Return to Deeply Vale – in conversation with festival pioneer Chris Hewitt

Crowd Control: Into the throng at Deeply Vale Festival, 1978

Forty years ago, an estimated 20,000 punters congregated in the North West of England for the third of the legendary if somewhat quirky Deeply Vale free festivals, just two years after 300 attended the first.

Those looking on and duly inspired included future TV/radio presenter Andy Kershaw and musicians Ian Brown (The Stone Roses), Andy Rourke (The Smiths), David Gedge (The Wedding Present), Boff Whalley (Chumbawamba), and Jimi Goodwin (Doves).  Furthermore, legendary radio and Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris is quoted as saying, “Deeply Vale has a place in rock history … the best loved and silliest rock festivals of all time.”

Headlining in 1978 was Canterbury-based Steve Hillage, best known for involvement with prog-rockers Gong, at an event that inspired many more bands to form, not least The Fall and The Ruts, who also played that year, the bill further including Hawkwind’s Nik Turner and Gong spin-off Here and Now, with Tony Wilson as a compere.

In fact, Deeply Vale was credited as the first free-fest to include punk bands – following the inclusion of The Drones and Physical Wrecks in ’77 – for an event initially taking place, according to co-organiser and this week’s interviewee Chris Hewitt, ‘kind of near Bury, kind of near Rochdale’, although two further – and more lower-key – events were switched closer to further Lancashire mill town Darwen in the early ‘80s.

These days Chris – recently described by BBC 6 Music as a ‘musical archaeologist’ – runs CH Vintage Audio, hiring out ‘60s/‘70s sound equipment, having amassed an impressive collection over the last few years, his recent clients including the crews for Morrissey – for the film, England is Mine – and Freddie Mercury film projects, supplying equipment. And  last September his team rebuilt 10cc’s Strawberry Studios for two weekends in its original building in Stockport, recreating its control room as it was.

Chris is a fascinating bloke, and I barely scraped the surface of his story when we talked earlier this week. There’s a fair bit more on a documentary interview, When Analogue Ruled Rock, linked here, not least a flavour of his dealings with Ian Dury and more recently working alongside recent writewyattuk interviewee Peter Hook. But for all his dabblings, last October he found time to produce a lovingly-designed triple-DVD/ hardback book combo marking Deeply Vale’s 40th anniversary reunion, including around 12 hours’ footage from a weekend show at Heywood Civic Hall (around a mile and a half from the original site) featuring many of the artists involved in the early festivals, plus interviews with performers and his fellow organisers, that venture following on from a 2015 six-LP/book boxset on the same subject.

The original catalyst for Deeply Vale Festival was Rochdale hippy David Smith, based in a commune on Oldham Road at the time, his interest in free festivals elsewhere leading him to Chris’ nearby music/PA hire shop.

Chris, whose CV included sound duties for Ian Dury’s early band, Kilburn and the High Roads, was also a past associate of DJ John Peel – whose first job was at a Rochdale cotton mill – the pair both fans of cult band, Tractor.

Festival Appearance: Chris Hewitt on stage at Deeply Vale in 1978 (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

Taking on board David’s premise of bringing more free festivals to the North, Chris was hired (for £60 apparently) to provide equipment and use his contacts to book some bands, having previously worked with Jeremy Beadle on Bickershaw Festival, near Wigan (having also produced a book and boxset on that event), and more recently inspired by a Rivington Pike event, also during that long hot summer of ’76.

All these years on, Chris remains amazed by interest in Deeply Vale Festival, telling me he’s still selling merchandise ‘all the time, all over the world – badges, t-shirts, LPs …’ and having staged successful reunions in 2015 and 2016, the likes of Steve Hillage and Nik Turner coming back to play. With those reunions under his belt, might there be another, at least as something of a convention for Gong fans, in honour of Steve Hillage’s initial involvement and recent return?

“I was trying to convince Steve to do a Gong jam with Steffe Sharpstrings (Stephan Lewry) and Mike Howlett, who also both played the reunion, and asked what chance there was of another. Unfortunately, the last event happened just after Daevid Allen’s death. Both reunions took place around the time Daevid (March 2015) and Gilli Smyth (August 2016) from the band died.”

Chris was only 22 in 1976, but was booking bands as social secretary at Rochdale College six years earlier, around the time Tractor were signed to John Peel’s Dandelion label for their second album.

“They played the college, we hooked up, and I became their road manager. I was very much into hippy and leftfield promotions and community music. We had bands like the Pink Fairies and Skin Alley, also running a coach trip to Hawkwind’s Space Ritual show at Blackburn (King George’s Hall, late 1972), and putting Quintessence on.”

I was intrigued about your link with John Peel back in those days.

“Well, the thing a lot of people don’t realise is that John actually worked at Townhead Mill in Rochdale, as his father was a cotton broker and got him the job. In fact, we did a Tractor album called The Road from Townhead Mill in recent years. And the other interesting link is that next to where that mill was, Andy Kershaw later went to a nursery, about 300 yards away.”

Of course, at the turn of the ’70s, Peelie was still close to Marc Bolan, which takes me on to Tyrannosaurus Rex appearing at Glastonbury in the iconic festival’s early days. Did Chris ever get down there in that era?

“I didn’t, but one of the things that egged me on was buying the Revelations triple-LP, with tracks by Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Pete Townshend, and The Grateful Dead, with art by Barney Bubbles. And working at Bickershaw, seeing the fence come down, and being part of that wider Pink Fairies and Hawkwind community, I felt that was the direction festivals should go in.”

Now Then: Chris Hewitt, here and now, so to speak (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

Did Chris ever play in a band?

“I bought a guitar, fitted a pickup, but started experimenting with amps, messing with equipment. Then, when Tractor’s guitarist got married and had a baby, he decided to jack it in, so I went off to London to work for Kilburn and the High Roads and Carol Grimes. At that time, Carol was with Neil Hubbard from Kokomo, and along with Henry McCulloch from The Grease Band they slept on the floor above a fruit shop in Ladbroke Grove, while I was living with my parents nearby, having moved from Rochdale to Surrey. I was driving all over London, working for a PA firm in Willesden.”

So who was Deeply Vale’s prize booking as far as you’re concerned?

“I think the Steve Hillage booking was a real coup at the time, when Gong were playing the Apollos and paid summer festivals. We got him straight from Finland’s Festival of the Midnight Sun.”

Chris also managed Nik Turner for a while (’which was no mean feat’). Is that right he turned up at Deeply Vale with his own mini-pyramid stage-set attached to a van, with about 25 passengers?

“That’s right, and he had an Alsatian dog called, Tree, who only ate brown rice – a vegan dog!”

Did the reunion gigs take some organising, getting so many of the original artists back on board?

“We did a mock run in 2015, for one night, with about 12 bands, Steve Hillage headlining. That went well so we decided to do another, which took around a year to plan.”

Looking back on those ealry shows, Steve Hillage said, ‘Deeply Vale was slightly ahead of the Southern festivals, as it introduced the fusion between the classic psychedelic festival movement and the new New Wave music.’ It’s a fair point. And it was a rather ground-breaking move, inviting punk bands to join the fray.

“Yeah, The Ruts were formed there, The Fall met Here and Now and Grant Showbiz there. The Fall played three years of the festival and went on anarchic hippy tours with Here and Now and Graham Massey’s (later of 808 State) Danny and The Dressmakers. That brought that sort of punk/hippy crossover on the free festival and free gig circuit. Here and Now would hire halls and tell people to put what they wanted on a bucket.”

Of course, the public perception is that those genres didn’t mix, but I seem to recall influential early punks like Mick Jones of The Clash were into the Pink Fairies back in the day, in his impressionable Roundhouse dancing days.

“I think that was much more a London thing, perhaps more around the King’s Road with Malcolm McLaren. But the likes of John Lydon were into King Crimson and all that.”

Fall Guys: Tony Wilson compering The Fall for Chris Hewitt in 1978, with Marc Riley and Una baines also in the line-up (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

Chris got to know Mark E. Smith – ‘Manchester’s answer to Captain Beefheart’, as he described him – well, and was hired in recent years ‘to make sure he arrived on stage on time and played a full set’. And as The Fall’s recently-departed front-man put it, ‘Deeply Vale was great to play, It was just up the road for us. I don’t like festivals but I loved Deeply Vale.’

Meanwhile, Graham Massey said, “I’m always sort of harking back to Deeply Vale as the blueprint for a festival. For me it just had that sort of made-up-for-the-people vibe. The thing about Deeply Vale is that it felt like local action.”

So will there ever be another Deeply Vale Festival, Chris?

“We had this discussion the other day. I was talking to Glenn Povey, who wrote the guide book for the Pink Floyd V&A exhibition, and who put Canterbury Festival on for a couple of years, taking over from members of Caravan. We were discussing the nightmares of putting festivals on … indoor and out. For one thing, there are too many now, and secondly, I think the legislation has killed it.”

Free festival or not back then, here’s the million-dollar question – was any money made or lost back in those days?

“Erm … we always ended up with bills afterwards for stuff that got lost or damaged.”

But it was all worth it really, yeah?

”Oh yeah, I think so. At that point in time I think I was living in a rented cottage costing me £3 a week. Later, you get into the several hundred pounds a month mortgage situation, where the chance of going out and working six days for free or for expenses are gone. I’m still at that stage now. I’m dealing with heritage events and museums, and it’s always, ‘We’d love you to do it, but there’s no budget.’”

Vale Royalty: Mark E. Smith, with Rochdale’s Dave Hopwood at Deeply Vale’s 2015 reunion (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

One of the original performers who returned for the reunion, local Baptist minister, the Reverend Mike Huck – of whom it was said, he ‘preached his best sermon ever the Sunday evening after performing at Deeply Vale Festival in the afternoon, having apparently innocently eaten some interesting cake after his set with Movement Banned’ – said those early shows were reminiscent of Woodstock. Is that about right?

“It was. That was the vibe! In a further example I went to see Pink Floyd at Knebworth in the 70s and then went there again with my sons to see Oasis and the move from sitting there peacefully in a big space with a beer tent half a mile away which nobody could be bothered to go to, to it now being right by the stage and people constantly off to get pints – beer drinking had become a huge part of the financing and the whole event.

“Even at Brit Floyd at the Bridgewater Hall recently, people are getting up all the time to take selfies, talk, go to the bar, getting the whole row up in the number of a really good number … it’s just not the same vibe.”

You mention your lads – have they caught the festival bug from you? Would they do something along the same lines – as mad as Deeply Vale?

“Probably not. People don’t have the drive. And I don’t like festivals with more than one stage … although Nik Turner had his own late at night when the others ended! But we just had one, where everyone played, rather than smaller bands playing a little tent somewhere at the back, 59 bands down the bill.

“And how it was done without mobile phones or the internet, people still turning up, is unbelievable really.”

A triple-DVD boxset encased in a 24-page hardback colour book, including 12 hours’ footage from the Deeply Vale Festival 40th anniversary weekend show at Heywood Civic Hall, featuring several artists involved in the early festivals – including Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy, System 7, Segs (The Ruts), Graham Massey (808 State), Nik Turner, The Drones, George Borowski, Mike Howlett, Graham Clark (Magick Brothers) and many more – is available via Action Records in Preston, Lancashire, and other good record shops. You can also order it direct by mail or telephone, priced £29, plus £3.50 UK P&P. Any profits will help fund a future Deeply Vale event. To order call 01565 734066, 07970 219701, email ozitrecords@which.net or send to Recordrange, PO Box 116, Northwich, Cheshire, CW9 5UG.

Into the Vale: Looking out on the assembled at Deeply Vale (Photo: Chris Hewitt)

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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