ISLE OF WIGHT MEMORIES
Wow – did you see the giant, gaily coloured Ferris Wheel at the 2009 Isle of Wight Festival, not to mention the fantastic stage, incredible sound and huge number of excellent bands?
There was good old Razor Light, sadly without drummer Andy, but still cooking and the blitzkrieging Stereophonics played with almost frightening power. The whole site seemed alive with great music and good vibes. But it wasn’t always like that. Certainly not at the very first Isle Of White Festival I attended way back in 1968, some 41 years ago.
Let me take you down…to Hells Field…and the darkness. Yes it was freezing cold, pouring with rain and pitch black, with a stiff icy breeze blowing across the festival site in the early hours of an August morning where hundreds of ‘pop fans’ lay in advanced stages of starvation and exposure. It was the night Jefferson Airplane came to the UK to perform along with the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and Tyrannosaurus Rex.
When the sun shone in the afternoon is was bearable with John Peel doing his best to create a good vibe. But as night fell and the bands over ran, the site quickly became a disaster area. There were no facilities, no food and nowhere for the fans to shelter. When Arthur Brown’s fire hat blew out, that was the last hope of any warmth gone in a puff of smoke.
Airplane were grumpy but at least performed despite problems with their sound and light show. All I remember about it now is Grace Slick barking at the sound man in a grating American accent. There was no escape from the field until 8 a.m. when a fleet of buses turned up. The last band to perform was Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation and when the buses were mobbed and anarchy prevailed, it was Aynsley who kindly offered to give me a lift in his band wagon to his hotel. Except it ran out of petrol after a few yards and we all had to walk a mile in the drenching rain.
Despite all these privations I went back to the next two IoW festivals including 1969 with Bob Dylan and 1970 with Jimi Hendrix. Dylan’s management delayed his appearance by hours – or so it seemed – by demanding the press enclosure be cleared of press and filled with his own entourage. So all the people who needed to see him – photographers and reporters couldn’t and hordes of nameless foreign celebs took up all the space. So more bad vibes. The finest festival moments came the following year with The Who’s magnificent performance and ELP’s grand debut with blazing cannons. Joni Mitchell and Ten Years After were great but we could have done without Tiny Tim and Miles Davis was a disappointment (showing off and making desultory noises on his blue trumpet), Jimi Hendrix, sadly was also a washout.
But this was understandable given the conditions he was expected to work under. He just needed a proper manager and producer not to mention a good band and all would have been well for another two decades. But these festival moments have a way of fixing defining moments in the memory and such events aren’t necessarily just about music, so much as the desperate need to congregate and celebrate the communal spirit that for so long rooted the true meaning of rock. If you know what I mean. So where’s the loo, where can I get a burger and beer and how can I escape this hell hole? Lead me to the nearest Hovercraft!