Since the time of the ancient Greeks and the travels of Odysseus, the whole notion of ‘islands’ has drawn people in a romantic fascination. The history of literature is full of novels that reflect this allure: Treasure Island, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson. In real life, the rich, the artistic and the drop-out have sought inspiration or escape on an island. Lawrence Durrell on Corfu, D H Lawrence on Sardinia. Tove Jansson, author of the 'Moomin' books, lived much of her life on a small island, Klovharu, in the Gulf of Finland. John Lennon handed over an Irish island, Dorrinish, to Sid Rawles and his Digger band to start a commune there. Agnetha Faltskog disappeared off for years to the Swedish island of Ekero when Abba broke up.
Songs about islands have generally followed this romanticism. Harry Belafonte sang of an Island in the Sun:”all my days I will sing in praise of your forest waters and shining sand”. Weezer did a song with the same title: “On an island in the sun. We’ll be playing and having fun” . The Beach Boys scored a late career hit with Kokomo, which rattled off a whole load of exotic islands. Blondie went for Island of Lost Souls. The Springfields settled for an Island of Dreams.
The British have tended to look to the Mediterranean or Caribbean islands for their holiday fantasies but it does have plenty of its own, including Jura, where Orwell wrote 1984. The largest off England, however, is the Isle of Wight and its popular image is probably as far away from the exotic fantasies of the above as you can get –definitely more towards the comfy end of the spectrum. There was a short-lived time when the IOW Festivals were the epitome of cool happening. In 1969, Bob Dylan chose to play there over Woodstock. In 1970 a line-up including Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Who and Miles Davis attracted an estimated 600,000, more than Woodstock. (Though Joni Mitchell did actually attend this one, it didn’t inspire any songs starting ’By the time I got to Afton Down’...). In 1971 the Isle of Wight Act was passed, preventing unauthorised gatherings of more than 5000 and that was that - the festival baton passed to Glastonbury.
Though annual festivals started again a few years ago, the Isle of Wight is largely known in the popular imagination for two things. The first is as one of the ‘this sounds unbelievable but maybe it is true’ statements that regularly turn up – in this case ,’if all the world’s population stood shoulder to shoulder they could fit on the Isle of Wight’. Statisticians disagree on this one, with the balance towards ‘probably not. ’The second is as the place to go for a trip that goes back to the England of the 1950’s, for a traditional bucket and spade week or two on the beach or the sort of holiday that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five might have had: bicycles, hikes along the cliffs past lighthouses, isolated coves, ice-cream and lashings of ginger beer. There can be simple pleasures – getting glass phials of coloured sand at Alum Bay; seeing an animated Allosaurus singing the Eton Boating Song in the Blackgang Chine amusement park; getting on a bus at Sandown, waiting till a woman gets on and exclaiming, “She’s got a ticket to Ryde”. And there are also little surprises. One might come across island resident Jet Harris, the original bad boy bass player and founder member of the Shadows, who lost their charismatic edge when he left.
Listeners often expect songs to reflect the image of the place they are about, so mandolins and strings for Venice, accordions for Paris, waltz-time for Vienna. New York fits a song like the Lovin Spoonful’s Summer in the City, with its snare drum/pneumatic drill intro and traffic sounds. With this in mind, what sort of song would fit the Isle of Wight? Brass band music or a folk song, or something that would suit the feeling of going back in time a few decades: a Craig Douglas song perhaps? Reggae, even if reggae-lite, probably wouldn’t come to mind. Reggae has, of course, been part of the British music scene since the early 60’s, with Millie Small’s bluebeat My Boy Lollipop probably being the first UK hit in 1964. Over the years it has had its highs and lows. There was Susan Cadogan, a librarian from Kingston (Jamaica) University, taking Millie Jackson’s Hurts So Good into the UK charts in 1975. There was also Paul Nicholas taking Reggae Like It Used To Be into the UK Charts in 1976. See his song and marvel at some dancing that is surely not like anything used to be. ( Trivia note. The 2 women dancers in the clip had appeared as scary blonde twins in the 1960 film Village of the Damned) .
Reggae has done plenty of songs about places - like Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution or Sandra Cross’s Country Living - but rarely about family seaside resorts. However, the 2009 offering by Derek Sandy, Welcome to the Isle of Wight, is just that, with a song that seems destined for use by the Tourist Board with its praise for the place. In some ways it is from the same genre as Taking a Trip Up to Abergavenny in that the place described in song exists more in the imagination or parallel universe than reality. Just as a visitor to Abergavenny might be disappointed by the lack of sunshine forever and paradise people so a visitor to the Isle of Wight should not really expect a tropical paradise after a journey over the sea, on the ferry across the Solent from Southampton or Portsmouth. They may well find it fits the laidback mood of the tune: whether it is the best place they have ever seen is, of course, up to them.