Ray Foulk was one of the young men who organised the 1969 Isle of Wight festival and booked Bob Dylan as the main headliner. I asked him a few questions about meeting Bob and the task of getting him to play the gig over the more massive, and local to Dylan, event that was the iconic Woodstock Festival.
You were a Dylan fan before the booking. What was it about his music that you liked most?
It was really original and striking. I’d never heard anything like it before. It was extraordinary that a young man not much older than me could make such an extraordinary sound. I felt I’d entered another world in which everything was questioned, which reflected my own attitude to politics and civil rights. As for the poetic quality of the writing it was mind blowing, dazzling even.
Coming to arrange the 69 Isle of Wight festival, was Dylan really the only realistic choice for headliner?
We had decided that only the most massive names in pop and rock would suffice in terms of getting a decent sized audience across to the Island. We had brought over the Jefferson Airplane the year previously and Arthur Brown, then at the top of the UK charts as well as other great groups. We’d achieved what we felt was a disappointing audience of around 10,000. We saw that the Solent was a huge barrier to attendance. We had identified the only three mega acts that in our minds would do the job – the Beatles, Elvis and Dylan. Of course the Beatles were in the process of splitting up and really hadn’t played live for years. Elvis had never been to Britain and frankly it was hard to imagine him performing in a field. Dylan really was the hot ticket in 69 having been out of action for so long. He had acquired the kudos of a star who had died almost, right at the peak of his artistic nadir, just a month or so after Blonde on Blonde was released.
Then there were all the rumours of “will he or won’t he turn up?” and whether the Beatles were going to be joining him on stage. It kind of went mad. What was it like arranging the festival while all this hype went on?
For the most part we were confident that Dylan would turn up – barring an inability to meet the contract on our side. But ticket sales were so buoyant immediately and the media so frenzied that we weren’t too worried – until an awful moment when the Dylans were forced to disembark from the QEII after their son sustained an injury on board. That was hair-raising – and it hit home then how reliant on him that we were. About the hype - most of it was generated through our publicity department so it wasn’t as if it was unexpected. It was almost like a game – how many months in a row could we secure the front page of Melody Maker for instance (we managed five).
Do you remember the first time you met Bob?
Yes it was in my rather narrow single room at the Drake Hotel in New York. Dylan’s manager Bert Block brought him to the door. It was a low key occasion, just Bert, Dylan, our show producer Rikki Farr and me. Bob seemed shyer than I was. He was dressed casually in jeans and a leather jacket and he seemed smaller somehow than I had imagined, as famous people often seem to. We talked about New York, the concert, the site, Dylan’s package which included the Band and Richie Havens. Rikki was able to wax on about sound systems. It wasn’t a long meeting, maybe about 20 minutes.
Did you find it funny that he turned down Woodstock on his own doorstep to do Isle of Wight? Also, why do you think he chose it over the Woodstock gig?
To be honest we weren’t aware of the Woodstock festival before it happened. News of it had barely reached the UK as far as I know. It was only after the event when Bert Block told us of a festival near New York that had been declared a national disaster area that I heard about it. Woodstock only became really famous after the Warner Bros. movie. In retrospect history shows that Dylan was very unhappy about hippies descending on mass to his hideaway at Woodstock. The house and gardens kept being invaded. He even found a couple in his bed. After the Isle of Wight Dylan never returned to live in Woodstock. He just didn’t want to be the big guru as he saw it. But also performing at Woodstock meant competing with other up and coming groups, he wasn’t sure how he would be received. By creating his own ‘Woodstock’ on the Isle of Wight he neatly sidestepped this issue.
What did you think of his live set at the time?
I enjoyed the set immensely. It was probably the only few minutes of relaxation I allowed myself during that festival period. I was seated in the wings of the stage. I wasn’t locked into expecting or needing to hear a particular kind of Bob Dylan as some of the fans were. The sound quality was excellent and Dylan had worked on his voice. He sounded better than ever.
And what about now, looking back on it?
It is only recently with Dylan’s own rerelease of the entire festival set with the Deluxe Another Self Portrait that we can enjoy a state of the art digitally re-mastered version, which certainly stands the test of time- yes its fabulous.
Did Dylan seem satisfied with his performance do you think?
Yes he was really in good spirits afterwards.
It’s gone down in legend as a landmark. How do you look back on that whole event now?
It was obviously an important event for me, life changing really. For our whole Fiery Creations team it was like we could achieve anything after that. Our confidence knew no bounds. For the Isle of Wight the moment when Bob Dylan stepped out on the stage was also historic, it cemented the Island’s reputation as centre of the rock universe at that time. If it hadn’t been for the 1971 Isle of Wight Act constraining gatherings on the island there might have been the opportunity for the Island to really build on that success and be the brand leader in festival terms. It is only now that the two current Isle of Wight festival events are able to build on the heritage. But I look back on the festival era with some pride and affection for sure.
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