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The Isle of Wight Festival celebrates 50 years

PUBLISHED: 11:04 26 June 2018 | UPDATED: 11:04 26 June 2018

Now the festival pulls crowds of over 60,000 (Dylan Roberts Photography)

Now the festival pulls crowds of over 60,000 (Dylan Roberts Photography)

Dylan Roberts Photography

In 1968 the Isle of Wight staged the first of its famous music festivals and 50 years on it’s still hitting the high notes

It’s extraordinary to think that where fields of purple broccoli now sprout, the guitar strings of a rock legend once sent an audience of hundreds of thousands into ecstasy. Yet this is Afton Down on the Isle of Wight, the site in 1970 of Europe’s answer to Woodstock. And back in those hedonistic days, when most twenty somethings were more interested in becoming part of a counter-culture than worrying about paying-off their student loans, a sea-change occurred. One that affected not just a generation of music lovers but which would also come to define this small corner of Hampshire.

Looking back at the black and white photos, the surprise for anyone not there is that this was only the third such music festival held on the Island. But such was its draw for artists and fans alike, almost inevitably, it became a victim of its own success.

“I was there in 1970 for my sins,” says John Giddings, the man behind today’s Isle of Wight Festival. “I’d never seen so many people before in my life. Before that I used to sit in my bedroom playing vinyl albums and listening to Jimi Hendrix and The Who. And then I saw 600,000 other people enjoying the same music as I did.” John adds: “It was an incredible bonding experience; you could talk to anyone in that field, it was absolutely brilliant,” a lasting memory that undoubtedly influenced the successful music agent and promoter’s decision to help resurrect the festival in the early noughties; and to run it himself a year later.

“When I was crossing the Solent on the Red Funnel I thought, ‘Why don’t I have my own festival? That sounds like fun,’ so I just made it up. I never believed it would grow into what it is today.

“I believe in booking artists from the past, present and future. You’ll see there will be one appearing on the next bill, The Pretty Things, who appeared at the 1968 festival. There are also stars of the future and 12 months later you’ll get people tweeting ‘blimey, I saw them at the Isle of Wight Festival last year’ and they’re really happy. So, you’re kind of guessing ahead.”

John’s decades in the business of course helps. Rag ‘n’ Bone Man was booked as a relative unknown before 2017’s event, “and then he had a number one album”. However, staging a festival which still needs to sell 55,000 tickets remains a major risk when it’s £10million of his own money on the line. Which explains why he’s now joined forces with entertainment giant Live Nation.

“There are now more and more festivals and you need the ability to buy big acts. These acts costs twice as much as they did five years ago. And you don’t just have groups appearing on stages, there are lots of different things happening around the site like Cirque de la Quirk; and we cater for 3,000 kids.

“You need to remember, the audience is more important than the artists because they pay you to come. In 1970 the loo was basically a scaffolding bar above a ditch. Nowadays, you’ve got to have boutique camping and boutique loos. We pay £1million alone on security and police to make the audience feel safe.”

Will Myles, managing director at Visit Isle of Wight, is in no doubt of how important the festival’s continuation is.

“The Isle of Wight Festival has become an integral part of the Island’s cultural landscape and has played an important role in bringing a host of new visitors and media exposure,” he says. “The 50th anniversary event presents us with a unique opportunity to encourage more visitors to the Island and give them good reasons to stay longer. These visitors will want to explore the Island, enhancing the local economy and supporting restaurants, hotels and other tourism-related businesses.”

Describing himself as something of “an old hippy”, John Giddings is keen that the Newport based festival does its bit for the Island’s natural environment too. Waste reduction is a priority, with a ban now introduced on plastic straws. And, he confirms, fundraising for good causes remains important.

“A couple of years ago, when we had Paul McCartney, it was the Let it Bee campaign, and this year we’re going to support Save the Children.”

As for so many who recall those halcyon days of the 60s and early 70s, the Isle of Wight has come to mean more than just the music.

“I love the island itself. And having bought a place here, I love Osborne House and Carisbrooke Castle, Tennyson Down and the whole history of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dimbola Lodge. It’s a quality destination,” says John.

For now, at least, the famous music festival appears in safe hands. “I’m very proud of all the awards that we’ve won and want to keep the reputation going,” he reassures.


From the archive

• 1968: The Great South Coast Pop Festivity organised by islanders, and brothers, Ron, Ray and Bill Foulks is staged through the night of 31 August and 1 September at Ford Farm, near Godshill. With headliners including Jefferson Airplane, T-Rex and Fairport Convention, it attracts around 10,000 people.

• 1969: A crowd of 150,000 heads to the Island to see Bob Dylan make his comeback appearance. The VIP area reportedly draws The Beatles during the three-day festival at Woodside Bay, Wooton.

• 1970: Britain’s biggest music event in history sees an estimated 600,000 enjoy a line-up featuring: Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, The Who, and The Doors, over five days at Afton Down.

• 1971: The Isle of Wight Act restricts large scale gatherings to 5,000 people between midnight and 6am. As a result, big festivals do not take place until the revival of the Isle of Wight Festival almost 30 years later.

• 2002: With the ban overturned ahead of the Queen’s Jubilee, music promoter John Giddings re-launches the festival. Over the next 16 years Seaclose in Newport hosts the likes of The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac and Coldplay.

• 2007: Having been named Best Major Festival in the UK, the awards continue to roll-in including Best Family Festival, and Best Live Music Event of the Year 2017.

• 2018: Kasabian, Depeche Mode, Liam Gallagher and The Killers, plus a cracking line-up of local and emerging bands at the 50th anniversary festival.


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