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 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 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.