Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997) * * *

From August 26 to 31, 1970, rock music fans flocked to the English Isle of Wight to witness the third and final festival to be held on the island. It was held on Afton Down, an area on the western side of the island. The last of three consecutive music festivals to take place on the island between 1968 and 1970, it was the largest musical event of its time (until Summer Jam at Watkins Glen in 1973), greater than the attendance of Live Aid, Woodstock and Rock in Rio. The Guinness Book of Records has cited its attendance as 600,000, which is well above the organizers' estimate of 500,000.

For about a year after the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969, it seemed as though everyone wanted to stage a rock festival. However, The Rolling Stones' disastrous Altamont free concert, documented in the film GIMME SHELTER (1970), forever tarnished the image of the rock festival in the USA, while in Europe, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was fortunately less disastrous than Altamont, but nearly as controversial. Staged by two men with greater ambitions than practical experience, the festival was held on a small island off the British coast. But while at Woodstock no one had given much thought about keeping gatecrashers out, at the Isle of Wight those without tickets were greeted with corrugated steel fences that sealed off the festival grounds. Huge numbers of visitors simply camped on hills surrounding the grounds, while others broke down the fences by force after refusing to pay the 3 pounds admission. This led to heated conflicts between the promoters, who ranted bitterly to the audience from the stage, the festival's security staff, the concert-goers, and the performers. The documentary examines the concert both on-stage and behind-the-scenes, capturing performances from many of the artists who appeared.

The Isle of Wight Festivals already had massive reputations in 1968 and in 1969 by attracting acts such as Jefferson Airplane, T.Rex, The Move, Pretty Things, Joe Cocker, the Who and Bob Dylan--in his first performance since his 1966 motorcycle accident. The organizers Fiery Creations (alias brothers Ronald Foulk and Raymond Foulk) were determined to make the 1970 event a legendary event. In this aim they enlisted Jimi Hendrix. With Jimi confirmed, artists such as Chicago, The Doors, The Who, Joan Baez, and Free willingly took up the chance to play on the island. The event had a magnificent but impractical site, a strong but inconsistent line up and the logistical nightmare of transporting 600,000 on to the island with a population of less than 100,000. The aftermath and commercial failings of the festival ensured it would be the last event of its kind on the Isle of Wight for thirty-two years.

This is a complete rockumentary showing everything from the performances of several rock legends to the backstage squabbling that nearly destroyed the festival, but was a precursor of the greed and cynicism that would strike the rock music scene of the 1970's. The film depicts the many problems associated with the festival, including gate-crashing, numerous crowd incursions onto the stage, Kris Kristofferson being booed offstage, and head promoter Rikki Farr's whining and ranting to the audience, which only intensified as the situation deteriorated: "We put this festival on, you bastards...we worked for one year for you pigs!"

Unlike the films MONTERERY POP (1968) and WOODSTOCK (1970), with their cheerful sense of innocence, MESSAGE OF LOVE details a major cultural movement in fast decline. The big draws here are rough, spacey performances by rock's ragged aristocracy of the time: the Doors, the Who, Hendrix, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, and the Moody Blues. Standout numbers include Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and the Doors' apocalyptic songs "When the Music's Over" and "The End." Also documented are the endless posturing and infighting among the egotistical festival promoters, the bands' managers, and the artists. Only 50,000 of the 600,000 attendees were paying customers, and war between the capitalist interests and the hostile hippies outside the gates eventually overwhelms the good vibes. The film hits all the usual targets, but reaches the heights of counterculture craziness when an overwrought Marxist hippie storms the stage and screams, "This is a psychedelic concentration camp!"

Opposition to the proposed festival from the residents of the Isle of Wight was much better co-ordinated than it had been in previous years. The Isle of Wight was a favourite retirement destination of the British well-heeled, and a haven of the yachting set, and many of the traditional residents deplored the huge influx of hippies. Renting a few acres of suitable farmland to hold a music festival had in earlier years been a simple commercial matter between the promoters and one of the local farmers, but by 1970 this had become subject to approval decisions from several local council committees who were heavily lobbied by residents' associations opposing the festival. As a result of this public scrutiny, the preferred ideal location for the third Festival was blocked, and the promoters in the end had no choice but to accept the only venue on offer by the authorities, East Afton Farm, Afton Down, a site that was in many ways deliberately selected to be unsuitable for their purpose. One unintended result of the pick of location was that, since it was overlooked by a large hill, a significant number of people were able to camp out on the hill and watch the proceedings for free.

This documentary was shot in 1970, but for many reasons was not shown to the public until 1995 in Great Britain. Director Murray Lerner and his film crew were hired by the Isle of Wight Festival promoters to make a movie of the events and music. Due to financial problems and lack of interest from the film distributors, the film footage sat unreleased for 25 years, although bits of Hendrix, The Who, and Free's performances surfaced in other presentations.


Wednesday, August 26

* Judas Jump: A heavy progressive rock band featuring Andy Bown and Henry Spinetti of The Herd and Allan Jones of Amen Corner
* Kathy Smith: A Californian folk singer, was well-received.
* Rosalie Sorrels: Another folk musician.
* David Bromberg: He was not on the bill, but performed a popular set.
* Redbone: A native American pop/rock outfit.
* Kris Kristofferson: He performed a controversial set. Due to poor sound, the audience was unable to hear his set, and it appeared that they were jeering him.
* Mighty Baby: A psychedelic rock band.

Thursday, August 27

* Gary Farr: The brother of Rikki Farr, Gary had been the front man of the T-Bones, an R&B combo that featured Keith Emerson on keyboards. By this time, he had become a solo artist, and his only album, "Strange Fruit", for CBS Records, had been released in 1970.
* Supertramp: Their debut album had just been released a month prior to the festival.
* Andy Roberts' Everyone
* Howl: A Scottish hard-rock band formerly known as "The Stoics", featuring Frankie Miller.
* Black Widow
* The Groundhogs: English blues rockers
* Terry Reid
* Gilberto Gil: Representing the Tropicalia movement, the Brazilian musician played to a frenzied audience.

Friday, August 28

* Fairfield Parlour: They had recorded a single called "Let The World Wash In", released under the name "I Luv Wight", which they hoped would become the festival's theme song. They had also previously recorded as The Kaleidoscope.
* Arrival: Their set, which included a Leonard Cohen cover was well received.
* Lighthouse: This popular orchestral Canadian act performed two sets at the festival.
* Taste: Legendary guitarist Rory Gallagher had a blues trio from 1968 to 1970. This was one of their final shows, which was filmed and recorded. An album was released of their set in 1971.
* Tony Joe White: He performed his hits including "Polk Salad Annie" The drummer was Cozy Powell.
* Chicago: Their set, including "25 or 6 to 4," "Beginnings" and "I'm a Man" was a highlight of the night.
* Family
* Procol Harum: Frontman Gary Brooker commented that it was a cold night.
* Voices Of East Harlem: Not actually a band, but a bunch of singing school children from Harlem. They had one studio album. Their set received several standing ovations.
* Cactus: A bluesy hard rock band. Two songs from their set were featured on the LP "The First Great Rock Festivals Of The Seventies".

Saturday, August 29

* John Sebastian: The showstopper of the Festival performed an 80-minute set, during which Zal Yanovsky, former Lovin' Spoonful guitarist, made a surprise guest appearance.
* Shawn Phillips: An American folk musician performed an impromptu solo set.
* Lighthouse (second set)
* Joni Mitchell: She played a controversial set. Following her rendition of "Woodstock", a hippie named Yogi Joe interrupted her set to make a speech about Desolation Row. When Joe was hauled off by Joni's manager, the audience began to boo until Mitchell made an emotional appeal to them for some respect for the performers. She called the audience "tourists". Contrary to popular belief, Joe was not the man who was ranting about a "psychedelic concentration camp". That was another incident that took place the previous day. After the crowd quieted down, Mitchell closed her set with "Big Yellow Taxi".
* Tiny Tim: His rendition of "There'll Always Be an England" can be seen in the film Message To Love.
* Miles Davis: The jazz superstar played a single, continuous version of "Call It Anything" lasting 38 minutes, which can be seen on the "Miles Electric--A Different Kind Of Blue" DVD released in 2004. The documentary shows an edited segment of that performance.
* Ten Years After: The British blues rockers basically reproduced their famous Woodstock set. Highlights included "I'm Going Home" and "I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes", which was featured in MESSAGE TO LOVE.
* Emerson Lake and Palmer: This was actually their second gig. "Pictures at an Exhibition", which featured the Moog synthesizer was the centerpiece of their historic set. Commercially released as "Emerson, Lake and Palmer Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970" in 1997.
* The Doors: Their set was shrouded in darkness due to Jim Morrison's unwillingness to have spotlights on the band. Their performances of "The End" and "When The Music's Over" are featured in MESSAGE TO LOVE.
* The Who: Their entire set, including the Tommy rock opera, was released in 1996 on CD as "Live at the Isle of Wight Festival" (1970). Three years later their set appeared on DVD with significant cuts from Tommy and a few other songs such as "Naked Eye" missing. In addition, the DVD song set order was radically altered to present Tommy as if having been performed at the second-half of the concert, when in fact, Tommy was performed in the middle of their lengthy set, and the closing title was "Magic Bus", which concluded some Who concerts at that time. Unfortunately, a 2006-reissued DVD of the concert was not corrected for these major deficiencies, despite having been personally supervised by Pete Townshend.
* Melanie: This Woodstock veteran played a well-received set. Prior to her set, Keith Moon of The Who offered her some moral support and encouragement. Not until afterwards did Melanie realize who he was.
* Sly & The Family Stone: The showstoppers of Woodstock performed to a tired audience on the early morning of Sunday. However, the audience woke up for spirited renditions of "I Want To Take You Higher," "Dance To The Music" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)", which featured Sly on guitar. Prior to their encore, another political militant decided it was time to make a speech, and the booing audience started to throw beer cans onto the stage. Freddie Stone was hit by a flying can and an angry Sly decided to skip the encore. He did promise a second appearance, but this never occurred.
* Mungo Jerry were there but decided not to play

Sunday, August 30

* Good News: An American acoustic duo.
* Kris Kristofferson (Second set)
* Ralph McTell: Despite an enthusiastic reception from the audience, he did not play an encore, and the stage was cleared for Donovan.
* Heaven: England's answer to Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears
* Free: Their set list consisted of "Ride On A Pony", "Mr. Big", "Woman", "The Stealer", "Be My Friend", "Fire & Water", "I'm A Mover", "The Hunter", their classic hit "All Right Now", and concluded with a cover of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads".
* Donovan: He first performed an acoustic set, and then an electric set with his band Open Road.
* Pentangle: A British folk combo. A German woman interrupted their set to deliver a political message to the audience.
* The Moody Blues: A popular British act and veteran of the 1969 festival. Their rendition of "Nights in White Satin" can be seen in MESSAGE TO LOVE.
* Jethro Tull: Their set is featured on "Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970".
* Jimi Hendrix: The star of the festival performed in the early hours of August 31st with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass. His set has been released on CD and video in various forms. In the beginning Hendrix had technical problems, which at one point during "Machine Gun" involved the security's radio signal interfering with his amp's output. He arrived at the festival very tired from lack of sleep. Most of the time he played a Gibson "Flying V" guitar, and he does not have the same inimitable tone he gets from his Fender Stratocaster.
* Joan Baez: Her version of "Let It Be" can be seen in the film MESSAGE TO LOVE.
* Leonard Cohen: Backed by his band The Army, his tune "Suzanne" can be seen in the film.
* Richie Havens: The musician who opened Woodstock closed this festival with a set during the morning of August 31. As Havens performed his version of "Here Comes the Sun," the morning sun rose. Havens' set, which is available as an audience recording also included "Maggie's Farm", "Freedom" and "Minstrel From Gault".

In an important way, MESSAGE TO LOVE is the final chapter in an unofficial trilogy of concert films, along with WOODSTOCK and GIMME SHELTER, that paint a picture of the highest and lowest points of Woodstock Nation politics--from mass goodwill to anarchy. However, MESSAGE OF LOVE is a rock & roll movie with several performances that are outright revelations, such as the Who's triumphant show, the Doors' "The End", and Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun". But some are superfluous, including Ten Days After, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Jethro Tull. Cameras are often focused on the increasingly testy relationship between deadbeat hippies who travel a long way to see the show but refuse to pay, and capitalist concert producers who resort to using guard dogs, cops, and aluminum walls to keep crashers at a distance. The mood becomes so bad, in one scene Joni Mitchell breaks down in tears after singing her ode to peace and love, "Woodstock". A crazed hippie bothers her on stage, she calls the audience "tourists", and carries on singing "Big Yellow Taxi." Kris Kristofferson is booed off stage, but the film does not show his come-back performance a few days later, when he was better received.

Most of the performances are good, although a little too brief and some songs are edited. The Miles Davis segment lasts about one minute. This is more of a documentary of the event than anything else. You'll see the promoters and the crowd get almost as much time on the camera as the performers. The Isle of Wight wasn't exactly Britain's answer to Woodstock. Altamont ended the Woodstock spirit and this is Hippydom's last true hurrah at a great festival.

There are poignant moments, like Jimi Hendrix' final performance featuring "Message to Love", "Machine Gun" and "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)", and one of the Doors' final performances featuring "When the Music's Over" and "The End". After disasters like Altamont, the promoters add security like police dogs and a metal fence dividing the young teens and adults who've paid admission from those who haven't. So, naturally, there's plenty of arguments between the promoters and the music fans. Due to the war between them, Kris Kristoferson is unfairly booed onstage. Folks are too busy trying to get in to listen to the original "Me and Bobbie McGee". Joan Baez, after her performance of "Let It Be" is interviewed. She's honest and says "This is my job, so naturally, I expect to be paid." A humorous moment is Tiny Tim singing via megaphone "There'll Always Be An England".

An alarming moment is when one hippie says he's given his young son LSD. It's interesting to see a young thin Ian Anderson perform with Jethro Tull ("Whoever said we wouldn't perform tonight is full of...") on "My Sunday Feeling", and a young thin Paul Rogers perform "All Right Now" with Free. This is also Emerson, Lake and Palmer's debut performance, and each of them celebrates by Emerson nearly destroying his organ, Lake setting off a cannon and Palmer removing his shirt while performing "Pictures at an Exhibition/Blue Rondo a la Turk". It's also one of the Moody Blues' first performances live. Fortunately for the freeloaders, the fence is taken down and all hold hands in peace, while a guitar plays "Amazing Grace". You begin to sympathize with Rikki Farr as he tells the audience that he and the other promoters will have to pay for this decision. As the festival comes to an end, Farr sums it all up when he says "This is the last great event."

The DVD has a runtime of 127 minutes, whittled down from 175 hours of footage. Sony Music released it on February 24, 2004. Too many of the music performances are extremely edited-down. Donovan is only seen for about three seconds. John Sebastian's show stopping performance is poorly edited too as they come in for the ending of his song. Performances from Tony Joe White, Melanie, Cactus, and Procol Harum weren't even included in favor of "Machine Gun" (Hendrix) ", All Right Now" (Free), and "Young Man Blues" (The Who)--all redundant footage available in other presentations. Finally, the film is generally downbeat, focusing on the problems that plagued the festival. The violence and unpleasantness are exaggerated. It was actually a good festival, with great bands and many positive aspects. Too bad Lerner didn't focus more on this. All songs are live except for Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row", which is the studio version, played over the end credits of the film. The American title is MESSAGE TO LOVE: THE ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL: THE MOVIE, whereas the UK title is simply MESSAGE TO LOVE.

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