggest yet. In fact, 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, Chicago topped 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. Davis’s band included Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Other acts included Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Tiny Tim; and John Sebastian.

Sebastian, notably, had appeared at last year’s Woodstock festival, and – by this point – the film of the increasingly iconic event had premiered in the UK. With Matthews Southern Comfort’s version of “Woodstock” also topping the charts a few weeks earlier, the anticipation for the 1970 Isle of Wight was huge. Nobody wanted to miss the next Woodstock.

Joni Mitchell’s set was especially challenging and was interrupted on several occasions by the rowdy atmosphere, which later led her to say that “they fed me to the beast.” Ten Years After played that day too. Their Woodstock appearance had turned them and, in particular, Alvin Lee, into box office gold. The Who and The Doors headlined things, but it was sadly not the latter’s finest hour and, less than a year later, Jim Morrison would be dead.

If Saturday was impressive, Sunday was stellar. Melanie, Free, The Moody Blues, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, and Jethro Tull all played, with Jimi Hendrix topping the bill. It was a festival like few others, and it was the last time that Isle of Wight would be held until its revival in 2002.

Joni Mitchell’s 1970 landmark early performance is now on on DVD and Blu-ray, titled Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now: Live At The Isle of Wight Festival can be bought here.



  1. Andrew Howes

    September 1, 2014 at 7:22 am

    As regards the ’68 festival, nobody, or at least very few, had heard of Jefferson Airplane and we didn’t like them. They were so anodyne and plastic ; plus their lyrics didn’t mean anything in England. They were very boring and a lot of people drifted off, leading to an appeal from the band for some sort of recognition. Mind you there was a very strong rumour that the Beatles were in the audience and might make a surprise appearance and a lot of us were waiting for that. The Pretty Things and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had the best audiences.

    • Ken Collins

      September 1, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      My friend and I went, mainly to see Jefferson Airplane, who were great. As for people drifting off, there wasn’t really anywhere to go………

    • simknc1952

      August 26, 2017 at 3:42 pm

      Rubbish. The Airplane played The Roundhouse that year (along with The Doors – some line up) and went down well. They also played as”free concert” on Parliament Hill Fields in May (I think) on a bill with Fsirport Convention. Again, The Airplane went down well.

  2. Ken wheeler

    August 30, 2015 at 11:46 am

    It has taken me back to the place I first went to as a 19 yr old. Gods hill 1970 I.o.w, pleasant memories ! Remember buying a paper bag with a polythene liner to sleep in, got robbed whilst I sleeper, missed the Doors set, but it did not matter, I was there with all my musical hero’s. Thanks for the memories love &peace

  3. gillian ednie

    August 31, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    I was at the 1970 IOW festival – mainly to see The Doors (very low key and disappointing), Leonard Cohen (wonderful as always) Free ( just because I liked them) and The Who (gotta love Keith Moon).
    Made a point of seeing Jimi Hendrix as I thought this is a once in a lifetime experience and I may never see him again – little did I know!! – even tho I wasn’t a huge Hendrix fan. John Sebastian was just great – always felt everything he did was so heartfelt and he was wearing the same clothes as he’d worn at Woodstock a year before (they looked identical!!) – so you have to admire that!! Saw the film they made of the IOW festival and my thoughts were this is not the festival I was at!! Lots of things were distorted and they picked the oddest and most embarressing people to interview – it was as if noone on the film editing crew took it seriously – unlike woodstock which is treated with great reverence – but as it turns out we had more people and amazingly it didn’t rain!

  4. Paul Richardson

    September 1, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Remember the Hendrix Festival, Afton Down, Freshwater 1970. Never seen so many people at once. Highlight of Friday were Taste, who were just brilliant. Couldn’t believe they broke up a month later. One point with the article though, the Matthews Southern Comfort single of Woodstock hit no.1 in October, after the festival. People at Afton talked about the film yes, and felt that it was like it was being recreated in the IOW. And yes, unlike at Yasgur’s Farm, it remained dry! Fab memories of a wonderful carefree era.

  5. Mas Gilles

    August 26, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I WAS THERE IN 1970

  6. Digby James

    August 26, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    Was there Friday to Monday 1970. Spent Saturday in the VIP section. Got tinnitus as a result, mainly from ELP setting off a pair of cannon at the end of Piuctures at an exhibition. Tiny Tim was initially mocked but then really got the crowd going. Finally succumbed to the need for sleep at 5am Sunday when The Who finished.

  7. peter barkham

    August 26, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    worked security at the Dylan festival.the Isle of Wight led the way for festivals before Glastonbury.

  8. eric wilde

    August 27, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    there were four of us at the 1970 festival, Glen , Les , Willy and Eric.
    if any of you are reading this, please mail !!! me.
    Eric Wilde

  9. Nigel Toms

    September 3, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    I was at the 1970 festival,it was amazing. Bought tickets but never used them,as got a better view of everything on a hill to the side. Was going in the RAF a few weeks later so was having a blast before I went. I remember the stage caught fire during emerson lake and palmer. Think tiny tim arrived in a helicopter.Jimi Hendrix was amazing. Can remember everybody on the hill shouting “we’re all high on apple pie” Funny what you remember isnt it. Oh and if you walked up and over the hill,there was a beach! Great memories I’ll cherish forever.

  10. ari maho

    August 19, 2017 at 6:42 am

    look his eyes and quitar,what“s happening?O`mama..kerro minulle,,,,

  11. Javier

    August 26, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    You have the act’s description of the 1969 festival wrong. Dylan and The Band played on Sunday topping the bill.

  12. Sebastian Baca

    January 31, 2023 at 10:28 pm

    I wasn’t born till ’72 but I was at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival in spirit lol

  13. Mr edd

    July 1, 2023 at 6:19 am

    The first IOW festival was 68 in Godshill, 69 in Wooton,70 in Afton. Then the Isle of Wight act came in, so no more festivals till millenium

  14. Jeff Dexter

    August 26, 2023 at 10:53 am

    The Tony Russell photo of Joni was at the last Isle of Wight Festival 1970, and there was cerainly no sign of James Taylor there!

  15. colm brennan

    September 22, 2023 at 8:08 am

    I was there in 1970 wed-Monday
    Taste with Rory Gallagher was on fire
    The Who did Tommy
    The Doors did a fantastic instrumental jam on Light my
    Fire -Robbie k.was on fire
    He played a jam that included Beatles elanore rigby
    Stones-playin w fire into my favorite things-Back to
    Light my Fire-incredible jam
    Most incredible jam I had ever heard
    Until I saw the Grateful Dead at UCLA-Pauley
    Pavilion in Nov’71-Iwas 19 at time of Festival
    ELP were in their second public performance and blew
    Everyone away.
    Hendrix came on early Monday Morning-started playing God save the Queen-for 2 minutes-left the stage and came back and started the song all over
    And then went into :
    Sgt Pepper
    Spanish Castle Magic
    Machine Gun
    Lover Man
    Red House
    Dolly Dagger
    Foxey Lady
    Message to Love
    EZY Ryder
    Purple Haze
    Voodoo Chile
    In from the storm
    P.S. John Sebastian-played his ❤️ out on Saturday morning-came back for numerous encores and then was joined by a former band mate from the Spoonful-
    Zal Yanovsky-on guitar
    And Did some Spoonful hits
    Great time for all
    I got in VIP section from Friday/-Monday
    Had a great experience!!!!

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