Review: Rock Legends at Rockfield by Jeff Collins
I run a recording studio in Narberth, a small town in West Wales, and I love reading about famous studios and producers, so I dived into this newly updated edition of Jeff Collins’ book with relish.
First published in 2007, it now includes interviews with many of the artists who have recorded at Rockfield since then.
‘Rock Legends At Rockfield’ tells the story of how brothers Charles and Kingsley Ward went from building a home studio in the loft of their farmhouse to running one of the world’s most celebrated residential recording studios.
Located on a working farm in the Wye Valley near Monmouth, Rockfield has been operating commercially since 1963, and in that time has played host to the recording of landmark albums by some of history’s greatest bands: Queen’s A Night At The Opera, Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Coldplay’s Parachutes to name but three.
Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Welsh rockers Budgie all recorded there in the early years, giving the place a reputation for welcoming heavy-rocking bands that endures to this day.
The book brings us up to date with sections on Thunder, Royal Blood and Swedish prog giants Opeth, all of whom have employed Rockfield’s facilities to great success in the last decade.
Many of the musicians and producers interviewed for the book describe how Rockfield’s rural location and easy-going atmosphere allowed them to focus on their work, free from the distractions of the outside world.
Here’s Robert Plant, erstwhile vocalist of none-more-legendary rock giants Led Zeppelin: “After all that wild stuff in Zeppelin, this place was an absolute dream. It was pastoral, funny and had a history. I’d lived in this goldfish bowl in Led Zeppelin.
“All we knew about were security blokes and shadowy figures that came in the night with bags of gear. So when it all finished, it was fantastic to come here.”
Plant recorded several solo albums at Rockfield in the 80s and seems to have visited quite often even when he wasn’t actually recording there.
Several stories in the book attest to bands staring open-mouthed as the golden-haired rock god pops in to their recording session to say hello.
But whilst Plant found Rockfield the ideal place to escape the hurly-burly world of heavy rock, other artists seem to have taken a stint on the farm as an invitation to misbehave.
The book is rich with tales of debauched and sometimes dangerous escapades, from food fights to punch-ups and car crashes.
Collins takes a neutral stance on these incidents, recounting them with a detached amusement, and the staff at Rockfield appear to have done the same; after long-forgotten indie band Cable saw fit to smash the place up, the repair man’s response was “This is nothing!”
Recalling the days of Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath, he said “They really knew how to wreck a studio.”
Collins lays out the book in loosely chronological order, and in the first half Black Sabbath, Budgie, Hawkwind, Motorhead and Queen each get their own chapter.
These artists’ musical journeys are deeply entwined with Rockfield, and for me this is where the real interest lies.
The use of passages transcribed from interviews with the people involved takes us right to the heart of the events, and behind it all we sense Kingsley Ward as a fatherly figure, welcoming musicians onto his farm, indulging their destructive episodes and alcoholic excesses, and sometimes co-opting them to pick spuds or herd cows.
Roy Thomas Baker, producer of Queen’s A Night At The Opera, comments: “…Kingsley Ward is a great guy, but he will insist on driving his tractor around at six o’clock in the morning…”
The second half of the book takes us from the 80’s up to the present day and features artists such as The Pogues, Oasis, The Stone Roses and The Darkness.
A chapter entitled ‘Rockfield on the Silver Screen’ offers some surprising revelations regarding the studio’s depiction in the film Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as briefly covering Hannah Berryman’s excellent 2020 documentary Rockfield: The Studio On The Farm, which I thoroughly recommend as a companion piece to the book.
Also deserving of its own chapter is Monnow Valley, Rockfield’s sister studio which started life as a space for bands to write and rehearse before going to Rockfield to record.
In the 80’s Charles Ward developed it into a fully-fledged recording studio and it’s seen the likes of Motorhead, Simple Minds and Oasis record there.
From 2013 to 2018, prog legends Yes used Monnow Valley to rehearse their live sets before going on tour.
Their bass player Bill Sherwood recalls: “It’s pretty rural and there’s no-one around. So as we’re playing, I looked through the window and I see this guy walking down the road toward us… He finally makes his way into the building and, lo and behold, it’s Robert Plant.”
See, there he is again!
Jeff Collins has done some serious research and clearly loves his subject: as a result, Rock Legends At Rockfield is an absorbing read that offers fascinating insights into the process of creating music, along with eye-watering tales of rock ‘n’ roll madness.
What’s not to like?
Rock Legends at Rockfield by Jeff Collins is published by Calon. It is available through all good bookshops.
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