I was born and raised in the historical county of Monmouthshire, a small but populous county in the south-east corner of Wales….or possibly England. Map makers are confused, and no wonder.
A history teacher at my secondary school commented that when England and Wales were joined politically through the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, the Act referred to Wales and Monmouthshire, as though Monmouthshire was a kingdom in its own right. This fascinated me as I had dreams of a Passport to Pimlico situation.
Monmouthshire has been sub-divided since my childhood into Monmouthshire, which consists largely of the rural areas, Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen County boroughs, and the City of Newport. It remains an unusual county, its mother tongue principally English but with a definite Welsh accent and colloquialisms. Native Welsh speakers can sometimes think of Monmouthshire as being English, while Monmouthshire natives know they’re Welsh with the proudest boast of one local rugby team being that they provided an historic front row in the all conquering Welsh team of the mid-1970’s. There was even a song written about them (Pontypool also provided two thirds of the British Lions front row of the same period).
It’s a county of contrasts with agricultural wealth and that favourite of Romantic poets and artists, Tintern Abbey, to the east, and an urban centre still trying to come to terms with its post-industrial future to the west.
Henry V, and many of the Agincourt bowmen were from Monmouthshire as was (probably) Geoffrey of Monmouth. Popular legend also makes King Arthur a Monmouth lad, with the Round Table meeting at the Roman amphitheatre in Caerleon.
So, what has all this to do with music, and more particularly with the latest mini-exhibition in the Anderson Room which commemorates Camille Saint-Saens in the months leading up to the centenary of his death?
In the second case of the exhibition, I pose a cryptic clue next to pictures of two album covers Queen’s A night at the opera and Oasis’ Morning Glory and a score of Carnival of the animals (MRU.310.201.177) in a new orchestration by Richard Blackford “Just 10 minutes links these albums and a particular edition of Carnival of the animals“. So how exactly are these linked?
Monmouthshire is one of the smaller counties of the United Kingdom by size placing 66th on this list of historic counties (as a comparison Cambridgeshire would place 40th even without including Huntingdonshire); though Monmouthshire places much higher (27th) in terms of population density (Cambridgeshire can be found at 39th). In fact it feels denser than this, with few people living out in the rural fringes along the English border, and most living in the valley towns that flow down from the Heads of the Valleys to the coast at the mouth of the River Severn.
It seems a rather unlikely place to have a recording studio, but in Monmouthshire, there is not just one, but three major recording studios, within ten minutes drive of each other. All of whom have packed a huge punch in the industry.
In the beginning, there was Rockfield. A family farm became a recording studio, thanks to the passion of two music loving sons. Rockfield opened for business in 1965, when it became the world’s first residential recording studio, enabling bands to come and spend long periods recording their latest album. It was certainly quirky – the Ward brothers originally used pig feed bags to deaden the sound in the studios.
By the 1970s some big names were booked into Rockfield. Queen recorded A night at the opera, which included Bohemian Rhapsody, Robert Plant loved it, and Motorhead made their first recordings. Later artists who also recorded at Rockfield have included Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, who are a Monmouthshire band, and Catatonia.
The crossover between the 1980’s and ’90’s was tricky for Rockfield, as changes to the music industry affected recording practices. The two brothers decided to split the land between them with Rockfield continuing and a new studio Monnow Valley Studios forming nearby.
It was a sensible move financially and ensured the success of Rockfield. In one week in the mid-’90s seven out of the top ten albums in the UK single charts had been recorded at Rockfield. Meanwhile Monnow Valley Studios was also proving successful. Violinist, Nigel Kennedy recorded there (and organised a football match in Monmouth), the Charlatans recorded several albums at Monnow, sadly one of their founder members, Rob Collins, was killed in a car accident near the studio. Other famous recording artists have included Sir Tom Jones and Kaiser Chiefs.
Ten minutes drive to the north east of Rockfield and Monnow Valley Studios is Wyastone concert hall and recording studio, with the Welsh / English border running right through the middle of the estate. The concert hall is relatively recent, opened by the Prince of Wales in 1992, but Wyastone is of great importance to the classical music industry of the UK, for it was here in 1975 that Nimbus records found a new home base. In 1983, they made the hugely important decision to create a UK based CD pressing plant, and so became the first producer of CDs in the UK. It was only the second CD pressing plant in Europe, with first place going to Philips, the creator of the format. This was an astonishingly astute, not to say courageous, business move on the part of a small company. For those, who weren’t around at the time, a number of different audio formats were trialled in the mid to late 80s; CDs were to be the winner, though it wasn’t quite as obvious at the time that they were to be so successful for so long.
Nimbus now has an impressive list of performers and composers on their books including George Benjamin and Raphael Wallfisch. They also continue to be the main distributor and producer for many other well-loved classical labels including Lyrita, the Halle, and Red Priest, as well as re-mastering and re-producing iconic historical classical performances. Nimbus have also branched out into music publishing, hence our copy of Richard Blackford’s arrangement of Carnival of the animals, and the answer to our cryptic clue.
Their main market remains in classical music, but they also have jazz and world music sections, with the odd foray into spoken word. For those who have a Raven account, you can explore the range of Nimbus recordings via Naxos Music Library.
All three studios continue to produce outstanding recordings, and remain at the forefront of recording studios.
Monmouthshire – small, but certainly in music industry terms, surprisingly mighty.