The Isle of Wight festival in 1970 is one of the most iconic music festivals of all time. 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. They highlighted their unique style on their iconic song ‘Substitute’ when they performed for the Isle of Wight crowd in 1970.
The song has become a rich part of the band’s iconography and can be considered one of their finest songs. Townshend wrote the track after hearing ’19th Nervous Breakdown’ by The Rolling Stones and can even be regarded as taking some serious learnings from Richards riff on the song, with others suggested he ripped it off completely. When Townshend was writing the song, he even performed it with an exaggerated Mick Jagger accent — it was clear the guitarist was a huge fan.
It was a natural occurrence of the day. Bands would often take moments or musical footnotes from their contemporaries, such was the state of play during one of the most creative periods in musical history. But where The Who needed no help or inspiration was performing live. By 1970, the group had not only turned their guitar and instrument smashing into a financially viable stunt but had perfected a unique brand of live show that ensured they weren’t just the poster boys of the British invasion of the sixties but were set to dominate for decades to come.
There was no better place to make that point than at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, the moment the sixties OD’d. 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, it only gave non-tickets holders time 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 organisers 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. 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!”
Few artists survived the ordeal with their reputation intact but The Who were one of them. The band arrived as the leading lights of rock music and left in the exact same way. Delivering a smash and grab performance may well have been The Who’s bread and butter, but they were now moving things on to a whole new level.
There’s something special about watching The Who at this time. With an arsenal of songs that had initially battered down the door, the group were now beginning to ascend to a new level. They had refined their style and rifled their output but, underneath it all, they were still four canons aimed directly at the audience.