The Isle of Wight Festival Isn’t a Counter-Culture Event Anymore, But it Does Tick all the Boxes

It may not seem like it now, but the early days of Isle of Wight are a huge component in cultural history.

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Jun 15 2015, 12:23pm

The 1969 Isle of Wight festival was, according to music journalist John Harris, “inflated into the gig of the decade”. Thanks to rumors that one or all of the Beatles would be joining him on stage, Bob Dylan’s comeback show put Isle of Wight on the musical map. No longer just a small island twenty minutes south of Portsmouth, it became known for hosting one of the earliest music festivals – booking the biggest stars of the day: Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joni Mitchell and, of course, Dylan, who sacked off Woodstock to give the festival his first performance since the motorcycle crash that put a stop to his creative stronghold in the middle 1960s, resulting in the trilogy of albums Bringing it All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, and Highway 61 Revisited.

It may not seem like it now, but the early days of Isle of Wight are a huge component in cultural history. The founders of the Glastonbury and Stonehenge Free Festivals both became inspired to start their own events after visiting the Isle of Wight the year Jimi Hendrix headlined – a year that led to Parliament passing the “the Isle of Wight act”, preventing gatherings of more than 5,000 people without a special license, after the festival generated unexpectedly high attendance levels, with somewhere around 600,000 to 700,000 visiting the site that weekend. George Harrison even wrote a song dedicated to and inspired by Bob Dylan’s performance, called “Behind the Locked Door”. Essentially, the Isle of Wight was a hippie’s paradise. Back then it looked like this:

Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Then the festival stopped. Today’s Isle of Wight, which re-launched in 2002, has no relationship to the original festival, other than it taking place on the same island. It’s always worth thinking about the history though. This year’s event, which was headlined by The Prodigy, Blur, and Fleetwood Mac, is, according to the festival’s organizer John Giddings in the programme for this year, “the line-up of the Summer, if not the best line-up [they’ve] ever had”. It’s also a homage to Jimi Hendrix – 45 years since he first played the island – so it’s clear today’s organizer sees the Isle of Wight somewhere in the festival big league, carrying on the torch. I went along to see whether it could retain some of its former glory.

If you’re looking for the quintessential festival experience, then Isle of Wight has everything. I arrive on site and it’s pouring with rain. There are food trucks with dishes that skim the edge of political correctness, like the “Yardie Jerk” and “Jerk Dat Mon” entrees served from a van with the word “Caribbean” scrawled on the front in Comic Sans. The fairground features the Jumping Frog, X-Flight, and the weird pendulum ride that seems like it would fail a safety inspection. A stall sells flavored licorice for 50p; twelve for £5. A lot of people are picking up discarded cups. The line-up features an array of radio friendly bands (James Bay, You Me at Six, Pharrell), golden oldies (Kool and the Gang, Fleetwood Mac) and Costcutter indie (The Courteeners, Ash, Blur).

In line with the Isle of Wight’s history with the mod culture of the 1970s – humans riding hairdryers would migrate down to the island each weekend, with some of them staying on to raise children – there’s a tent called the Hipshaker. For the over thirties, this is the spot. Mock seven inches of the Jam’s “Town Called Malice” and Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” hang from the ceiling. Guys in Fred Perry polos mingle with men in Animal t-shirts and Adidas Gazelles. Their wives dance alongside. It’s lit! They play Happy Mondays. They play the Stone Roses. It makes me happy to see adults dancing; to witness them make the same faces and the same moves as their kids do before falling face down in Fabric. I believe briefly the Hipshaker is the happiest place at the festival. Then they play Kasabian.

In previous years, the Isle of Wight festival has secured a series of massive line-up coups. In 2007 the Rolling Stones headlined and played their first British festival for over thirty years, helping the event win “Best Major Festival” at the UK festival awards. The Sex Pistols and the Police both headlined in 2008. And JAY Z brought out Kanye West for his performance in 2010 – a weekend which also featured Paul McCartney and The Strokes in a comeback performance. But in previous years, it’s seen a decline in headline acts. Although this perhaps has more to do with the festival scene in general, rather than Isle of Wight specifically, it’s hard not to feel like aside from the scoring of Fleetwood Mac, there’s little here that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The festival’s tried, of course – in a move that’s likely been taken to compete with Bestival, another festival on the Isle of Wight, they’ve built secluded wooded areas, featuring yoga that takes place at 11am in the morning and there are local bands and DJs playing to small crowds. But you can’t help but feel that it’s a little tacked on, or at the least nothing more than a branded experience, with each stage called something like the “Strongbow Tree”.

It shouldn’t matter that the line-up isn’t necessarily massive or that the extra experiences feel branded and shallow, though. Pharrell Williams plays one of the best sets of the Summer, dropping everything from his productions with Britney Spears and Nelly, remixes with Future, tracks by N.E.R.D, and his own work from last year’s GIRL. Kool and the Gang get the crowd dancing to the song from the DFS advert. Fleetwood Mac are the obvious highlight. During their set I see a kid who can’t be much older than seven, announce “I just love this band” to his Dad, proving that great music can still transcend generations.

Photo courtsey of Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight Festival of the past was created with a counter-culture vibe. The Isle of Wight of today is the opposite. A can of coke will set you back £2. Today’s crowd are here to get the package festival experience – one or two great headliners, some truck food, a lot of drinks, a weekend away with the kids or their friends – and Isle of Wight is perfect at selling that to them. Out of all of the more commercial festivals on the UK calendar, it’s also the most chilled. No one wanders around on drugs. People are relatively polite. Families are everywhere. There are no queues. For some people, that’s perfect. It’s a festival presented in stereotypical fashion, packaged for people who don't go out that much the rest of the year. It’s a disappointment that it’s nothing like the events in the late 60s, and that the headliners are nothing like those in the early 2000s, but to the people in attendance here that doesn’t matter. It ticks every box firmly, square in the middle – never outside.

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