Belfast Telegraph

How Isle of Wight festival has changed over 50 years

As the event celebrates its golden anniversary, a loyal fan - who's been to every one - tells Sarah Marshall how it's evolved over the decades

Often regarded as the UK's equivalent to Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival embodied the spirit of the flower power generation when it launched in 1968. No one could have ever imagined rock greats such as Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane would perform on a tiny island popular with retirees. But every summer, for three consecutive years, the Solent's holiday idyll was swept up in a whirlwind of rock 'n' roll hedonism.

After a long break, the event was resurrected in 2002, and has been running ever since. There have been 19 festivals in total, and Roger Simmonds, a trustee at the IOW's Dimbola Museum & Galleries, has been to all of them. As the Isle of Wight Festival prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary (with this year's event staged between June 21 and 24), he tells us what's changed between now and then...

The atmosphere

Then: "As a 17-year-old I remember reading about a 'pop festivity' happening on the island over the August Bank Holiday. I had no idea what it really entailed as it was a pretty much unknown entity in the UK.

"We were all young, virtually nobody over 30. We all thought we could change the world. We had a counter culture and underground movement which expressed itself through the music and the free press.

"We listened intently to the song lyrics sat down, not like today, standing up, dancing around and drinking."

Now: "The atmosphere is still about escapism for a few days, especially on the island, as many from the mainland say getting on a ferry and crossing water gives them that feeling of really getting away. I still enjoy festivals, and always will. The age range of attendees has extended considerably - from young children coming with their parents, to those up to their 70s. I'm 67 myself and I'm not alone!"

The bands

Then: "In 1968, the first band came on around 8pm. I only have a very vague memory of the 'lesser' performers, but the ones that do stick out are Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Move and Fairport Convention.

"The acts that really did blow me away were The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and, of course, Jefferson Airplane. Most of us were agog at Arthur Brown prancing about the stage in strange regalia. I remember he had some trouble with his fire-lit helmet, and he gave up in the end. Jefferson Airplane had this amazing liquid display light show blasted onto a backscreen. We had never seen anything like it before.

"In 1970, Jimi Hendrix played and I almost missed him. He came on stage very late - around 2am - and he seemed very out of it. I later learned he'd been in a very deep sleep and the festival organisers had to wake him."

Now: "I personally love discovering bands and performers new to me; it's not all about headliners. Last year, I heard a great band called Bang Bang Romeo. Of the past years, one of my favourite sets was from David Bowie in 2004, which turned out to be his last UK performance."

The facilities

Then: "There were a few facilities on site in 1968 - I remember a burger van in one corner to the left of the stage. Part way through Jefferson Airplane's performance, eyes turned to one of the food vans that seemed to be on fire. Smoke was billowing across the stage and I remember the band stopped playing. Marty Balin was going ballistic, presumably worried it was potentially damaging the light show equipment."

Now: "Today, festivals are more about diverse entertainment with much more going on - several stages of music instead of just one. The choice of food outlets is great and there's even a chance to go shopping."

The camping

Then: "I was reluctant to take much with me to the first festival, but by midnight it was getting pretty cold, so I was glad my dad had persuaded me to take a sleeping bag. I crawled inside and sat watching the rest of the night with it around me. I remember quite a few people were shivering and there were impromptu fires lit to try and get warm.

"Performances, from memory, must have stopped about 7am, although they were scheduled to stop at 10am. Maybe we had all had enough by then anyway. I fell asleep until late morning. It must have rained a little while I was sleeping, as my sleeping bag was soaking wet on top when I woke up."

Now: "Boutique camping and fairground rides would have been scoffed at back in 1968-70, but now that's what punters expect. I can't deny the facilities are excellent in comparison."

The toilets

Then: "Yes, they were primitive - just a long trench with rustic plywood cubicles and planks of wood - but they did suffice. Stories did go around the audience that some poor sod had fallen in the latrine trench. I didn't see it, but it does seem to have happened, as somebody on my Facebook Group said they knew who it was. There is a myth in subsequent published articles that this happened at the 1970 festival, but it was definitely in 1968."

Now: "At least they are emptied! However, they still get a bit over-run and smelly by the last day. It's unavoidable and I think the site management do their best, in all honesty."


Then: "My ticket cost me 25 shillings in 1968 (£1.25p in today's money)."

Now: "Weekend tickets cost from £209."

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