The 1970 Isle of Wight Festival’s 10 best performances

By Sergio Ariza

The third Isle of Wight Festival, held in August 1970, was confirmation of the end of an era. It may not have been as mythical as Woodstock or Altamont, the festival that ended the 1960s, but it was the largest festival of its time, with 600,000 people in attendance, and it had an even bigger line-up, with many artists repeating, like Hendrix, the Who and Sly & The Family Stone, plus other names like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis and the Doors. It also gave a definitive boost to the careers of Rory Gallagher, who played with Taste, as well as Free and Jethro Tull. The Isle of Wight festival was confirmation that the 60s were dead and the turbulent 70s were already here, because the festival was full of tension and violence, with thousands of people trying to sneak in by breaking down fences and arguing that music should be free. Within days of the concert Hendrix would be dead and shortly afterwards Jim Morrison would follow him into exile in Paris. The Isle of Wight was, for better or worse, the end of an era. These are ten of the most memorable performances. 

(Friday 28)

Rory Gallagher had formed Taste in 1966 and, little by little, had managed to make a name for himself in blues rock. The band had released two albums, Taste in 1969 and On The Boards, released on the first day of 1970. They hadn't achieved much success, but all those who listened to them, especially if it was live, were spellbound forever by the magic and intensity with which Gallagher played his shattered Stratocaster. On the Isle of Wight they were far from being the headliners and director Murray Lerner, who was recording the Festival, had told his cameras to only record a couple of songs per band, to leave room for the big names of the festival. But when Taste showed up and Rory started playing What's Going On, Lerner was so amazed that he urged his cameras to keep recording. In the end the whole performance was recorded, with moments as explosive as when Gallagher changes his Strat for his 66 Telecaster to play Gambling Blues, with his slide. His AC30 goes up in smoke and the audience go crazy; finally understanding why stars like
John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix spoke wonders of the Irishman. Before the end of the year, Taste had split up and Gallagher had started his successful solo career.


Joni Mitchell
(Saturday 29)

Joni Mitchell had not played at Woodstock, but had composed the event’s ‘official anthem’. She had grown in success and reputation and many of the best composers of that generation, such as David Crosby, considered her the best of them all. But when she took the stage on Saturday, August 29, you could already see that that crowd was quite far from the ideals of "peace, love and music.” A camp had been set up outside the festival that sought to enter despite the erected fences. The atmosphere was very tense when Joni went on stage, only accompanied by her faithful Martin D-28 that a Vietnam veteran had given her. After playing the splendid Chelsea Morning and For Free, she moved on to the piano and began to play Woodstock, which was received with applause, but after finishing it a hippie came on stage and began to talk about the situation in the camp. Mitchell's manager came on stage and took the microphone away from him. Some in the audience started booing and it seemed that the performance had been ruined, but Joni did not cower and instead started to scold the thousands of people there, telling them "you are behaving like tourists". You can see the anger as she begins to play the piano chords of My Old Man, one of the songs that appeared on her masterpiece, Blue, released the following year, but the magic of her voice begins to take effect and the riots gave way to a respectful silence. At the end of her performance, people gave her such a standing ovation that she had to go out again to play her two best known songs to that date, Big Yellow Taxi and Both Sides Now.


Miles Davis
(Saturday 29)

Perhaps never before (or since) had a jazz musician performed before 600,000 people, but Miles Davis was not just anyone and had been flirting with rock since he discovered Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone. That's not to say that Miles was an upstart looking for popularity among young white people; there were few things more risky and experimental than the music that Davis and his fancy band delivered in 1970. Based on several tracks from Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, Davis gets into a definitive jam with Dave Holland acting as bass anchor, while Davis himself, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Gary Bartz float with their incendiary solos. When, at the end of the performance, a fan asked him what genre of music he had played, Miles muttered "Call it anything”. His electric period of progressive funk has as many enthusiastic followers as sworn enemies, but what is clear is that the trumpet player took a music that was dying out in small clubs and let it be heard by 600,000 people outdoors, thereby giving jazz a new life. Soon his own musicians, both earlier and those who accompanied him here, would be able to thank him when they managed to make records such as Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, Jarrett's Köln Concert and Corea's Return To Forever and become headliners for a new generation.


The Doors
(Saturday 29)

The Doors had been forced to miss several major festivals because of Jim Morrison's behaviour (not to mention that a month after this performance the singer was sentenced to six months in jail for allegedly flashing his genitals to the public). Here, however, Morrison behaved perfectly. However he did not want to be recorded with a lot of lighting, which meant that his performance was immortalized with a mysterious red light. Perhaps he asked for low lights so that the deterioration of his formerly Apollinic figure was not noticed. However, it was noticeable in this performance that his voice was aging great, like the good whiskey he liked. In December of that same year the Doors entered the studio for the last time to record the excellent L.A. Woman, but here you can see that the chemistry between them has returned with excellent, and long, versions of classics such as Light My Fire, The End and When The Music's Over. An inspired
Robby Krieger that day felt the 'magic' and got great things out of his SG. As Ray Manzarek summarized it: "we played with a controlled fury and Jim was in very good vocal form. He sang for all he was worth, but didn't move a muscle. Dionysus had been chained.”


The Who
(Saturday 29)

But if the Doors' performance is no longer remembered it is because after them came the whirlwind of The Who. Pete Townshend’s band had already been one of Woodstock's big winners, but on the Isle of Wight the band destroyed any kind of competition. Live At Leeds had been released on May 23rd, just three months before this performance, so the Who chose the moment to confirm that they were, forever and ever, the best live rock band. Townshend wore his white jumpsuit, Roger Daltrey was back showing off his abs and fringe, Keith Moon could light up an entire city with the energy he was giving off on the drums, but the real highlight was seeing John Entwistle appear in his iconic skeleton suit. Their performance began at three o'clock in the morning with Heaven And Hell and when it ended, two hours later, hundreds of thousands of people could testify that they had seen the heaven and hell of rock & roll at its best. They played Tommy almost in its entirety, in addition to other wonders such as I Can't Explain, Substitute, My Generation, and Magic Bus, plus excellent covers of Shakin All Over and Summertime Blues.


Sly and the Family Stone
(Saturday 29)

Sly & The Family Stone were another of Woodstock's big winners, but a year later things had changed a lot, their leader had gone into a spiral of drugs and paranoia and the optimistic hymns of the past were being replaced by dark reflections. The day was dawning when they appeared, people were emerging from the high of seeing the Who and spirits were edgy due to the invading forces of the ‘no-entry crowd’. Even so, their performance started off on a high note with Stand and You Can Make It If You Try which proved that they were still one of the funkiest bands on planet Earth. Dance To The Music and I Want To Take You Higher were still unstoppable invitations to dance and Larry Graham was still "The Bassist". But this time when another hippie appeared on stage to give a speech, people took it badly and began to throw things, and finally a can hit Freddie Stone in the face, resulting in Sly and his people leaving without playing the promised encore. All this tension, the fights between band members, and the end of the 60's would be reflected in their masterpiece, which appeared in 1971: There's A Riot Goin' On.


(Sunday 30)

Fire and Water,
Free’s best album, had appeared on June 26 of that same year and All Right Now, their fantastic presentation single, on May 15. Free was at their peak, Andy Fraser was writing the best songs of his career, Paul Rodgers had never sung better and Paul Kossoff had found THE TONE with his Les Paul of 59, rivaling any guitarist in the UK, including Eric Clapton. It was this performance that made them superstars, taking All Right Now to the Top 5 in both the US and the UK and making the album a bestseller. The bad news is that what should have been the beginning of their reign was in fact the peak that announced their decline.


Jethro Tull
(Sunday 30)

Another band on the rise were Ian Anderson's Jethro Tull, whose Benefit had become a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and the band were managing to fill venues with thousands of people. The record was the first in which appeared the keyboardist John Evan and the last of the bassist Glenn Cornick, but Jethro Tull’s line-up only had two fixtures during many years, Anderson himself and the guitarist
Martin Barre whose riffs with his Les Paul combined perfectly with and Anderson’s voice and flute. Their appearance took them to new heights of popularity and they took advantage of it by releasing the folllowing year, in 1971, their master work, Aqualung.


Jimi Hendrix
(Sunday 30)

Hendrix was the big star of the festival and he was performing, after the dissolution of the Band of Gipsys, in superb harmony with the drummer Mitch Mitchell, and with his friend from the military, Billy Cox, on bass. While waiting for his turn he asked one of the workers "how many people are there", and they answered "there are half a million people, all have come to see you", so Hendrix said "can you hum God Save The Queen for me?” Then he went on stage with his Black Beauty in his hands, his '68 Stratocaster that had become his favorite guitar, and the host of the event approached him to ask him how he wanted to be introduced. His response was, "just say Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums and the blue wild angel on guitar.” The surprised host said "What?" and Hendrix repeated "the blue wild angel" again. Then he went on stage and began to play the English national anthem, which gave way to a brief and intense cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. Half a million people were already his, and he had time to present the songs he was recording, like Dolly Dagger with his Flying V from 67, but also to review his classics. There was All Along The Watchtower, Foxy Lady, Hey Joe (with a wink to Satisfaction before delivering an incredible solo), and there was Purple Haze, and Voodoo Child (Slight Return) - these last three in a row! And he proved again that he was still the king of the electric guitar. What no one could have suspected was that it was one of his last performances. Less than 20 days after this performance he would turn up dead in London, rock and roll had lost its angel but the legend had found a vein.


Leonard Cohen
(Sunday 30)

Someone, it is not very well known for what reason, had come up with the idea of programming Leonard Cohen after Jimi Hendrix in the middle of the night. It must have been 4 a.m. when someone from the organization went to wake up him in his caravan, but the atmosphere at the festival was still horrible and the fact that the big star of the festival had already finished his performance only added to the bad vibes, but Cohen didn't care. He had only decided to play because his second album, Songs From A Room, had become an unexpected success in the UK. He was already 35 years old and twice the age of most of the spectators, his success or not didn't matter much to him either, but he went out there with his little band and gave a memorable concert. From the very first bars of Bird On A Wire people went into a kind of serene ecstasy. With little more than the accompaniment of his Conde Spanish guitar, Cohen won over the audience with his stories, his poems and a collection of monumental songs. So Long Marianne, Lady Midnight, The Stranger Song, Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye and Suzanne, plus premiering one of the best songs of his career, Famous Blue Raincoat, and the recording of Sing Another Song, Boys was considered good enough to appear on the artist's next album, Songs Of Love And Hate, which appeared on March 19, 1971. When his performance was over, the organizers could only think that they should have put him on Friday to calm down the mood much earlier, because with Cohen, the idea that music ‘calms the beasts’ was fulfilled...