AIR Studios Montserrat was a hit machine built in paradise. The brainchild of legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin, the recording studio in the eastern Caribbean defined the sound of the eighties, producing evocative hits likes of ‘The Reflex’ (Duran Duran), ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police), ‘I’m Still Standing’ (Elton John) and ‘Money For Nothing’ (Dire Straits).
Under the Volcano affectionately documents the rise and fall of this now mythical music factory, and regardless of the size of your record collection, there’s much to enjoy in this sprightly music doc. If the soundtrack doesn’t make you tap your toes, your dancing shoes are on too tight.
Gracie Otto (who also directed The Last Impresario, about British theatre impresario and film producer Michael White) and editor Karen Johnson serve up chippy soundbites, and scratchy footage of rock stars having fun in the sun. Natural disaster was clearly the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Plot spoiler: this doesn’t end well.
Before the rock star invasion, Montserrat danced to the feel-good calypso rhythms of soca (think ‘Feeling hot, hot, hot’ by The Merrymen). The soundtrack changed dramatically when George Martin came to town.
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The island was transformed into a hedonistic bolt-hole for the biggest names in rock and pop, and became the glamorous home to global hits that even today sound sun-bronzed and joyous.
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“There’s no doubt there was magic in Monserrat,” recalls Midge Ure, who first recorded on the island with Ultravox.
“It was a glorious dream that George Martin had,” says Nick Rhodes, keyboardist with Duran Duran. “Now it’s Atlantis…”
Inspired after a short visit to the then sleepy island, Sir George set about building a state-of-the-art recording studio in the shadow of the Soufrière Hills volcano.
Nobody gave that volcano a passing thought.
“I’m from Chicago. We don’t do volcanoes,” says Verdine White, founder member of Earth, Wind & Fire (ironic). “AIR Monserrat touched our spirit in a different way. It touched our spirit. There was no clock.”
Martin originally considered building his dream studio on a boat, an idea quickly discarded because it would be too noisy (and no doubt rocky in the wrong way). An island without transport links struck him as the better option.
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Giles Martin, George Martin’s son and multi-award-winning producer, says AIR Montserrat “was like Fawlty Towers. The staff touched your hearts.”
“There was an element of Python in there, good old British crazy.”
It’s to Otto’s credit that the staff get almost as much screen time to reminisce as the artists. And what a charming bunch they are.
Montserrat afforded artists a glittering escape from everyday life; it was an oasis where creativity could be refreshed by a quick dip in an ocean-view pool. Sting used his time there to learn to windsurf. But it also afforded a sense of family.
Opened in ‘79, the AIR Montserrat reigned over the most dramatic decade in the history of pop. Created in the wake of the Beatles break-up, it saw the death of Lennon, the birth of punk, the rise of New Romantics, the launch of MTV and the shift from vinyl to CD.
A residential studio, AIR would be hired outright by labels for their artists, money no object. They would move in, make themselves at home.
This was an era of almost comical extravagance. Jimmy Buffet recorded the aptly named Volcano at AIR Montserrat. He didn’t like having to wait to pay for drinks at the local watering hole, so he bought the whole bar. “You didn’t leave the circle of creativity,” he recalls. “It was a place to capture magic.”
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Stevie Wonder, while recording ‘Ebony and Ivory’ with Paul McCartney, feeling the urge to perform took over a local just before closing, and played an impromptu set until 4am. He left $5,000 behind the bar for the band, still their best pay day. The sequence is illustrated with rarely seen snaps and recordings from the night.
Of course, the island didn’t work for everyone. The Police barely talked to each other during the recording of their final album, Synchronicity. But then they always did seem a miserable bunch. Stewart Copeland cites the smell of sulphur from the Soufrière Hills, describing his experience at AIR Montserrat ‘a living hell.’
In 1989, after 76 albums had been struck, the island of Montserrat was devastated by Hurricane Hugo. When Martin finally made it back into his ruined studio, he knew the party was over.
Six years later, Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, sending a cataclysmic ash cloud into the air, and destroying the island’s capital, and everything around.
What remains of AIR Studios can be found today on the edge of the exclusion zone, a tourist curiosity. But the hits keep on playing, and this documentary is a love letter to them all.
Under The Volcano is available on digital, DVD and Blu-ray on 26 July.
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