The Isle of Wight Festival of the modern era celebrates its 10th anniversary on June 10, 11 and 12. To mark the milestone Island Life Extra has spoken exclusively to John Giddings, the man who makes it all happen.
Who could have imagined a decade ago that The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, The Who, The Police and scores of other top acts including The Sex Pistols, Bryan Adams and Coldplay would one day be performing in a field on the Island?
John took on the challenge ‘just for a laugh’, attending an IW Council meeting that he described as being like a scene from ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ but somehow turned the dream into reality. Here is the intriguing story of John Giddings – Mr. Isle of Wight Festival!
John was born and brought up in St Albans, and his first connections with the Island came in 1970 when he and hundreds of thousands of other music lovers converged on Afton Down to watch the legendary Jimi Hendrix.
“I came here and was simply blown away by the fact that about 600,000 other people thought exactly the same way as I did, and enjoyed the same kind of music. It ignited my passion for the whole thing. I am very lucky that I grew seeing The Doors and Hendrix, although I never saw The Beatles. That era of music was just so fundamentally important for people who were there, and it affects you for the rest of your life.”
Indeed, John always had aspirations of becoming a pop star, but smiled: “Suddenly there was that realisation when I was playing in a group that perhaps I would be better at booking the gig rather than being in it.”
Those were the first tentative steps towards becoming one of the most successful agents and event organisers of his era. He recalls: “My mate was the social secretary of the St Albans College of Education, and he became an agent, so I thought if I ever became the social secretary of a college I could get into the music business.”
As a result he applied to go to several universities, but was turned down because, by his own admission, he had not been a model student at school. Eventually he was accepted by Exeter University, and on checking his qualifications found the only options open to him were philosophy and sociology.
“I didn’t know what they even meant, and travelled down on a train to Exeter reading a book to find out what philosophy was,” he laughed. “But I blagged my way in, and became social secretary in my second year. That allowed me to meet agents in the music business, and in my third year I became Exeter College’s entertainments chairman, which comprised six colleges in the area.”
John thought that would open more doors and asked everyone he knew for a job with a record company, but 20 enquiries were met with rejection. So he decided to try to become an agent, and recalls: “I went to the MAM Agent office in New Bond Street for an interview, and the first thing this guy Barry Dickens said to me was ‘F***, you’ve got a suit on’!
“I thought that’s what you wore because this was my first interview, and it was really embarrassing. Then the interview was cut short because of a bomb scare – but he gave me the job. I was lucky because I joined the music business during the punk era.”
John vividly recalls how he saw a band playing in London, with the lead singer wearing a ‘Pink Floyd’ tee-shirt with the words ‘I Hate’ written on it, and was stubbing cigarettes out on it. As Pink Floyd were his favourite group, John was appalled, and later realised he had been watching one of the first ever gigs of the Sex Pistols.
“With punk there was a band on every street corner, and they all had hit singles, so it was a fantastic time to be in the music business, but I had absolutely no clue what I was doing,” he admitted.
However, he John soon had a clue or two, and became agent to several groups including The Ramones and Iggy Pop – who he still looks after – as well as Tom Petty, who headlined a gig in London supported by the Boomtown Rats.
“I didn’t like Bob Geldof, and when he phoned me about Live Aid I truly didn’t believe it would ever happen. I was representing Paul Young, Alison Moyet and Tears for Fears, and it was only a couple of weeks before the show that I thought we had better get involved. I would like to claim credit for believing in it, but actually I had no belief whatsoever, because I didn’t like Bob. I know he helped Africa and all that but it didn’t help me like him as a person.”
John continued to learn his trade quickly, but recalls how he once tried to show X-Ray Specs their dressing room – and ended up in a broom cupboard by mistake! “I was just making it up as I went along. It was all about vibe and energy. As long as you earn more money than you spend you can be successful,” he said. “I once asked someone why he gambled on horses, and he told me that I gambled on people with two legs every day. I felt a bit foolish.”
John realised that if he was ever going to be really successful he needed to form his own company, so in 1984 with a string of top name artistes under his wing he and a partner began TBA International. But after an acrimonious split due to money, John formed Solo – thus named because he was finally going it alone.
“I thought it was better to have a name of a company rather than just my name because it sounded more big time. We’ve only ever had 10 permanent employees, including myself. Any more and it’s a nightmare. I prefer employing women because men are egotistic and try to fight you, but women are very loyal and much more efficient. There is only one other bloke and he works somewhere upstairs!”
John’s Isle of Wight Festival dream was hatched when he was approached by Annie Horne, who worked for the IW council at the time. She wrote to every person in the music industry saying she wanted to do a concert for the Queen’s Jubilee. Everyone ignored her, apart from John, who said: “For a laugh I thought I would come and meet her, and on the ferry it felt right to do it.
“I had been to Festivals but never run one, and I remember sitting in the Council Chamber talking to the councillors and it was like something out of ‘Vicar of Dibley’. I think they voted 8-7 in favour, and it went ahead but they lost something like £500,000!
“So the second year I took in on myself – and also lost £500,000. That was £1million down before it started breaking even. No one believed real groups would come here, because they were usually tribute acts. But when we started building the stage at Seaclose people did believe us, and since then it has gone from strength to strength.”
John reflected: “It is the best hobby anyone could have – spending millions of pounds on groups and inviting them to play in a field on the Isle of Wight. But I still go red thinking how I imagined it would be successful and people were laughing at me behind my back, saying it was a stupid idea. When I look back I am embarrassed how hard I fought to make it happen.
“If I was asked now to start a Festival I wouldn’t do it in a million light years. Ten years on the world is different, and the only reason I started it was because of the name Isle of Wight – the Woodstock of Europe. If it had been Cleethorpes or Doncaster, then no chance!”
Despite the huge success of the Festival John claims: “It has been a hard fight every year. There have been a lot of obstacles put in our way. When you bring £10million to the local economy you would think people would be more welcoming. I find that strange. What happens if I don’t get a licence? I’ve booked the groups, sold the tickets – and then not get a licence. Unthinkable – I would go bankrupt!”
He claims none of the acts have been difficult to persuade to come to the Festival, and cannot remember anyone being problematic. Basically John is a music fan and brings music that he likes to the Island. He describes it as musically putting a jigsaw together, trying to imagine in his mind’s eye how the audience will react.
But he admits: “Groups are not cheap. The general public have no clue how much it costs to stage the Festival and pay the talent to perform at it. It’s a lot more than people think, but it’s only money, and it’s worth every penny. When you stand there and watch 60,000 people going bananas to a song they all know it’s fantastic – a great sensation.”
He has no plans to make the Festival any bigger because he wants to ensure the infrastructure is capable of handling the numbers who attend, and does not want to further disrupt or upset people who live in the area, although most households in Fairlee Road receive two complimentary tickets for the three-day inconvenience. .
Unfulfilled Festival dreams? He says without hesitation: Pink Floyd. Maybe Oasis, if they kiss and make up. Perhaps Led Zeppelin or Bon Jovi, but I have to be sure the audience will like the acts. Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty – and I would jump at the chance of Genesis re-formed. I also love Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers – loads of acts. I think there’s a good 10 years of future.”
This year there is no ‘heritage’ act to close the Festival. John explained: “I was going to book Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles but it didn’t work out. At which point I thought why don’t I go for Kasabian and Beady Eye and tear the place apart!”