Chris Hewitt, Rochdale’s Mr Music, chats with Kevin Cooper about touring with four musicians and a van, memories of The Running Horse, playing truant to go to a record stall in Oldham Indoor Market and the release of the 40th Anniversary DVD to celebrate the Deeply Vale Festival.

Chris Hewitt is often referred to as Rochdale’s Mr Music as a consequence of backing the Proud Of Rochdale campaign which aims to put the area back on the map for live gigs, having previously co-ordinated the large outdoor Manchester Rock Against Racism Festival, and the Carnival Against Cruise Missiles amongst others.

As well as being a promoter for bands like The Pink Fairies, Skin Alley, The Strawbs and Brinsley Schwarz, he was the organiser and promoter for the first Deeply Vale Festival in 1976. From originally attracting crowds of around 300; the project grew so much that when he left it in 1979, the Festival had attracted a crowd of more than 20,000.

Establishing a music shop and PA Hire Business, Chris Hewitt soon attracted the attention of the music industry. In 2016 he was asked to assist with the Morrisey biopic, England Is Mine, which also recreated The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976.

He is currently working on a recreation of one of Queen’s very early gigs at Ealing Art College for the December 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody biopic, after having recreated 10Cc’s Strawberry Studios in Stockport in the original building for just two weekends.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first Deeply Vale Festival, Hewitt has released a Deeply Vale DVD set to mark the occasion.

Taking some time out from his busy schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper, this is what he had to say.

Good morning Chris how are you?

I’m fine thanks Kevin how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

You’re welcome.

And how is life treating you?

To be honest with you I am a bit knackered because I have been busy with the recreation of the Strawberry Studios, which as you will know is the place where 10cc, Joy Division and The Smiths to name but a few did all of their recordings.

So just what did you do?

Well, we went back into the building for the Heritage Weekend and rebuilt the whole control room as it would have been back in the 70s and 80s, so that has been quite an event.

Did you get any help from the local authorities?

Nothing, absolutely nothing at all. They came and had a stall there which did absolutely nothing and so I personally have already lost two thousand pounds on the project.

That is ridiculous.

One of the women who were running the stall for the local authority wouldn’t even give me a six pound Strawberry Studios mug from a stall that was at my event all weekend. Lousy tight bastards. Apparently she is now upset that I have told a few members of the press about that incident, well she should have given me a fucking mug then shouldn’t she. The power of the press (laughter). I have done this exhibition and the Heritage Weekend in conjunction with Stockport Council and they are no worse than Rochdale Council whose staff used to complain about me, saying “we don’t like Chris Hewitt having events in our museums, libraries and art galleries because people come in; there are too many people coming to his events”.

The local library said “Chris Hewitt had an exhibition in the foyer and there were people coming in all day” (laughter). And then the next thing is when their jobs are at risk they always send me a petition to sign asking me ‘will you sign this Chris as the Council are thinking of getting rid of our jobs’. At which point I say “maybe you should work out that footfall through your buildings is how you keep the places busy” (laughter).

Why can’t people see the importance of these places such as the Strawberry Studios?

I personally think that the problem is we have now got a culture here in the UK that has come down from above with this government and unless anything is in London, and unless it is a major tourist attraction then let’s get rid of it all and let’s get rid of all these old, disused buildings. However, I have realised that what we have now is museum staff who work within the museum but they have no budgets whatsoever with which to put exhibitions on. There are places where volunteers have taken sites over from the Council and run them; some of the staff are even working fulltime in these places on far lower wages than they would get if they were working for the local authority. Obviously they are then no longer tied to stupid local authority rules and therefore things become dynamic once again.

I have to be honest with you and say that I personally feel that it is a worldwide problem. I have recently been speaking to some of the old Philadelphia International recording artists and they are telling me that the local government in Philadelphia have pulled down the old recording studios and have built a multi-story car park.

I know, it’s criminal isn’t it. I did an event in Rochdale where we put a Blue Plaque on the wall of my old music shop and recording studio building back in 2010. We had Rochdale Council on the TV and also in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent together with all of the local media talking in a positive vein about the areas rich musical history as opposed to Cyril Smith, and the highest number of people on the dole, etc.

So just what have they been doing with the old Strawberry Studios over the years?

It has most recently been used as ordinary office space for a publishing company since 1993.

Now that your exhibition is finished, will it once again revert back to that or will it once again stand empty?

The studio will once again revert back to being office space for the publishing company. The exhibition was only originally planned to run for the National English Heritage open day weekend in an attempt to get people out of the house and actually go and visit places and we actually had over a thousand people through the doors. So we recreated the recording studios purely and simply for that without, I hasten to add, any help from either Stockport Council or the English Heritage Society.

So whenever you approach people like the local authorities for assistance with these kind of events, what do they say to you, if in fact they bother to reply?

(Laughter) if they bother to reply it will usually be to say that they haven’t got any money. It’s the old ‘the cheques in the post’ answer. The number of Council department meetings that I go to where they make grand plans two or three years ahead for exhibitions, and then when it gets to a month before opening day they suddenly decide to do nothing or they do something which is merely a tenth of what they originally said that they were going to do.

Funnily enough I would imagine that the original meetings take place around election time?

(Laughter) yes indeed. However, how did you manage to work that one out (laughter). Whenever I do manage to put on an event and people ask me about it I will always reply “these things happen despite the Council rather than with the Council” (laughter). Back in the day I used to borrow grandstands off the Nottingham City Council which they stored behind the Boots Social Club just over Trent Bridge. I always find it very ironic that I worked on and promoted the Rock Against Racism Festival, the Carnival Against Cruise Missiles, and I was working very heavily for the more left-wing Councils within the GLC. I would regularly travel down to Battersea Park to build stages for the Wandsworth Council who were very much a ‘leftie type council’ who wanted to spend loads of arts money.

I did all of these things around the country and most of them, as I have previously said, happened despite the Councils and now thirty years later those very same Councils want to celebrate the fact that we managed to do these things despite their caretakers in the halls together with their people within the entertainments departments who hadn’t got a clue, who you had to work with; or the licencing officers who were obnoxious, and yet you still managed to do these things usually despite the Councils rather than with the Council. Thirty years later you get some bloody culture officer who has been given the job of celebrating the events that you put on in their museum and even then it’s a fight to get it on and promoted.

Even now it’s a case of ‘oh you can’t put too much text on the display boards’ or ‘you can’t put too many of your photographs on because we have set rules for the way that we display events’ so I just said “look, you want to borrow all of my fucking stuff in order to create this exhibition, then don’t start telling me the rules of what we can and can’t have in it otherwise I simply won’t give you the fucking stuff” (laughter).

Over the years you must have seen some radical changes in people’s attitudes towards starting out in the music business?

Yes I have and I have to say that when I started out in the music industry it was four musicians and a couple of crew in a van going around the country and at that time they were breaking new ground. It was an adventure, whereas now you can make a track in your bedroom, put it online and enter the X Factor (laughter). Kids today do not experience travelling around the country in a van with their crew sometimes with other musicians whilst staying in grotty B&B’s. Breaking down in the middle of the moors, running out of fuel, getting stuck in traffic jams, arriving at the gig late, all of that has now gone.

People now would much rather ram things up on the internet and never experience the grounding of going to the North East or travelling across the country to play in a working men’s club and hoping that they can put two of their own songs in during the set. It seems to me that the people with the least amount of talent actually receive the most publicity. Sadly the music industry has become a corporate industry in a way; even the artists and bands that come on the stage at Glastonbury in their ripped jeans go and thrash it out on the stage and then they go backstage and so that they don’t get muddy, they will get a helicopter to take them back to their hotel.

Before they go onstage they will be sitting in a Portacabin that has been dressed with yucca plants and fucking bonsai trees together with leather settees whereas in the old day’s artists at festivals once they had performed became punters and would stay to watch other artists performing. Nowadays it’s all about wristbands and if you haven’t got the right wristband then you don’t get this far; it’s all gone crazy. When you think about it, really it is now simply an industry.

On the subject of changes within the industry, where do you source your vinyl from now that there are no pressing plants within the UK?

I have to get mine pressed over in the Czech Republic.

And what is the lead time?

At the moment I am getting my stuff pressed and returned to me within three weeks. However when it gets to just after Christmas and with Record Store Day happening in April, you simply cannot get anything manufactured unless you have booked it months and months in advance.

I’m glad that you have mentioned Record Store Day because I wanted to ask you if you think that it achieves just what it was set up to achieve. The reason I ask is that being a collector of vinyl, I can always see the Record Store Day releases for sale on eBay within thirty minutes of them being bought.

I think that basically what has happened with Record Store Day is that you get two shots nowadays as a record shop; they are Christmas and Record Store Day while the rest of the year what the fuck do you do with your shop (laughter). Anyway it’s my turn to ask you a question now, just what has happened to The Running Horse?

Well what can I tell you that you most probably don’t already know; The Running Horse has once again recently been refurbished and is now open for business. Ian Segal was the artist who they had performing there on their opening night.

Well the last time that I was at The Running Horse would probably be back in 1993 or 1994, something like that. I know that the goings on in there became a bit more dubious and so they closed it. I didn’t get paid for the work that I did for them and so I had to go around to the house of the guy that was running it at the time. All manner of crap like that was going on at the time. When I used to go there they used to have the bands performing downstairs but I have heard that they now play upstairs, is that right?

Yes it is. They now have one of these very popular eighteen inch high stages upstairs (laughter). The problem is and always will be is that if you are not going to The Running Horse specifically then there is no reason for you to go to that part of town.

No that’s right. I seem to remember gangs of people bringing in bags full of the proceeds of shoplifting to try to sell in the pub when both the punters and the bands arrived. I remember it being a rather down and out area.

Whilst I have to say that they are trying to improve the quality of the area there still is nowhere for you to park. You have to go to the gig and then get out; it’s not the sort of area where you would have a walk around at night.

Well that’s right about a lot of places that put live music events on. They are usually out of the way in some undesirable area (laughter).

So tell me just how did you get started in the music business?

When I was at grammar school in Oldham, which just so happens to be the grammar school that Andy Kershaw also went to, I would abscond by climbing over the school wall and started going to a record stall on Oldham indoor market called Ma Dobbs. She had everything that you could want; albums on labels like Charisma, Harvest, Virgin, Dandelion, Tamla Motown, and Stax, all for one pound fifty. I remember that her prices were always ridiculously low. She really did have a fantastic collection of albums for sale. I used to read Melody Maker, Disc, Sounds and the New Musical Express, go along to Ma Dobbs, buy the vinyl, take them back to school where we had a common room with an old Dansette record player in it, and we would play our latest acquisitions from Oldham Market (laughter).

I then remember growing my hair long and going to concerts at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester together with the University Union and places like that. At that point I got asked to leave grammar school because my hair was too long and I ended up going to Rochdale College where I became the social secretary, and it was then that I started hanging around with Tractor who had just had an album out on Dandelion. I got to know Tractor, Stack Waddy, Medicine Head, and all of those sorts of people who were on the Dandelion roster. I then started promoting The Pink Fairies, Skin Alley, The Strawbs and Brinsley Schwarz after they had come back from America having just been declared bankrupt. They were at that time playing the college circuit trying to get some money in.

After that I moved to London and found myself working for Kilburn And The High Roads who you will no doubt know were at that time fronted by a certain Ian Dury and later went on to become The Blockheads. However, having worked out that the big black boxes were the future of the sound industry, I came back up North and set up a company back in Rochdale. About a week after I had opened up the music shop and PA hire business in the North, someone came to see me and said “we are thinking of holding a festival at Deeply Vale; can you find some bands and also take care of the sound” so within about two weeks we held the first one in September where three hundred people turned up. The next year three thousand turned up and then the next two years we got over twenty thousand people attending. That was at the start of the Thatcher Years and free festivals became a government target like the miners the powers that be suddenly started clamping down on public assembly by large amounts of peopl (laughter).

You mention Deeply Vale and I have to ask, just how did it feel when you saw it grow from just three hundred attendees to over twenty thousand in such a short space of time?

For me, I was the person who had to speak to both the police and the local authority, because at the end of the day up until early 1979 my business address was also the Deeply Vale Festival address (laughter). In 1979 when the fire brigade, the police, the ambulance service, the environmental health together with four local authorities all began requesting that there was a responsible person who would be totally responsible if anything went wrong, then that was the point that I started to get a little bit worried. And of course it did. There were always the factions who said “let’s do what we like and fuck the authority” which to this day I still have in the back of my mind.

However, you soon realise that the only way in which you can change the system is from within the inside so in the end, the people that became the convoy really became a thorn in the side of festivals didn’t they, because they used to steal off other festival goers and leave a mess like travellers do whenever they leave places, and not having that much respect for others. That’s the problem but having said all of that I don’t agree with the massive prisoner of war type fences that they have to put around a lot of festivals and I also don’t agree with having more than one stage. When I went to the Bickershaw Festival in 1972, with the exception of Hawkwind playing outside on a trailer for the people who could not afford to get into the festival, as well as playing on the main stage, then the one main stage was the focal point.

Of course we firmly believed at Deeply Vale that we could put Steve Hillage on one minute and a punk band of fourteen year olds who had never played a gig before on the same stage and therefore give everybody their equal break. So although we started off with all the progressive and hippy bands back in 1976, by 1977 two punk bands had come onto the bill and then by 1978 it was probably a third punk and two thirds hippy. By 1979 it was an equal mix and that is why Deeply Vale was ground-breaking simply because we didn’t resist punk like Glastonbury and Stonehenge did for a few years.

Reading the comments by the likes of Mark E Smith and Bob Harris it must make you feel warm to have been such a large part of it?

I have to be honest and say yes it does. However, it also makes me feel sad because I basically wanted to go down the road of working within the framework and working closely with the local authorities. In 1979 I walked away because I no longer wanted to be the responsible adult with the responsible address. The people who carried it on actually won a court case which enabled the festival to go ahead. One of the main opponents to the festival in 1979 was in fact a certain Mr Neave who was Airey Neave’s grandson. He was one of the local farmers and was openly stirring up the local farmers and councillors against the festival. He had in fact got grazing rights on the land off the landowner.

The landowner had told us that we could hold the festival but Mr Neave had contracted grazing rights. So all parties, including the festival committee went off to court and managed to overturn his objections together with the council’s objections and were granted permission to hold the festival by the court on the terms that they used the site for two weeks and they left it as they found it. And of course they didn’t, they used the site for two weeks as agreed but the tepee people stayed there for another six months during the winter, stealing cars and breaking them up on the site and burning the fences down that belonged to the local farmers.

I was at that time running another event, where Joy Division, The Teardrop Explodes, OMD and Echo And The Bunnymen played to about three hundred people. I was running that in August 1979, only a few weeks after Deeply Vale. I actually had to go and pull all of the scaffolding back, ringing my suppliers as I was putting up stages all over the country, to see if they could let me have scaffolding, generators and tarpaulins in order to get things rectified and they all told me the same thing ‘we are not hiring to the music industry anymore because of the events at the 1979 Deeply Vale Festival. They never returned the stuff that was on loan from us. It has all been abandoned in the valley’.

So I personally went and bought it all back; took it back off hire, cleaned it all up, cleared up all the mess for the people who just departed and left it. I even cleaned up all of the litter in the valley but we never got the valley again. The following year they tried to hold the festival illegally but it got moved onto a site in the middle of nowhere on the moors and that was a time when the peace convoy was creeping in, they were blocking the M6 motorway, refusing to move until the police found them a site. It was like that so you could say that it went the wrong way. From my own personal point of view I do not feel that the Battle of the Beanfield should have happened.

However, I don’t agree with the people who were walking around Stonehenge being approached by people who were openly selling heroin and that any age of person could go and buy it. Then the whole thing has gone wrong somewhere. It’s not the land of Albion is it, it is a lawless state, governed by Hells Angels, crusties and thugs.

Were you ever disappointed; was there anyone who you really wanted to play at Deeply Vale but they disappointed you by not playing?

Yes there was. I try many times whilst he was still at the top of his game, plus the fact that he was local but he would never appear. The constant bain of my life was Mike Harding. At the time he had just released his single, The Rochdale Cowboy but we could never get him to come to any Deeply Vale event or any other festival that I did afterwards. I always received the same polite letter informing me that he and his wife would unfortunately be on holiday at that time but they did support the idea of the event. So I have to say that he was quite a disappointing one. Also I helped Factory Records on their way up and we got Tony Wilson involved in the festival.

I was heavily involved with both New Order and Joy Division and when I was asking them to do things they just thought that we were a bunch of hippies from Rochdale although they came to record in the recording studio building that I owned, often hiring my PA. Whenever I was asked to organise an Anti-Heroin Concert I asked Factory Records if they would put some bands on for it but they just casually said that they were far too busy to attend on that given weekend, I suppose in pretty much the same as the response from Mike Harding. However, Tony Wilson did come and do a TV report for Granada TV but to be honest it was a bit of a satirical piss-take of what it was that I was trying to do.

They played the music from Woodstock whilst he walked over the hill towards the Anti-Heroin Concert. At the end of the day you are disappointed all the time by artists. What I find is and I use the analogy of lemmings going over a cliff; I will quite often ask an artist if they will come and play and the first thing that they ask me is “who else is on the bill”. Well if I am hiring them for a fee and putting on a professional event, why do they need to know who else is on the bill. It’s almost like they don’t want to be the first people to commit to the event; they only want to commit to it after they have seen that all of the so-called trendy people have committed to it.

Out of all of the things that you have done, what would you say has been your personal highlight to date?

That’s easy, it would have to be Steve Hillage performing at Deeply Vale back in 1978. We had twenty thousand people there on a Tuesday night in a valley above Rochdale listening to The Salmon Song, Saucer Surfing and Hurdy Gurdy Man. I think that I would have to say that would be one of the better gigs in my life.

On the subject of Steve Hillage performing at Deeply Vale, you almost managed to recreate that historic moment for the Deeply Vale DVD set for the 40th Anniversary of the festival in September 2016. Were you pleased with that?

Yes I was, I really was. As you say we almost managed to recreate the events of 1979. It was great to see Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy, Mike Howlett, and Steffe Sharpstrings performing a Gong jam and then Nik Turner went onstage and guested with them. It was great to see them all performing together once again. It certainly bought back a few happy memories.

Which was easier for you, getting the bands to perform once again in 2017 for the 40th Anniversary or to perform back in 1978?

(Laughter) that’s a difficult question. I would have to say that it was probably harder to get them all together to play in 2017. Steve Hillage has always been very supportive and for two years on the run he has charged us a less than commercial price for appearing. I think that putting the Deeply Vale event on last year together with the release of the DVD, I am, at this moment in time somewhere near minus twenty thousand quid (laughter).

Really, well I was going to ask you if you enjoyed putting the DVD together but I don’t know if I dare now (laughter).

(Laughter) strangely enough, yes I did but you do get to that point I think where you think ‘why the fuck do I do this’ but then when someone buys the DVD of last year’s event, that makes it all worthwhile.

Were you please with the final product?

Yes I was, and I have to say that I don’t think that anyone could ever be disappointed with the package. The packaging is beautiful and I think that we have captured the feel of the event, and at the end of the day that is what I set out to do.

Harvey Goldsmith was recently quoted as having said that there are simply far too many festivals here in the UK nowadays. Having personally been involved with festivals here in the UK for many years now, do you agree that?

Yes I would, I would totally agree with that. I personally don’t see how any young and upcoming band can be happy with playing at such and such festival in such and such a tent at three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. They get forty odd people who are mainly their mates watching them play whilst there are five thousand people at the main stage (laughter). So I personally think that there are too many festivals and far too many stages at every festival. In the end it becomes a massive list of names, for example, at Glastonbury you couldn’t possibly see everyone that you wanted to see because it is all spread out, and all of the other festivals try to emulate that. If I had the money I might start up a festival called ‘Just One Big Stage And Everybody’s On It’ (laughter).

What makes me laugh is the amount of people who put on one event and think that they will become a millionaire overnight. It just doesn’t happen like that.

Putting on an event is not easy money. Obviously the old way of doing it like The Isle Of Wight Festival back in the day was that the organisers would setup a company to put the festival on, then go bust and not pay the suppliers. However, it is not as easy to do that now because all of your PA companies and the staging companies, and remember I was one, and I got to the stage where my terms are ‘fifty percent a month before the event and the other fifty percent a week before we come on site’. So in other words I want the full one hundred percent upfront. I still speak to people in the business and someone recently organised a festival at Hampton Court for Rick Wakeman and they are currently suing him because he made the company go bust. This is a Christian PA company and Rick is supposed to be a Christian and then he bumped the company and didn’t pay anybody.

You have recently been heavily involved in recreating the Live Aid set for the Freddie Mercury biopic. What can you tell me about that?

Last year I was developing CHVINTAGEAUDIO.COM which was basically a museum collection / hire collection of vintage equipment which is something that has grown over the past few years after I had originally started to collect information/ flyers/ photographs to put together historical box sets and I also have collected a lot of gig posters. The vintage audio equipment just seemed to me to be a natural progression from that. So now I can basically do the whole history of Rock and Roll and say that “not only have I got this piece of equipment from the 1978 Deeply Vale festival, but I have also got the poster, the ticket and the photographs”. I started last year in earnest really with the idea of putting together a company that can specialise in hiring to both film and television and of course there is now no money in it these days (laughter).

The TV companies are facing the fact that people sit and watch inane channels full of shite simply repeating the same things all of the time or reality television so there simply isn’t the same money in dramas or films unless you can get your foot in the door at the top end. Last year I was approached by the film company who were making the biopic of Morrissey (The Smiths) titled England Is Mine and they asked me if I could recreate The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 and some bedroom rehearsal scenes with Morrissey and Billy Duffy together with various early Morrissey gigs. So that was my very first film job.

Someone then got in touch with me and said “we are looking for a large vintage mixing desk for the front of house desk at Live Aid together with six specifictom tom microphones for Roger Taylor’s drum kit, an early working 1970s PA system for a very early Queen gig when they were still called Smile” and I just ended up doing it all for them whilst trying to build Strawberry Studios at the very same time (laughter).

As well as everything else, are you a vinyl collector?

(Laughter) yes I am. I collect vinyl and I release vinyl. You should try owning a record label, issuing records on vinyl in all different colours and keeping one of everything (laughter).

Are you like me, are you a frustrated musician?

Oh yes most definitely. I bought my very first guitar when I was fifteen together with a copy of Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day: Guide to Modern Guitar Playing and two hundred days later I was still trying to master Bobby Shafto (laughter). But I had by that point fitted the guitar with a pickup and started to build amplifier and speaker cabinets to go with my guitar (laughter). It was then that I started carrying speaker cabinets around for bands and artists.

What is the next project for Chris Hewitt?

I have to recreate a few of Queens’s early gigs down in London. They want me to recreate a working sound system from around 1970; everything has got to look right and it is supposed to recreate an early gig at Ealing Art College. Obviously it won’t be at Ealing Art College but it has to look like that. Other than developing my museum of rock equipment I haven’t really thought much about anything else. I think that the only way that I am going to develop that is to find a philanthropic millionaire who is interested in that or try and get a council interested or perhaps a government funded museum.

If I had to put you on the spot, who would you say is your favourite band of all times?

That’s a difficult one that is. I actually might have to say Brinsley Schwartz or Graham Parker And The Rumour who obviously were a combination of the two.

What was the first record that you bought?

(Laughter) that was Needles And Pins by The Searchers who I now do all of their design and manufacturing for all of their albums.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

Don’t laugh but that would have been Russ Conway at the ABC cinema in Rochdale. I always thought that it was weird that he had a piece of one of his fingers missing but he still played the piano (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

I can’t think of a particular song but the last thing that made me cry would have been the documentary about the life and times on George Harrison that was shown recently on BBC4.

Chris on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been extremely informative and also very interesting.

Many thanks for your time Kevin, it’s been my pleasure.