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Gerry Cunningham and Rachel Kane at the 2017 Isle of Wight Festival
Gerry Cunningham and Rachel Kane at the 2017 Isle of Wight Festival

Ever turned round and realised Beyonce is standing next to you, while Jay-Z brings out Kanye West  in front of thousands of people?  

Isle of Wight festival organiser John Giddings has, and it’s a stand-out memory from the festival which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Bob Aylott's aerial shot of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Bob Aylott's aerial shot of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Although he is now behind the stage making sure everything runs smoothly, John was once of hundreds of thousands of music fans who surged across the Solent to stand in a field and listen to his heroes back in the late 1960s.

The 65-year-old says: ‘Back in the1960s when it first started it was rough and ready. 

‘It’s not as cavalier now as it was then, as we are under a lot more restrictions than they were in those days.

‘Back then the loo was a trench with a scaffolding bar, I saw a bloke fall backwards into it. It was one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen.’ 

Jimi Hendrix performing at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

Jimi Hendrix performing at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

John, a music agent and promoter who has been responsible for tours by the likes of Madonna and David Bowie, revived the festival 32 years after its first outings in 1968, 1969 and 1970 – by which year more than half a million people headed to an island with a population then of less than 100,000. 

The chaos that ensued led to the festival being cancelled and debated in parliament. It led to the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971 which prevented overnight open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a licence from the council.

That looked like the end of the festival until Isle of Wight Council approached people in the music business to restart it for the Queen’s Jubilee.

John says: ‘Everyone ignored them as they thought, “Who would want to go to a festival on an island you can only get to by boat?”

But he went for it and launched the revamped festival in 2002. Each year more than 50,000 music fans are welcomed to the island paying more than £200 a ticket. Tickets for 1968 were just £1.25.

He says: ‘The Isle Of Wight Festival name is iconic, it was the Woodstock of Europe, and, with all due respect to Cleethorpes or Hull, I wouldn’t think of starting a festival there.

‘But this is now our 17th year and the first festival we did was in 2002. I can’t believe 16 years later here we are doing the 17th event. If you had told me that all that time ago I wouldn’t have believed you.’

Three decades before John took up the festival baton, Ray Foulk and his brothers Ronnie and Bill had a goal to raise money for the Isle of Wight Indoor Swimming Pool Association (IWISPA).

Speaking to The News in 2016, Ray recalled securing Bob Dylan for the 1969 festival which saw more than 500,000 people turn up. 

Ray said: ‘You had to get people like Dylan if you wanted to get people to come across – that’s what we really learned from the first festival and what made us reach for the superstars.
‘(For) Dylan, of course, you had people not just coming across the Solent, but from across the world, as they thought it might be their only chance to see him. It was massive.

‘From what I’d heard, he hadn’t performed in three years and he was one of the biggest stars around, so why would he come to us?’

The August 1970 festival saw the last performance in England by Jimi Hendrix before his death in the September.

Bob Aylott, from Fareham, was a young press photographer working for The Daily Sketch when he was sent to snap a load of ‘hippies’ heading across the water. 

He says: ‘At the time it was just another job, but, looking back, it was pretty fantastic. 

‘It was hot, dusty, there were thousands of hippies and every band you could ever want to see. 

‘It was non-stop music for six days. The Who came on at midnight and they had to be dragged off at 4.30am.’

Fast forward to 2018 and the festival has seen the likes of The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie with Kasabian, The Killers and Manic Street Preachers taking to the stage for the golden anniversary.

John has fond memories of the many stars who have graced the stage in the past. He says: ‘I had to laugh when Fleetwood Mac were circling the audience in a Sikorksy helicopter that I provided and Mick the drummer was so impressed with the audience that he came back on to thank them, by which time the rest of the group had gone so we had to get a policeman to direct him.

‘The Rolling Stones on the B stage was £100,000 to perform three songs in the middle of the park, which is great. And Kanye West coming on with Jay-Z was amazing. I turned to my left and Beyonce was standing there, so that was quite a good moment.’

John has lots of surprises planned to mark the 50th anniversary – including bringing in a golden dress code for the Saturday. 

Football fans will be kept happy with a field dedicated to the World Cup. John says: ‘This year, because of the World Cup, we have the BT Sport Field of Dreams so you can see all the football matches. And I am trying to get Peter Crouch to DJ before the England game.’ 

A familiar sight in the days leading up to the festival are the queues at the ferry ports, hundreds deep, packed with excited, preened revellers ready for a weekend of partying. 

But it’s a different story on Monday morning, which depending on the weather, will mean they are tired and mud-splattered, or exhausted and dusty. 

John says: ‘It’s the most satisfying thing when, from the stage, you see 50,000 people going wild because, when you book Liam Gallagher in December and it is wet and windy, you think “Christ, I hope it will all be alright in June.”