Whether it was the cannabis plants delivered to the door, the volcano looming in the background or the irresistible urge to suddenly down guitars and jump in the pool, no rock or pop star ever quite forgets recording at AIR Montserrat.
As the eccentric brainchild of ‘Fifth Beatle’ Sir George Martin, the maestro whose production and musical arrangements had been a huge factor in the Fab Four’s success, the studios drew scores of top-flight music acts from the UK and U.S. to a tiny speck in the Caribbean.
Some, like the Rolling Stones and Elton John, loved the place, built with questionable judgment in the shadow of the Soufriere Hills volcano and on the flight path of tropical storms.
But others, like Duran Duran and Lou Reed, never quite gelled with the paradise island isolation and couldn’t wait to get back to the screaming fans and squalor of the big city.
The studio was the birthplace of some of pop music’s most famous recordings, from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms and the Stones’ Steel Wheels to The Police’s Synchronicity, and Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s mega hit single Ebony And Ivory.
Whether it was the cannabis plants delivered to the door, the volcano looming in the background or the irresistible urge to suddenly down guitars and jump in the pool, no rock or pop star ever quite forgets recording at AIR Montserrat. Pictured: Elton John at the studio
Over the studio’s ten-year life, some 76 albums were recorded there by artists who included Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Boy George and even Sheena Easton.
Founded in 1979, it tapped into the money-no-object glory years of the music industry when the advent of compact discs filled their coffers and made expensive jaunts to a Caribbean island to lay down a few tracks entirely feasible.
Even before the volcano erupted in 1995, destroying half the island, AIR Montserrat had closed after being ravaged by Hurricane Hugo and today is just a shell gradually rotting away into the encroaching forest. Now, a new documentary — Under The Volcano, packed with fascinating home videos shot by the acts — explores the studio’s unique story and reveals how it provided the creative muse (usually for good, occasionally for ill) for so many musicians. Many stars who recorded there — including Sting, Mark Knopfler, Nick Rhodes and Midge Ure — recall their affections and frustrations with working in such an unlikely rock ’n’ roll environment.
The iconoclastic Sir George was desperate to shake off the rigid company structures at EMI (for whom he worked in his Beatles years) and its Abbey Road studios in London — a place so set in its ways that the fridge was locked every night so musicians had to break in just to get milk for their tea.
He wanted to build somewhere that was more ‘artist friendly’, his son Giles, himself a record producer, tells the film. One of his aims was to separate musicians from the army of hangers-on — groupies and drug dealers included — who disrupted recording sessions and came between the artists and their producers, not to mention their bandmates.
They would come with just their families to the isolated new studio that Martin envisaged and he hoped it would open up new creative channels for them.
‘Dad was a sort of mad visionary who liked pushing boundaries,’ says Giles. ‘There was a serious element of just good Pythonesque British crazy in there,’ adds American musician Gerry Beckley.
Martin’s first idea was to isolate the musicians by putting a studio on a boat but he realised the diesel engines would make too much noise. He then decided to put it on an island and found Montserrat after reading an article which described it as the ‘emerald isle of the Caribbean’. He visited and instantly fell in love with the island and its ‘gentle’ people, buying a 30-acre hilltop estate.
Pictured: Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney record the album Ebony and Ivory at the studio
Building AIR (which stood for Associated Independent Recording, the company Sir George co-founded) Studios was a feat in itself. Its main piece of kit — a two ton state-of-the art, custom-built mixing console — was rolled into the new building on oil drums.
Stars used to the trappings of fame were dragged right out of their comfort zone. ‘This island was kind of untouched. There were no big corporate signs for chain restaurants, there was no American money in there,’ recalls Ultravox front man Midge Ure. ‘Just these old, brightly coloured, tin-roofed shacks. You felt as though you were in a time warp. This little island had a heart that you could feel.’
Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler was struck by how Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory, was ‘far more innocent and far more quiet’ than better known Caribbean islands such as Antigua. It couldn’t have been less ‘rock ’n’ roll’. There was only ever one act there at a time. The musicians had the whole place — studio, bar (where they had to fill out chits for drinks), kitchen and the guest villa — completely to themselves. Martin remained largely in the background.
There was a family atmosphere. ‘It was like everybody was in the band’, says Verdine White, bassist in Earth, Wind & Fire, including — he says — the cook, driver and housekeeper.
‘Montserrat was a bit like Fawlty Towers in a way. It had these crazy characters running around,’ says Giles Martin. Some acts, such as The Police, ended up roping in the staff and other islanders to do backing vocals, while the stars were drawn into everyday Montserrat life. Eric Clapton’s daughter attended the local primary school.
Paul McCartney came just a few weeks after John Lennon had been shot dead in 1980 and was consequently accompanied by a small army of bodyguards who weren’t needed among islanders not interested in pop celebrity.
Boy George relaxing at Air Studios in the Carribbean island of Montserrat
He was joined by Stevie Wonder, with whom he wrote and recorded Ebony And Ivory. The pair would let off steam by heading off to jam until the early hours at tin-roofed bars.
Elton John — notoriously temperamental and a star who preferred to live at the Ritz rather than in the jungle — couldn’t have seemed less suited to Montserrat, but he enjoyed it so much he recorded three albums there. They could work phenomenally fast. Elton’s guitarist Davey Johnstone estimates they wrote the hit I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues in 20 minutes. However, even the laid-back Caribbean vibe couldn’t completely conquer Elton’s passions. One night, he announced he was going to throw the tapes for an entire album into the swimming pool. A studio sound engineer swiftly substituted them with blank ones, which Elton duly hurled into the water.
After one stint, Elton didn’t want to go home, staying on the island after his band left to spend Christmas with the studio staff, a mix of Brits and Montserratians. ‘We had a fantastic time. It was like a big family sitting at a table enjoying Christmas,’ recalls studio manager Yve Robinson. ‘With Elton, the excesses were very, very big but it didn’t make him happy. It might not have been anything to do with Montserrat but he did have an experience there that quite changed him.’
Stars who had lost touch with why they had become famous rediscovered themselves there, says Malcolm Atkin, the studio’s chief technical engineer. They also rediscovered their connection with their bandmates as, he says, ‘coming to an island like this you were shoved straight back into each other’s faces, and you had to go and make another album’.
Apart from hanging around by the pool or learning to windsurf down on the beach, there was little else to do. Sting recalls feeling like he’d ‘died and gone to Heaven’ on first encountering the idyllic spot.
His band, The Police, recorded two of their most successful albums there, 1981’s Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity in 1983, but they had a double-edged relationship with the place. When they returned to record Synchronicity, they were self-absorbed superstars and quickly got to the point where ‘we couldn’t speak to each other’, guitarist Andy Summers tells Under The Volcano.
‘We went there for the isolation but we soon found that, without anything else around us, we had only each other to drive each other bananas,’ adds drummer Stewart Copeland. ‘And we all saw the irony of it, although we were screaming and shouting at each other. Here we were in this paradise which we soon turned into a living hell.’
They ended up playing in separate rooms, listening to the others on headphones. ‘It was miserable. I couldn’t wait to get off that island and have it done,’ says Copeland. They appealed to George Martin to become their producer but he stayed out of it, telling them they were grown-ups and should sort it out themselves. It did the trick.
Sting, who would go off on solo hikes up to the volcano and come back stinking of sulphur, believes Montserrat ‘allowed us to calm down’ but he still resolved never to make another album with his bandmates — and they never did.
At the height of their fame, Duran Duran led a 1980s British pop exodus to Montserrat that included Boy George, the Eurythmics and Simply Red. While sailing-mad Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon was in his element, keyboardist Nick Rhodes was less smitten.
After coming to escape their screaming hordes of fans, they found the silence of the island disconcerting. ‘There was no one there. It was like suddenly going underwater,’ says Rhodes.
Not that every rock ’n’ roll indulgence was forsaken. Predictably, cannabis was abundant at the studio. ‘When we first arrived and made it known to the staff that we wanted some grass, within 15 minutes some kid arrived with a plant that he’d just uprooted and stuck in a carrier bag,’ says Duran Duran’s producer Ian Little. In the end, the band had to leave early and finish their album in a city that provided the ‘energy’ they wanted in their music.
‘For me, hot climates and isolation are not so great for creativity,’ says Rhodes. ‘I had a bit of a creativity clash with [Montserrat] and I ended up working into the night in the studio because there were no disruptions and people weren’t running out of the door to jump into the swimming pool every five minutes.’
Lou Reed once said of recording in Montserrat: ‘That wasn’t a good experience for me. You know, palm trees and the ocean and sands to relax on. I need to hear traffic.’
Even hardcore rockers were taken aback by the ubiquity of cannabis on the island. Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi recalls his disbelief at seeing the pilot of the small plane that took them to the island smoking a joint at the controls.
Given George Martin was so closely associated with their great rivals, studio staff were a little surprised when the Rolling Stones pitched up to record their 19th British album, Steel Wheels, in March 1989.
But veteran collaborators say they never saw Mick and Keith get on so well. Richards insists that was because it’s usually other people that set them off bickering and ‘other people’ were in short supply there. At one point, a powerful record industry executive, Peter Mensch, dropped in to see them and suggested a musical change to Richards.
Stones producer Chris Kimsey recalls: ‘At which point Keith delved into his doctor’s bag — one of these beautiful old doctor’s bags — and brought out a knife and pinned it between [Mensch’s] legs and said to Peter something like, “Listen, sonny, nobody tells the Rolling Stones how to write a song” — which was classic. And the arrangement never changed.
‘Montserrat was a huge part of rebooting the Stones, helping them back together — particularly Mick and Keith. It was pretty sad when we all left as they hadn’t been that close for such a long time.’
The Stones were the last act to use the studio. A few months later, Hurricane Hugo badly damaged it and the island. With accountants increasingly calling the shots, Martin decided not to rebuild.
It proved a wise decision as, six years later, the volcano erupted, leaving half the island uninhabitable. Sting says he sailed past a shattered Montserrat a few years later and found it ‘frightening and upsetting because I had so many happy memories of that place with my bandmates, children, my family’.
‘You can’t really walk round the estate now,’ says Martin’s widow, Lady Judy. ‘And now I feel it was of a time and it should slowly go back to the jungle where it came from.’
On the edge of the exclusion zone around the volcano, AIR Montserrat is inaccessible to visitors. The place that was once a music Mecca is now only infested by wasps.
n Under The Volcano is available on July 26 on digital, DVD and Blu-ray.