There are countless incredible festivals since pop and rock music began to wrestle the idea of large-scale open-air concerts from jazz. But there are a few that hold a lot more weight than others. While many point to Woodstock and Monterey Pop as the pinnacle of these free-spirited movements, in the UK there is one festival which sticks out among the rest.
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 sleep 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 and 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.
For any readers outside of the UK, we must reiterate the kind of place the Isle of Wight is and most certainly was. The location isn’t only cut off from mainland Britain but also, in 1970 especially, cut off from the pulsing pop music of London. It meant that 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 fo the crowd had already broken down fences and hopped barriers, so it may as well have been made officially free.
At roughly 600,000 attendees it smashed the Woodstock record of 400,000. But far from the hippie-love-in promised, the crowd were surly and ready to riot and proceeded to smash just about everything else in their paths. 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!”
As one of the most diverse line-ups around, including jazz performers like Miles Davis, rock acts like The Who and folk musicians like Joni Mitchell, many had hoped there would be a utopian feeling of counter-culture connection. Instead, many of the acts who went on stage were booed off it. Mitchell even had to deal with a stage-invader called Yogi Joe who tried to ruin her performance with some kind of garbled rhetoric. Once he was pulled off stage the crowd turned on Mitchell leaving her to proclaim: “I think that you’re acting like … tourists, man.”
Freddie Stone of Sly and the Family Stone also struggled as he was struck by a beer can that was thrown by the crowd, meanwhile Kris Kristofferson was also booed off the stage. It did not paint the ideal of hippie culture in Britain very affectionately.
There were some incredible performances, however, and some, with the benefit of hindsight, incredibly sad moments. While Leonard Cohen’s performance has gone down in history as the moment the riotous crowd were quietened down by a soothsayer of song, The Who gave a powerhouse show which proved their legitimacy to the rock crown.
Naturally, any performance that features Jimi Hendrix will be a landmark one but this show in particular further cemented his legendary status. As well as being as loose and experimental as expected, the show also acts as one of the final moments Hendrix would ever perform on British soil—the place that had first accepted him. A similarly sad performance comes from The Doors as they also took to the stage for one of the last times with their iconic frontman Jim Morrison, before his tragic death.
Of course, the behaviour of the crowd would not go unnoticed by the British government. They quickly passed a law which prohibited the gathering of more than 5,000 on the island without a special license. It was revoked in 2002 and the festival has been running ever since.
But we think you’ll agree that nothing will come close to the utterly brilliant chaos of the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970.