Isle of Wight: Britain's very own Woodstock

Jimi Hendrix died soon after playing the Isle of Wight in 1970, The Doors hardly played again, and the event itself disappeared for 32 years. Now it's different, says James McNair
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However confused its imagery, Sandi Thom's "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (with Flowers in My Hair)" taps into the nostalgia many feel for the halcyon days of rock. Symbolically, so too does the Isle of Wight Festival. At its peak, Britain's oldest rock gathering could boast slots from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell in the course of one weekend. Glastonbury has its Tor and Creamfields its superstar DJs, but only the Isle of Wight Festival can claim to have been Britain's Woodstock.

Bizarrely, the event that would draw more than half a million people in 1970 had begun, two years earlier, as a fundraiser for the Isle of Wight Swimming Association. A member of the said body, Ron Smith, set aside £750 to develop a rock festival, and preparations got under way on 100-acres of stubble corn.

The inaugural Isle of Wight festival began at 8pm on August 31, 1968, and ended at 8.30am the following morning. Some 10,000 music fans had paid £1 5s (£1.25) for tickets, the late John Peel among those enjoying sets from acts including Tyrannosaurus Rex and Fairport Convention. "One fragile [girl] was crying because her feet were so cold," the DJ recalled. "Overcome with lust, I gave her my socks. She skippety-skipped away and that was that."

The 1969 event was a much bigger affair, the festival relocating to Godshill village, expanding to three days, and attracting a crowd of around 250,000 people. News of Bob Dylan's first UK performance since his 1966 motorcycle accident had swelled ticket demand, and there were also sets from the Who and The Band. Despite its quantum leap forward, the festival retained something of the Aquarian hippy innocence documented by Peel. A local Scout troop supplied tents for the temporarily homeless, while a provincial newspaper report from the period reports communal pots of baked beans passing amongst docile folks dressed in "tattered jeans and headbands."

It was the mixed blessings of the further-expanded 1970 festival that saw it become the stuff of legend. Described in a Melody Maker headline as "Five Days That Shook The World", the gathering drew a crowd that The Guinness Book Of Records later verified as being in excess of 600,000.

The musical riches on offer were all but unprecedented: Sly and the Family Stone singing "Dance To The Music"; Joni Mitchell singing "Woodstock"; The Who premiering Tommy; and loads more class acts besides. Free, then riding high with "All Right Now", aired their hit single as a massive hot-air balloon ascended into the blue.

It was the deeply troubled Jimi Hendrix's intermittently brilliant set, however, that caught the edgy, fractured mood of an event that turned ugly. "Hendrix was a psychological mess of a man", Pete Townshend said, remembering Jimi's closing set. "Nobody cared. People thought, 'he can play such great guitar, so he's obviously okay'."

Some trouble stemmed from militants in a testy crowd incensed at a new double-walled security system, and the increased appearance-fees some artists were demanding. Fights broke out, fires were started, missiles were thrown, and the local community struggled to cope with the invasion of their small island. With many fans enjoying the festival for free from the vantage point of a nearby hill, the gathering was a commercial and organisational disaster. "It was a memorable event, and most of the islanders were tolerant towards it", said medical officer Douglas Quantrill at the time, "but a vociferous minority were determined that there would never be another." Deeming the Isle of Wight Festival unsafe, the local authorities put it on ice for the next 30 years.

But time heals all wounds, and The Isle of Wight Festival eventually returned in 2002. In the interim, much had been learned about marketing, crowd safety, and community relations. The event's musical palette, meanwhile, had expanded to include hip-hop and avant-garde jazz. In recent years, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and REM have all played the Isle of Wight, and this year's star turns will include Goldfrapp, Primal Scream, The Prodigy and Coldplay.

Tickets for 2006's sold-out event went for £85 (or £105 with camping pass), while audience capacity is set at a comparatively cosy 35,000. Fittingly, a specially commissioned life-size statue of Jimi Hendrix is to be displayed at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater, looking out towards the 1970 festival site. We Brits are suckers for continuity. That said, though, those of us over a certain age would do well to remember that every generation needs its own rock stars, not just posthumous totems of legends whose achievements, they are regularly reminded, can never be surpassed. There are teenagers out there who will be just as thrilled by Coldplay's 2006 Isle Of Wight set as the baby-boomers were by Dylan's in 1969.