Rockford's Rock Opera: The Biography

Rockford's Rock Opera isn't like other records. It doesn't have a record company behind it. It isn't by a band. You don't even have to pay for it. And it happens to be an 18-track, fully animated concept video-musical about a dog, a species unknown to science and a journey to the Island of Infinity where they meet an entire menagerie from bygone ages. It's for kids and adults. It's a parable about extinction, ecology and a dog with a blue star on his bum. And it has some truly amazing songs.

The story of Rockford's Rock Opera begins, like many good fairy tales, a long time ago, in an enchanted recording studio in East London. "Rockford was the name I made up for a cuddly toy dog belonging to my niece," explains Matthew Sweetapple, the creator of Rockford's Rock Opera. "It seemed like a good name for a dog."

"Then, in 1997," continues Matthew. "I wrote this song called Rockford's Christmas, just for fun, as a Christmas present for my niece. I did it as part of the band I was in at the time. It was recorded in August and the engineer in the studio got the Christmas lights out and we had a brilliant time doing it. And that came across in the song. Soon her friends' parents started requesting copies and the next year we sent it out on CD as a Christmas card. And it grew from there.

"A few years later my wife Elaine and I were getting a bit of a name for ourselves in 'alternative charity', including Peeball [visit and - there's no way to explain it here], and we were approached by Battersea Dogs' Home who said, 'Have you got anything for us?' and we said, 'Rockford's Christmas'! So it was released to raise money for Battersea Dogs' Home. That was in 2004."

Sadly, 'Christmas Morning (Rockford's Christmas Song)', to give it its full title, failed to join the list of Christmas Number Ones; pipped to the throne by the small matter of Geldof, Bono and the rest of the Band Aid fraternity. Although the cheeky tune about the playful pup did sell out its run of 4,000 CDs, hard lessons about the music industry were quickly learnt.

"Being up against Band Aid was a bit of a nightmare," admits Matthew. "If you just have a single record shops just aren't interested in the slightest. Even so, it got in the charts. It got to something like 76! We were featured on TV on GMTV and London Tonight. It was LBC's Christmas single of the year. I was interviewed by Danny Baker at six-thirty in the morning. Danny Baker takes a lot of getting used to at any time of day. When you've just got up it's a bit challenging.

"The thing is, when you hear 'Charity record for Battersea Dogs' Home' you assume it's going to be awful. But actually it's a great little Christmas record. It's catchy and good fun. It wasn't trying to be anything that it wasn't."

It wasn't the first time Matthew had run into a brick wall with the music industry. Before Battersea Dogs' Home, before Rockford, before anything, he was a full time rock and roll star in a band with the unforgettable name of Burt ReynoldsChest. Well, kind of.

"Burt Reynolds Chest were signed," laughs Matthew. "It was a strange deal. We did music for bad films, including various in The Howling series. Dreadful films. We did the London circuit. While we were playing The Hammersmith Clarendon (now bulldozed) someone was stabbed in the audience, which we thought was quite rock'n'roll at the time. Then I was in bands in Glasgow including one called The Skyscrapers. We recorded an album and had a lot of interest from Creation Records. But I was sleeping on a piece of foam rubber on a friend's floor. One morning I woke up and thought, there's got to be more to life than this. Although I was doing what I wanted to do, I had less than no money. My whole life revolved around a phone call I might get from some spotty A&R man saying whether or not they liked my demo. I decided that whatever I was going to do, I had to have some money to do it. I could come back to music. And the rest is history."

Back to Christmas 2004, and the Sweetapples found themselves with 4,000 fans (that's how many singles were sold) and a character begging to be developed.

"As of December 26th," explains Matthew, "Of course it just died. After having created good impetus, a lot of people who liked the song had nothing to accompany it. We thought 'let's try to do an album so that next year, when it's in the shops, people could have something more than a single'. Elaine came up with the idea of Rockford's Rock Opera. The big story, which later became the Island of Infinity, was already in our minds. It's not just an adventure story about animals. It's about extinction and the saving the planet. Rockford evolved from the Christmas song - which was a childish, fun thing - into something that's very much an adult idea. In Rockford's Rock Opera, although Rockford's the key character, he mainly witnesses stuff. It's not just a story about a dog."

'It's not just about a dog' is a great strap line for a concept album. It's also a massive understatement. Because Rockford's Rock Opera is not just an album. Even the briefest visit to reveals a plethora of multi-media entertainment. Great music, an inspiring, fast-paced story and animated videos unlike anything you've ever seen before. Amazingly, it's all free too.

"We're not actively marketing the web site in any way," smiles Matthew. "We just put Part One up there. But we've had e-mails from all over the world. People were originally finding it from the Christmas song, and through word of mouth. We have kids to great grandmothers e-mailing us to find out when the next part is coming. Also, we've learnt that when people get to the end, they want to buy something. People want to own a part of it, because it is such a hopeful record, and a download just isn't enough.

"The fact is Part One is completely free. We're not asking for anything from them. The aim of Rockford's Rock Opera isn't just to sell music. It's also to get people together and to inspire a belief that we can make a difference."

Although the music is all Matthew and the story a collaborative Sweetapple effort, the couple were not alone creating Rockford's Rock Opera, drawing some big names i n its production, including a certain member of The Mary Whitehouse Experience.

"A lot of the bands I was in in my youth were with Steve Punt," explains Matthew. "One of the reasons one of them split up was that Steve's comedy career was taking off so well he didn't have time for the band. Although we had the story of Rockford mapped out having a script is a different thing. And Steve is a fantastic scriptwriter. Because we wanted it to appeal to children and adults we wanted a really good writer. Steve tends to write the dialogue, and I write the hippy bits in between.

"Nick King was in a band called Great Northern Electrics who were signed to Polydor. He's a fantastic guitarist. Although he's not playing guitar on this. He's making silly noises."

"Steve Cooper did most of the engineering. He worked on Oasis and Supergrass albums so he's very well travelled.

"And Nick Rhodes is playing keyboards of course. Occasionally people would come in and make silly noises. With everyone who worked on Rockford once they see it's more than just a collection of songs they get pulled into it. Because it's a really hopeful story people start getting really into it."

Give it a chance and you too will inevitably fall under the spell of characters like Rockford, The Cocklebur Ick, Patrick the Moa, the Spooos and the Herculous and the wonderful menagerie of the Island of Infinity. Forget all your preconceptions about concept albums for kids too. This music is 4 real.

"I have this guiding belief that the world needs some positive, uncynical, un-focus-grouped entertainment," smiles Matthew. "Not another Disney film with random songs plonked in it. Rockford is for kids but the music's influenced by The Beatles, XTC, The Who and stuff like Roger Glover's Butterfly Ball and Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds.

"On any animation now the first thing they think about is the merchandise. That's where they make their money. And that's all wrong. We wanted a great story with great songs that people will listen to and love. Maybe they will want a cuddly toy at some point. But it's not about selling cuddly toys. It's about making a great concept album with a story and music people will love.

"Anyone can do an album. That's simple. This is an experience, with songs, narration and videos. And it tells an amazing, world changing story. It's a multi-media musical!"

Robert Collins. Play Music
Rockford's Rock Opera is in three parts. Part One is available for
free on-line now or as a free download. Part Two will be available very soon.

For further information contact:
Elaine Sweetapple
Tel: 0845 612 1116
E-mail: elaine 'at'