Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Image source: Wikimedia.

The idealistic hippie dream of the 1960s I have always found to be a fascinating historical case study. Not having been a part of it (that was my parents' generation), I get to look back at it with fresh eyes, rather than the hazy, glazy, rose-coloured ones of those who were there.

Of course at the centre of it was the fantastic music, and that cannot be disputed. The cultural landmarks of this period are characterized by the major music festivals of the era - Monterey '67, Woodstock '69 and the two original Isle of Wight festivals (1969 and 1970).

The 1970 Isle of Wight festival, I believe, is the most interesting of the lot, especially because of the expertly filmed documentary by Murray Lerner, which is linked below. The festival was both a massive success (over 600,000 people attended the tiny island off the coast of England) and a massive flop (only a small percentage of those 600,000 people actually paid to get in).

This festival has a rich back story, which unfortunately is only hinted at in the film. Sure the music is largely great (although Hendrix and the Doors' performances are somewhat lacklustre). However the sheer weight of administering an event of this magnitude was this magnitude was lost of the organisers.

I find it ironic now that many members of the Baby Boomer generation (who were teenagers when the Hippie thing took off) have risen to the top of the corporate world and are living comfortably from the spoils of capitalism. And yet, as spotty teenagers and adolescents high on acid, they were hell bent on destroying capitalism as an economic model and replacing it with some kind of idealistic Communism/Socialism hybrid. The failure of the hippie movement only serves to confirm what a flawed ideology Communism actually is: it reads well on paper, as Karl Marx envisaged it, but in practice it simply doesn't work.

With this in mind, many people rocked up to the Isle of Wight Festival mistakenly thinking it was a free festival - an excuse to have some fun, hear some great music, trip out on drugs, get some free love and bliss out for three days. Well, yeah you could do that, but all patrons were charged £3 to get in. A lot of people refused, claiming "Woodstock was a free festival, maaaaaan!". The problem was Woodstock was NOT a free festival, but so many people turned up that they made it a free festival anyway out of goodwill. As a result, many of the musicians, for whom live performance was their livelihood, didn't get paid. The promoters simply didn't make enough cash to pay the bands, and the musos actually lost money as they had to ship their own gear in at their own cost and, in some cases, had to hire expensive charter transport to get in, as roads for miles were jammed.

At the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, many of the same performers from Woodstock appeared. Throughout the film there is an ongoing battle between the musicians and the promoters, who at one point hilariously claim that Tiny Tim's ukulele won't tune unless he's been paid (18:44). It's a long and protracted battle that ends up with malicious damage to the perimeter fencing and arrests involving police and their dog squads. In the end, it becomes a shambles.

If ever there was a school for budding rock promoters, this film would have to required core content of the syllabus. Rock festivals are heavily organised to prevent problems like this occurring again. Lesson learnt, obviously. MC Rikki was trying to reason with a massive crowd of people whacked out of their tiny scones on dope for the exchange of the price of a ticket. It was always going to be a losing battle.

All this aside, now onto the music. Hendrix and The Doors were so-so on the night. Some of the (then) newer acts were transcendent at the Festival. Rory Gallagher's band Taste were spectacular, as were Free and The Who. Ten Years After were blistering; Alvin Lee giving a good demonstration of his theatrical guitar abilities. Jethro Tull just lit the place up - their guitarist Martin Barre was absolutely on fire in their set. He's brilliant. Joni Mitchell had the misfortune of having some stoner interrupt her performance to make some sort of announcement. God knows why country singer Kris Kristofferson was there but he didn't go down well, remarking that he thought someone in the crowd would shoot him. Leonard Cohen looked like he was being held up wooden stakes at his back he was so stoned.

It is certainly a unique document, and very much worth the two hours it takes to watch it.


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