IN A CLIMATE where brands like Carling and O2 bankroll festivals as a way of boosting their credibility with impressionable young consumers, Deeply Vale seems like some strange and exotic anachronism.
There was no corporate branding of the Deeply Vale festival, which took place in a secluded valley somewhere between Bury and Rochdale over the course of four years at the dog-end of the Seventies. There weren’t even any toilets for the first couple of years.
Instead, the first festival was part funded by local progressive rock band Tractor, using royalties from their releases on John Peel’s Dandelion label. The remainder of the budget came from a 50 pence surcharge levied on local pot-heads by community-minded dealers at a squat in Rochdale.
This motley crew of hippies, idealists and out-and-out freaks rented the valley during the long, hot summer of 1976, telling the landowner they were organising a camping holiday for about 10 people.
In the event, about 300 people turned up to see Tractor and various friends perform in Deeply Vale’s natural amphitheatre through a PA system donated by an ever-benevolent John Peel. There was free food (bean stew, goat curry and egg butties) but no admission fee. Bands were paid in pot.
“At the time, it was very fashionable to get a load of wood and tarpaulin and make yourself a teepee,” says Chris Hewitt of Tractor. “We had the largest collection of teepees outside of North America. which was quite a strange thing to see, just outside of Bury.
“There were lots of weird and wonderful things going on all over the place. It was a very free environment.”
By the following year, the festival had blossomed into a freewheeling four-day orgy of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Three thousand people turned up to see prog rockers like Ginseng, Moonchild, Frog Box and Pegasus (a band from Liverpool featuring a fresh-faced Andy McClusky, later to find fame and fortune in Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark before becoming the svengali behind Atomic Kitten).
But the mood of the UK was changing – not least musically. While ex-Gong guitarist and future god of chill-out Steve Hillage headlined, 1978’s festival saw the arrival of punk rock with local acts like the Fall, Durutti Column, Wilful Damage, Crispy Ambulance, Aqua and Danny and the Dressmakers (the last three all featuring Graham Massey – later of 808 State, Homelife and Toolshed). Tony Wilson compered.
A Rock Against Racism tour package brought roots reggae stalwarts Misty in Roots and genuine punk pop stars the Ruts to the festival. Former Hawkwind saxophonist Nik Turner arrived with a pyramid tent, a travelling circus of 25 wild-eyed freaks and a vegetarian Alsatian named Tree. Improvisational space-rockers and seasoned festival veterans Here & Now were also on the bill, which attracted an audience of 20,000.
Clearly, not everyone adhered to the Sex Pistols’ belief that you should never trust a hippy. Vini Reilly of Durutti Column, then a stroppy young punk, remembers it as the moment when he realised that hippies weren‘t actually all that bad. “It was disorganised, eccentric – but benign. It was just fun. It was absolutely ridiculous, really,” he says.
“There was none of this punk versus hippy thing that Malcolm McClaren talked about – but I always questioned that anyway,” says Chris Hewitt. “I know the Sex Pistols were big Hawkwind fans. It wasn’t an issue for us – apart from that one incident with Wilful Damage, of course.”
Ah, Wilful Damage. Exuberant, energetic and sincere though they undoubtedly were, it’s unlikely that we’d be talking about the strictly-by-the-numbers punk of Wilful Damage were it not for the fact that Sid Rawle, teepee-dweller and self-styled King of the Hippies, took exception to the toy-town invective of lead singer Wayne during the band’s performance.
Rawle hauled his six-foot-something frame onto the stage and unceremoniously manhandled the five-foot-nothing 16-year-old off it, breaking Wayne’s arm in the process.
“Love and peace?” shouted one outraged band member over the PA, sounding almost on the verge of tears. “You don’t know what you’re on about!”
The feeling that anything could happen, and probably would, was just a part of the curious patchouli-scented charm of the riotous 1978 festival, which ran for an entire week.
“I had to cut my cowboy boots off with a bread knife when I got home,” laughs Hewitt. “I didn’t take them off for the entire time.”
The Fall returned in 1979. Sole surviving member Mark E Smith is no festival fan but he looks back on Deeply Vale with something approaching real fondness.
“We just used to go up there, and walk on. And then go home. Great,” says Smith, though he adds that Deeply Vale always seemed to have something of an edge to it, an undercurrent of potential mayhem, despite the bucket bongs, joss sticks and random nakedness. “There were a lot of Hell’s Angels there – and they weren’t messing about.”
Heroin appeared on site at the same time as what would become the Peace Convoy pitched up – the two events were probably not unconnected. Steve Clayton, Tractor’s drummer, remembers feeling that the original ideals of the festival were slipping away, and “I’m not sure if I feel quite as safe here as I did.”
“You’re always going to have that problem of festivals attracting people who are into criminal things,” argues a resigned Chris Hewitt. “It’s the nature of it, isn’t it? Within any large concentration of people, there are always going to be a certain number of problems.”
There didn’t seem to be much the authorities could do about it either way.
“There wasn’t legislation to cover the fact that 20,000 people might want to get together and hold a pop festival on some land they’d hired off a farmer for two weeks,” explains Hewitt. “There was nothing that said you couldn’t do it. Then again, there was nothing that said you could do it either. It was a sort of grey area – but in the end, that’s what enabled them to put a stop to it.”
Sure enough, by the time final preparations for 1980’s festival began, injunctions from local councils and owners of the adjoining land meant that the site was unavailable. Hewitt, Clayton and the other members of Tractor had little to do with a hastily organised makeshift replacement on a bleak moor-top near Darwen. It was, by all accounts, much more drug-orientated than Deeply Vale – and nowhere near as much fun.
Perhaps the festival had run its course. In many ways, Deeply Vale represented one last Indian summer for the hippy dream of the Sixties before the cold, harsh winter of Thatcherism started to bite – sooner or later, it would have come a cropper anyway.
“Deeply Vale was non-political,” says Chris Hewitt. “But we opened up the stage to Rock Against Racism, the Legalise Cannabis Campaign, the Anti-Nazi League and CND – so everything we stood for, by the time the Eighties came along, would have been considered an anti-government stance.”
Peace, love and taking responsibility for your own actions didn’t cut much ice in the loadsamoney, me, me, me decade.
Hewitt still considers the festival unfinished business. He planned to revive it when Glastonbury took a year off in 2006 – 30 years since the first Deeply Vale – but floundered when the present land-owner demanded £300,000 rent and the majority of any profit.
“You could do it anywhere in the north-west,” says Hewitt. “Anywhere there’s a green field and you’ve got the right acts and running water – and the vibe is right. All we need to do is find that place. We need to find some rich, eccentric landowner, really.”
If Deeply Vale ever happens again, the realities of current health and safety legislation mean that it’s unlikely to be free entry. Mightily impressed by the advances in renewable energy technology, Hewitt plans a cleaner and greener festival, with the same kind of atmosphere as Glastonbury’s Green Field, “only without the prisoner-of-war camp fence around it”.
There will still be only one stage.
“One of the unique things about Deeply Vale was that you could see Steve Hillage – who at that time was selling out places like the Apollo – on the same stage as a band from the local council estate who’d never even rehearsed,” he says. “There was that anarchic side of it that cut through all the bullshit of having to climb the ladder. It was a melting pot.
“Rock ’n’ roll is so corporate now. Rock is supposed to be out there and on the edge. At Deeply Vale it really was on the edge – it went over the edge.
“Maybe we’re striving to do something that you just can’t do anymore, I don’t know,” he says, with a degree of weary resignation. “But if we can get something like that started again, maybe we can start another cultural melting pot and maybe the next generation will be inspired.”
Next year, promises Hewitt, next year he and his friends will be “going at it again with a vengeance.”
The revenge of the hippies? Now that would be worth waiting for.
[This feature first appeared in the Big Issue in the North in October 2007. For more information about the revival of the Deeply Vale festival visit the official site.]