When some 30 police officers raided both Ridge Farm, one of England’s earliest rural rock recording studios, and the nearby Plough Pub, at 6.00 am in spring, 1982, they were hoping to bust what they thought was an international drug ring. The police had been doing clandestine surveillance of both establishments located just outside the small West Sussex village of Rusper. For days, too, undercover drug squad officers drank at the pub to observe its comings and goings.
But all they could find were traces of marijuana in an ashtray of the pub’s private quarters. At the farm some two kilometers away, they only secured small amounts of hash. Their meagre haul was not exactly what the police had expected, particularly given that certain well-heeled residents in this affluent part of England’s Stockbroker Belt with its gardened manors, manicured cottages and horse stables considered Ridge Farm to be a rock ‘n roll “den of iniquity’. After all, what else would these long-haired rock musicians from leading bands such as Queen, Bad Company, Roxy Music and Black Sabbath be doing in the depths of rural Albion?
The Plough was particularly well-known. Most evenings it would attract crowds with the knowledge that pop stars regularly turned up from Ridge Farm to drink, relax and show off. Ozzy Ozbourne, who was then with his newly-formed band Blizzard of Oz, was renowned for his heavy drinking, but also for his magnanimousness by standing drinks for anyone who happened to be there. “He was very popular and liked to stick his whole face into a glass of beer. People found that very funny, but not too happy when he pissed outside. A very nice guy though,” recalls Billy Andrews, who, together with his brother Frank, had set up Ridge Farm as a creative retreat for rock groups.
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The local Establishment was never too keen
“There was a real atmosphere of freedom and happiness,” notes Frank, who, with his shoulder-length grey hair, looks as if he has just been transported into the present as an older version of a late 1960s younger self. “Sure, there were drugs, but it was all pretty low-key, or it was all behind the scenes even if some really wild things did go on.“ For the two brothers, it was clear that some of the local ‘pommy’ Establishment didn’t like what was happening and probably reported them to the police. Fortunately, at the time of the raid there was no band at Ridge Farm and is probably why the police did not find anything egregious.
Billy, however, who is now 65 and the more effusive of the two brothers, was fined 40 pounds for the remains of a joint in the pub, which was run by his mother. Disappointed, the police blocked the renewal of The Plough’s alcohol license, a decidedly underhand move which eventually forced the family to sell the establishment. “This was a pity because the pub had just won the Egon Ronay Cheese Pub of the Year Award for the whole of England,” explains Frank wistfully. At the time, the Egon Ronay Food Guide, which is now run by the Royal Automobile Society, was widely renowned for its good taste and responsible for significantly raising the quality of British restaurant food from a broadly mediocre base.
As for Ridge Farm, the police charged their father, John Andrews, the Cambridge-educated Chief Engineer of the National Coal Board, with being the mastermind behind the supposed drug ring. It took several years for the father to clear his name. Nevertheless, the tension created led to the departure in 1983 of Billy, leaving Frank to continue developing Ridge Farm into one of Britain’s most important countryside production and recording locations for leading bands, including Oasis, Roxy Music, Pearl Jam, Bad Company, OMD and Wet Wet Wet.
This continued until the early 2000s. But by then, the record business had changed. Major companies preferred that their protégés use their own establishments in London or Los Angeles rather than disappear into the rural outback. Furthermore, given Ridge Farm’s success, other entrepreneurs had set up their own recording studios. The last musician to record at Ridge was Joe Jackson, a British performer and songwriter, in 2002.
Secluded and rustic: a most unlikely rock centre
Located in a quiet, out-of-the-way rural setting with 16th century converted farm buildings, swimming pool, tennis court and sprawling woodland garden, basically, the romantic English country idyll, Ridge Farm now operates as a much sought-after location for weddings, birthdays, business meetings and other events. Its corridors are lined with best-selling disc awards for the Ridge Farm bands and other memorabilia, such as the same croquet set that Queen used. Or the kitchen where the staff catered meals for the bands; some of them sometimes cooked for themselves or at least made tea. More recently, the Farm has attracted nostalgia aficionados, particularly from China and Japan, wishing to see where Freddy Mercury played tennis or the Gallagher brothers of Oasis sat around producing – and arguing.
“The idea of setting up a studio at the farm was obvious,” recalls Frank Andrews as we drink tea and eat baked potato in what used to be Ridge Farm’s main studio building. His brother Billy and two collaborators – both veteran music technicians who have been working on and off at Ridge Farm for decades – are chatting with us. “All these bands needed an out-of-the-way place to rehearse and to record…to get away from all the London distractions,” he adds.
The first band to come in 1975 – Ridge Farm’s launch year – was Back Street Crawler, an English-American rock band founded by former Free musician, Paul Kossoff. As Frank explains, they turned up with Ronnie Laine’s mobile recording unit. Laine, who died in 1997 of multiple sclerosis, was best known as a musician, producer and songwriter as well as a founding member of the British rock group The Small Faces – and later Faces. “It all took off right after that. The bands started coming.”
Despite their earlier dispute, Frank and Billy now regularly see each other. As we talk, both are eager to share their reminiscences of the studio’s heyday since the mid-1970s until well into the 90s. For three of their five kids, now in their twenties and also listening in the kitchen, this was the first time that they have heard some of these stories. “Of course, it was all very basic in the beginning…just a place to rehearse,” continues Frank, eyes sparkling at past memories.
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody and the Ridge Farm piano
Frank’s main job was lighting technician for Queen, Rolling Stones, ABBA and other groups during their concert tours across the UK and Europe. “I would often be away for months on end,” he recalls. “It was a fantastic time…And there are lot of stories I’m not going to tell you,” he adds with an enigmatic smile. When Queen told him that they were looking for a place to get away, he suggested Ridge Farm.
Queen turned up for six weeks in 1975. At the time, the band was still relatively unknown, but in the process of exploding onto the scene. They were working on “Night at the Opera”, their fourth album. Frank had yet to install the studio’s state-of-the-art recording facilities, so the four band members only used the farm to write and compose their songs. They later travelled to Rockfield in Wales to record. The 2018 movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which profiles Freddy Mercury’s life, depicts Ridge Farm but another location was used for the filming.
The band lived in the main building with its irregular wooden staircases, uneven floors and secluded bedrooms, each one completely different. “There was very much a family atmosphere. It was all very informal with flared trousers, or in the case of Freddie, very short shorts and black-painted fingernails,” recalls Frank. “They played snooker and tennis – Freddie was really good at tennis. Or they went for swims in the indoor pool. They also loved our dog and were constantly playing with it.” Evenings they would all drive to the pub to chat and relax. “Some of the pommy clientele probably hid their daughters when the lads came in with their long hair and jeans,” adds Billy with a grin.
Both brothers agree that Freddie was extremely quiet and shy, and very polite. For a musician later renowned for his ostentatious behaviour and for being gay, or at least bi-sexual, and who died of AIDS, Mercury also turned up with his girlfriend Mary. “Really not quite what you would expect, but clearly a very complex fellow,” he adds. Smiling, Billy nods in agreement. “Queen were exceptional.”
“Yeah, but Queen were very serious. Very professional. They worked hard,” interjects Frank. He points to the room next door, which still serves as a studio by one of the Andrews’ children. It is crammed with equipment, boxes and other items. Frank gestures to the piano. “I like to imagine that Freddie composed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on it,” he muses. “In actual fact, he didn’t like our piano and had his own brought in, you know, the famous white one. But as far as we’re concerned, our piano was the inspirational one.”
Establishing one of the UK’s leading musical retreats
As wild as many of these bands were, Frank understood the need to get away in order to rehearse and work on their songs. On return from one of these tours, he found that his parents had moved and no longer wished to live at the farm. So together with Billy, they proceeded to transform one of the old buildings into a studio. Several years later, once the Ridge Farm began to prove successful, Frank arranged to buy the farm off his parents.
From then onwards, Frank and Bill began to develop Ridge Farm into a musical retreat. This was before the two feuded. “A bit too much drinking and too many drugs,” admits Billy with a laugh. “I was a bit all over the place. There were also a lot of roadies around.”
Consisting of several typical post-medieval main buildings and barns partially constructed from old ship lumber, Ridge Farm proved ideal. Not only did it offer both space and privacy, but it was also not far from London. Barely one hour’s drive and 30 minutes from Gatwick Airport. While the two brothers together with several other tour technicians created a studio, it was initially only for rehearsing, not recording. The bands had to bring their own mobile sound equipment. It was only much later that Frank set about building a state-of-the-art recording facility, the Ridge Farm Studio.
At the time, the idea of producing a rock album in the countryside was completely unique. The managers liked the concept because their bands could focus on getting the job done. “It was really a great location, a bit of traditional England and a complete contrast to their rock ‘n roll lives,” explains Frank, who continued touring with bands for another five years before focusing completely on the studio operation. “There was a lot of drinking and drugs. A lot of white powder with some of the bands getting pretty ripped. I would have died had I continued.”
During the 25 years that Ridge Farm functioned as one of England’s leading music retreats, numerous renowned musicians and bands passed through, some to work, others simply to party or to jam. “It was fantastic to think that we jammed with people like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, or Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull,” says Billy, who plays the piano.
“The bands could work however and whenever they liked,” Frank continues. “Sometimes you would turn up first thing in the morning and some of the band members would just be going to bed. Or, you’d have to go and wake them to drag them out of bed.” At the same time, he adds, “a lot of them were exceptionally serious musicians. They worked very intensely to create some incredibly epic, legendary music.”
Oasis, the highly influential English band from Manchester known for its feuding, drugs and bad behavior came to Ridge Farm in 1996 in a bid to find some peace and quiet in order to complete their third album, ‘Be Here Now.’ “They were also very serious about their music, but constantly bickering. There was a lot of shouting and swearing,” says Frank, with Billy nodding.
Mentioning band after band, or individual musicians whom they revered, the two of them recall the great or memorable moments of Ridge Farm of which there are clearly many. One of the most notable being the time when Sharon Aaron, Ozzy Osbourne’s then girlfriend and later wife, tossed his Rolex into the garden pond during one of their many arguments. “We had to come in with a metal detector. We looked really hard, but we never found it,” Frank says before pausing. “It could still be there.”
Edward Girardet, a foreign correspondent and author, is editor of Global Geneva magazine based in Geneva and Bangkok.
Montreux-Riviera, Switzerland. https://www.montreuxriviera.com/en/P976/freddie-mercury-statue
Ridge Farm, West Sussex, UK. https://www.ridgefarm.com/
Duck House, Montreux, Switzerland. https://www.montreuxriviera.com/en/P32803/duck-house-freddie-mercury-vacation-home
Freddie Celebration Days, Montreux, Switzerland. https://www.montreuxriviera.com/en/P33447/freddie-celebration-days