Countless incredible festivals have emerged to enrich our calendars ever since pop and rock music began to wrestle the idea of large-scale open-air concerts from jazz and classical music. But there are a few events that hold a lot more weight than others. While many point to Woodstock, Glastonbury and Monterey Pop as the pinnacle of these free-spirited movements, there is one festival that sticks out among the rest in the UK.
It is, of course, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, which not only welcomed somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 counter-culture revellers to the shores of a sleepy seaside resort ut also the glittering gold of the rock world at the time. It meant performances from Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, The Who, The Doors and many more became written into British folklore.
The third consecutive event for the festival since 1968 meant the organisers were quietly confident they could sell out their allocation of 150,000 tickets. They did so way before the event was intended to take place. Like Woodstock and Glen Watkins before it, that only gave time for non-tickets holders to assemble and plan their attack. And attack, they most certainly did.
When thousand upon thousands of hippies began descending on the island, the serious level of danger must have felt palpable. To make matters worse, nearly half a million more people had turned up to the festival site than had been forecasted. Instead of turning the crowd away and likely causing serious issues for the surrounding area, the event decided to turn the festival into a free event. After all, a lot of the crowd had already broken down fences and hopped barriers, so it may as well have been made officially free.
It caused the festival to be more keenly remembered as one of the most heinous and scary festivals in recent memory as the attendees began to destroy everything in sight. It led festival MC Rikki Farr to scream: “We put this festival on, you bastards, with a lot of love! We worked for one year for you pigs! And you wanna break our walls down, and you wanna destroy it? Well, you go to hell!”
Many artists fell victim to this sense of destruction. Groups of fans were happy to shout down and boo those who took to the stage, meaning anyone who did permeate the festival’s public discourse was well worth their weight in gold. Below, we’ve picked out six performances that outgrew the outrage and, in essence, saved the festival.
Six best performances from Isle of Wight Festival 1970:
One of the band’s last ever performances before the lead singer, Jim Morrison, would leave the intoxicating inner circle of Los Angeles for Paris in an attempt to clean up his act. Sadly, it would end up being the place he would ultimately lose his life. Since then, the Isle of Wight show has been revered as an archetypal Morrison show.
The band’s performance is engaging and exciting to a tee. Every song ringing out with the artistic prowess which left audiences open-mouthed in awe when seeing them—it was a sizeable crowd too. Over-selling their original ticket allocation of 150,000 by nearly half a million, the event became a wild party on wheels. The Doors wouldn’t disappoint their newly acquired fanbase.
Perhaps seeing the audience’s energy that had begun to swirl and sway with menace, The Doors matched those around them and provided a curious sound akin to comfortable danger. Each song was given its room to breathe and float. At the same time, Morrison’s vocal is near-perfect in such an unpredictable setting and considering he was reported to have downed two bottles of Southern Comfort with The Who’s Roger Daltrey before going on stage—probably the best one could hope for.
Jimi Hendrix and festival performances are something that goes hand in hand. The wild man of rock cultivated his crowds into undulating swarms of appreciation for his unique standpoint. The Isle of Wight festival would be another stage Hendrix would dominate.
The guitar impresario took to the stage a little after midnight on August 31st and delivered what is quite possibly the most vibrantly coloured piece of music you’re ever likely to hear. Imbued with the kaleidoscopic power of the energy that permeated the sixties and further emboldened by the hope of a new decade—Hendrix was in his element. It meant that by the time he left the stage, the crowd were utterly exhilarated.
While Hendrix’s performance would have undoubtedly left a figurative puddle of quivering mush where the audience used to be, for Leonard Cohen, following an icon wasn’t a nerve-wracking experience but facing the audience could be. Cohen’s friend Kris Kristofferson suffered this fate after being hit by a barrage of bottles, “They were booing everybody,” said the singer, “Except Leonard Cohen.”
At the beginning of the documentary Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970, “Can I ask each of you to light a match,” Cohen says, “so I can see where you all are?” As Simmons puts it, “Leonard talked to the hundreds of thousands of people he could not see as if they were sitting together in a small dark room.”
He delivered a simply mesmerising performance that belied his short experience on the stage and suggested that Cohen was an artist unlike any other.
The festival was a swarm of subcultures buzzing and pulsating with the fervent energy of the sixties coursing through its veins. The decade may have been over, but the fire-breathing spirit of the era was still alive and well. One of the decade’s fiercest performers, The Who, would take to the stage and give the crowd what they wanted; complete pandemonium.
The Who had become bastions of the sixties spirit. As the band’s principal leader, Pete Townshend showcased his swashbuckling style with every single smash of his guitar. Meanwhile, Roger Daltrey’s vocals soared like an eagle and the Ox; John Entwistle was as steady as a freight train and twice as heavy. All of that came complete with the wildest drummer on earth, Keith Moon, backing them up with some bombastic beats.
It was a performance that, once again, told the entire nation that The Who were one of the hottest bands around. Not able to be contained by any stage or sound system, the group were happy to lead the way in breaking stuff — namely, their own instruments.
Before we begin to share the spellbinding performance of Joni Mitchell at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970, let us take a moment to appreciate the talent on offer. Across five days, the festival provided the audience with perhaps the greatest line-up this fair isle has ever witnessed. Joni Mitchell was another shining jewel in the crown, even if they didn’t treat her that way, changing her set time at the last minute.
“I have a feminine cooperative streak,” Mitchell later reflected about accepting the festival’s request to perform at an earlier time. “So I said yes. And they fed me to the beast.” Three songs into the set, the crowd’s disgruntled attitude towards Mitchell made her plead with them, “It really puts me uptight, and I forget the words, and I get nervous,” she said. “It’s really a drag, and so I don’t know what to say. So just give me a little help, will you?”
Another dressing down later, and the crowd finally listened to Mitchell’s pleas and her rendition of ‘Both Sides Now‘ will go down in history as one of the iconic moments of the landmark festival.
Previously, we had mentioned that pop and rock music had to struggle to win over the open-air concert-goers. That’s because, for the most part, such an event was usually reserved for jazz music. However, we bet there has never been a jazz show that saw 600,000 people attend. Yet, undeterred, Miles Davis delivered one of the finest performances of the entire event.
Davis had already had his head turned by rock and roll when introduced to Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. However, he must have been shaken by the sheer volume of attendees to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. He took the unique jazz stylings that emanated from his trumpet out of the smoky backrooms and put it out, front and centre, for a mammoth audience.
Davis didn’t compromise his sound and, instead, delivered one of the most experimental sets of the event. It remains a moment in time that will never be forgotten for all those who witnessed it.