Chris Weston’s stunning new 152 page book is the clearest visual record yet of the cataclysmic events which unfolded on the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1970 at East Afton farm, a mile or so from Freshwater Bay. Here delineated in pin-sharp detail are the enormous crowd of over half a million drawn from around the world to the third Isle of Wight pop Festival. As if in a time capsule, Weston’s eerie photographs capture on-stage performers like Jimi Hendrix, Chicago and Donovan, avante garde performance art, graffiti painted onto the fence which disfigured the side of the golf course, indeed the whole insane city built on green fields to cater for the biggest audience ever to gather for an outdoor rock event in the UK. No wonder that even at the time it was called ‘The Last Great Event’, as is this book. Nothing since has even come close.
Up until now, we have had to rely on personal memories, a few stock images, and Murray Lerner’s movie Message To Love, not released until 25 years after, and only scratching the surface of five days of almost continuous music and mayhem. Now as we gear up to the 40th anniversary of Afton, in 2010, Chris’s book – beautifully designed and printed on the Island – is an exact, sometimes merciless record of the event in all its messy glory.
Chris Weston himself is an islander, and as an on site electrician in 1970, he had the perfect opportunity to capture all this on camera. One of the first photographs here is of the rough tent in which Chris lived for three weeks, giving a temporary home too to a friendly Californian who turned out to be John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful. You can watch the stage being erected, as if before your eyes, and timeless, monochrome images of an unworldly environment both almost unimaginable in its immensity, and yet also filled with countless tiny reminders of eccentric individuality.
Chris's priceless personal photographic archive has echoes at times of similar stark photos taken during the American Civil War, in the camps of Nazi Germany, and yet also – particularly the final section here, in glowing Technicolor – of something close to heaven on earth. I was there. I remember these odd juxtapositions, a boy scout camp gone day-glo, but never thought to see them in such sumptuous detail. Chris then patiently sat out four decades, guarding his priceless archive, before he decided to literally re-animate these scenes from his past, and give them new life in a world that had grown steadily more cynical and more media savvy.
The first fruits of this process of rebirth was his extraordinary panoramic photograph of the whole site, which Weston painstakingly built up a decade or so ago from a series of individual negatives, using the (then) latest technology. It now adorns many private homes, and public buildings all over the world. Now here is the full story, complemented by artworks created for Fiery Creations by in house artist Dave Fairbrother-Roe. These are the first authorised reprints of the full colour posters, stage passes and tickets created by a half forgotten genius of the age of psychedelia, with originals attracting large sums in London auction rooms.
Add to this a full chronology of the event, drawn partly from Message to Love, my now out-of-print account of the IOW Festivals 1968-1970, and Chris’s own personal memories of being backstage at Afton, and this book is itself destined to be a future antique. What it commemorates is now as much part of Isle of Wight history as Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of the hippies of a century before – Tennyson, Charles Darwin, all that crew – or JMW Turner’s sketches done here during a youthful painting trip, or even the ornate mosaics of Brading Roman Villa.
But Chris’s photographs of Dimbola Lodge - saved in the nick of time from demolition and now home to a permanent display of IOW Festival images, past and present - and of the bronze statue of Jimi Hendrix which now stands outside, show that this is an event both safely in the past and yet rawly contemporary. John Giddings, who commissioned the Hendrix statue, revived the Isle of Wight Festivals in 2002, and they are now once again a musical and media event of international significance, showcasing the likes of Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and REM to 55.000 rabid fans. Even so, in size and impact, they are but a shadow of the enormous, out of control musical jamboree that put the quiet backwater of the Isle of Wight on the world music map. When the video of Jimi at Afton plays over the giant screens on either side of the state of the art stage, in between edgy live sets by the likes of Amy Winehouse or Babyshambles, it is as if a circle is complete.
The ‘Last Great Event’ now has its very own photographic historian, in Chris Weston, who still lives within sight of the Afton Festival site, and has brought buried treasure back to light, and between the covers of a very special (and highly collectible) luxury publication.
Dr Brian Hinton, Chairman, Julia Margaret Cameron Trust.
Brian Hinton is both an acknowledged expert on the artistic and literary history of the Isle of Wight and a well reputed writer on rock music. He has written two books on the original IOW Festivals – Nights in Wight Satin, updated as Message to Love – a story continued in Bold As Love, about the 21st century revival of the IOW Festivals by Solo. Brian's most recent book is Bob Dylan, an Annotated Discography and Album Guide, published by Cassell Illustrated in the UK and Universal in the USA.