Rock returns to the island

26th March 2004 at 00:00
An Isle of Wight college is helping to revive music on the island. Andrew Mourant talks to its enthusiastic founder

The after-effects of the historic 1970 Isle of Wight rock festival are still being felt on the island. For years afterwards large gatherings were banned by the local council and some natives still shudder at the memory of being overrun by naked hippies.

Sadly the island's reputation for being hip was short-lived. Rock and roll was eventually replaced by an annual garlic festival.

But times they are a changing. Music is back - a revived festival is in its third year, albeit in a more managed and respectable form. Meanwhile, dozens of performers and music technologists are emerging across the island.

Much of this new-found enthusiasm is down to musician Dave Pontin, 34, who grew up on the island, trained as a teacher in Plymouth, and then returned to Cowes to work.

Back on the island he was dismayed to see a system where many teenagers were either written off, lacked ambition or were desperate to escape. Music lessons were, he found, numbingly dull.

In an attempt to liven up music teaching Dave managed to secure a grant from the Prince's Trust to set up a small recording studio in Cowes high school, where he taught music and design technology. He found this was a great way of reaching disaffected pupils. "Many talented children were failing because they lacked any formal education," he said.

Inspired by this success he approached Isle of Wight college suggesting it run a full-time music course. But the college, preoccupied with its own financial disarray, turned him down.

Dave did not give up. Eastleigh college in Hampshire liked the idea and Dave set up a course there for the Jazz and Rock Academy of Music.

Simultaneously he set up his island-based not-for-profit company, Platform One. He was joined by his brother Pete, a graduate engineer whose varied CV includes designing sugar factories around the world.

Platform One now handles everything from music technology, audio recording, composition and DJ-ing to photography, digital imaging and script writing.

There is a strong emphasis on personal projection, live performances and understanding how big events are run. The company hosts classes for adults and for those with special needs.

Making the project work has been a hard slog. "At first we used odd buildings around the island - derelict youth clubs and the like," Dave said. This was no way to carry on and eventually Platform One, with the help of the Isle of Wight economic partnership, got funding to find a permanent home in a derelict factory on the outskirts of Newport.

After a tortuous planning process, purpose-built studios finally opened in 2001, their conversion overseen by Pete. He does much of the business management and is the in-house technical supremo.

Platform One's core activity is tutoring 50 or so students in two year groups, for various BTec music diplomas. "We've taken kids without GCSEs who have gone on to university," said Dave proudly. "One in five could have a sustainable music career but all will leave with a love of music."

Some with musical backgrounds had talent that lay unused at school.

Czara-Lee Anderson, 16, whose uncle Jon Anderson is lead singer with rock supergroup Yes, had dropped music to do science until she discovered Platform One.

"My ambition is to be a full-time jazz-blues singer," she said. "It's really good here. We get lessons about the industry: how to look at a contract; how to set up a studio. I didn't like being on the island before, but this has made me want to stay."

James Smith, 19, also has professional musicians in the family. James is a singer with "a rock-metal edge" and already earns a living with his band, Screaming Phoenix. The big attraction for him is that bands with Platform One get to audition to open the revived music festival. "Dave gives us a big push and a lot of practise," he said.

Sam Maidment, 17, another misfit in academia, is a rhythm guitarist, though his ambition is to get into recording. "I've already been in different bands but coming here will help my career," he said.

Dave insists that his tutors are professionals still involved in the music business and that Platform One, which has 20 staff, runs without hierarchy, bureaucracy or corporate stuffiness.

This approach is working well. One band Dave fostered, The Bees, has already signed a deal with Virgin and last year were a Mercury prize nominee. Sony and EMI have been over to check out others students.

Although The Bees may hit the big time, the band members want to remain on the island. "Once there was no diversity in music education, now the scene's vibrant," Dave said.

Amid this youthful enthusiasm, no one is more passionate about Platform One than Graham Holmes, 66, former head of music at Cowes high school, and now employed by Dave to teach composition. "I respect what he's done," said Graham. "He's created a structure where young people can be different, progress and be loyal to their band and to themselves."

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