Gary Raymond enjoys an irreverent and affectionate feature-length documentary, Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm, by Hannah Berryman, a place that has given birth to some of the most iconic records in rock music history.
Growing up as a music-obsessed teenager in the ‘90s in Newport, Rockfield Studios was definitely on the radar. By the mid-part of that decade, when me and my mates began to venture out to pubs and clubs in the thick of the then-town’s nightlife golden era (that period when Kurt proposed to Courtney on the TJ’s stage, and Damon and Justine skipped arm-in-arm down the banks of the Usk), Rockfield was the Temple on the Hill for guitar bands in the Gwent Valley. Newport was the best place to indulge for musicians looking to get smashed in between recording sessions, and, when you’re sixteen, trying to get your money’s worth by filling the jukebox of your local with “I am the Resurrection” on loop, stories of Ian Brown and the Brothers Gallagher swaggering in at various points of the immediate past was all the mythology you needed to believe in God.
At that point, the prestigious tales of the studio’s influence on the evolution of rock music in the 1960s and 70s was lost to the aging musos, the barflies who would tell us that Oasis were ripping off T-Rex and that The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were the single most important thing to happen to music since Glenn Miller died. The first point was an important education, even if the second was slightly more contentious. But during that period, nobody was talking about the fact Black Sabbath pretty much formed in Rockfield – or at least cemented their sonic identify there – and that Queen wrote and recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the converted cowsheds of the Monmouthshire farm. No, Rockfield was then happening in real time, housing bands that brought out records that changed the trajectory of many of our lives. The fact that the studio was up the road on a farm didn’t make it quirky, it made it vital. And this is just one of the many things Hannah Berryman’s affectionate and often funny documentary on the history of the place gets just right. Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm is reverent in its attitude to the irreverence that permeates the Rockfield story. Tonally, Berryman has it just right, filling archival gaps in reminiscences of those who have worked and recorded there over the decades with punky animations and energetic edits. It’s a fun documentary to watch, and not just for those seeking a nostalgia pill. There is much here to attract music fans who have never heard of the place and turn them on to bands they’ve yet to discover.
It’s interesting to see how Rockfield has dealt with the evolution of the music business since it was first envisioned and then built by two farming brothers whose own forays into musicianship didn’t quite work out. Charles and Kingsley Ward (their parents must have had a love of the Water-Babies, right?) come across as charming eccentrics, two men untouched by the corporatisation of music over the years. The period of greatest existential threat, it’s worth noting, was the nineteen eighties, when bands believed the shinier something was the more sophisticated it became. Rockfield went out of fashion, with its mooing cows and shed doors that stick.
Simple Minds recorded their greatest album there, Reel to Real Cacophony (1979), and although the album produced no hits, Jim Kerr admits readily their time at Rockfield was a vital part of their evolution to stadium-filling egomaniacs. Ozzy Osbourne, less reality TV clown nowadays as permanent statute to rock injuries, sets out surprisingly clearly how Black Sabbath found their sound when rehearsing their first album at Rockfield in the early ‘seventies. The Stone Roses, of course, here quite rightly labelled as the band that saved Rockfield as a business when they arrived to record their eponymous debut in the late 80s, lived there for thirteen months. The family business, headed by the eccentric Ward brothers, provided a homely, contemplative environment for bands to find out who they were before allowing them out into the big bad world to make their marks on history. Studio as home.
The anecdotes in Berryman’s film are faultless, and apart from the notable absence of any members of Queen or The Stone Roses to tell their side of things, she has brought in many of the major voices from the studio’s most important eras. Jim Kerr retelling the story of how Simple Minds ended up singing backing vocals with David Bowie on an Iggy Pop record when the two acts were recording in adjacent studios at Rockfield in the late ‘seventies is a gem, and acts as standard-bearer for a million other stories lost to time and drugs within the walls of the Rockfield farm. Berryman, who lurks about the interviews with unmic’d questioning and provides some ballast to some addled and potentially tangential recollections, lures varying degrees of rock poetry from her interviewees. Liam Gallagher says of Rockfield, “It’s like the Big Brother house but wiv tunes.” Studio as cathedral.
Rockfield has not just been a place for young Turks to decide which weapons they wish to run out with. It’s also provided space for established artists to realign. Most notably here is Robert Plant, who recorded his first solo album at Rockfield, Pictures at Eleven (1983), after the death of John Bonham ended Led Zeppelin. It seems to have been the place where Plant grew up as an artist, leaving behind his Rock God trailblazing for something more contemplative. “I was a cliché…” he says.
Legendary indie producer John Leckie isn’t one for romanticising – something that defines his sound as well as his speech; he says that his attraction to Rockfield was that it had great equipment and “loads of space”. Berryman’s camera spends no little effort in helping the viewer understand just how important that space has been over the years to the recording artists, and you have to admit, these converted barns and pigpens have produced some of the most sumptuous recordings in rock history. Bringing a record out of Rockfield suggests some mercurial alchemy has gone on. As James Dean Bradfield notes, “If it sounds good in Rockfield, you just don’t mess with it.” Ace’s “How Long”, a huge hit in 1974, and a record that seems to use every inch of what Rockfield had to offer as a sonic space, was a turning point for the Ward brothers. But you can chart a lineage of records since then that are admired as much for their sound as they are for their song-writing or musicianship. The guitars on “Paranoid”, the echo-chamber harmonies of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the drums and slide of “Love Spreads”, the Hammond of “One to Another”, the horns of “Wake Up Boo!”. Studio as instrument.
Since The Stone Roses recorded their debut there in the late 80s, Rockfield has never really looked back, and the Ward family seem still happy now that much of the business is let out as Holiday cottages. Perhaps being woken up in the middle of the night by a bunch of drugged up teenagers smashing through their latest rehearsal is something to look back on as a “fond” memory rather than something they’d like in their lives at this stage. Nobody seems too devastated by the role technological evolution has had in making much of what Rockfield could provide redundant. Who needs the authenticity of music evolving in a space like Rockfield when you can just bash it out in your attic on ProTools? I’m more with John Leckie, I’m afraid: “Capture the magic and the magic is mystery.”
Berryman’s documentary has many other things to reveal about the music business in its 92 minutes, without ever really losing its focus on Rockfield. There are some lovely insights. When The Charlatans discuss the death of band member Rob Collins in a car accident just outside of Rockfield in 1996, it is impossible not to be moved, no matter how many times you’ve heard the story before. It’s tempting, particularly because Berryman spends so much effort allowing Rockfield to become a character in its own right, to feel that the place claimed Collins somehow as its purist son, like the house in Robert Wise’s movie The Haunting (1963). But in truth, this is part of Berryman ensuring her film has durable texture to it, and it absolutely works. Otherwise, certainly by the 90s period, the film could just be about a bunch of pissed kids fucking about in a shed.
The only time the film wavers is when it gets to Oasis. The band is an important part of the Rockfield story, and of course an important part of the story of rock music in the 1990s, but there is more of a whiff here of them being indulged. (As a friend of mine put it when discussing this documentary in a WhatsApp group: “You have to question someone who finds Oasis more interesting than Adam and the Ants.”) There are a few moments when the interview with Liam and Bonehead (the emotional vampire who used to play rhythm guitar for the band on their early – and best – albums) drifts into areas that make the film feel about Oasis, not Rockfield. A fight between the famously fractious siblings, Liam and Noel, in the studio leads to a conversation about their feuds and how it affected the band over the years. Not everyone is as fascinated by the squabbles of the Gallaghers as the music media seems to think. Here, Liam and Bonehead are given ample opportunity to relive some of their “wilder” rock n roll moments – (most of which sound like the kind of bullshit stories you’d hear regularly from old piss heads in Newport pubs back then – “remember when we stole that combine harvester drove it through a field?” “Oh yea yea I remember. Mad.” Yes, mate).
But, what Berryman does, inadvertently or not, is shine a little light on a part of the music industry that is only now just fading away. The boys who never grew up. That sad laddish belligerent aggressive arrogance that all us boys bought into in 1995. Oasis, of course, are continually courted still by a music press that is itself now run by lads who never really grew up. Last week Q Magazine published its last ever issue and did so with a compendium of anecdotes from its writers over the years. Reading it, I was reminded of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs giving advice to aspirant rock journo Will in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous (2000): “Don’t make friends with the band. It will kill your writing.” Q, of course, as most people know, died the day it hailed Keane as band of the year in 2004. But it has limped on since then, with its writers now able to reminisce on the time they got pissed with Oasis, or hung out with Bono, or played dominoes with Chris Martin. Mediocre writing about mediocre bands. That’s what mainstream music writing has been about for the last couple of decades. Lester Bangs (or at least Cameron Crowe) saw it coming. Berryman follows the trajectory of this, and the interviewees become more insipid as we get closer to the present.
The low point – or high point, if you’re as self-loathing as I am – is the interview with Coldplay frontman, singer, and principle songwriter, Chris Martin. Oasis might be the band for people who never grew up, but Coldplay are without a doubt the band for people who never tuned in. Martin walks us through the process of writing the band’s first megahit, “Yellow”, a song that was bleeped into my psyche on loop the summer I worked shovelling popcorn at a Newport multiplex. (Seven of my colleagues died that summer, their unexplained deaths linked only by the deep glowing jaundice of their corpses – I was lucky to get out alive!). Martin gurns that charmless grin of his as he humbly recollects coming up with the chorus and title when he spied a copy of the Yellow Pages in the corner of the room at the Rockfield rehearsal space where he was writing. Clip forward a decade and the band perform it to a hundred thousand people in a stadium in Rio. Cut back and Martin says the secret to their success is that “most of our songs are about something being awesome.” The Yellow Pages. Martin sits there with the grin of a shitting puppy, seemingly unaware he has just explained both the mystery of Coldplay’s popularity in this godforsaken world, and the obviousness of their banality. Capture the magic and magic is mystery, Leckie says. You can’t argue with that.
Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm is available no on the BBC iPlayer.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.