IOW Festival 2009: John Giddings

United Kingdom United Kingdom | by Daniel Fahey, Annabelle Loveday | 16 June 2009

Virtual Festivals: How do you think the Isle of Wight Festival is going so far?
John Giddings: “I think it’s incredible. The weather is fantastic; the people camping arrived even earlier this year. By six o’clock on the Thursday we had 30,000 people on the campsite and the capacity is only 35,000. So they all wanted to come and see The Human League and get the weekend off to a good start.

“That Thursday night has become a great prelude to the weekend because it is like a test fro the main event, because you don’t open the main arena. They on Friday I thought Pendulum were incredible, The Prodigy were awesome, Pixie Lott was great. I really liked The Girls Night Out [a series of female artist including Ladyhawke and Bananarama] in the Big Top actually. It worked well and it really flowed and it was full.”

VF: We came back for Bananarama and it was packed.
JG: “Yeah it was absolutely packed. Then on the Acoustic Stage tonight Paolo Nutini is doing it, James Walsh is doing it again, [as is] Sharon Corr. Anyone that turns up really. Charlotte Church wants a go.”

VF: Is she going to play tonight?

JG: “I don’t know; she’s sitting out there [points to a bench outside]. She was singing in the pub last night – it was great. There is something about this Island that makes people relax and enjoy themselves. It’s like a magical atmosphere.”

VF: This is like my first Isle of Wight Festival and I have to stay the atmosphere here is just wonderful.
JG: “I think it’s partly because you’re on an Island and you have to get here by boat, which puts you in a different frame of mind – it’s like going onto a holiday. You’re not stuck in a traffic queue that lasts forever, you can jus come and enjoy yourself. And even with 55,000 people capacity it is containable, it’s doesn’t feel like [busy London shopping area] Oxford Street, you’re able to go from the Main Stage to the Big Top and see two groups, unlike having 150 groups, none of which you have seen because they’re three miles away in a field. It all sounds good until you attempt to do it with a few drinks inside you – no thank you.

“I’ve just seen The Zombies. I booked them because they come from my school; well I come from their school. I grew up in St Albans and Rod Argent was in my sixth form when I was in the first year and he had to decide whether to be a pop star or go to Hull University. They used to rehearse in my dad’s cricket pavilion – I used to go out with his sister! [Laughs]. I always like to book a band from my past, like The Zombies, Procol Harem and I’m desperate to get Jethro Tull one year. And the good thing about being older is I know more generations of music. I grew up in the sixties and I like all of that still.”

VF: How much have you taken from the original organisers of the first festivals in the late 1960s?

JG: “I’ve taken the spirit. The guy who was the production manager ’68, ’69, ’70 – he is incredible. He made the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived on the Island and she lived next door to Alfred Lord Tennyson and she took photos of him, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll and he turned her house into a museum and I’ve erected a statue of Jimi Hendrix there, which you can see overlooking the old site and they just have incredible stories. Like nine o’clock at night having his dinner and it’s Grey Slick looking for the event.”

VF: Does he still come to the event?

JG: “Yeah he does and there is a guy called Brian Hinton who wrote the book ‘Message To Love’ about the original festival – the Woodstock of Europe – the biggest mass gathering in Europe ever. Then the Isle of Wight council, really intelligently, decided to ban it. They banned gatherings of 5,000 people over night and Michael Eavis had just walked over to the Bath Festival and thought: ‘I’ve have a go at that.’

“So single-handedly the Isle of Wight council created Glastonbury, which people never realise. So 32 years later they tried everybody in the music business actually to restart the event and nobody was interested and nobody cared. And I thought, ‘I’ll go and have a look because I came here in 1970,’ and I came down here and thought, ‘wow.’ I just remembered being here and I remembered how it effected my life and I thought wouldn’t be great to have a crack at that myself. I mean I wasn’t a festival promoter, I’m an agent and promoter by trade and this is a hobby. I have a real job in London. But all year round I’m thinking about bands to book, DJs to play, music to play, how to organise the campsite. It’s like when you’re a kid and you have a farm or a fort and you do a layout, I obsess about what to go there.”

VF: What haven’t you had that you really want to book?
JG: “Yeah loads: Oasis, The Killers, Kings Of Leon, Radiohead. I don’t think that we’ll ever run out of bands. I also like heritage bands: The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Police – it has got a diversity about it. This year it’s more eclectic than ever, we’ve got dance, indie, pop, but we haven’t got any blues. I really need to book a blues band.”

VF: Have you got anyone in mind? Any favourites?
JG: “I haven’t thought about it yet. But it suddenly occurred to me – I need a great blues act – Saturday afternoon.”

VF: Someone like Chuck Berry?
JG: “Absolutely. I need a legend - a legend’s slot. But that’s my next idea; it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle putting it together, whose going to play before who. I think if you have ten indie bands in a row it’s boring. I think that’s why our audience is 15 to 50 because it is all different types of bands, that’s the impression I get walking around.”

VF: I agree I was with a family earlier and the boy’s 13 and he goes off watching who he wants while his dad is the other end watching who he wants to see.
JG: “Exactly. That’s the intention: something for everyone. Somebody said to me, ‘what’s it like booking a couple of old acts?’ Well, it’s still good. Just because they’re older, doesn’t mean their shit. You watch Ultravox and you see how packed that Big Top is. I tell you who’s going to be one of the stars of the event – Simple Minds - because they’re a great live band and they can work an audience. The Pixies [as well] obviously, Neil Young too. I was working it out, it’s £140 for four nights entertainment over 50 bands, which is a pretty good result. Free parking, camping included – I should charge more! [Laughs]”

VF: When the weekend comes round how much do you get to watch and how much do you have to work?

JG: “It’s a balance. I have to do my work at the same time as talking to all my guests, making sure the production is working. We have meetings in the mornings and evening to update each other because we have ten heads of department so you can’t be in touch with them all day long. So you all have to sit around and tell each other what your problems are, the police, the fire, the security. There’s always something going on and everyone has their own stories to tell but you just have to hold it together. But what happens is, it’s like an ocean liner: you push it out, it sets sail and it will be really hard to stop. You just pray that you’ve got everything done in the right way.”

VF: Have you had any trouble this year at all?
JG: “A few thefts on the campsite but that’s normal isn’t it? [We’ve had] a few drug arrests but nowhere near as many as other events.”

VF: Do you go to any other festivals over the year?

JG: “Yeah I’ll go to Glastonbury. Yeah I’m an agent – I’ve got NERD playing Glastonbury, I’ve got Starsailor playing the V’s [V Festival]. It’s a different experience.”

VF: And do you take bits of other events for you own?
JG: “I look at them and I think: ‘what can I do better?’ To have a hospitality area in a different field, I think is crazy. I think you need to have a hospitality area in a field where you can see the stage from and people enjoy themselves more. I think that’s a simple theory. I think our wristband system where you don’t buy a ticket and then get a wristband at the entrance; you just get sent a wristband that you can’t counterfeit. It actually saves money and is more efficient. It’s the most simple idea in the world and it took me five years to come up with it. I’m forever trying to come up with new ideas to try and make it more enjoyable and entertaining for everyone concerned. All year I go and see bands and I think, ‘wouldn’t they be great to have?’ Pixie Lott is an example, she’s number one on Sunday and we manage a girl band and we started getting demos for songs and a couple of them came and they said the name Pixie on them. And I thought, ‘who the hell is Pixie?’ So one of the girls said, ‘oh I know her, she’s Pixie Lott’. So I looked her up on the Internet and she sounded alright, so I emailed her and said, ‘do you want to play my festival?’ and she said, ‘yes.’ Now she’s number one and I thought, ‘brilliant! She’s number one, the best bit of booking I’ve ever had.’ If only life was that easy – Noel Gallagher please listen. I’ve got to have Oasis, I’ve got to have them.”

VF: They would almost guarantee a sell out wouldn’t they?
JG: “I think so yeah. But I’d like to have Foo Fighters back, I’d like to have Muse back and I’d love to have R.E.M. back – they’re incredible live bands [as are] Coldplay. But I don’t want to do too much repeat business, it’s a balance.”

VF: I think the dance day works well on the Friday.
JG: “Everyone’s up for it on the Friday, if I did that on the Sunday they’d be dead on their feet.”

VF: But you’ve most of the big names: Faithless, The Prodigy, Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx. Are their any others that you’d like?
JG: “The Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack.”

VF: Would you go for a DJ? Someone like Fatboy Slim?
JG: “Yeah. We had Paul Oakenfold on the Madonna tour and he was absolutely brilliant, really good. He gets down in the middle of the audience and goes down a storm. He tears the place apart. Rusty Egan is the DJ in the Big Top who was in Visage, do you remember Visage? He’s famous from the 80s, he helped form the Blitz Club where Spandau Ballet formed, he DJs there. And where he gets going, the audience go mental. We’ve got Tim Burgess DJing there on the Sunday, curating the Big Top. He just asked if he could have some balloons to decorate his DJ booth and I said, ‘yes.’ So I’ve sent someone for some balloons.”

VF: Tim Burgess curating the Big Top is one of the most exciting things about this year and handing it over to give someone in the business the chance to leave their mark is great. Would you expand that to three days?

JG: “No just the one day. I’ve got to think of other people to do it. I nicked the idea from the Meltdown Festival and every good idea has its foundation in something else. Who could I get to do it? Thom Yorke? Will he do that kind of thing? I don’t know.”

VF: Has he been to the festival?
JG: “No I don’t think, so but his manager is here actually. Maybe I should ask him?”

VF: You should book Radiohead to play the Saturday night and Thom Yorke to curate on the Sunday in the Big Top.

JG: “I just love the idea because bands love bands don’t they? And they love music and Tim came up with some bands I haven’t even heard of any they are great. I’d like to think that I’m a genius but I need other people to help me. It’s fun and it gives everything a different flavour.”

VF: Who do you want to see particularly in the Big Top on Sunday?
JG: “I want to see S.C.U.M.. So many people are in the arena at 3.30 in the afternoon, they all come early. The Rifles aren’t the biggest band in the world but a great band and you those people are there.”

VF: Have you managed to sell this year?
JG: “We’ve sold out all the camping tickets yesterday and I’ve got 300 or 400 non-camping left. The idea wasn’t to get the money, but the idea was to screw the touts. So I put it out on the local radio and on the tellies and I’d rather not sell a ticket than have a tout make £50 off of me. I hate touts. Unfortunately it’s not illegal to tout tickets, it is in football, but not in music.”

VF: Surely that’s going to change.
JG: “I don’t think the Government respect the music industry enough to care. They think we’re all a bunch of drug-taking hippies. But I can’t talk, I’m sure there are bodies in the music business who are relating to Government and sorting things out.”

VF: I wanted to ask about this year’s logo, it’s a lot like the Haight-Ashbury logos in San Francisco.
JG: “You’re absolutely right, I have completely stolen the idea of hippy drippy artwork from the late 60s because I grew up on the music. I think every year the guy who does it isn’t going to come up with something as good as last year and it’s even bertter. Have you seen this year’s logo, a peacock?”

VF: Yeah.
JG: “Did you know that I paid a model for 6 hours yesterday to have her naked body painted with the artwork? She was cold - absolutely brilliant. I nicked that idea as well. There was a poster of Pink Floyd artwork of five naked models sitting on a swimming pool with their backs turned and they’d painted the whole back catalogue on them. So I took her up on hospitality and had a photo of her looking at the main stage, which the audience loved, especially the blokes. It’s just a concept – having ideas and making them happen. This year we’ve got stick on tattoos of the artwork. Everyone wants a tattoo really, but they don’t want it permanently. You’ve basically learned that I obsess about the whole thing and I try to come up with new ideas or evolve old ideas into new ideas.”

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