A Welsh cattle and pig farm evolved over the decades to become the world’s first “residential recording studio” in the late 1960s.
Musicians could go there, isolate, create and live under the same roof — almost dormitory style — as they cut classics from “Paranoia” (Black Sabbath) and “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Wonderwall” (Oasis) and “Yellow” (Coldplay), all because the two brothers who inherited the farm had to give up their “the next Elvis” dreams, but who were smarter than their parents in realizing “There’s no money in farming.”
“Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm” is a cute surface gloss in the “if these recording studio walls could talk” genre. Not as deep as dive into the music and “sound” as “Muscle Shoals,” but on a par with “Sound City” and as filled with music-making and musicians-behaving-badly anecdotes as any “Behind the Music” feature.
Filmmaker Hannah Berryman introduces us to the quirky, music-loving Ward brothers, Kingsley and Charlie, shows them doing a little farming and listens to the tale of how they turned the horse breeding acreage their parents bought as Amberly Court Farm in Rockfield, Monmouthshire into a still-working farm, but one where this Coach House or that Pig Barn was transformed into a place where hit records were recorded.
We spend precious little time touring the facilities, with just glimpses of the studios themselves. There’s no home movies or “video” of Queen recording its breakout, operatic hit or Ozzy and Black Sabbath doing the takes it took to nail down “Paranoid” or even Ace thumping out “How Long (Has This Been Going On).”
There’s a lot more of that footage later on, long after Foghat, Iggy, Bowie and Adam Ant put in their time there.
Instead, we’re treated to older musicians marveling as they recall the creative environment, the remoteness of it all, and the smell of the working farm where they were free to create, but also do what they pleased in their off hours.
A TV feature story from the ’70s shows us the “derelict farm” where the magic took place. Still photos show Black Sabbath messing around with river rafts, guns and bows and arrows and Liam Gallagher remembers an epic meltdown/smash-up Oasis staged making “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” back in ’95. Yeah, they pretty much broke up at Rockfield.
A member of The Charlatans killed himself in a drunk driving accident on the way back from a band gathering at a local pub. Even Black Sabbath turned some sort of corner, working and living together out there in the ’70s.
“We started out being a rock band that dabbled in drugs,” Osbourne (more slurry than usual) remembers. “We ended up being a drug band dabbling in rock.”
There’s probably too much material here that amounts to podcast anecdotes — Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill, who named Simple Minds after a Bowie lyric, being on the farm at the same time as Iggy Popp in the late ’70s. And whenever Iggy was in the UK, you could bet Bowie would be dropping in soon after
He did, and Simple Minds ended up backing the two of them on “Playing It Safe.”
Again, there’s no video of the magic happening, and the animation dropped in here and there to “recreate” such moments doesn’t really fill that void.
Charlie Ward’s daughter confesses the place and vibe were more of a “guys” thing. Joan Armatrading and a couple of other women recorded there, but rare was the woman, either singer-songwriter or bandmember, who found the need for the rustic, no-distractions world of Rockfield.
T’Pau recorded there, off an on. Getting them to speak on camera would have made the film feel more diverse, even if that’s not exactly the studio’s rock brand. The closing credits, listing the vast array of talents who worked there, is almost wholly hip hop, R & B and reggae-free.
Robert Plant’s reminiscences are some of the most frank, remembering “I was already a cliche” by the time Led Zeppelin broke up. He went to Rockfield in the ’80s to reinvent himself.
There were fallow years as sampling and digital recording turned every hotel room or home office into a “studio.” But bands and singers still show up, hoping a little of the magic rubs off on them and that what they step in on the way through the door will wash off with leather soap and water.
MPA Rating: unrated, profanity, discussions of drug abuse
Cast: Ozzy Osborne, Robert Plant, Lisa Ward, Kingsley Ward, Charles Ward, Jim Kerr, Liam Gallagher, Bonehead, Eliza Carthy, Chris Martin
Credits: Directed by Hannah Berryman. An Abramorama release.