It is easy to blink and miss the turning for Rockfield as you travel out of Monmouth, heading north on the B4233. Despite its incredibly rural setting, Rockfield has been the site of some of the 20th century’s greatest rock successes, playing host to a range of different artists over the years.
Originally just a cattle and pig farm on the Monnow Valley floor, Rockfield has for years been the place where rock and roll careers have been defined, with some of the biggest names in music staying in the area while recording.
The name Rockfield is arguably as iconic as Glastonbury when it comes to the British music scene – there are also substantial degrees of overlap, with both run by farmers, on a working farm and maintaining a fiercely independent attitude and approach.
Around sixty years ago, deep in the heart of agricultural Wales, Kingsley and Charles Ward were two brothers just starting out in the family dairy farming business. But deep down they were longing to do something different – they wanted to make music. In order to pursue that dream, the two brothers built a studio in the attic of their farmhouse and started experimenting with home recording with some of their friends.
Shortly after getting married, Kingsley’s wife Ann left her job in the local bank to provide admin services for the growing studio, while the family continued farming and pursuing the growing career in music production. It was not uncommon for animals to be made temporarily homeless when the barns were needed, and visiting musicians sometimes found themselves staying in Nan’s spare bedroom.
Without thinking about it, Kingsley and Charles had just launched the world’s first independent residential recording studio: Rockfield. In the late 50s and 60s, recording studios were not very common and were predominantly based in London – not very easy for two lads from Wales to access.
Rockfield Studios began its commercial recording life in 1961 and in 1965 was acknowledged to be the first residential recording studio in the world. Just a couple of years later, in 1967, Kingsley heard that another British recording studio, the infamous Abbey Road, had installed 8-track machines and duly ordered one for Rockfield. Around the same time, they built their next studio in a stable block next to the house – this was to become the Coach House, which is still in use today.
It was in the farm’s former horse tack room where the final piece of the Bohemian Rhapsody jigsaw puzzle were perfected by Queen. The final six-minute rock operetta was lovingly mastered at Rockfield by the rock behemoths in the summer of 1975.
As well as having a successful recording studio, Rockfield also had a moderately successful record label, boasting a variety of artists such as Dave Edmunds, Hawkwind and Budgie.
In addition to its slightly hedonistic reputation, Rockfield has also been the scene of some tragedies. Rob Collins, keyboard player of The Charlatans, died in a horrific car crash while staying at Rockfield in 1996. After a night out in nearby Monmouth, Collins drove too fast around the tight country lanes on the way back to the studio. Singer Tim Burgess, who was in a car in front, remembered: “He was speeding up, being crazy. Suddenly he disappeared.” Collins’s car had flipped over on a bend and he was thrown through the sunroof of his BMW. He was dead before he reached hospital.
There is no doubt, though, the Wye valley setting has been an inspiration to the songwriters who have enjoyed its tranquility over the years. Maintaining its rural aesthetic has given Rockfield a unique offering for artists from around the world. As you approach the site today, what strikes you is that from the outside, Rockfield still looks, to all intents and purposes, a bit like a farm. The driveways are only part-finished and there are huge barns and paddocks. It’s very much still in the countryside and hasn’t been swallowed up by expanding urbanisation.