One of the best books I've ever read was Stealing Dylan From Woodstock, by Ray Foulk, who was one of the organizers for all three original Isle of Wight Festivals. It documented the planning and execution of the first, small festival in 1968 and its much grander follow-up in 1969. In particular, the 1969 festival was a real coup for the promoters, coaxing Bob Dylan out of his self-imposed exile to make his only headlining concert appearance in the seven years between 1966 and 1973. With that feather successfully nestled in their cap, they immediately set about planning the follow-up event in 1970, but it wouldn't go as smoothly. This time, booking the headlining acts was the easy part...it was appeasing the authorities and residents of the Isle of Wight during the planning stages that was the hard part, and it only got more chaotic once the actual festival began. In The Last Great Event, their second volume on the original Isle of Wight Festivals, author (and promoter) Ray Foulk and his daughter Caroline describe everything that went into planning and executing this largest-ever festival gathering of 600,000+ people and the aftermath, many effects of which are still felt today.
***special thanks to Krissi at Medina Publishing for sending me a copy of the book to review!***
Starting off with a brief background on the story thus far, recounting the famous 1969 festival and Bob Dylan's brief return to the stage, the authors dive right in where the first book left off: Fiery Creations, headed by the Foulk brothers Ray, Ronnie, and Bill, are looking toward planning the follow-up festival. Their immediate quandary was how to top Bob Dylan as a headliner? In their minds, only two other acts measured up: Elvis and the Beatles. Elvis was (rightly) deemed to be too square and a poor choice for a festival crowd, so they set their sights on trying to use their cachet from bringing Dylan out of retirement the previous year to get the Beatles back onstage in front of a paying audience for the first time since 1966. They had a few reasons to be encouraged: George, John, and Ringo had attended the 1969 festival and enjoyed it, with George playing unofficial host to the Dylans during their stay; the Beatles brief return to live performance at their London rooftop concert the year before also boded well. It even got as far as Ray Foulk drafting a letter to George inquiring into the possibility of the Beatles headlining, as he and George interacted quite a bit at the 1969 festival. However, the plan was scuppered before Ray sent the letter when Paul announced the Beatles split in April 1970. At this point, they decided that instead of having ONE absolute headline act, they'd spread the festival across five days and have several big names. These ended up including the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Jethro Tull, Chicago, Joan Baez, and the Moody Blues as the some of the biggest namess. Attempts to get the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were unsuccessful (can you even imagine if they were?) but nonetheless, from the very beginning of 1970 the festival was hyped by the music press and, once the acts announced in late May/early June, ticket sales picked up. There was one glaring problem, however...Fiery Creations didn't have a site to actually stage the whole thing! Denied the right to lease the same land from 1969 to use again, there was a lot of spirited debate with local officials and residents until a local landowner volunteered his farm at the eleventh hour. Faced with the prospect of a fully booked festival and tens of thousands of tickets sold, this was a nightmare scenario that was rectified before it was nearly too late. With this sorted, it was time to construct the site, erect fencing, and organize the logistics before the music began.
With two weeks until the gates opened, the site was besieged by early arrivals as well as self-styled political anarchists and radicals who tried their best to sabotage the entire thing and force it into being free. This of course caused some stress as the promoters needed to raise revenue in order to pay the acts and keep everything running smoothly. In the end, it ended up being a series of minor skirmishes between the troublemakers and the festival organization until finally Fiery Creations threw their hands up on the final day of the festival and declared it free. As for the music? It was an incredibly eclectic and varied line-up, punctuated by some absolutely brilliant sets from the heavyweight acts: the Who were unarguably the highlight of the entire festival, but Jethro Tull, Taste (featuring Rory Gallagher), John Sebastian, Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, the Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell, and the Doors all turned in excellent sets. Jimi Hendrix, probably the only act on the bill as big as the Who and the Doors, turned in a somewhat ragged and uneven but ultimately solid performance, mixing his established hits with the new material he'd been working on over the last year. It was also to be his final UK gig as he would die less than three weeks later, in London, under mysterious circumstances...a tragic and profound loss for the world of music.
Ray Foulk goes to great lengths to set the record straight about how the festival was actually run, what occurred during it, and the fallout of its aftermath. Much of the misinformation that has unfortunately become accepted fact about the 1970 festival stems from both sensationalized contemporary press accounts as well as creative editing in the Murray Lerner film on the festival, Message to Love. There are, in fact, individual chapters toward the end of the book discussing the disruption of the festival by the small band of assorted radicals and the long and frustrating saga of the films based on the festival. In discussing what actually happened, as well as the correct chronology of events (which was not presented accurately in the Lerner films), Foulk debunks many of the myths about the festival, including (but not limited to): Joni Mitchell being booed offstage, radicals rioting and tearing down the fencing, Hendrix playing through a fire on the main stage, and festivalgoers being unruly and problematic. All of these stories, and many more, are told as they actually happened either via Foulk's firsthand accounts or those of his brothers and associates, and most are corroborated with contemporary press clippings and statements from the authorities. Alas, it wasn't enough to prevent Fiery Creations from going bankrupt and the local government passing legislation banning further festivals from the island (even though the brothers had begun preliminary planning for a fourth festival in 1971). The Foulks did promote a few more big time rock concerts in London, at Oval Cricket Ground (with the Who headlining once again), Led Zeppelin's Electric Magic shows at the Empire Pool, and the 1950s rock and roll revival show a Wembley Stadium. Eventually they went on to other pursuits, making one last attempt at bringing the festival back to the island in 1994 and 1995 (even booking Oasis and Blur to headline!). It ended up falling through and they left it to others to finally revive the Isle of Wight Festival, which continues to this day, is widely recognized as one of the finest in the world, and stems from the Foulks legacy and for which they should be exceedingly proud.
The Last Great Event is considerably longer than the first volume but I found it just as fascinating and hard to put down as that book. Even reading about the various pre-festival maneuvering and planning was utterly fascinating (who knew plans for catering and latrines could be so interesting? But they were!). Ray and Caroline weave their tale with just the right amount of humor and hindsight to paint a vivid picture...you can almost imagine that you were there in that field on Afton Farm at the end of the summer of '70. In addition to the engaging writing, the Foulks do a wonderful job of placing the event and its surrounding drama not only in the proper contemporary context, but in the broader context of the 1960s counterculture, with critical but fair hindsight. The standalone chapters at the end of the book setting the record straight on the fringe radical elements who were a nuisance the entire festival, as well as the selectively edited Lerner documentary, were very informative and certainly helped me in learning the truth about what really happened. Finally, Foulk's detailed description of each act's set lists, performance, and crowd reception is very enlightening and tells the real story behind each one. Apart from some very minor typos and printing errors (mainly stray punctuation marks or stray repeated words), the book is damn near perfect and includes several sections of wonderful full color photographs of the festival.
For years, I had accepted the conventional wisdom that had been passed down since 1970: that armies of radicals stormed the site, tore down the fences, and rioted while causing the festival to break down into chaos and be declared free. This was based on all that I'd read and seen (in the Lerner film) over the years and, as I was to read in the book, turned out to be entirely untrue. For that fact alone, The Last Great Event is a valuable document, but it's also valuable for so much more beyond just that. It's a time capsule of a fantastic, unique, and magical moment in time, as told by one of the men who was there in the middle of it all and who helped make it happen. It's a detailed, fascinating, truthful, and revealing historical look at the last of the original Isle of Wight Festivals, as well as a look at the effects and impact it had both in its immediate aftermath as well as decades down the road...an impact which is still being felt to this very day. As the largest peaceful gathering in history and truly the last great EVENT, Ray Foulk reminds us to not lose sight of the fact that more than anything else, it produced five absolutely fantastic days of some of the best live music the world has ever had the pleasure to witness and hear.