Fifty years ago this month, somewhere in the ballpark of 600,000 music fans schlepped over to England’s Isle of Wight to witness one of the greatest festivals in rock history. It featured Woodstock veterans the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Richie Havens, Ten Years After, John Sebastian, Melanie, Joan Baez, and Richie Havens alongside Miles Davis, the Doors, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Chicago, ELP, Free, the Moody Blues, Procul Harum, Tiny Tim, and many others.
A professional camera crew overseen by filmmaker Murray Lerner was on hand to capture everything for the documentary Message to Love. This was very fortunate since it wound up being Jimi Hendrix’s final performance in England and the Doors’ last concert with Jim Morrison outside of America, and the last one anywhere to be filmed. Hendrix died less than a month later and Morrison followed in July of the following year.
Highlights from the festival are too numerous to mention, but this was just six months after the Who’s historic set at Leeds and they were in absolute peak form. Leeds wasn’t filmed, so this is basically as close as one can come to seeing what a Who show was like at that moment in time. Like Leeds and every show that year, they opened up with John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell” since it allows everyone in the band to have a moment to shine and warm up for the long set ahead of them. It was 2 a.m. and the audience was drained after a long day of music, so this was a much-needed jolt of energy. Lerner’s camera crew did a stellar job of capturing the excitement of the moment.
The crowd that weekend was so massive that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records, but the exact number of people has been a major source of controversy among rock historians ever since. Many feel that the Isle of Wight figures have been greatly exaggerated and Woodstock actually drew more people. Whatever the truth, it was enough for the Isle of Wight residents to ban concerts for the next 32 years because of all the headaches the fest created.
The Isle of Wight is once again one of the biggest events of the European summer festival season. The Who even came back in 2004 and 2016. The 2020 edition was supposed to take place in June with Lionel Richie, Happy Mondays, Snow Patrol, the Chemical Brothers, Duran Duran, Dido, and the Libertines all appearing. The pandemic forced a cancellation, and the organizers are going to try again next summer with roughly the same lineup, presuming that festivals are feasible at that point. No matter what happens, topping the big one back in 1970 will be impossible. In almost every way, it was England’s Woodstock. (The 1969 one was pretty epic too, but that’s a whole other story.)