Let Harry Potter have Hogwarts. Artists like Oasis, Rush, Robert Plant and the Cure will take Rockfield. Surrounded by rolling hills, green pastures and Jersey cows, and framed by quaint brick buildings and half walls, the Welsh farm that doubles as an improbable recording studio touts a clear advantage over the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Unlike the J.K. Rowling creation to which Coldplay vocalist Chris Martin compares it in “Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm,” Rockfield is entirely real.
If Rockfield didn’t exist, it’s easy to imagine a fictional account on the level of recent rock-based tomes such as “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” and “Daisy Jones & The Six” inventing its narrative. But chances are that novel would be deemed overly sentimental or laughably impossible. Involving dozens of bands and five decades of music (and counting), Rockfield’s story defies logic and subverts tradition. Just like great rock ‘n’ roll should.
Indeed, one of the points made with understated charm in director Hannah Berryman’s excellent documentary is that Rockfield ignores the rules. Other than creating a space where their band and local groups could make records, brothers Kingsley and Charles Ward had no grand plan when they installed recording equipment in their farmhouse’s attic in the mid-’60s. Two eccentrics with no professional experience build a studio in the middle of nowhere, using improvised solutions like feed bags for acoustic separation, and continue to tend to farm chores: What could possibly go wrong?
Permitted to act as they pleased, play as loud as they wanted and experiment with drugs without worrying about watchful authorities, bands developed special bonds.
Plenty, including an eventual partnership split between the siblings. But not enough to prevent word getting out that Rockfield was the place for bands to go. By 1970, the addition of living quarters and an eight-track-equipped studio in former stables transformed it into the world’s first residential recording studio. Lured by the freedom, isolation and aura — as well as the prospect of having their meals prepared and rooms cleaned — groups that had never been in country environs treated the experience as adult summer camp. Permitted to act as they pleased, play as loud as they wanted and experiment with drugs without worrying about watchful authorities, bands developed special bonds. Positivity and creativity flowed.
Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath frolicked in the river, shot bows, fired rifles and lit fires as they rehearsed material for their “Paranoid” LP. Lemmy Kilmister, Dave Brock and the members of Hawkwind tripped on psychedelics and swallowed pills whose effects were enhanced by the pastoral surroundings. Queen took advantage of the communal living arrangements by deepening its chemistry and broadening its sound. Iggy Pop used the intimate live-work confines to collaborate with David Bowie and Simple Minds. Plant found his solo identity and felt “free to fail” after leaving the safety net of Led Zeppelin. Many other notable artists — power-poppers the Flamin’ Groovies; speed freaks Motorhead; folkie Joan Armatrading; New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneers Judas Priest; prog experimentalists Van der Graaf Generator; pub-rockers Dr. Feelgood; British punks the Damned; goth ghouls Bauhaus; new-wavers Adam and the Ants; Aussies Radio Birdman; post-punks Echo and the Bunnymen; and more — made it to the farm by 1983.
In an industry prone to cyclical trends, Rockfield remained popular even when new competition beckoned. Save for a hiccup in the late ‘80s that coincided with the rise of electronic programming and a severe recession, Kingsley Ward’s complex repeated its initial run of success by becoming a hub for chart-topping Britpop in the mid-’90s.
Following the example set by the Stone Roses, whose extended stay saved Rockfield from financial ruin, a parade of guitar-driven British bands — Lush, the Boo Radleys, Charlatans, Manic Street Preachers, Oasis, Black Grape, Stereophonics and the Stone Roses (again) — beat a trail to the Welsh countryside between 1993 and ‘98. Soon after, looking to optimize their investment in a fledgling new signing, Capitol Records sent a then-unknown English quartet to Rockfield to find its bearings. Coldplay emerged from the rural jaunt with several songs for its breakthrough debut, including the signature anthem, “Yellow,” and a sense of belonging.
In the 2000s, a decade in which radical changes in technology, distribution and consumption upended traditional structures, forcing studios to shutter and labels to slash recording budgets, Rockfield maintained its reputation for bringing out the best in artists. That still holds true. Recent repeat visitors (Plant, Simple Minds, Wire, Opeth) and newcomers (Pixies, Aldous Harding and the Cure, which recorded a still-unreleased triple album there) alike are drawn to what Osbourne, nearly at a rare loss for words in the documentary, describes as “magic.”
Producer John Leckie concurs, and provides an analytic view. He notes Rockfield skirts perfection in favor of emotion and mystery — elements that go hand-in-hand with iconic records. Yet the most insightful (and philosophical) rationale for the studio’s charisma and longevity comes not from a musician or engineer, but Kingsley Ward’s daughter and Rockfield’s manager, Lisa Ward. She attributes everything to the power of its unique setting. “Nature is a leveler,” Ward says. “It’s about being a part of something way bigger than you.”
For certain artists, surrendering to seclusion and forgoing urban conveniences are non-starters. And members of some bands may be unwilling to bunk with their mates for a week, let alone a month or longer. Getting thrown together, no matter how beautiful the scenery or relaxed the environment, doesn’t work for everybody — particularly those accustomed to a luxury lifestyle.
For all the ease associated with exchanging files via email, recording in bedrooms and using software like Pro Tools to edit, what has gotten lost in the transition?
Amid an era in which artists abandoned professional studios for laptop recording and home studios, Rockfield’s proven history and hard-won survival offer a possible explanation to the Big Question — Why haven’t any new arena bands emerged in the 21st Century? — arising in conversations, including Dave Grohl’s “What Drives Us” film. Perhaps the deficiency partially owes to the inimitable experience, ambience, expressiveness and rapport tied to making music in professional studios. For all the ease associated with exchanging files via email, recording in bedrooms and using software like Pro Tools to edit, what has gotten lost in the transition? Plenty, suggest artists such as former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher. Maybe too much.
There’s another interesting parallel. In the period leading up to the record industry’s sales heyday in the late ‘90s, vinyl LPs were largely deemed worthless. Shortly after 2000, around the same time pro studios began to fall out of favor, a steady and still-ongoing analog revival started to bend the curve. Listeners realized something was missing from digital and craved the detail, texture, warmth and tangibility of LPs. Could musicians seeking such tactile appeal and irreplicable sound lead to a studio resurgence? If so, there’s a farm in Wales that knows the way.