Review: Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm

If you assess music documentaries by how many interviews with rock stars it contains, Rockfield, which is about the titular Welsh recording studio built on the premises of a working farm, will probably be right up there at the top of your list. The only caveat I would offer is that almost all of these musicians are British, and while Brit rockers are often more erudite and coherent than their American counterparts, they also tend to be more full of themselves, owing, I would imagine, to the special relationship they’ve had over the years with the British music press. Another caveat: An inordinate amount of screen time is given to Liam Gallagher.

In and of itself, Rockfield the recording studio is worthy of a documentary. The family farm, owned by two brothers, Kingsley and Charles Ward, rarely broke even as an agricultural enterprise but the idea of converting some of the facilities into a studio mainly sprang from the Wards’ own unsuccessful bid to become pop stars in the late 50s. They even did a demo for George Martin, but after it was rejected they decided to try and record their music themselves and set up a makeshift recording studio in one of the barns. It didn’t make a difference with regards to their musical dreams, but the studio attracted local talent who wanted to record and take their own shots at the big time. And then the brothers had a brilliant idea that just happened to dovetail with the ascendance of corporate rock in the late 60s: Make Rockfield a residential studio, a place where groups could work and live at the same time, thus allowing them to put all their efforts into the recording. Labels were shelling out good money at the time to attract and keep best-selling bands, but with the usual distractions, including drugs and groupies, getting in the way, it was often difficult to maintain their presence at London studios on an everyday basis. At Rockfield, they were not only ensconced in a beautiful, bucolic place where they could jam and record whenever they wanted to without interference, but they could party as much as they wanted to, as well, without interference. (The pub in the nearest village became a notorious watering hole for celebrity rockers.) 

Black Sabbath was one of the first major bands to record there, and Ozzy Osbourne (subtitled, of course) spins some colorful tales about how the focus afforded by the isolation made them think for the first time that they could create something great, all the while getting stoned and drunk to the extent where memories are pretty cloudy. In fact, one of the charms of the movie is that a lot of the stories sound like rubbish, but director Hannah Berryman doesn’t seem to be a stickler for detail. The woolier the story, the better, since it only goes to enhance the farm’s special aura. After all, while these groups were laying down tracks that would become stone classics, the Wards and their families were tilling the fieldss and milking the cows, and often the two missions would cross and blend. Robert Plant, always a brilliant raconteur, is particularly fluent about the pastoral effect the farm had on Led Zeppelin’s third album. 

However, Rockfield didn’t really come into its own until the 90s and the emergence of Britpop (after a relatively fallow 80s, when the Wards had trouble keeping up with the new technology). Everyone from Stone Roses to Coldplay recorded their best work there and the survivors are effusive about their admiration for the Wards and their little rural empire. There’s also the requisite drama: Rob Collins of the Charlatans famously died in a car crash on the road that connected the farm to the village. And for a good stretch, Kingsley and Charles didn’t speak to each other due to differences about the future of the farm, which was mostly run by Kingsley’s wife, Ann, and daughter, Lisa, anyway. Charles ended up setting up his own studio on the other side of the farm, though Berryman doesn’t delve into it very deeply. She seems to be considerate to a fault, allowing her interlocutors to say whatever they want and withhold whatever they want, as well. Fortunately, there are enough good stories to make Rockfield an entertaining if somewhat fawning documentary about British rock’s peculiar self-absorption. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Rockfield home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 le le Rockfield Productions Ltd. 

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