Q&A: Rockfield Studios’ Kingsley Ward (New Doc ‘Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm’ Streaming Now)



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The Wizard of Ozzy and Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Oasis, Coldplay Plus a Cast of Thousands: Q&A with Rockfield’s Recording Engineer/Farmer Kingsley Ward

Along with Yasgur’s farm, Rockfield may be the most celebrated and important farm in rock ’n’ roll history. While dairy farmer Max Yasgur’s Upstate New York 600-acre spread is forever remembered for immortal performances during 1969’s Woodstock open air festival, Rockfield is renowned as the family farm in Wales where countless rockers, from Black Sabbath to Queen, have recorded endless hits.

This Arcadian enclave is depicted in what’s arguably the best sequence in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, dramatizing when Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), Brian May (Gwilym Lee), and the rest of Queen create and record “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a remote, rustic setting.

 In 1970 Michael Wadleigh’s Best Documentary Oscar winner Woodstock chronicled the peace, love and music at Yasgur’s farm, and now Hannah Berryman’s Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm documents half a century of music recording that began across the Atlantic about the same time Jimi, Janis, Jefferson Airplane and company rocked that “Aquarian Exposition” in Bethel, NY.

The 92-minute nonfiction doc Rockfield is the first film to comprehensively cover how two Welsh brothers, Kingsley and Charles Ward, pursued their Elvis-inspired dreams of becoming rockers by converting portions of their family dairy farm with up to 500 pigs into a recording studio. In the process, they created the world’s first independent residential recording studio, the legendary Rockfield Studios. 

Rock royalty flocked to record — and live — at this studio farm located in the countryside of Wales, part of the United Kingdom. Off-the-beaten path, Rockfield’s seclusion became part of its allure as a sanctuary for sound and musicians. Coldplay’s Chris Martin said, “It was very much like some sort of musical Hogwarts.” As an all-inclusive residential studio, Rockfield became a sort of “Club Med” of recording facilities that included meals and accommodations for artists to “get away from it all” at a pastoral refuge where creativity could thrive, far from the madding crowd of urban Birmingham, London or America.

 

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As Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm’s director Berryman said in press notes: “We wanted to find out what it was about this remote rural studio that had attracted some of the biggest names in rock music. What we found was a charming, eccentric but down to earth family who made the rock stars feel welcomed like family themselves, and gave them the freedom to be creative, with all the ups and downs that entailed. We wanted to illuminate artistic inspiration, and certainly found it here. The peaceful, green environment and the isolation enabled some of the bands to produce their best work.”

According to press notes, Berryman “has made many critically acclaimed television documentaries, mainly for the BBC, many with an historical and arts bent, always finding out how people’s lives turn out. The Brick In The Wall Kids, shortlisted for BAFTA, followed up on the famous Pink Floyd record with Roger Waters and the kids who sung, to find out about much more than a song – about the lives of the inner city London kids and the education they were getting… This year’s BBC2 documentary Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens & Bedlam followed up on the people taking part in and protesting the 1970 Miss World contest, a pivotal moment for feminist struggle and race politics… her 2-part series last year for the BBC [Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal] took a critically acclaimed immersive look at the life of” Her Royal Highness.

Rockfield, The Studio on the Farm shows how the Welsh brothers, along with Kingsley’s wife Ann, who became the enterprise’s bookkeeper, and their daughter Lisa, have continued to operate their family-owned business, despite the ups and downs of the music industry over the last 50 years. In this exclusive interview, Kingsley Ward discusses Rockfield, The Studio on the Farm, providing an insider’s view of rock history — and discloses behind-the-scenes revelations about what really happened regarding the shooting of the recreation of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the movie of that name.

Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm is available at virtual theaters listed at: Cinemas (rockfieldfilm.com). Or click on “Watch Now” at: www.Rockfieldfilm.com. Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm is also available on the Coda Collection: The Coda Collection.

This Q&A was recorded via a conference call from Los Angeles to Wales, where Kingsley was in the office that was once a stable at the studio farm. The sound level was perfect and perhaps one can now say that Rock Cellar, too, has recorded at the fabled farm and studio.   

Rock Cellar: How did Rockfield get its name?

Kingsley Ward: Ahh … Originally, when my brother and myself first started out in 1960, we called ourselves “Future Sounds Limited.” Which is a very good name really, because it’s very apt, we were something of the future, weren’t we? In 1966, Dave Edmunds — a rock star who did a big record “I Hear You Knocking” in the early seventies — drove in one day and said, “Why don’t you rename the studio ‘Rockfield,’ after the village?” ’Cuz the village of Rockfield is literally half a mile down the road, and we never even thought of it. Can you believe that? We had a name like “Rockfield” on our doorstep and we never thought of it until Dave Edmunds mentioned it. And we changed from Future Sounds Limited to Rockfield [Studios] in 1966.    

Rock Cellar: In America, the counterculture had a “return to nature” philosophy. Songs such as CSNY’s “Woodstock”  and Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” sang about this yearning to return to nature. Do you feel that remote rural Rockfield’s studio on the farm expressed the ’60s/’70s’ youth culture dream of getting back to the land, supported by the music industry?

Kingsley Ward: I think you’re right. Because when we first went to London around 1963, I talked with the major record companies and they said: “It’ll never work, a studio outside of  London or the major cities. You have to be where the major cities are. But we had no option, you see, because we had a little studio built in the attic of my parents’ house, and once we ended up being a commercial studio and bands started to come there, we suddenly realized that the secret of a residential studio is because you’re on your own in the country and there’s no interruptions, it’s much more conducive to writing songs and things.

“I think the record companies realized this in the late sixties, when we got really residential, and all of a sudden, we had big bands turning up. Like in 1968 Black Sabbath turned up. And of course, that was the beginning of a different era. All through the sixties and seventies, people were thinking about the country, and bands wanted to get away from the big cities. So, the major record labels got it completely wrong —  they didn’t think it would ever happen, but of course it did happen. And the reason is, when you’re in the country you have no interruptions, and things are much easier then to record. Much more creative, isn’t it?     

Rock Cellar: Who are some of the musicians that ended up living at Rockfield for extended stays?

Kingsley Ward: Well, over the course of 60 years we’ve had thousands of musicians staying here. The longest session we ever had was The Stone Roses, 1991. They were here for 13 months. Can you believe that? And they did the Second Coming album.

A girl from America called Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, she came in the early eighties and stayed for five months, doing Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. It sold millions of records in America.

In the 1970s, the sessions were always a month to six weeks long, because that’s the time it took to make albums and things. Today, it’s far different. It’s only a matter of days now. Because the music business is declining over studios.       

Rock Cellar: The movie Bohemian Rhapsody has a great sequence dramatizing Queen creating and recording the title song at Rockfield. Were those scenes with Rami Malek and the cast actually shot on location at Rockfield?

Kingsley Ward: No. I’ll tell you what happened. A gentleman from America turned up about two years before the film and said: “We’re making a film on Queen.” Rockfield is the only [residential] studio in the world left, which is still a working studio — ’cuz most of them are gone, you see. So, we thought then that they’d have to make the film at Rockfield.

But what they did is they photographed the entire place and mocked it up somewhere else and called it “Rockfield Farm” — not “Rockfield Studios,” so they didn’t have to pay us any location fees and things like that … It was a bit disappointing for us, really.  

Rock Cellar: Tell us about what Freddie Mercury and Brian May were like when they actually recorded at Rockfield?

Kingsley Ward: When they first turned up, when we had the phone call in 1974, it was a band called Queen; well, I’d never heard of Queen, you see. So, I thought a strange name for a band — a group of boys, you know, I thought it was a bit strange. Then, when they turned up, of course, they were quite hard up in those days. In the film it shows that they didn’t have much money. They stayed for about three weeks and they started off “Sheer Heart Attack” with that “Killer Queen” record on it. That record was enormous around the world.

Of course, by 1975, when they turned up again, this time they had loads of money. And they had tour managers and god knows what. They did [the album] A Night at the Opera — which is obviously “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In fact, I’m standing in one of the stables where there was an old piano and Freddie Mercury liked this old piano and this old stables, because he’s very bohemian, you see?

I said to Brian May one day, “You’ve been here a week and you haven’t done much.” He said, “Freddie’s in there writing something on that piano.” And in I walked in and of course he was doing the finishing touches to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which he’d started off in London. Of course, it was called “Freddie’s Thing”; it wasn’t called “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it had no name. But I didn’t know what he was writing obviously, because until the record was done, I had no idea what it was.       

Photo: Ward family

Photo: Ward family

Rock Cellar: What did you think of Freddie? What kind of a guy was he?

Kingsley Ward: Well, when he was down here, he was very normal. They were all natural gentlemen; Queen were all nice boys. Freddie was very quiet. But the “Bohemian Rhapsody” record, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He had it all in his head. They worked very hard on it. Because they were doing about 15, 18 hours a day on this “Bohemian Rhapsody” record. They spent a lot of time on it.

… After Queen we were very lucky because Rush came from Canada and they did A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, which are massive albums.   

Rock Cellar: Please share some memories with us of Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne.

Kingsley Ward: Black Sabbath turned up in 1968, ’69. They did the demos of Paranoid. They did that there. I engineered that …

Oh, Ozzy was very funny [Laughs]. He’s a good laugh, Ozzy is. But he was only about 17 when he first turned up. He was always messing around — you know what bands were like in those days … Ghosts and things like that — they were in the countryside, a lot of bands from the cities didn’t know much about the countryside, they were always pretending there were ghosts around.

There never was, by the way. It made them happy, didn’t it?

Ozzy played bow and arrows, by the way. He had a bow and arrows and a target.     

Rock Cellar: What about Robert Plant?

Kingsley Ward: As he said in the film, after Led Zeppelin broke up, he came and lived at Rockfield for a while with us. Then he bought a massive house on the outskirts of Rockfield, which is Monmouth, Monmouthshire. He did two albums with us, which are very good records. One was called Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, which had a huge hit called “Big Log.”

Rock Cellar: Tell us about Iggy Pop?

Kingsley Ward: [Following Rush] Iggy Pop did the Soldier album here. When he was here, David Bowie, who was his best friend, turned up … [but] I didn’t actually meet him — I wasn’t here at the time. Iggy, man, he was very funny. He was always full of joys and tricks and things, Iggy Pop was. I liked him …

Rock Cellar: Was Iggy easy to get along with?

Kingsley Ward: Oh yes. Rock stars like him, they’re just entertainment themselves, aren’t they? You stand back and watch them.

Simple Minds showed up around 1980, they were only about 16 then … In the 1970s we had a massive run of big massive artists from all around the world. Because by that time residential studios were very much the in place to record. Up to 1968, 1967, there were none, only Rockfield. But then by the 1970s they were appearing all around the world. So, we were the first — that’s how it was.

… We were on a big run in the eighties, as well as the seventies. With Rockfield it goes on and on and on like this, we’re very lucky because it seems like we have big acts following us, every generation goes by we still have massive groups come in.        

Rock Cellar: Keith Moon had a notorious reputation for destroying hotel rooms. Did any of the musicians staying and recording at the farm ever go over the top and cause property damage?

Kingsley Ward: Yeah, well, you must remember the good old days were sex, drugs and rock and roll. That’s what it was, wasn’t it, in the sixties and seventies? So, you can imagine what it was like, really. You didn’t know what to expect from one day to the next, really. But they were always good with us — I know there was a lot of abuse going on with groups in the seventies. Incidentally, we don’t see much of that today. But then, of course, the characters aren’t there anymore, are they? … But they were all quite harmless.  

Rock Cellar: According to the documentary, over the decades recording at Rockfield has had its ups and downs. How’s it going in this computerized era of the 2020s?

Kingsley Ward: Well, every 10 years we always re-establish and reinvent ourselves. We always change everything. Because we think every 10 years it’s time for a change. And we always do mostly the opposite to what other people do …

About 10 years ago we suddenly realized most of the studios were almost gone, the studios were all disappearing. And things weren’t going to be as good as they were. So, we then started doing student training and we had students from all around the world turn up for training [in music recording].

Also, we got 24 apartments here, so we did holiday let [rental]; people came and stayed. So, we were then stood on three legs: We had recording studios, holiday let, and student training. Which meant that we survived, where all the others failed, really. In the world today Abbey Road, is the oldest studio I know, which goes back to 1934, and we go back to 1960, but I don’t know of any other studio around the world really that old any more [that still exists] … There are very few big studios like Rockfield nowadays.

… Bands like Simple Minds still record here … We’ve always got groups coming here because we’re an attraction because our past history is strong.

People want to come where their heroes have been before. They love these bands, they know about their heroes and love to come to Rockfield because it inspires them because of the great records that have been done here, you see?       

Rock Cellar: Is there still a farm at Rockfield today?

Kingsley Ward: Half the interest in Rockfield is the fact that it’s a farm. But it’s not a big, big farm — it’s a working farm. It’s big enough, that all the groups that come here, it’s so different when they see cows in the meadow and things like that. They’re from the big cities, they see the animals and like it; it’s so different, isn’t it? 

We used to grow corn and still grow grass. The farm still exists … We’ve still got cows and chickens and things like that; we’ve always had them, we always will have them …      

Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm is available at virtual theaters listed at: Cinemas (rockfieldfilm.com). Or click on “Watch Now” at: www.Rockfieldfilm.com. Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm is also available on the Coda Collection: The Coda Collection.

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