The story of the studio in a Welsh university that’s a shrine to Elton John
At Glastonbury Festival, Elton John will play his last ever show in the UK.
One of the greatest musical legends of our time – he will exit the stage a bona fide superstar whose stellar career has endured for decades.
His legacy looms large in the annals of rock history, however, unbeknownst to many people there’s a small corner of Wales where the Rocketman’s career is celebrated for future generations to enjoy.
Walk into the Gus Dudgeon Suite at the University of South Wales in Cardiff – and you are taking a step back in time into a room which reverberates with the golden echoes of the past.
The striking array of gold discs on the wall offers you the first clue that you are in a place that is part improbable rock ’n’ roll museum, part working studio fostering the next generation of music producers.
It is a shrine to one man’s incredible relationship with the global music star.
When the biopic Rocketman, with Welsh actor Taron Egeeton in the title role was releaseed in 2019, it told the story of the superstar’s life, from his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music, through his influential and enduring musical partnership with songwriter Bernie Taupin.
However, there was a third person who was instrumental in the stratospheric rise of the singer and that was the producer after whom this rather unique studio at the university’s Atrium building in Cardiff is named.
Gus Dudgeon was the talented studio engineer who produced all of the early albums that rocketed the Rocket Man to rock ’n’ roll fame and fortune. He also auditioned Tom Jones for Decca Records and produced David Bowie’s breakthrough hit Space Oddity.
It was with the man formerly known as Reg Dwight that he made his name. From 1970 to 1978 and in the mid-80s he was the producer behind the controls of all of Elton’s landmark albums.
These were the golden periods of the singer’s huge success. The 1970s era which established him and the larger-than-life 1980s which embellished his reputation as a rock ’n’ roll icon.
The songs which were produced in those heady periods of unbroken commercial success only underline this – Your Song, Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Candle In The Wind, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, Sad Songs (Say So Much), Nikita – the stardust-kissed list is endless.
Elton John’s relationship with Dudgeon was one which was built upon implicit trust. The musician would lay down the tracks and allow Dudgeon to do what he liked with them, such was symbiotic working relationship which the pair had cultivated.
You only have to look at the gold discs that adorn the walls of the Gus Dudgeon Suite to realise just how successful they were. There are discs awarded to Dudgeon for a million sales of Elton John’s eponymous debut album and Tumbleweed Connection – both released in 1970, as well as the soundtrack to the 1971 movie Friends.
The centrepiece of the studio is an MCI mixing desk – at one time in the mid-1970s it was state-of-the-art – now almost 50 years later it’s resolutely a retro piece of vintage studio engineering.
However, it has quite some pedigree having been the mixing desk housed at Dudgeon’s world-famous Mill Studios in Cookham in Berkshire. The studio opened in 1974 and was the culmination of the producer’s dream to own the best studio in the world.
It was only supposed to take six months to build but it took two years. Similarly, the original cost was £200,000 which spiralled to a million pounds, equivalent to around £15m now. Unsurprisingly, at the time it was the most expensive studio in the world.
It was the desk that recorded Elton John’s 1978 album A Single Man, featuring the worldwide hit Song For Guy.
It’s a story, however, that is shrouded in tragedy.
Dudgeon died in a car accident in 2002 aged 59 – a crash which also claimed the life of his wife.
Following his death, much of his studio equipment was put for sale, including the MCI desk, which was purchased by the university in 2007. Then it was rebuilt and resurrected before the suite opened in 2009.
“It went to various places,” explains Andrew Gwilliam, University of South Wales senior lecturer in music and internet technologies, speaking to me for WalesOnline in 2019. “It was at Reading College but they didn’t know what to do with it. We heard about it and put in a bid and we were successful.
“This was around 2007 and it lay in bits at the then University of Glamorgan campus in Treforest, until the Atrium opened in 2009 and we launched the Gus Dudgeon Suite.”
Opened by British singer Joan Armatrading, whose 1972 debut album Whatever’s For Us Dudgeon had produced, with a video message from Elton John, the suite was kitted out with equipment, images, awards as well as gold discs from the producer’s distinguished career.
“One of the guys who worked with us as a part-time lecturer, Mike Howlett, was chairman of the Music Producers Guild, he had a lot of Gus’ gear in his garden shed, which ended up in the studio,” recalls Gwilliam.
However, given the age of this prized vintage desk, the lecturer remembers it took some time to resurrect the desk with fellow uni staff members Simon Cullen and Daniel Turner.
“We spent a couple years putting it together and getting it to work, which wasn’t that easy,” he says. “That took a little while.”
Luckily help was at hand – thanks to the legendary Rockfield Studios, up the road in Monmouth: “[Rockfield owner] Kingsley Ward knew Gus. They had an MCI desk at the studios and helped us put it back together.”
Also of great help was the Gus Dudgeon Foundation. Set up in the producer’s name by a group of his industry friends, it has hosted Summer Schools at the university using the desk to foster the next generation of producers.
Dedicated to preserving and promoting music production techniques for future generations, its patron is Elton John.
With its brown leather trim and walnut brown dashboard, the MCI desk wouldn’t look out of a place in a Ford Cortina. It is of a place and a time and that place and time is the 1970s.
For University of South Wales’ Damon Minchella (music course leader) and Matthew Evans (senior lecturer) the desk is a welcome sight among the digital practices that dominate production techniques in the modern age.
It’s evident that the pair, both musicians of some pedigree – Minchella, a former member of Ocean Colour Scene and now member of Richard Ashcroft’s touring band and Evans, a former frontman of John Peel favourites Murry The Hump and currently frontman of Welsh psych rock favourites The Keys – are hugely fond of the desk.
“It would have cost an absolute fortune when it was new, probably the equivalent of around half a million when it was made,” says Minchella, who has played with everyone from Paul Weller to The Who.
“It was state of the art at the time. Obviously then it wasn’t vintage. We like it now because it’s vintage and got character – back then it was the best you got could buy. Of course, in the 1970s they would have thought the sound was pristine, now we use it to get that vintage crackly sound.”
While it’s plain to see that Minchella and Evans appreciate the desk’s rich history, I wonder if the students share that same emotional empathy.
“It means a lot to the parents who come here on open day,” laughs Evans. “On open days I bring my prospective students here. It does the talking for me.
“We’ll sit here with the parents and talk about what rock ’n’ roll meant to them. It is very evocative for parents. The students just ask ‘so do you use Logic or Pro Tools or Ableton?’
“That said, you do have those who get into it and go back to listen to the albums that were recorded using the desk,” he adds. “They go, ‘Wow I can use this desk that these albums were recorded on’.”
Evans explains that to maintain a desk of this age isn’t without its issues.
“It operates as a working desk and it breaks down like a working desk too,” he says. “It does have a temperamental nature.
“To fix it we have to get specialist people in to do that, but we do that because the students are inspired by it. It’s a certain type of student admittedly – an audiophile sort of student who will want to use it. It does impart a certain vintage sound, which you just can’t get from some of the more pristine desks.
“The desk can be hooked up to modern digital production kits like Pro Tools. We have 11 studios in the building and we operate a hybrid system of analogue desks and digital recording. And, anyway, no other desk looks like this. It’s very 1970s. Walnut and leather. Desks nowadays are either matt black or chrome, this is completely different.”
Studios like State Of The Ark and Toerag in London offer bands and musicians the opportunity to use vintage recording equipment.
“The attraction of these desks is they’ve got character,” says Minchella, who has recorded in State Of The Ark with Richard Ashcroft. “They’re fun to mix on. You get the crackle and the annoyance, but doing it manually you can get this rich, warm sound.”
Minchella tells a story of how at the height of Ocean Colour Scene’s 1990s fame, the band invested in an original 1960s Neve mixing desk for their Moseley Shoals Studios in Birmingham.
“We had a 1962 Neve desk we bought from the BBC,” he recalls. “It was fantastic. When we had some money we bought the oldest desk we could find. It cost a fortune to fix but sounded amazing. It was from the BBC Sound Effects Studio. It was exactly the same as The Beatles used, so we were like ‘We’ll have that. How much is it? Don’t care’.
“Then we got a maintenance guy in who said this is going to cost about 60 grand to fix. Oh well, we’re in now. We recorded part of (the album) Marching Already on it and all of the follow up One For The Modern using it.”
When I proffer that the pair should set up a commercial operation for the Gus Dudgeon desk allowing bands and musicians the opportunity to attain that rich, warm, vintage sound, they both laugh.
“The red tape you would have to go through and the security issues being a university building, it would be too difficult,” says Minchella. “The place is in lockdown at 9pm.”
Still, non-student musicians and aspiring producers’ loss is most definitely the University of South Wales students’ gain, whether they are familiar with Gus Dudgeon and Elton John’s burgeoning back catalogue or not.
What’s important is that the music producer lives on in this corner of Wales.
That his famed desk and assorted glittering ephemera has ended up in a university building for future generations to enjoy is quite some legacy.
You feel it’s what Gus Dudgeon would have wanted.
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