This weekend Absolute Radio decamps to the Isle of Wight for the annual weekend festival of live music, fun and frolics. Headline acts the Stone Roses, the Killers and Bon Jovi will entertain the 60,000 gig goers.
This historic festival began in 1969 and featured Bob Dylan, who had been recovering from a motorcycle accident three years earlier. The rumour was that he might never play live again. Woodstock began that year and it was almost a given that Dylan would make his comeback there. The promoter put on the monumental gig at Yasgur’s farm in White Lake, New York, a few miles from where Dylan lived, in the hope of enticing him to play. The expectation was mounting. It was one the most important gigs of all time – and Bob Dylan was nowhere to be seen.
He gave Woodstock the middle finger and headed for the Isle of Wight, leaving on the day it began. The spindly Jesus-like figure performed in front of an estimated 150-250,000 followers and he could have parted the English channel. It was the second coming.
For those that attended this messianic happening, it must have been extraordinary. This got me thinking about my gig-going experiences. One night stands out like no other. It was not necessarily the best performance, but the one that means more to me than any of the other thousands of gigs I have attended over the years.
The most important gig of my life happened at ABC Theatre Manchester (now the Apollo) in September 1976. It was a grey day as my mate Tony and I boarded the orange and white 205 bus from Dane Bank, Denton, passing through Gorton and Belle Vue Zoo along the way, to the ABC Cinema some 15 minutes away.
Tony was wearing a fairly expensive long leather black jacket that his parents had bought him. I looked bedraggled next to him and I was totally jealous of it.
We had seats in the front row of the stalls and the tickets cost six quid each. We were looking down on to the stage, which had an orchestra and band set up, and the atmosphere was heavy and the smell of weed was all around.
As the house lights went down Andy Peebles of Piccadilly Radio introduced one of the most important artists in music history. Everybody jumped to their feet. From stage right, wearing a suit and a little red beanie hat, came Marvin Gaye. The crowd applauded him for what seemed like an eternity. He soaked up the applause but you could tell he wasn’t enjoying himself.
1976 was Marvin’s annus horribilis. As well as heavy drug addiction, his marriage was on the rocks. He was about to be imprisoned for the non-payment of child support owing to his then wife Anna, the sister of his Motown boss Berry Gordy. Compounded with tax problems with the IRS and paranoia, this put Marvin in bad shape.
The effects of eating junk food and addiction could be seen on his face. His appearance looked drawn and swollen. Marvin was not in a good place.
Reputedly Motown and Smokey Robinson bailed Marvin out and it was suggested that he leave America to avoid prosecution and possible incarceration. Marvin was virtually on the run. Bizarrely he ended up in Ostend in Belgium living with promoter Jeffrey Kruger and his family. For a short while he would repair his mind, body and soul.
His promoter friend arranged a European tour to start in September of ’76, that included a long-awaited tour of England, the first in ten years.
Back at the ABC, the orchestra and band started up and we were strangely treated to medley after medley. I was hoping that he would perform most of my all time favourite album What’s Going On, but he didn’t.
He ran through his duet hits with a nondescript female singer, who to be fair had to dauntingly sing like Tammi Terrell. The songs were very painful for Marvin to sing and you could tell it was a struggle. Tammi had collapsed into Marvin’s arms as the two performed at Hampden Sydney College in Virginia in 1967. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died in 1970 aged 24. Her death affected him deeply and he never got over it. You could feel his pain.
However, there were a few standout, rapturous moments. He played versions of What’s Going On, Inner City Blues, I Want You and I Heard It through the Grapevine, and the crowd adored him.
For me it was a little disappointing. I had expected something far greater and I felt somewhat short-changed. With hindsight I now totally appreciate how it took Marvin every ounce of energy to get on the stage that night. He was weak and scared.
I later read that he climbed out of a window that night and tried to escape. He ran off down Hyde Road but was recaptured by the promoter and returned. The full house was totally unaware of his fragile state.
As Marvin took his bow and left the stage to a standing ovation, the house lights flickered on and Tony turned around to pick up his beautiful, long leather coat and it was gone.
It had been stolen and I was secretly pleased, he looked just too cool in it. To this day his mum and dad think I was behind the theft.
So the night ended on a high as we boarded the bus home, Tony bereft and I delighted.
Listen to Pete Mitchell on Absolute Radio at 10pm Saturday night with highlights from the Isle of Wight Festival absoluteradio.co.uk/listen