Last of the great free festivals?
The Deeply Vale Festival started in 1976 when the core of the North West counterculture gathered together with the substantial and practical input of the Tractor organisation. The latter included Tractor the band and extended to Tractor Music, their PA hire company, a music shop and Cargo Recording Studios. Together with the unrelenting drive of festival organiser Chris Hewitt, Deeply Vale lasted three memorable years, growing from three hundred original die-hards to crowds of over 25, 000 at a festival which at its height lasted 6 days.
And among the many weird and wonderful happenings, memories, and music that Deeply Vale conjured up, two significant things marked the festival out as being unique. Firstly it was a co-operative rather than corporative effort, and as such was an example that free festivals could work. And secondly it was at a unique point in time when the counter culture was seemingly split between enduring hippies and the new kids on the block, the punks. The two contrasting sub groups somehow conjoined to enjoy a festival that many still regard as a highlight of their life. And as if to emphasise the warm memories that Deeply Vale sparks in a cross section of people, members of the then Punk agent provocateurs Wilful Damage now look back at the event with some affection even though their altercation with self styled hippy leader of the time Sid Rawle led to the late band member Wayne breaking his arm.
'Deeply Vale Festivals - The DVD' is an documentary that starts off as an engaging almost genteel retrospective of a provincial North West England Free Festival, which as Chris Hewitt takes great delight in explaining was sponsored at its outset by an ad hoc dope tax. You scored your quarter ounce or whatever and had to pay a 50p levy that went towards funding the free festival. By degrees the documentary narrative builds up a momentum, partly on the back of Bob Harris's keen voice over, but also through organiser Chris Hewitt's unyielding passion and the positive vibe from a cast of musicians, many of whom became big players in the contemporary music scene.
Also unlike most other festivals in the previous decade just about all the headline bands and emerging artists alike from Steve Hillage, The Fall, The Ruts, to Misty in Roots, Spizz Energy and of course Tractor seem to remember the festival with a glint in their eye. Indeed by the end of this marathon three and half hours plus documentary, which concludes with a series of retrospective interviews, you realise that the event had outgrown its local pride become one of the most significant free festivals ever.
Significantly perhaps, when asked whether it should happen again, most participants demure, if only because as Tractor's guitarist Jim Milne points out, perhaps it had peaked, while fellow Tractor member, drummer Steve Clayton expands the point by suggesting it had achieved all it could, and things moved on. On the other hand the Trancy, riff driven crossover guitarist and headliner Steve Hillage takes the 'never say never' approach but again remembers deeply Vale as being different, while Steve Cowen from the Mock Turtles in a very enlightening interview, feels strongly that it should happen again, even if to forgo its free tag because of today's spiralling costs.
Then there were other younger musicians at the time like Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark's Andy McClusky (who played with Pegasus) whose recollection was simply 'the trees, the valley, the damp, the heath land and tepees'. He also brings a sense of perspective to the times by tempering his enthusiasm by noting that compared to the following decade's festivals, Deeply Vale was like the third world. But as the sporadic archive film, video footage, carefully restored clippings, sound recordings and informative 16 page booklet suggests, Deeply Vale was all about making something happen successfully, a meeting of people at a real people's festival, right down to Nic Turner and his pyramid tent!
Deeply Vale was also probably one of the last festivals in the land unencumbered by state legislation, and as the wonderfully named Grant Showbiz the one time roadie for Here & Now poignantly concludes , Deeply Vale was the 'unity of the human spirit rather than drugs'.
This DVD comes highly recommended as a documentary of a unique festival that reflected an essentially unique time before a mixture of repressive laws and corporate sponsors moved into the festival scene. Split into three clear parts, the main mid section of the DVD comprises nearly 50 minutes of a documentary within a documentary that includes some great band footage. Overall this is a fine account of an optimistic people's festival which although slightly overblown in tracing the triumph of the communal spirit in a local festival context, nonetheless successfully carries with it the same proud message from a wide array of participants, that they were all proud to be part of it!
Review by Pete Feenstra