Music history created in Surrey's recording studios: Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Radiohead et al
PUBLISHED: 09:37 17 May 2011 | UPDATED: 10:06 26 March 2015
Okay, so we all know that many of rock's royalty live in Surrey, when not jetting off around the world, but did you know that the county has also been a spawning ground for some of the greatest albums ever made? MATTHEW WILLIAMS lifts the lid on the secretive world of Surrey's recording studios
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2009
AS SOMEONE who is something of a music fanatic, I’ve always found what goes on behind the scenes of creating records to be almost as intriguing as the finished product. And, I imagine, I’m not alone.
Problem is, recording studios have traditionally been places that are shrouded in great secrecy; you know the sort of thing… hidden country retreats where the great and the good of music convene in private behind firmly closed doors. It’s almost like the creative part is all done cloak and dagger, before being packaged with bright lights and billboards and marketed to the hilt.
Surrey’s rock and roll roots
However, a browse of Surrey’s rock and roll roots throws up a whole host of potential pilgrimages for the discerning (and not so discerning) music fan. And, as it turns out, the studios aren’t always in the most obvious of places…
“Surrey is the place historically,” says Rob Granville, producer at West Street Studios, which you’ll find in what used to be a storage space above The Star pub in Dorking. “You take a look at a map of the county and anyone with even an inkling of interest in music can point out somewhere of significance – whether it’s where a rock star lives or a gig they went to.
“Here in Dorking, there was the Strawberry South studio at the top of South Street, which was opened by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart, in 1976, in a former cinema.
“The band was based up in Stockport, but their studio up there had become so popular that they couldn’t find the time to record themselves, so they decided to expand south. The first 10cc album to be recorded there was 1977’s Deceptive Bends – but Ebony and Ivory, with McCartney and Stevie Wonder, was also recorded there!”
While Ebony and Ivory might be neither star’s defining moment, there is something wonderfully surreal about the thought of McCartney and Wonder browsing West Street’s antiques shops.
Though the Strawberry South studio had closed by 1983, Surrey is certainly packed full of rock royalty and tales. Another Beatles-related story concerns McCartney getting the idea for Eight Days a Week while in a cab to a certain John Lennon’s house in 1964 – at the time, the Beatle lived on the St George’s Hill estate in Weybridge.
These days, Eric Clapton lives in Ewhurst Green, while Brian May has a place in West End and the Rolling Stones are still largely based around their stomping ground of Richmond. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Sadly, though, even with so much rock royalty on the doorstep, a lot of Surrey’s biggest and most famous studios are no more, with dance music and the ease of modern production methods replacing the need for grand rooms and big budgets. One of the few that still survives is Fisher Lane in Chiddingfold. Built in the early 1980s, it has been responsible for classic albums from artists including Genesis, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and The Cure. Most of the grander studios weren’t so lucky, however.
One lost to album notes and memories is Ridge Farm, in Capel, which is now available for holidays, weddings, corporate events and retreats rather than the musings of rock’s elite.
“We were one of the first residential studios in the UK,” says Ann Needham, who was manager of the studio, which started in the early 1970s and finally closed at the end of 2002.
“We were hugely successful for most of that time, but a combination of growing technology and shrinking budgets finished off a lot of big studios in the early part of this decade.”
The studio and accommodation at Ridge Farm were housed in a group of buildings dating from the 17th century and set in 13 acres of grounds. As is the way with residential studios, the band, producer and engineer would live in the house for the duration of the recording and mixing process, which could last for a month or even longer. To keep them all happy, facilities like swimming pools and tennis courts would have been available and housekeepers to look after them all. Ridge Farm had clients ranging from Ozzy Osbourne and Oasis to The Three Tenors during its lifetime.
“When dance/house music came along, which could be produced cheaply, almost anywhere and with minimal equipment, it signalled the end for us,” says Ann. “Until fairly recently, rock still had to be recorded in a large room with good acoustics and a lot of expensive equipment in order to sound right. But, from the late Nineties, record companies became unwilling to pay for that kind of facility, and were able to force prices down because guitar bands were unfashionable and big studios were so short of work that they were all undercutting each other.”
And, unfortunately, that was the way for most... Surrey Sound in Leatherhead, where the first three Police albums were recorded, passed by the wayside, as did Comforts Place in Lingfield, which was owned by producer Andy Hill and his wife Nicola Martin – who created the group Bucks Fizz. Another studio to go the same way was Jacobs, which was located near Farnham and has an impressive list of credits including The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, Woman in Red by Stevie Wonder and Pablo Honey by Radiohead.
“In the end, I had 30 years of looking after bands 24/7, often two at a time,” says owner of Jacobs, Andy Fernbach. “We lived with them, fed and watered them, and maintained and operated two state-of-the-art studios, which they had access to whenever they needed.
Don’t you think I deserve a break now I’m 60?!”
It’s only rock and roll but they obviously all like it, and while we can’t necessarily talk about the frontman who drove a lawn tractor into the studio’s swimming pool after a jaunt on the A31 at 6am, or the time a keyboardist was found wailing on a dinghy, in the very same swimming pool, after one too many shandies, there are many stories we can share.
For instance, it would be rude not to mention the session at Jacobs where The Smiths considered using Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt on The Queen is Dead, when the two bands were both recording at the studio, or the time Nigel Kennedy, having arrived in his paisley Jag to do a Primal Scream session, had to abort after no one could wake the band up.
“We ran from 1980 to 2006 in the Dippenhall location, near Farnham,” Andy continues. “Before that I had Vivatone, after moving from London, for a few years in the nearby village of Crondall. I had a career as a solo artist recording for United Artists, which is what I’ve returned to doing now, as well as developing a Cornwall writing/recording retreat on the waterside. Jacobs was an amazing experience, and I hope to experience it again in a slightly more laid-back fashion where we are now.”
The heart’s still beating…
Of course, there are still many studios that continue, although most are closer in scale to West Street rather than Fisher Lane. One of the most successful in Surrey is Black Barn Studios, which opened near Ripley in 1985 and has been the location of choice for the Manic Street Preachers, The Who and Paul Weller. In fact, The Modfather now owns the studio and recorded last year’s 22 Dreams there in its entirety.
Some have changed tack completely, such as John Franklin, whose Lakeside Studios can be found at the Lakeside Complex in Frimley Green. With a background in the music industry that included being managing director for pop group The New Seekers, who rehearsed at his Blackwater flat, he now concentrates mainly on voice-over sessions with the likes of Jim Davidson, Penelope Keith and Keith Chegwin.
“In the Seventies, I ran Bob Potter’s studios in Mytchett,” says John. “Among other bands that recorded there were Marmalade and The Jam. I remember that The Jam wanted to record everything at once, even though we had a very basic multi-track facility. The recording equipment was purchased from an auction that had been set up to sell off Telstar producer Joe Meek’s assets after his death.
“The Jam session went on into the night under the direction of Paul Weller and his father John, who sadly passed away in May this year. I also remember Paul telling me that they had rented a lorry and generator and were going to drive down Carnaby Street that weekend to promote the band. Three weeks later, The Jam had their first hit and the rest is history. Unfortunately, I didn’t share their enthusiasm at that time, to my regret.”
While music making may be more accessible these days – and it’s surely not long before a blue plaques-alike scheme starts picking out the bedrooms where some of today’s most famous recordings were created – I can’t help wondering if some of the magic has been lost.
Surely, Surrey’s rock and roll elite could group together to preserve some of the county’s heritage with a magical mystery tour through the birthplaces of some of this nation’s greatest artists and albums. I’d certainly buy a ticket to ride.
And a few more Surrey rock tales
• In the four years that John Lennon lived in Weybridge from 1964, The Beatles cemented their status as the world’s biggest band.
• Ringo Starr is a keen photographer and has a house in leafy Cranleigh.
• The Faces’ Kenney Jones owns Hurtwood Park polo club in Ewhurst and singer Mick Hucknall lives by Burhill Golf Course in Walton-on-Thames.
• Status Quo's Francis Rossi is happy living the quiet life in Purley's Webb Estate.
• Discover life down The Farm with Genesis' Mike Rutherford.
• Genesis Publications in Guildford has been creating limited edition hand-bound books mainly about rock stars and bands for over 35 years.
• Queen guitarist Brian May lives with his wife, the actress Anita Dobson, in the West End area, near Woking, where they have an animal rescue centre in the garden.
• Ginger dreadlocked Surrey songsmith Newton Faulkner once worked at Fanny’s Farm Shop near Redhill.