Interview with Ray Foulk & Caroline Foulk, authors of When the World Came to the Isle of Wight: Stealing Dylan From Woodstock

Author Ray Foulk

Author Caroline Foulk

Today I'm very pleased and very excited to bring you the following interview with Ray and Caroline Foulk, authors of the fantastic new book When the World Came to the Isle of Wight, Volume 1: Stealing Dylan From Woodstock. I reviewed the book earlier this year and Ray and Caroline were kind enough to answer my questions regarding the second Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, what is was like booking Bob Dylan for the festival, and much, much more. Before we begin, how about a little background on the authors?

Ray Foulk, now based in Oxford, has fostered many passions since his early days as a promoter. After the dizzy heights of the Isle of Wight Festivals and stadium events in London, the Foulk brothers were head-hunted by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to help plan the leisure content of their new city. Through this, Ray brought the inventor/scientist/designer Buckminster Fuller to the project, embraced his environmentalism, and eventually trained as an architect himself at the University of Cambridge. Combining design, education, and promotion he spent much of the nineties and noughties as an environmental campaigner, and led the ambitious in-schools project, Blue Planet Day, rekindling the satisfaction, and more, that the festivals had brought to his youth. Recent years have been dominated by environmental architecture and writing.

Caroline Foulk has worked with her father, Ray, for many years, researching, writing, and co-promoting the schools environmental project, Blue Plant Day. Recently, together they have completed a screenplay for the cinema about the invention of modern art. Caroline trained and worked as a teacher and lives in Oxford with her husband and three children.

RNRChemist: First off, can you give us a bit of background on you? How did you come to settle on the Isle of Wight? What year was that and what were the circumstances? How did you like living there?

RF: After the relatively sudden death of my father in 1956 it was no longer practical for my mother to keep up a large house in Derbyshire with 5 young children to bring up. We moved to the Island because my Uncle already had property there. Also my aging grandmother lived there. It suited Uncle Ronald to encourage Mother to move.We were disappointed in some respects with the island, especially the house we relocated to, which was parochial and small compared to the amazing mansion house we left behind. Sutton Rock had seemed such a marvel to my father’s family who had lived for generations as coal miners. I think we had an overall general feeling of immense loss, but the seaside was a plus.

RNRChemist: What was the impetus for you and your brothers to decide to stage the first festival in 1968? Why did you decide to do that?

RF: We put on the first IOW festival because my brother Ronnie got involved in raising funds for a local charity – IWISPA, whose remit was to raise money for an indoor swimming pool for the IOW.

RNRChemist: That first festival seems to be the forgotten one of the three you promoted...looking back on it, what are your thoughts on it?

RF:  The first festival seems almost a little embarrassing in retrospect. Although it was put on with a degree of professionalism, the stubble field was painful to sit on and we made wild claims about the national significance of the event, for instance we put it about that the Beatles would attend, (little did we know that they really would come the following year). We were disappointed that only about 10,000 attended. My brother Bill had assured us of the importance of Jefferson Airplane, Arthur Brown and the various underground bands. The island felt like a hopeless place for events.

RNRChemist: What did you have to go through to get Jefferson Airplane to headline that first one? How was their performance?

RF:  My brother Ronnie had to keep plugging away for Jefferson Airplane. He was casting around for any big names really. He had little knowledge of the contemporary scene and was turned down many times. He had no track record as a promoter and had to rely on his abilities as a salesman to finally convince the Clayman Agency that we were really serious contenders able to host an event worthy of an international band like Jefferson Airplane.

When it came to playing the Airplane were on form. Although it was freezing cold they brought rock genius into the night and lifted everybody’s spirits. They made everything seem worthwhile even though their light show was constrained by the dusty conditions.

RNRChemist: When you decided to plan the festival for the following year, what sort of things did you feel you needed to improve upon from 1968?

RF:  The IOW festival ‘mark one’ had seemed makeshift in many ways. We definitely wanted to make our festival-goers more welcome and comfortable – to go bigger and better in every way. It was important that we found a decent grassy site with proper facilities. Probably the biggest difference was that we styled it a ‘Camping festival’, which was unusual at this time. Because we were on an island we wanted people to have enough time to travel. Trench type toilets were replaced by cubicles and we appointed staff, often friends, to different departments overseeing every aspect of festival necessities. Everything was more designed from the tickets, to the programmes, posters etc. to the stage. We tried to address everything with excellence.

RNRChemist: Why Dylan? What made him your top choice as headliner for the second festival? Did you think you had a realistic shot at booking him? Was it more a "shoot for the moon" type thing?

RF:  It was obvious that we needed the biggest names to draw people across the water. Jefferson Airplane hadn’t been able to do this – the task of finding somebody with enough clout seemed daunting. Dylan really was the holy grail in 1969, he had acquired a god-like status due to his influence upon a whole generation. He was more than an ordinary musician, whether he liked it or not.

RNRChemist: I'm assuming you were expecting to be turned down outright by Dylan's management when you first called? What was your reaction when they didn't immediately say "no?"

RF:  I don’t think we set out believing that we had a chance to get Dylan. The fact that Dylan’s management didn’t dismiss us out of hand was a green light to us. We resorted to scheming over what might make the difference, bearing in mind that we had very few resources at all.

RNRChemist: Can you describe in more detail what the process was like for dealing with Block and Grossman as you warmed Bob up to the idea of coming to the island?

RF:  We had less dealings with Al Grossman than with Bert Block owing to the demise of the Dylan-Grossman contract. Dylan was in the process of distancing himself from Grossman. During my visit to New York for the signing when I dined with Grossman and the lawyers almost immediately at a Chinese restaurant (something I’d never experienced before). And after the signing when we visit Grossman’s flat at Gramercy Park. It was there that Al skinned up a joint to celebrate the deal (to my alarm). Al was like a presence but not so much involved. He came to the festival with Michael Lang and seemed more interested in seeing the Who than Dylan.

 I mostly dealt with Grossman’ partner, Bert Block. We developed a good rapport, over the phone initially.  Sometimes Bert wrong-footed me. When he said ‘bring the dollars’ (in preparation for my trip to meet Dylan) I really had to think about what he meant. I looked after him whenever he visited the Island. I made it my mission to make sure Bert was okay and therefore Dylan was okay. Bert seemed a really good old timer, kind of avuncular, though he probably wasn’t that old in reality. I recall I scared Bert a couple of times with my driving, but he always had faith in our abilities as promoters. As for the process of dealing with Block and Grossman it was pretty smooth, apart from Rikki Farr’s little indiscretion. They were decent, friendly and business-like. We knew we had to present ourselves in a business-like way at all times, especially in order to surmount our youthfulness and it paid off.  I had too much to think about to be too overawed by their stature as managers.

RNRChemist: How was it traveling to New York to meet with Dylan and his management? Can you describe how that whole trip went?

RF:  Travelling to New York was a lot of fun. I hadn’t been abroad before of course. Once I had my passport, visa and the guarantees for at least most of the performance fees I could almost sit back and enjoy the ride. A downside was Rikki and his antics. He was a loose cannon and wont to step in claiming he was the organiser, which he patently wasn’t, as well as louse things up, but I had the benefit of his demeanour as a bonafide show producer. We needed to be a convincing duo and Rikki certainly helped.

RNRChemist: After you got Bob, how did you guys feel? I'm guessing it was relief mixed with the immediate pressure of "now how are we gonna make sure it all goes smoothly?

RF:  Securing Dylan was unbelievable but the time period (5 weeks) between him signing and the festival itself was so short that there was really no time to do anything but get organised as rapidly as possible. Ticket sales were the priority. We had to raise enough cash to meet the contracts and build a city. But it wasn’t like a relief it was more euphoric than that. 

RNRChemist: Why choose Dylan? Why not the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, someone else? What about Bob made you want to go for him above all others?

RF:  Dylan was a way bigger draw than the Stones or Hendrix at this point. The Beatles would have measured up to Dylan but they were in the process of their break up and hadn’t played live in eons.  Elvis’s name even came up, but we couldn’t imagine him playing in a field.  We were after one of the big three. Dylan was the only viable option. It’s easy to underestimate how big Dylan was at this time.

RNRChemist: You mention that you and your brothers weren't promoters, you were did that gibe with trying to put on these massive festivals?

RF:  Although we were businessmen rather than promoters I was pretty heavily into some of the issues of the time and was active with the IOW CND and labour party. In fact I set up a CND group in the West Wight. So although I was making a living in business my heart was with the counterculture.  The same is true of my brother Bill who was a student at the Royal College of Art. It’s true that my musical education was lacking at the time of the first festival. Bill was easily able to point us in the right direction groups-wise. But it suited us well to have a business-like approach to the festivals.  The organisation of the two large events was very complementary from the viewpoint of those that mattered, ie. the health authorities, police and bulk of the audience. It just wouldn’t have been possible to host such large numbers without a budget, plan, capable staff and their departments, at least not without creating a disaster area.

RNRChemist: You mention that you were a late convert to Dylan and weren't necessarily a huge rock fan at the time...what were your listening habits like in the 1960s? Did they change after putting on these three festivals?

RF:  My musical taste changed dramatically. Above all I persisted with Dylan and soon became a genuine fan. We were fully incentivized to get familiar with as much current music as we could find the time to listen to it. It was soon flooding in too with demos coming at us from all quarters. Before this time I was a Johnny Cash fan, I liked the Beatles, trad jazz and knew about (by then) old hat stars like Adam Faith and Billy Fury.

RNRChemist: Can you give us a little flavor into how it was organizing this massive festival out of your house, and with 1960s technology to boot! I'd bet most young people today couldn't even imagine how much harder it was than it would be now.

RF:  In some ways organising the massive Dylan festival was easier than it might be nowadays. We had less technology available, but those were the days when the fixed line telephone really worked. People tended to answer reliably and it was easier to make contact even with celebrities. In the case of going above people’s head a person-to-person call would often do the trick. Social media nowadays can take up a lot of time and work. Being restricted to largely paper publications, telephone, radio and television for advertising actually meant concentrating on the job would have been easier in some ways. We employed messengers to deal with some of tasks now taken care of by email and text. Conditions at Mother’s house were hardly consistent with a world-class rock festival but we did make use of a suite of rooms on the upper floor, which became workable office space. Of course dining tables doubled as desks etc. as far as furniture was concerned. Mother was fairly self-contained in a separate wing of the house, but would help on occasion by answering international phone calls in the middle of the night, or providing voluminous quantities of good home cooked food for whoever might be staying.

RNRChemist: What were some of the most difficult parts of the entire festival for you in terms of planning and execution?

RF:  Raising funds was always the most problematic planning issue from the moment that Dylan agreed to sign especially in the early stages when potential backers just really wouldn’t believe that an event headed up by Dylan would happen. Without funds nothing could happen smoothly, but once Dylan had signed of course tickets were selling like lightening, which freed us up to concentrate on other vital matters like building the arena and finding Dylan and co. places to stay. One of the hairiest moments was when Dylan disembarked from the QUEII following his son‘s accident on board. Everything was riding on Dylan’s appearance. We suddenly realised how vulnerable we were.

RNRChemist: What was it like meeting the Beatles and other titans of the music world in 1969?

RF:  It was quite surreal meeting famous people like the Beatles and other rock titans but to be honest I wasn’t interested in hanging around such people too much. There were plenty of others ready to do that. We were so consumed by the operation at hand that you could only take it in your stride. We were there to do a job and we had to concentrate hard on the necessities of keeping the thing together.

RNRChemist: What was Dylan like as a person? How about George Harrison? The other Beatles? The Who? Other rock musicians you met at the festival?

RF:  My first impression of Dylan was that he was quite shy, probably shyer than me even. He was very ordinary, a regular down to earth kind of guy, polite and well spoken. He was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket and I suppose he appeared smaller than I expected, not that he is especially small but anyone with that big a name you kind of imagine to be larger.

George had all eyes for Dylan and clearly set about resuming the relationship he had been building with him after he had visited the Dylan’s home some months before. I enjoyed very much standing there and listening to them harmonizing beautifully to some Everly Brothers hits. That was a truly special moment, like a private concert.

The Beatles were very charming and seemed relaxed either hanging out at the farmhouse or backstage. They were keen on talking between themselves and were apologetic, saying that they didn’t get much chance to talk shop. John and Yoko were quite clingy as I remember.

The Who? We developed a good relationship with them which continued after the 1969 and 1970 festivals with Rock at the Oval in 1971. It has been said that the Isle of Wight gigs were the events of the Who’s career, which I’d be inclined to agree with. They could only have been pleased by their performance, reception, everything worked like a dream for them.

RNRChemist: What was your relationship like with your two brothers, Ronnie and Bill? How about with Rikki Farr? He certainly seemed to have had a knack for saying the wrong thing at a most inopportune time!

RF:  The relationship between my brother Ronnie and I had always been close and inevitably under the circumstances we pulled together. Ronnie is a visionary. I would endeavour to bring in to reality whatever the latest idea was. We worked well as a team and developed ideas together around the clock. Our brother Bill was younger and away at the Royal College of Art some of the time. He was a very important advisor to key decisions such as what acts to go for, what type of festival we were putting on aside from his general duties on site and stage design.

Rikki was a mixed blessing. He was loud, gregarious and amiable. We had a good working relationship with him though he could be unruly. He would breeze in from his Portsmouth menswear shop as something of a VIP but he really wasn’t around on the Island that much. Most of his input came to the fore at the festival itself. He could be a liability in terms of saying the wrong thing, at other times he was able to pull us out of a difficult spot and had valuable experience to add to our credibility.  It was said that he took after his boxer father using his mouth like other people use their fists!

RNRChemist: How did you feel about things heading into the moment when the festival was actually about to start? Confident? Nervous? Terrified? All of the above?

RF:  There were so many balls to keep in the air there was barely time to think about whether we felt nervous or terrified.  In reality there were moments of feeling overawed by the event – like the first time stepping on to the stage at Woodside Bay and seeing that immense crowd – that was quite something.

RNRChemist: Who were your favorite acts from the entire weekend?

RF:  Dylan was the favourite act for me that weekend. It was only during his set that I really sat down in the wings and listened without distraction. The Bonzo Dog Band were certainly amusing as I recall, The Band were stunning and Gary Farr did well. There were many great moments.  Ronnie was really excited about the Who, though sadly he heard them only from a great distance away.

RNRChemist: What was it like to see a crowd that size? How do you remember them? Overall, were they well behaved?

RF: Generally the crowd was well behaved (with certain exceptions like towards Mr and Mrs Thackham, with their bungalow adjacent to the stage, or suffered a minor insult). We never expected otherwise. In fact there was earnestness in the demeanour of most folks, like they really came to hear the music – that was what they were there for.  Generally nobody stood up during the acts. Etiquette was that you would sit and refrain from obscuring the view of your brother or sister in front of you. Otherwise you might find yourself pelted with coke cans.

RNRChemist: What was going through your head when the Band were delayed for a couple of hours and Dylan was getting antsy?

RF: We were not overly worried about the delay to see Dylan. It wasn’t as if the crowd was going anywhere and 10pm would have been a rather early finish. Of course it did cut out the likelihood of Dylan playing on longer, which would have been a bonus and certainly knocked out the possibility of a jam with the Beatles or Stones. Of course that was never really going to happen anyway. We were most aware of the discomfort and general scrimmaging in the press arena. We didn’t really intrude on Dylan during his preparations so we weren’t really too aware of his level of discomfort.

RNRChemist: Dylan's set: your thoughts? How do you think it went down then, and how do you feel about now with hindsight (and being able to listen to it in full via his recent release of it)?

RF:  I enjoyed Dylan’s set immensely. Sure he was different.  He sounded for the first time like he could really sing well. It was a well-constructed set, the Band were perfect in sync with what he was doing.  There were quiet moments and raucous moments. It was great music. The digital release of recent times bears out the quality of the gig and it is a joy to hear it in its remastered form. The audience listened attentively rather than reacted in raptures and calls for encores continued for 20 minutes. There is no doubt that he was well received. For all those expecting the wired rock poet of 1966 they would have been disappointed. Dylan had leapt ahead in with his stage persona. Many were left behind wondering where the old Dylan was.

RNRChemist: How accurately (or not) do you feel the press covered Dylan's set, as well as the whole festival, afterward? It certainly seemed that both you and Bob weren't too keen on what was printed!

RF:  Positive press reports were widespread. There was negativity expressed afterwards in certain quarters of the UK gutter press regarding Dylan cutting short his set - which of course was not true, but perhaps this might have been a reaction to the pre-festival hype predicting a super-jam with the Stones and the Beatles. Others were casting around for something to write – a peaceful trouble-free festival was really not exciting enough. The negatives were easily outweighed by the positives, but it was significantly damaging to Dylan for him to reflect uneasily on playing in the UK afterwards although initially he had seemed delighted with the event. Comments were as varied as George Harrison’s words reported in the Daily Mirror ‘I could go on talking about Dylan for eight hours. He’s unlimited in what he’s doing…’ to the Daily Sketch’s ‘Dylan cuts it short after midnight flop’ For us the flimsy complaints were irritating to say the least but by and large we were very happy. Reporting in general ranged from generally accurate to accounts laden with descriptions of debauchery and depravity, some of which could be quite funny.

RNRChemist: After the festival, can you describe how you felt? How did you think things went?

RF:  After the festival and the initial exhaustion, we felt elated combined with a huge sense of relief for having pulled it off. We were astonished at how well it had gone really. We were completely inspired to repeat the event, if not to surpass it.

RNRChemist: What was the festival site like after everyone left? How long did it take to clean up and return to normal?

RF:  The festival site was awash with rubbish as far as the eye could see. As you might expect, but there was no permanent damage other than minor damage to the catering tent, which had been used as a vantage point by Bob-spotters. It took three or four weeks to restore the site to its former condition.

RNRChemist: Any folks in particular that you want to single out as being particularly helpful throughout the whole festival, from planning to execution to wrap-up?

RF:  There are certain individuals who were particularly helpful throughout the festival. Turner Smith on site was a powerhouse of a man, strapping and strong and willing to take on any task. He had good knowledge of construction and general engineering matters. Electrician Harry Garrood was similarly around from the beginning. He was very skilled and kept with us. Another older gent Dr Quantrill was willing to stick his neck out for us in influencing the authorities to have faith in us and to dismiss scurrilous health scares as ridiculous.

RNRChemist: What was the local reaction before, during, and after the festival?
RF:  Local reaction to the oncoming festival was not initially as great as you might think. In fact a large number of Isle of Wight residents simply had no time to really contemplate what was actually arriving on the Island. Obviously there was great excitement among the youngsters. Some of this was evidenced on site when youths would come by and offer to do any job, sometimes without pay. Older people expressed dismay at the prospect of the Island being flooded with festivalgoers – perhaps our slogan ‘Help Bob Dylan Sink the Isle of Wight’ didn’t help there. During the festival itself there were stresses on certain resources for instance provisions in local shops -but others saw the festival as a great opportunity and set out their stalls, literally!  The reaction afterwards was similarly mixed. On the whole young people were very much in favour of the festival while those of the older generation who objected were wild with antagonism and would express their hostility in extreme terms.

RNRChemist: Why did you decide to jump right into planning the next one? How much time did you take to relax and bask in the afterglow of the '69 festival before starting to plan for '70?

RF:  After just a few days or weeks of reflection, recuperation and taking stock our thoughts gravitated towards another festival. It was inevitable. There was no question of basking in an afterglow for very long. There was just too much to do if we were to repeat the festival only go one better.

RNRChemist: What's your overarching memory of that year and what you and your colleagues accomplished with the 1969 Isle of Wight festival?

RF:  It was a staggering realisation to have accomplished what we had set out to do. It was life changing. It felt like we could do anything or that anything was possible, once the finance was organised.

RNRChemist: Ray and Caroline, thank you so much for your time and insight. You've got me looking forward to volume two even more and I hope we can continue our discussion after that book is published. In the meantime, to my readers, I can't recommend Stealing Dylan From Woodstock enough...if you're a fan of the era and/or any of the acts that played the IOW in 1969, you'll definitely enjoy reading about how it all came together. Britain's answer to Woodstock was bigger and in many ways better, and incredibly they topped it the following year, but the story of how that happened will have to wait for volume two...