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CHRIS HEWITT: A MUSICAL ENTREPRENEUR INTERVIEW BY NIGEL CARTNER

For those not directly involved in the music industry, the name Chris Hewitt may be somewhat unheard of, but his influence in the assorted ages of music is paramount, especially in the North West. He is a true product of a golden generation of musical heritage where the architects involved lived and breathed music, making it a highly inspirational era. His work has diversified over the years, becoming an extremely respected and successful sound engineer, gig promoter, event organiser, band manager and owner of a music shop, studio and record label. The list could go on! His more famous work includes the organising of the famous Bickershaw and Deeply Vale festivals amongst others, and his involvement in the famous ‘Factory’ scene of the 1980s. His continued work for the North West, predominately the North of Manchester, has brought great recognition, culminating in Chris being part of the unveiling of the different plaques that commemorate musical heritage in Rochdale, Middleton and Heywood.

To be invited to interview such a man was a humbling experience in itself, but to see his CD, book and memorabilia collection was something I hadn’t envisaged. The number of rarities in CD’s and books could embarrass even the largest of specialist outlet chains. The interview took place in his studio and upon entering we were thrust into a nostalgic realm of significant music memorabilia which could easily be converted into a small rock n roll museum.

Where do you start an interview for someone who was right in the thick of things back in the 70s and 80s, having several tales to tell, and work with and meet people who would go on to become iconic? Well, probably best to start at the beginning.

NIGE: How did it all start for you?

CHRIS: When I was about 16 at Hulme Grammar school, I started buying music papers and magazines and began to get quite obsessed with it. It was the sort of thing you did in those days. Everyone who went to Grammar School bought Prog LP’s and read all the newspapers, so that’s where it started. Towards the end of Grammar school my hair was beyond my collar, I wasn’t wearing regulation grey trousers, I wore pointed toed shoes and a round neck sweater instead of a V-neck, breaking all the rules. In the end they said they thought I’d be best at a more liberal establishment so I went to Rochdale College to do my A-Levels. I thought rather than go to lessons I’d become social secretary for the students’ union, and that’s where I met Roger Eagle and got involved with John Peel and ‘Tractor’, ‘Stack Waddy’ and ‘Bridget St John’ who was on Peel’s label. So that was it really, from 16 to 17 I started promoting these bands and others like ‘Brinsley Schwartz’, and ‘The Strawbs’ to just name a few.

Then I started my own promotions and it just took off from there. In about 1974 I left Rochdale to work in London, working for Ian Dury, (pre ‘Blockheads’), ‘Carol Grimes and The London Boogie Band’, Henry McCullough from ‘Wings, ‘East of Eden’, ‘Sheer Elegance’ and various other bands from around London.

Then I came back up north and started a music shop called, ‘Tractor Music’ in Rochdale. After 12 months, John Brierley asked if I wanted a town centre premises. So I took the lease on that, having the music shop downstairs and ‘Cargo Recording Studios’ upstairs. He ran Cargo as my tenant for 7 years and that became the leading punk studio, and I ran the music shop. We tended to have a host of customers between us like Pete Burns, ‘The Mighty Wah’, Julian Cope and the ‘Factory’ bands. That’s when I became close friends with Hooky and worked with ‘Joy Division’. I used to do a regular house PA at the Electric Circus which led to other work like touring with ‘The Adverts’, ‘The Lurkers’ and ‘TV Smith’. I did the PA at the Leigh Festival, four years at Deeply Vale and went off around the country doing festivals and stages for councils and it’s never stopped really.

John decided to sell Cargo Studios to Hooky and me and that became ‘Sweet Sixteen Recording Studios’, which became quite successful because we had ‘Stone Roses’, ‘Inspiral Carpets’ and ‘Happy Mondays’ coming down.

NIGE: Was all this planned or did you just fall into it? I suppose it was a lot easier to diversify in those days?

CHRIS: I just fell into it and it was easier back then. There were no courses in those days. It amazes me now the number of kids on media courses but the one thing it doesn’t teach is what to do if your van breaks down or how to go fly posting without getting caught. You can sit there writing a CV for a media course and putting your gigs on Facebook but it doesn’t put bums on seats or solve problems. It’s a learning curve and you have to go through the process of the grotty clubs and no one turning up before it goes anywhere.

NIGE: Did you consider playing at any point?

CHRIS: Yeah I bought an acoustic guitar and was fascinated with things like; what if I put a pick up on this guitar? Or what if I built an amp? And what if I built a speaker cabinet? Suddenly I was doing amps and speaker cabinets for loads of people and didn’t have time to play because I was so busy making equipment. I think if you’re organised like a sound man or production manager then being a musician wouldn’t work because you have to be haphazard and disorganised to be a musician.

MEL: What was the best era that you worked in?

CHRIS: I think the cross over between the end of Prog and psychedelia and the start of punk was probably the best. I found the 80s keyboards really depressing because the energy of punk was gone. That was the great thing about Deeply Vale in 1977 because we allowed punk bands on what was basically a psychedelic festival stage. Although, we had Sid Rawle (king of the hippies) in 1978 throw one of the bands off the stage for swearing at the audience. He got chastised for that but it built a lot of bridges between the punks and the hippies. The Glastonbury crowd, who were kings of the underground music festivals between 1970 and 1976, couldn’t see that they were going to have to let punks on the stage, so there was a real resistance to punk bands playing hippie festivals at first, but there ended up being a great hippie/punk crossover like at the ‘Rock Against Racism’ festival. I think that was the classic period, the late 70s and early 80s, until ‘Thatcherism’ kicked in and it all just went really.

NIGE: From that era, who were the stand out bands and characters?

CHRIS: Well obviously ‘Joy Division’. They didn’t have some divine message that people read into nowadays. Without Martin Hannett they would’ve been nothing, just another average band. He (Hannett) just deconstructed them and rebuilt them. ‘The Adverts’ were great fun on their first tour. ‘The Lurkers’ on their first tour through the North West was great too.

NIGE: Were you aware at the time that the Manchester scene was going to be so influential to music?

CHRIS: I suppose not. It’s a strange one because as Hooky’s told the story they spent so much money on it initially and no one actually went. It was like one of those westerns where the tumbleweeds blew across this empty building that no one went to. The first time I saw it really used to any extent was when we had to build some crowd barriers for a ‘New Order’ BBC 2 film live from The Hacienda. That was the first time I saw a decent crowd there in the early days. But it seemed so ineffective at the time. To me the stage was on the wrong wall and the first sound system they put in blew up after a few days. Tony (Wilson) called me asking me to do a really cheap system to replace it, but after time I talked him into putting a proper one in. It just didn’t seem to work at all, like most of ‘Factory’ really. But, I’ve got tonnes of stuff that we’ve ripped out of The Hacienda as it was being upgraded and you just take it for granted at the time. It’s crazy to think that now we actually gave pieces of the dance floor away with Hooky’s special edition Hacienda books with the original dirt and grime still on, and made guitars out of the remaining pieces.

MEL: Can you talk us through some of the memorabilia you’ve got?

CHRIS: Well I’ve got Martin Hannett’s AMS delays, which is the whole basis to the Manchester sound. I’ve got one of the guitars of the same make and model that was used on ‘Love Will Tear us Apart’. A tape recorder of Martin Hannett’s that he used for his school boy experiments. Rob Gretton’s original tape recorder that he used to record all the ‘Joy Division’ and ‘New Order’ gigs on. The Hacienda horn flares. George Harrison’s UL 730 amp, and cabinet which I leant to Hooky and he blew up, but when we took it apart we found the original ‘Beatles’ inscriptions inside. One screen out of the studio in Rochdale, where ‘Joy Division’ recorded. The keyboard that ‘Atmosphere’ was played on, which was reused when we re-recorded it with Rowetta. One of the amps that belonged to Martin Barre from ‘Jethro Tull’. An amp signed by ‘Slash’ and ‘Jim Marshall’. An amp that was part of ‘Joy Division’s’ first PA out of the rehearsal room. The emulator they used for ‘Blue Monday’ on Top of the Pops. There’s tonnes and tonnes of stuff. One day I will get an exhibition together when I’ve got the time. There’s also a massive tape and film archive that is forever growing. I do a lot of supplying, like supplying Bickershaw footage for the Joe Strummer film, footage for the Creation Records film and footage of Hulme for ‘The Stone Roses’ one.

 

MEL: Is there anything personal that belonged to Ian Curtis?

CHRIS: Yeah I’ve got one of his melodicas. We did have a mock up of his white guitar but I sold it back to Hooky.

NIGE: I have to ask because he’s one of my idols but what was Ian Curtis like?

CHRIS: Just an average sort of bloke really. A bit deeper than Bernard and Hooky. He did read a little bit. Hooky and Bernard might read now but they didn’t back then.

MEL: What do you think of the films made about Ian and did Ian want to be massive?

CHRIS: I found ‘Control’ quite depressing, but it’s sad that it wasn’t filmed in Manchester or Macclesfield (it was filmed in Nottingham). I don’t know, I thought there were a lot of inaccuracies. It’s hard sometimes when you were actually there to see it recreated badly. I don’t know if he did want to be massive, perhaps part of him did and part of him didn’t. Ian was always very matter of fact.

NIGE: You were involved with the Bickershaw 40th anniversary a couple of weeks ago, can you tell us a bit more about that event?

CHRIS: Well Mick Middles and I started researching Bickershaw about ten years ago because we thought we should document all these festivals and we’d been talking about doing various books. So I started on Bickershaw and it just grew and grew. It got to the 35th anniversary and we put a short DVD out. Jeremy Beadle contacted me and we came up with the idea of getting a 40th anniversary box set together but sadly Jeremy died in 2008 shortly before I was meant to interview him. He’d always refused to talk about it because people wanted to do it from a comic angle whereas I wanted to do it from the angle of the fact that Jeremy was a serious promoter back then. He did pass a load of stuff onto me so over about ten years I’d built up this book about Bickershaw and ‘The Grateful Dead’ coming to England. Over a few years I managed to accumulate about 5 ½ hours of film and 6 CDs of music and just put it all together for the 40th anniversary. The only day that BBC could come was last Monday and quite amazingly, because the biggest football match in the world was on (City v Utd), they went for it and it worked really well. All the magazines have gone for it aswell. But there was such an amazing line up for somewhere just outside of Manchester and Liverpool, like ‘The Kinks’, ‘Captain Beefheart’, ‘Donovan’, ‘Hawkwind’ ‘Cheech and Chong’. I think there’s just a glut of festivals nowadays but the great thing about Bickershaw was that it was one stage and on that stage you saw all these great bands, and that was it. Nowadays you’ve got a dance tent over there, acoustic tent here, main stage here, 2nd main stage there and everything you want to see is on at the same fuckin’ time. It doesn’t need to be like that, there’s just too much and maybe we need to go back to quality control.

MEL: What do you think of music today?

CHRIS: I don’t think there’s anything new. It’s happened all the way since ‘Coldplay’ onwards really. You hear a track and buy the album and there’s only like three good tracks on it. I think it’s all been done before.

NIGE: How have you had to adapt with organising events, change in sound and even management given the changes undertaken in recent years?

CHRIS: You’ve got to look for a unique angle all the time. It’s a lot harder because there’s too many bands, too many festivals and too many CDs. For every album you want to sell there are ten bands who will play for nothing and give their music away. One thing I did adapt to about seven years ago was going back to vinyl. The only way you’re going to control your catalogue and stop it being handed around over the internet is if you make a nice product that people want to physically own. With vinyl, LP sleeves, box sets and books you can do that to some extent. You can copy these but you lose the quality of not physically owning the LP sleeve, the sound quality and pictures on proper art paper, so there’s always going to be that niche market for better quality music to be nicely marketed. But it is a problem because I don’t think the gig money has gone up for 30 years but the cost of equipment and fuel has gone up twenty fold.

NIGE: You’ve been involved with trying to preserve the musical heritage in Rochdale, but why have the council been against it?

CHRIS: Well we did the blue plaques on the studios in Rochdale and worked really hard on that, even getting the media down for the unveiling too. The recording studio is now re-opening because of the blue plaque, but to try and interest Rochdale Council in its music history is a nightmare. I’ve had all sorts of arguments with them. When we did the launch of the blue plaque in Rochdale I said to the council that we could do buskers events and street festivals every year. The council said that they didn’t consider where the recording studio was to be part of the town centre. I said to them that they’ve got a recording studio here where all these famous bands came down and walked on this street and you don’t think it’s important? I even went to them with an idea of a tourist trail map because there’s a blue plaque in Middleton for Pete Cowap, a plaque in Heywood for John Peel, and the one in Rochdale for ‘Joy Division’. We’ve got Gracie Fields, Anna Friel, Lisa Stansfield, Andy & Liz Kershaw so there’s all these sort of connections. Even the bridge that runs over the motorway at Slattocks was where ‘The Chameleons’ named their album. I said we could do a tourist map like they’ve got for Manchester with all the different places that are relevant to the music scene and it’d really put Rochdale, Middleton and Heywood on the map, but they’re not interested. It’s frustrating because what the council in Rochdale don’t get is that there wouldn’t have been a ‘Factory’ if it wasn’t for Rochdale because we allowed Tony Wilson cheap recording equipment and he could hire equipment cheap. I’ve campaigned like fuck to get the council to take an interest. I’ve even gone to the media but they’d much prefer to get the headlines about under age sex or the highest number of people on the social or whatever.

NIGE: I believe you’re making a film about Martin Hannett, can you tell us a little about that?

CHRIS: Well I bought Tosh Ryan’s ‘Rabid Records’ archive. When Martin moved across to ‘Factory’, ‘Rabid’ folded but Tosh went into video and eventually wanted to get rid of all his stuff so he sold all the archives to me. We’ve got 90 hours of film about Hannett so we’re trying to edit that down, but I’m also trying to write a book about him that’s more accurate than ‘Who Killed Martin Hannett?’ as there’s a lot of fiction in that. I’m trying to rewrite the balance a bit because I’m sick of this story about how it all started at The Lesser Free Trade Hall, the story according to Anthony H Wilson. Martin Hannett was playing in bands with Paul Young back in the 1960s so it goes a lot further back than The Lesser Free Trade Hall. I’ve spoke to loads of people who Martin went to school with and who he was in bands with. He was around for a long time as a gig promoter, sound engineer and musician before he became the iconic Factory Records Producer, so we’re trying to go back to those days really and write the whole history of Pre Lesser Free Trade Hall where his classic work was.

NIGE: Finally, being a huge ‘Doors’ fan, I understand you released a collection of lost interview tapes of Jim Morrison, how did that come about?

CHRIS: It was one of the first CD’s I put out and I became friendly with Ray Manzarek because of it and ended up putting one of his solo albums out too. What happened was I went to a mates house in Moss Side who used to work at Granada. He had all these old reels of tape and said I could have them, stating that there was some Jim Morrison stuff from interviews. Anyway, I brought all these tapes back and tried to find something to play them on and found 18 minutes of Jim Morrison being interviewed before The Roundhouse concert, which had never been out before. So I decided to put it out on CD and called it ‘Stoned But Articulate’. Danny Sugarman rang me up threatening me with all sorts of legal action and he didn’t believe I had these interviews. I said I had and he could try and sue me if he wanted to because in England the law is he who owns the fuckin’ tape owns the fuckin’ tape. I put it out anyway and The Doors fan club in Germany contacted me saying they had loads of other stuff and wanted me to put out another one called, ‘The Ultimate Collected Spoken Words’ which was a double CD. I did about three CD’s of spoken words and launched them at one of the anniversary events in Paris. It’s what really started my label off and then I sort of moved on from there doing ‘Sex Pistols’ ones and I’m currently working on a ‘Motorhead’ one.

Interview by Nigel Cartner, with additional questions from Melanie Smith 
Photos by Melanie Smith