Debauched story of Welsh farm where rock legends made hit music

It’s only muck ‘n’ roll but they liked it: Debauched story of the Welsh pig farm where Freddie Mercury finished Bohemian Rhapsody and Oasis ‘borrowed’ a combine harvester in search of drugs

  • A BBC documentary is set to explore the history of infamous Rockfield Studios 
  • Owner Kingsley Ward, now 80, talks about the many bands who have visited 
  • Bands and musicians including Black Sabbath, Queen, Hawkwin, Iggy Pop, Simple Minds and Coldplay  have all recorded hits at the studio in Wales
  • Oasis’ Liam Gallagher described it as ‘like the Big Brother house but with tunes’ 

There’s not much about Rockfield Studios that screams rock’n’roll. No helipad. No swimming pool. No screaming groupies at the five-bar gate. No security presence.

Instead, there’s a clutter of slightly tired-looking farm buildings, a horsebox, the warm scent of manure and hens pecking in the mud.

Manning it all is 80-year-old farmer Kingsley Ward, who knows far too much about what happens to hedonistic musicians when they’re let loose in the Welsh countryside.

For half a century, Rockfield — Britain’s first residential recording studio (as Kingsley tells me several times) — has been at the epicentre of rock music.

A new BBC documentary will look at the history behind the infamous Rockfield Studios which Oasis’ Liam Gallagher (pictured with brother Noel) called the ‘Big Brother house but with tunes’

Rockfield Studios owner Kingsley Ward initially launched the studio with his brother Charles in the hopes of becoming a rock star himself but eventually rented the space out to local bands

Hard at work – Danny Goffey, Gaz Coombes and Rob Coombes of British band Supergrass, at Rockfield Studios in Wales during the recording of ‘Life On Other Planets’ in 2002

Since the early Seventies, bands have been sent to stay among the cowpats and hayfields for, well, as long as it takes to produce something decent.

As Oasis’ Liam Gallagher puts it in a forthcoming BBC documentary: ‘You lived there and you didn’t leave the studio until you had your album finished. It’s like the Big Brother house but with tunes . . .’

Not that he can remember much of it. ‘We were off our faces most of the time.’

Along with a lot of other guests.

It is not a luxurious set-up. The recording studios are tucked away in the farm buildings — former stables, pig sheds and barns.

The musicians sleep in simple accommodation, drink in the pubs in nearby Monmouth, bring their own ‘refreshments’ or, occasionally, order ahead. (‘One band ordered 200 bottles of Jim Beam bourbon,’ says Kingsley).

But time after time, they credit Rockfield with changing their lives, their music and their careers.

Ozzy Osbourne says it was here, aged 17, after shipping in endless amplifiers with his band Black Sabbath, that he invented heavy metal music. ‘He was as good as gold,’ says Kingsley. ‘He was really funny — I remember he had a bow and arrow. And, oh my God, the noise. It was deafening. I thought the roof was going to come off. It actually moved.

Heavy Metal band Black Sabbath relax, trigger fingers at the read, relaxing in the August sun outside the Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales, which they called home in 1977

‘They started when they got out of bed and went on ‘til three or four in the morning.’

Chris Martin wrote Yellow — the song that launched his band Coldplay — here, apparently inspired by the night sky, a shooting star, a copy of the Yellow Pages sitting nearby and the tranquillity. Clearly his was a different sort of stay from Ozzy’s.

Simple Minds were based here on and off for years. Hawkwind called it their second home.

Freddie Mercury famously put the finishing touches to Bohemian Rhapsody on an old piano in one of the tack rooms, while the rest of the band patiently whiled away the time playing Frisbee in the farmyard.

‘Queen were very gentle — such quiet, brilliant people and very dedicated,’ says Kingsley.

Others were less mellow.

Oasis drank, fought, smashed up the place, threatened one another with air rifles and cricket bats (until they were confiscated), wound each other up and pretended the farm was haunted.

While recording album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? they were told off for making too much noise in the wee small hours by Kingsley’s wife Ann, now 80, who came striding across to the studio in her dressing gown at 4 am.

‘They were like naughty schoolboys, all “Bloody Hell, it’s Ann! Turn it down,” ’ says Kingsley.

‘I’d always send her down to sort stuff out. They respected her. They could be a bit excitable but they always apologised.’

They had plenty of practice. There was the time Liam and fellow band member Bonehead (real name Paul Arthurs) ‘borrowed’ the giant combine harvester in the middle of the night and drove a mile through country lanes to snoop on — and share a joint with — The Stone Roses, who were recording at Rockfield’s sister studio, Monnow Valley Studios. And again, after having a massive barney and kicking in all the doors in their accommodation.

‘She’d say, “Could you please stop throwing things and messing around,” and they all did,’ says Kingsley. ‘They always listened to Ann.’

For her part, Ann must occasionally have wondered — perhaps when she was feeding the hens, or milking the cows, or doing the book-keeping and organising the chefs — just how she’d ended up running a farm, a residential recording studio full of hell-raisers and bringing up two girls, Lisa and Amanda, at the same time.

To be fair, Rockfield was never part of Kingsley’s big plan.

He and his brother Charles were brought up to be farmers — dairy and pigs, mostly. They listened to Chopin with their parents, took piano lessons and Kingsley went to agricultural college.

Freddie Mercury infamously perfected Queen hit Bohemian Rhapsody while at Rockfield

But then along came Elvis and everything changed.

They wanted to be just like him. So, in 1959, they formed a band (Charles on acoustic guitar, Kingsley on the piano), wrote a couple of songs, borrowed a tape recorder from the man who lived above the local pub — ‘We’d never seen one before!’ — and made a tape in their mum’s front room.

And, the next day, after milking the cows — they had a herd each — they drove 140 miles in their old Morris from Monmouth to EMI’s offices in London where they were transfixed by the lifts (‘Up and down we went like Zebedee’) and, amazingly, found someone to listen to their work. Sadly, this was not the moment their musical careers took off. ‘Come back in six months’ was the verdict.

Undeterred, they returned to Monmouth and focused on improving the sound. They bought a proper EMI tape machine, found a firm that made mixers and turned the attic of their parents’ farmhouse into a recording studio.

Between milking the 70 cows and feeding the 500 pigs, they recorded a couple more songs themselves, but moved into making demo tapes for local bands for whom London was not an option.

‘Soon we were charging five to ten pounds a time,’ says Kingsley. ‘We were the first commercial studio outside the major cities — in our parents’ attic!’

In 1965, the brothers opened a second studio in what was the old granary — the walls insulated with pig feed bags.

Two years later, a New York band called Elephant’s Memory booked in. ‘There was nowhere local for them to stay, so they slept in the farmhouse in the front room,’ says Kingsley.

Soon, more bands came to stay — at first in a bungalow down the farm track, into which they shoved half a dozen beds. And then in converted farm buildings. ‘It was rough, but they didn’t care,’ says Kingsley.

That was because the recording studios, equipped with eight-track drives just like London’s famous Abbey Road, were so good.

The turning point came in 1970 when Dave Edmunds’ Rockfield recording of I Hear You Knocking was a massive hit all round the world and bookings went mad. For some bands, rural Monmouthshire might as well have been Mars.

Iggy Pop, pictured here performing at Whisky A Go Go, recorded music at Rockfield Studios

‘We were from the streets of Birmingham,’ says Ozzy Osbourne in the BBC documentary. ‘I’d never been on a farm, or seen a cow in a field. The only thing we’d ever seen was a police horse. It was brilliant!’

Family life for the Wards must have been unusual, particularly when the girls were little and they all lived in a flat in Kingsley’s parents’ farmhouse, where the sitting room was also the studio office and the bands were constantly popping in and out.

By the age of five, both Lisa and Amanda were trained to answer the phone and take bookings.

When David Cassidy came the whole family rushed out to meet him but, mostly, they were inured to the fame.

So when David Bowie popped down for the day to visit his pal Iggy Pop, dressed top-to-toe in scarlet, Kingsley didn’t bother going to chat to him.

‘I really regret that now.’

The airstrip — built in one of the cow fields in the early Seventies — was constantly buzzing.

‘There were cowpats everywhere. You didn’t want to stand behind the plane when it took off or you might get covered,’ says Kingsley.

There was even a call from Michael Jackson’s manager at Neverland. ‘It was on April Fool’s day, so we thought it was a wind up. They called three times, but we were fully booked anyway.’

When business was good, it was really good —– Adam Ant, Simple Minds, the Manic Street Preachers and Robert Plant all recorded here. One band was leaving as another unpacked.

Peaceful – Rockfield Studios is set in the Welsh countryside and is not what you would expect

The girls went to private schools. Kingsley bought a Rolls-Royce (still in one of barns with the tractors, covered in dust).

Charles launched his own studio a mile away. Plans were drawn up for swimming pool, but never executed.

But then came the recession of 1990. ‘Eighteen per cent interest! My God we were losing so much money,’ he says.

‘But we’re farmers. We’re used to things going wrong. We’re used to having no money.’

Manchester band The Stone Roses saved them. They came for three weeks and stayed for 13 months. ‘They spent most of their time on bikes riding around on the hills behind us. There were not exactly killing themselves to record. But it was brilliant for us.’

Oasis came hard on their heels but, despite all the fighting, worked far more quickly — mainly because Liam was always so desperate to get to the pub.

Some musicians were fuelled by alcohol, others by cannabis. Hawkwind dropped acid as they worked. ‘We were all drinking, doing some drug or other,’ says Ozzy.

When Lemmy (later of Motorhead) turned up with Hawkwind in 1972, his opener to Kingsley was: ‘Where shall I hide my stash?’

‘I thought, “Oh bloody hell, here we go!” ’ says Kingsley. ‘But I said, “Here, stick it behind the curtain.” The next thing, [Hawkwind singer-songwriter] Dave Brock turns up and the first thing he says is, “Where’s Lemmy hidden his stash?” ’

Martin Carr of The Boo Radleys remembers how, each morning, the cleaners would come in. ‘Our drugs would be lined up really neatly for us on the side. It was just perfect.’

Kingsley himself was arrested in 1972 when police swooped as he was clearing out all the ashtrays in the studios but the case was dismissed at trial — ‘It was only bloody cannabis anyway!’)

The Darkness — ‘who wanted to be Queen; they even had the same producer’ — stayed for seven months and partied like mad. As did The Damned and Iggy Pop.

Owner Kingsley Ward says the farm will never be put up for sale despite some speculation

‘Iggy was crazy funny — running around the meadow like a Welsh mare. I was like, “Bloody hell!” ’

Violinist Nigel Kennedy was also a fan of the meadow.

‘He’d take his violin out and sit in the middle of the field playing and I’d be on the tractor trying to turn the hay, shouting, “Nigel! Can you move, please?”’

The lowest point came in 1996, when Rob Collins of The Charlatans was killed while speeding back from the pub. ‘We could hear the car from our bedroom window,’ says Kingsley. ‘It was going like the clappers. Then we heard a bang. It’s a very sharp bend.’

Somehow, no one was ever banned from Rockfield.

Not even the Gallagher brothers who seemed to spend their entire time swearing, drinking, fighting and stealing farm machinery. ‘We’re used to bad boys,’ says Kingsley.

Which was a good thing, because there was something about the space, the freedom, the country air, that just worked.

Coldplay had been sent to Rockfield in 1999 to work on their debut album Parachutes after being signed and struggling to produce anything for six months.

‘I remember Chris Martin saying, “Making records is very stressful, isn’t it,” ’ says Kingsley.

But perhaps less so deep in the Welsh countryside where, between working and partying, rock stars played Frisbee and swam in the river, made water slides in the garden and petted the jersey cows.

‘They were free. No one was watching them. They could do what they want,’ says Kingsley.

Amazingly, while so many recording studios have been seen off by the internet, Rockfield is still going. Recent artists include Paolo Nutini, Kasabian, Pixies and The Strypes.

Kingsley says they’re ‘inundated’ with both bookings and busloads of Japanese tourists, desperate to see where Mercury wrote Bohemian Rhapsody.

He also insists that, despite rumours, Rockfield is not for sale — not now, not ever.

But, finally, what of his and Charles’ own rock’n’roll dreams? All those young bands coming through and exploding on to the world scene, when they never did.

‘I’d have liked to have had one hit record. But you can’t have everything in life, can you?’ he says.

‘At least we had the chance to be in other people’s lives at a moment in time when they were doing their greatest thing. And it’s been fun.’

Rockfield: The Studio On The Farm, tomorrow night, BBC Two Wales & BBC Four, 9.15pm.

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