Golden memories: The festival at 50

Fifty years ago, a one-night music event in Godshill changed the Isle of Wight forever…
Originally planned as a fundraiser for the Island’s first public indoor swimming pool, 1968’s IW Festival helped turn our quaint little Island into one of the most iconic music stages on the planet.

From humble beginnings and a crowd of around 10,000 in 1968, a turning point came in 1969 with the shock signing of the legendary Bob Dylan.
His appearance at the second festival, in Wootton – his first show in three years – sparked a media frenzy and launched the IW Festival into the global spotlight.
So, how did the organisers pull it off?

According to co-founder Ray Foulk the deal wasn’t down to the brilliant negotiating skills of him and his brothers but, instead, ‘an amazing piece of good fortune’.

He said: “Following the Godshill event, we realised the IW was not a place to promote music events if we needed people to come from the mainland.

“We came to the conclusion that unless you got a superstar – that people would come across the water to see – then it wasn’t going to work.

“The name Bob Dylan was mentioned early on, by my brother, and he kept making the point that Dylan had not worked for three years and it would be a massive coup if we got him, so we had a go.”

Circumstance and Dylan’s refusal to play in his own backyard, at Woodstock, led to his unlikely date with the IW and, after the organisers managed to scramble together a tempting package, including a holiday on the IW – plus the equivalent of £750,000 in one weekend – the deal was done.

Ray said: “I think Bob Dylan thought the IW was a good opportunity to get back on stage in a fairly low-key location, to get back into it without a lot of fuss. I think he misjudged it because I have no doubt wherever he went on to perform, there would have been massive world attention.

“It was a massive coup. He was at the peak of his powers and he was the god of the counterculture. The sudden announcement he was going to do this festival on the IW was big news across the world – and people did travel from across the world to see it. Without that good fortune we might not have even done a second festival – it was touch and go.”

Around 150,000 people attended and, thanks to Dylan, the 1970 festival was a different beast entirely.

“I think our turning point was Bob Dylan because he unlocked all the doors for us,” said Ray.

“The following year, all the artists wanted to do it and get in on Dylan’s coat-tails.

“We couldn’t replace him with another superstar – there wasn’t one – there was nobody in that rank, apart from The Beatles and they were just splitting up. We did try for them but it was impossible. So we had to go to the next rank and get a whole raft of artists. That was plain sailing but we ran into difficulty with the authorities and opponents.”

To this day, the 1970 IW Festival remains the biggest event of its kind in British history, with an estimated 600,000 people descending on Afton Down.
But, for a number of reasons, it was the last.

Ray said: “I think it grew too quickly, the 1970 one was too big for its own good.
“We were on the cusp of the end of the counterculture, a new decade, a new era. There weren’t the acts around that we’d had the year before. I don’t think we could’ve done it again.

“I am proud of what we did but I’ve got mixed feelings about the IW because, although I think we did a lot of good for the Island, it then threw it back in our faces and didn’t want it, the establishment didn’t.”
Reflecting on his involvement, Ray, who would like to set up a visitor centre to commemorate the festivals, said: “It does seem amazing that 50 years have passed.

“I haven’t spent my life thinking about all this, I have recently written books, ‘Stealing Dylan from Woodstock’ and ‘The Last Great Event’, and it all came back to me. The memory of it is quite a big thing in my life, it’s something close to my heart.”

Fast forward 32 years to a new era of IW Festivals under the control of music promoter John Giddings, who revived the event in 2002.

He said: “In 2001, the IW Council asked everyone in the music business to restart the festival after it had been banned for 32 years. No-one was interested because you can only get to the Island by boat and they didn’t think a festival would work there. I thought it would be good to go down for the day and have a laugh. But when we got there, I remembered when I was there and saw Jimi Hendrix and I thought ‘well I’ve been to everyone else’s festival, so why don’t I start my own?’. Seventeen years later, here we are.”

Since 2002, the IW Festival has hosted the biggest acts around, from Sir Paul McCartney to The Rolling Stones and Coldplay. But the event’s success is still a surprise to John.

“I didn’t expect this in a million light years, I’m still stunned,” he said.

“I still consider it a hobby, which is hilarious when you have 50,000 people and it costs £10m. It’s a bit more expensive than golf or tennis.”
Though the present-day festival is a far cry from the original, John feels it’s important to pay tribute to the past and has vivid memories of the 1970 event.

He said: “I remember standing on a car ferry along with 3,500 other people and then a bus took us to Newport and we had to walk from there to Afton Down, which took forever. I was just amazed when I walked over a hill, it was like the Battle of the Somme or something.

“To see 600,000 or so other people who liked the same music as me was incredible.

“I think we need to pay homage to the people that created it in the first place. I think it’s always good to get someone from the past to play in the present and, this year, we’ve got The Pretty Things on their farewell tour.”

John has a few things up his sleeve to celebrate the golden anniversary and urged festival goers to wear gold on the Saturday.

With 16 festivals under his belt, does John have any regrets about taking it on? No way.

When asked about his highlights, he said: “The music, the sunshine, the travel on The Solent…it’s got all the ingredients. It’s a holiday destination, fantastic to go to, the people are really welcoming. It’s just the best thing I’ve ever done.”

The 50th anniversary IW Festival takes place at Seaclose Park, Newport, from June 21st-24th. See you there!

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