The Chequered history of North West festivals

In wake of Friends of Mine”¦Mick Middles looks at the eclectic legacy of the north west festivals.

To soak in the vibes with nothing between your head and the stars; to share a cultural intimacy with thousands of like minds. True festivals are arenas where the music is actively energised by the crowd, gaining in potency, adding to the legacy and depth of the area”¦as well as creating thousands of individual memories.

While mystical pastures of Somerset or river banks at Reading might spring to mind more readily when one thinks of the unparalleled history of British music festivals. However, the north-west has its own distinctive festival legacy”¦one of eclecticism, audaciously assembled bills and crowds full of fiery spirit and fun. Here are a few classic examples of that north west festival spirit through the ages.

The Bickershaw Festival 1972 May 5 ”“ 7 1972 (Wigan, Lancashire).

The Grateful Dead entourage filtered into the backstage area in a state of considerable bewilderment. The first and last Bickershaw Festival had survived three days of near torrential downpour. Few people camped. Mostly they shivered beneath sheets of clear plastic. Festivals are not so arduous, these days but, back at Bickershaw, the link between aesthetic delight and dampened weariness was finely balanced.

From the ramshackle stage, Jerry Garcia cast an eye over the thousands who slouched beneath the leaden Lancashire skies. His eyes fell on the dour little town”¦the sad pubs full of bemused locals. The Woodstock spirit had reached the heart of the north.

“You must have played many festivals like this,” a reporter asked.

“Never played anywhere remotely like this,” he replied.

And yet, even as he spoke, the cracks in the blanket of grey had started to widen and, finally, a warm evening sun began to comfort those who had made it to the festival’s climax. At last, festival organiser, Jeremy Beadle ”“ yet to create the persona of jovial mainstream TV bunny- could afford a smile.
In purely artistic terms, Bickershaw was a huge success. Even today, the bill seems extraordinary. During a year when television and radio had been dominated by the crass side of glam, Beadle’s assembled artists included Captain Beefheart, The Kinks, Dr John, Donovan, The Incredible String Band etc.

The Sunday bill alone brought in a link to Woodstock via the polemic-fired Country Joe MacDonald, New Riders of the Purple Sage and, perhaps adding just a small pre-echo of punk, Brinsley Schwarz (featuring Nick Lowe) and The Flamin’ Groovies. It didn’t even seem to matter that the rain drove this writer into a tent featuring the North West Jazz Youth Orchestra moments before The Kinks took the stage. And one wonders if soon-to-be-famous festival attendees Declan McManus (Elvis Costello) and Joe Strummer were sufficiently charmed and inspire to return home intent on heavy practice. Bickershaw seemed to signify that ”˜this is the north”¦we do things differently here.’

Warming to the deadening arena, ”˜The Dead’ performed a three and a half-hour set that would resurface on multitudinous bootlegs and would form the basis of their infamous European tour.

Oh how it felt, at 15 years of age, as I was, to ”˜enjoy’ my first dubious smoke, watching The Grateful Dead perform beneath the leaden skies of Wigan; to allow the swell funk of Captain Beefheart to flow over you as squabble over the last remaining Player’s No 6; to feel the pangs of anarchy as Country Joe McDonald attacks every ”˜ism’ known to man; to quell the pangs of hunger with a lukewarm hot-dog. These were among the sundry delights of Bickershaw Festival, back in an early seventies when the locals really were clad in raincoats and flat-caps, smoking Woodbines and chortling about the sudden influx of ”˜freaks’.

The Buxton Festival 1972 ”“ 74 (Derbyshire)

The eclectic nature of Bickershaw was further reflected in the north over two consecutive years (1973-74). Set on the Derbyshire hills, The Buxton Festival proved that impressive and adventurous billing wasn’t to be just the domain of Beadle.

The 1973 event seemed to verge on rock’s ”˜darkside’. With sets from the anarchic Edgar Broughton Band, Canned Heat, Chuck Berry, Nazareth and Medicine Head. Many who attended would later complain that the army of pseudo English ”˜Hells Angels’ were granted a little too much leeway and an abiding memory sees an incensed Alex Harvey ”˜negotiating’ strongly with Angels assembled at the stage-front.

The bill at the 1974 event was even more impressive. Beneath the The Faces ”“ then just about at the peak of their infectious camaraderie ”“ came Stevie Marriot’s brilliant Humble Pie, Mott The Hoople, Captain Beefheart, Horslips and Lindisfarne. Anyone seeking a truly incongruous experience, however, might have checked out the band billed as ”˜New York Doll’. (singular) Strange to note that, attached to the ”˜Doll’ on the bill would be DJ Bob Harries, who had so infuriated the band on The Old Grey Whistle Test by referring to them as ”˜mock rock’

Deeply Vale Festival. 1975 ”“ 78 Rochdale, Lancashire

Deeply Vale was unique. Well”¦almost! Its anarchic notion ”“ of a hugely evocative ”˜free’ festival which would flourish or die by the spirit of the attendees- was born from an earlier local event held at Rivington Pike.

As with the parallel Rivington Pike Festival in the same area, Deeply Vale as held over three days and on four separate occasions (1975 ”“ ’78) that saw it span the divide from pre to post punk.
As such, it was the festival where hippy met punk”¦a most unlikely union. This historical fact provided a spirit that actually made punk seem like a continuum rather than a revolution; rather than a full stop!
Deeply Vale, was held in the Pennine morland above Rochdale, indeed some would claim it to have exploded directly from that idiosyncratic place . A town full of poets, artists , guitar-strutting pub bands and sundry odd-balls,

Chris Hewitt was one of the main protagonists of Deeply Vale. (still active at the control of Northwich’s Ozit Morpheus Records who recently released DVDS of Bickershaw and Deeply Vale) Back then he ran the infamous Tractor music shop in Rochdale, managed the John Peel funded band Tractor (naturally) and would subsequently work with such artists as Motorhead and Ian Dury,

At its pre-punk inception in 1975, Deeply Vale managed to entice the genuine Nomadic hippy trail up from scattered enclaves of France and Morocco.

By 1978, the punk/hippy divide was duly filled by The Fall, Here and Now, The Durritti Column, The Distractions, Fast Cars and Steve Hillage. A glorious if clunky disparate mix of artists which triggered the notion of the multi-genre festival. It was also, like Rivington Pike, free!

Thirty years later, Chris Hewitt took me back to the Deeply Vale site. In retrospect, the area seemed miniscule”¦a tiny glade cut ”˜deeply’ into stark. Pretty, utterly remote and, given its almost comic inaccessibility ”“ a mile down a ragged track ”“ completely unsuitable for the staging of festivals in the age of, arguably, overt health and safety awareness.

“It couldn’t happen now”¦not here”¦not anywhere,” stated Hewitt.

Perhaps just as well. For Deeply

Leigh Festival. August 27 1979 (Lancashire)

Held in a field almost immediately adjacent to the old Bickershaw site, the Leigh Festival of 1979 could be seen as the perfect post-punk northern broadside. A sweeping statement of musical unity between two cities, Manchester and Liverpool. It was the moment when Manchester Factory Records met its Liverpool counterpart, Zoo, with a bill that saw the bands of both labels, neatly slotting in place. Topped by the soaring and unworldly Joy Division, the final day bill included Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, A Certain Ratio, The Distractions, OMD, Crawling Chaos, Elti Fits and Factory reggae band, X-O-Dus.

Leigh was to become one of the truly innovative festivals of the time era. Largely, however, this was due to the later achievements of so many of the artists (plus, of course, extraordinary performance of Joy Division which leaked onto a number of bootlegs). It was also bumped and hyped by the press”¦Jon Savage in Melody Maker and yours truly in Sounds. While the writing was streamed in superlatives, the accompanying photographs told a bleaker tale. A few punks scattered a field.

In truth, and perhaps in true Factory style, it was an unprecedented success in purely aesthetic terms and commercial flop. It was also not quite what it seemed. Indeed not a one day festival where Factory met Zoo at all, but a three-day event involving dozens of bands and a huge slice of the local community.

IYY Festival. Platt Fields, Manchester. August 1985

In the general scheme of things, 1985’s IYY (International Youth Year) Festival has been rather lost to a frenetic city history.

However, it retains a musical importance within Manchester circles. Perhaps because of sheer luck of timing, it came to signify the rebirth of a city that, beyond the big three of The Smiths, New Order and The Fall, had rather lost its way. But 1985 saw a sea change that would trigger the lead-in to the glories of Madchester, four years later.

A number of key elements helped create the catalyst. Under the guidance of expert booker, Roger Eagle, The International Club in Longsight had started to attract the rebirth guitar bands which included American imports such as the fledgling REM and Green on Red. In addition, Colin Sinclair opened The Boardwalk, venue and practice rooms on Little Peter Street. Almost in a flash, a flurry of energising new bands was bustling for attention. We already had Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and James, the three cornerstones of Madchester, but beyond them came full wave of bands and artists, a multitude of genre.

This was the spirit that enlivened the IYY. Bathed in glorious sunshine came a cleverly assembled cross-section of the new city. Topping the bill were the true league leaders, Simply Red. In later years, as their commercial star ascended, their local importance ebbed away. But in 1985, freshly signed and eager, they represented a Manchester soul vision that had never been completely put to rest. Furthermore, the songs gathered on their exceptional debut album, Picture Book, formed the basis of the IYY set. Perhaps most important of all, it took Simply Red to prove to the distant London record companies, that a lucrative seam might be found beyond the natural vision of the capital.

Also on the bill, that day, was James, who had now started to pull away from their initial image of Factory folkies. Easterhouse, one of the great lost rock bands of Manchester who unleashed the remarkable Contenders album before crumbling to sibling rivalry within their ranks. Unlikely Factory jazz ensemble, Kalima ”“ who, like Swing Out Sister, would be an offshoot of A Certain Ratio, The Jazz Defektors and, perhaps most underrated of all, Marc Riley’s Creepers. Therein you had the birth of many things. It was interesting to note that, as Hucknall’s voice finally vanished to the night, a sizeable proportion of the crowd drifted back across to The International, to catch John Cooper Clarke and Terry and Jerry.

You just knew something was stirring, thickly in the air and, at the IYY Festival, the prevailing feel was of a city reborn.

The Festival of the Tenth Summer. July 1986 Manchester City Centre

Although scattered around several Manchester city centre venues during the week ”“ with singular appearances from Happy Mondays, Easterhouse, The Railway Children and The Bodines- the giant hinge event took place on Saturday July 18, 1986, within the cavernous G-Mex exhibition hall and showcased to the world the talents of The Smiths in full pomp, New Order, The Fall, OMD, John Cale and A Certain Ratio and, pulled in from the echoes of Merseybeat, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.

The idea was to celebrate the ten tumultuous years that had passed since The Sex Pistols performed to such inspiring effect, just a few yards away in the Lesser Free Trade Hall. In regard to this, ageing Sex Pistols television baiter, Bill Grundy, was even given a small slot in which to rant and rave accordingly.
A Factory event it might have been but the true glory was not to be theirs.. Indeed, it was one of the bands rejected by Factory’s slap-dash A & R nose, which scooped all the honours.

On that day, G-Mex belonged to The Smiths. A set, seventeen songs deep, bristling with the glories of their greatest album, the recently released ”˜The Queen is Dead’ and also showing the appearance of fifth Smith, Craig Gannon, of Bluebells and Colourfield fame. With the banner waiving, spinning, falling, flailing Morrissey, ever the centre of everything, the set never lost the enigmatic power created by the Prokoviev’s ”˜Romeo and Juliet’, which heralded their arrival. A simple, traditional and effective trick, that made them seem like the greatest band on the planet.
Which, of course, they were.

V Festival Warrington. August 17 / 18 1996

From the fevered mind of Jarvis Cocker”¦at least initially. The idea to play two festivals on two days, to rotate the bill north and south. The northern leg of the first V Festival too place in relatively unlovely Victoria Park, Warrington. A flat, busy, workmanlike park on the fringes of the River Mersey and central to the Manchester/Liverpool axis. As Creamfields ”“ held at nearby Daresbury has discovered in recent years ”“ Warrington is ideally situated in terms of simple logistics, as the motorway network rings the town.

In contrast to its southern counterpart at Highlands Park, Chelmsford, Victoria Pak provided a post-industrial vibe, with a vista of pylons, flatblocks, strings of terrace housing and a beautiful ”˜bouncing’ suspension bridge crossing the Mersey.

Evocative if not pretty ”“ and too compact for extensive camping ”“ it retained an intimate feel as Pulp, Paul Weller, Supergrass, The Charlatans, Cast, Lightening Seeds, Gary Numan, Elastica, Sleeper and Super Furry Animals certainly conveyed the spirit of Britpop.

There are those who believe that, this was the greatest of all V Festivals, partly because that tight intimate feel evoked a local fairground atmosphere”¦indeed, and perhaps like Friends of Mine, reacted against the ”˜gigantism’ that has arguably weakened the festival vibe in recent years,

Spike Island.

Spike Island, the legendary celebration of the energy flash of Madchester, began as simple vision. The Stone Roses stated their desire to “hold our own festival”¦not near London but somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool.”

The words flooding through the mind of their manager Gareth Evans as he stood on a Clwyd hillside, gazing across at the intense concentration of chemical plants, jagged contraptions, naked flames and mess of pipes that dominated the flatlands from Frodsham to Widnes.

And right there”¦a flat featureless expanse stretched before him. Spike Island, Home to the infamous Halton Show”¦and little else. The perfect venue for the ultimate festival of the ”˜chemical generation?’
It was Evans and promoter Phil Jones who transformed this vision into a reality where 35,000 people came to see a band at the peak of their pulling power. Although the problems of staging Spike Island were multitudinous ”“ from the soaring heat wave that struck in the festival build-up to the muted sound that effectively took the edge away from the Roses performance ”“ it still became a beacon gig of the era.

It was an oddly assembled bill. Thomas Mapfumo and his Drum Orchestra, Jah Wobble ”“ whose bass lines, when fed through Gary Clail’s sound system, sent the council’s sound metres into a frenzy ”“ to Dave Haslam’s Madchester based DJ set which filtered into the evening.

But, as promoter Phil Jones told me: “The best thing about Spike Island was the lighting. It was spectacular. The finest. Looking at those kids, out there. They were in a state of rave, looking truly gobsmacked. Truly, it made Pink Floyd seem small time.”

In truth, these have been a few highlights from the eclectic legacy of festivals in the north west. There have been many more, from the Factory weighted Cities in the Park (Heaton Park, Prestwich) to the unlikely National Acoustic Festival of Nantwich, a courageous affair that became lost to the unprecedented torrential downpours of 2008).

In more recent years, as the festival circuit has spread and splintered into seemingly a thousand strands, covering all genres, ages and sizes. Particularly intriguing has been the rise of the urban festivals, from the multi-venued electronica of Futursonic to the extraordinary D.percussion that came to symbolise the new soul of post-regeneration Manchester. Liverpool too, has enjoyed huge urban success with, among others, the city centre swelling of The Matthew Street Festival.

But at Friends of Mine, at last, we were gifted a chance to showcase some of the finest ”“ largely ”“ north west based music in the beauteous heart of rural Cheshire. The road from Deeply Vale and Bickershaw has been long indeed, although lined with jewel scattered events of music and collective spirit. Legendary festivals, deeply rooted in the area’s psyche.

How, wonderful to see the eclectic spark return, beneath the silhouette of Capesthorne Hall’s evocative towers. And with music spanning an extraordinary 30 years and, as with Deeply Vale, the spirit of the crowd making it all so special”¦.and northern! Naturally.

Mick Middles


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14 comments on “The Chequered history of North West festivals”

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  1. Robin Brunskill

    Brilliant Mick x

  2. Enjoyed FOM Festival – Look forward to 2012.

    Other past NW events inc Larks In The Park, L’Pool, 2 nights of mayhem in Sefton Park; anyone else recall Bow Wow Wow playing in the island in the lake, and everyone trying to swim across, Bunnymen, DOA they all played.

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