The 1970 Isle of Wight Festival is still regarded as one of greatest music festivals of all time. It attracted the biggest ever crowd at a festival and it was where Jimi Hendrix played his final performance before his untimely death. However since its second inception the event appears to have lacked one thing: identity.
It could be argued that, with the boutique boom of the last few years, identity has never been so important. Festival-goers no longer want to part with £130 or more to watch five bands on one stage – they want more from their money: alternative entertainment, a wide selection of eateries, a variety of drinks, maybe some art and even a little bit of fancy dress. Sure, there are exceptions that are just music-led: Reading for example is married with rock and indie – the soundtrack for a vodka-fuelled teenage riot and Creamfields is for the dance heads – though even they have branched out into the live sector in the last couple of years. But where does the Isle of Wight Festival fit in?
Well, it lacks the entertainment diversity of compatriot Bestival and the artistic creativity of the increasingly popular Latitude; bosses are happy to allow the music to remain the main draw. But musically its stance is like a V (Festival) by the sea – a boiling pot of unchallenging indie (a la Pigeon Detectives, The Script etc) mixed with supermarket pop – Mel C, McFly and Scouting For Girls – with a peppering of big names for good measure: David Bowie, Foo Fighters and Kaiser Chiefs to pick out a few. But in V Festival’s defence they at least have a programme of recognisable acts that stretches over five arenas, compared to IOW’s two – the second of which is only a year old.
IOW’s organisers do seem to have tried to forge some sort of identity for the event. For several consecutive years they had big dance names headlining with Groove Armada, Faithless and The Prodigy all taking turns. But with only a limited number of dance acts big enough to top the bill, a sense of déjà vu was bound to ensue. Then came the exclusives – who in their wildest dreams could’ve actually expected The Rolling Stones to ever play a festival? Or Bryan Adams for that matter. For a while the event even acted as some kind of musical-arm for Friends Reunited with The Sex Pistols and The Police both reforming for headline slots – but – as wonderful as it was for a few years – that was always going to come to an end, falling short of excavating Lennon’s grave from a Beatles reunion.
However, although there has been little mention of any new alternative entertainment for this year’s festival – sorry kids, your paper round money is going on another funfair – 2009 could be the musical turning point for an event that hasn’t so much lost its way, more it’s just never really settled into its groove.
And that salvation could come via one man: Tim Burgess. The Charlatans’ frontman is the first (in what we’re assured will be many) curator for the Big Top stage. In a similar vein to Meltdown Festival in London, IOW boss John Giddings has asked the singer to come up with a programme of acts that he wants to see play the festival and Burgess has transformed what was basically the Top 40 Chart Show into an exciting mixture of independent stalwarts and alternative upstarts. The Horrors, Killing Joke and Black Lips should make much better viewing than The Script, The Pigeon Detectives and Goldie Lookin' Chain (that joke ain’t funny anymore) and if Giddings is brave enough to hand over booking duties to another influential music star for a full three days in the future, then the festival may’ve, at last, found its calling card.
Imagine Thom Yorke dusting off his old LPs, picking up a sleeve and thinking: ‘wow, yeah. It would be great to have these playing,’ or Nick Cave watching at the side of the stage as Bob Dylan worked this way through ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’ – unique shows like these could allow the festival to reclaim its historic crown and give the event the one thing it needs: identity. Organisers are already lucky enough always have glorious weather (or did I just jinx that?), a stunning location and two UK Festival Awards in the bag – now it’s time to silence the critics like me!