Rockfield – the studio on the farm

Film review and interview with Director Hannah Berryman

This Saturday, on BBC 4 and BBC Wales, sees the premiere of a great documentary that tracks the story of the people and music that was made at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire. I was lucky enough to get a preview and interview with Director Hannah Berryman. More background is on the film website.

Update – you can now watch on the at this link on the BBC iPlayer

I first remember reading about Rockfield in the early 90’s – hearing stories of how the Stone Roses recorded their debut with producer John Leckie and then Oasis recording ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory’ there. But the story is much deeper than that. For the Roses this was the place that ‘I am the resurrection’ came together. They also stayed 13 months and this saved Rockfield in the late 80’s recession.

The bands featured in the film include Black Sabbath, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Robert Plant, Simple Minds, the Charlatans, Hawkwind and the Manics (and more).

Many more have recorded there (but not featured) – including Shack (some of HMS Fable was recorded at Rockfield), Julian Cope and Queen. (I asked Hannah about Julian Cope – he was approached but decided not to appear but was friendly and supportive to the project, as were the Roses, who decided not to appear).

The film is the best music doc. I’ve seen in years, it is quirky and original in its presentation. There are so many music documentaries these days that often run over well known stories and it is really refreshing to find a new angle and set of stories to hear. Kingsley, Ann and Charles Ward, the two brothers and Kingsley’s wife, who have run the studio since 1960’s, are also unique characters (a bit like the Eavis’s and Glastonbury) and they feature throughout, bookending the story and featuring never heard before anecdotes throughout – great one about Lemmy hiding his ‘stash’ from Dave Brock.

I won’t tell the whole story before it is aired but Liam’s story about the time he and Bonehead took a combine harvester to visit the Stone Roses is pure gold…plus the story of when the Roses came back from ‘painting’ Revolver FM’s offices and then carried on recording covered in paint.

There are many stories of great music being created amongst mayhem, drugs and pubs in Monmouth. The film captures how albums and songs came into being at Rockfield – there are ace sections on ‘Wake up Boo’ by the Boo Radleys and ‘If you tolerate this’ by the Manics. Plus Dave Brock on the epic e-chord wonder – ‘Space is deep’ by Hawkwind.

There is a great section in Julian Cope’s autobiography ‘Head On‘ where he talks about Rockfield and the chaos that seemed to ensue there for many bands….

“Meanwhile, Rockfield was swinging. The Bunnymen were staying at the white house whilst they recorded new songs and the Teardrop Explodes were camped at the old mill, a beautiful grange belonging to the studio. The mill was about a mile and a half from the studio and it soon became a racetrack for the two groups. Our proximity drove us back together and Les Pattinson would thunder down the mill lane in our jeep. We’d see Pete DeFreitas and the two Bills hanging off the back as they swerved and tumbled down the last half mile to the mill.

And great quote from a family member who grew up at Rockfield (from twitter):

Yes! That’s how I remember it, as well as Julian knocking on the Lodge door to come and watch Reward on TOTPs on Charles and Sandra’s TV. Us kids nestled at his feet. Kinda in love.

And the Bunnymen’s take on recording at Rockfield – Over The Wall was recorded there. Will Sergeant tells the story of when the band rehearsed in the pig shed after recording Heaven Up Here before going to America to play their first American tour.

The proximity that Rockfield provided for bands to live together had a real impact on the music and the story of the bands. Hannah remarked how fondly all the bands looked on their time there and how keen they were to look back for the film.

I asked Hannah how the idea for the project came about and she explained that the inspiration was the Muscle Shoals studio documentary, made in 2013 – she loved it, and wondered were the equivalent was in the UK. She found Rockfield and the story took pace from there.

The film took 5 years to make as Hannah gathered the funding and built up the relationship with Kingsley, Ann and Charles, who clearly thought carefully about how they wanted to tell the story and that it should be on the BBC. Coldplay and Robert Plant were the first interviews back in 2016. You can tell how committed Hannah was to keep going with the project and the funding needed over this time.

I also asked Hannah about Kingsley, Ann and Charles and whether they became a bigger part of the film when she met them. “They were just such characters, he’s a music mogul in the same way he’s a farmer.” She also liked the fact that the studio had been with the family the entire time. Hannah wanted to explore the dynamic of band being in one place and the Ward’s were also doing this as a family. She also talked about the pressure the new bands would have felt “if you didn’t come up with goods, you probably won’t get sent to a place like that again”.

Hannah said that so many of the interviews went well because Rockfield played such a pivotal role for the bands and they wanted to go back to that time. I asked her what her favourite interview was – she said it was Liam and Bonehead because “they were so honest and they were living it as well as doing the music”.

The most moving part of the film is the interviews with the Charlatans, especially Tim Burgess, talking about recording ‘Tellin’ Stories’ in 1997 and the tragic death of Rob Collins. You could feel the emotion in some parts of the interviews and I asked Hannah what it was like talking to the band about this.

“It was good when I did it as they all wanted to talk about it – I’m a careful film maker and don’t take these things lightly. What I liked about it was whilst it felt sad there was something redemptive about it, giving him his place in the band…Tim says it’s this fantastic place where they did all these creative things and Rob was the heart of it.”

I also asked Hannah about female artists in the film – although Eliza Carthy is featured at the end, they aren’t part of the story. Is that because Rockfield was a bit of boys’ club, lads misbehaving in the countryside? Hannah explained that some big female artists were approached but couldn’t appear for various reasons. But she said it was very much the right place to hear stories of the bands that did feature – “it was like a boys boarding school school for wild young men“. Hannah also reflected on her perspective on it as female director – “I hope that whatever flavour you get of the men’s time it reflects as two women coming to that subject.”

Lastly, the film has a great quirky feel, joined up by different animations featuring the bands, including a great psychedelic effect featuring Dave Brock from Hawkwind’s head! I asked Hannah about this and she explained how she had also used the same team (Sarah McMenemy and Andy A’Court) from her previous documentary about Princess Margaret. “Sarah’s artwork is quite retro.. Andy’s is a more modern sensibility. .. with animation you’re bringing a quirky vibe…. and that is the sort of film it was, it’s a funny old place Rockfield, with an unusual family running it. It felt like quirky animation fitted with that nicely.”

Well, no more from me – you need to go and watch it!

Congrats to Hannah on this amazing film and many thanks for taking some time to speak to me, amongst a busy media schedule.