Sir George Martin is a name that’s legend to the history of music. In a career spanning more than six decades as a record producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer and musician. He was referred to as the “Fifth Beatle” in reference to his extensive involvement in each of the Beatles’ original albums. As the Beatles producer from 1962 to 1970, Martin had produced 13 albums and 22 singles for the Fab Four.
When the Beatles broke up in 1969, George Martin wanted to build a studio of his own. Martin had tired of London’s Abbey Road studios that despite its fame and legendary stature. It was run like a factory, that had it’s refrigerator locked up at night (preventing Martin and the Beatles any late night drinks or snacks) and even the toilet paper in the bathroom had the Abbey Road Studios name printed on them. So Martin dreamed of buying a ship that was capable of becoming a floating studio.
Instead, Martin wanted to chase the idea of recording in isolation and found his way to Montserrat. A mountainous Caribbean island, just east of Puerto Rico and north of Venezuela. Montserrat supplied glorious beaches, warm sun, wind surfing lessons, remoteness and was also the home to the active volcano known as the Soufrière Hills volcano. Naming it AIR Studios Montserrat, with AIR meaning: Associated Independent Recording.
AIR Studios Montserrat was the ultimate “artist friendly” recording experience that brought extremely famous recording artists to a place of escape within a state of the art studio. The new documentary presented by Universal Pictures is aptly titled “Under The Volcano” from director Gracie Otto who tells the story of Martin’s desire to build the studio, mixed with first account stories from the musicians themselves and the people of the community.
The very small Caribbean island (home to about 11,000 people at the time) was dominated by Soca music (or known as calypso) and was the sound of the land. Until Martin and his AIR Studios became the home of some of the biggest pop smashes of the ’80s by artists like Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Police, The Rolling Stones, The Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Annie Lennox, Eric Clapton, Luther Vandross then finally Earth Wind and Fire. Ok, there is a lot more artists to name which I won’t continue on, but literally the best of the best either recorded, wrote or hung out here.
“Under The Volcano” premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Texas on March 19th 2021, before being screened at several other festivals earlier this year. While it has sections that I wished director Gracie Otto had dived deeper into and was able to get interview time, with other artists spoken of in the film. It is no question still one of the years best documentaries and one of the essential films for any music fan.
AIR Monserrat only lived within a limited time span from 1979-1989. It now sits as a ghost site on the island, inaccessible to visitors and still contains some of the original fixtures rusting inside the studios bombed-out looking interior. The implication over the years is that the volcanic explosion from the Soufrière Hills volcano brought the studio to an end, although we eventually find out that wasn’t really what killed the studio (however the eruption did follow a few years later).
“Under the Volcano” doesn’t delve too deep into business dealings or Martin’s long-term vision for the studio. Otto wants to focus on the music being made at AIR Studios and one of the first to do anything with the space was Jimmy Buffet, who created and recorded his 1979 album titled “Volcano” in Montserrat. While Earth, Wind & Fire had found peace with the community as they showed an excitement among the bands arrival. We’re told in an new interview with Verdine White that coming to Montserrat they had hoped to get away from making the big hits and just explore a more relaxed and inclusive soundscape.
Although missing from any new interviews is Paul McCartney, who is shown arriving at AIR Studios with a security team only weeks after the death of John Lennon. Relived to find no trouble on the island and instead embracing the welcoming experience of Montserrat. McCartney would ask Stevie Wonder to join him on the island and record “Ebony and Ivory”. Another missed opportunity to have a candid interview is Elton John, who is featured in the film but like McCartney is M.I.A.
Told instead through Elton John’s band members. Montserrat is where Elton “got the band back together” to turn out his 1983 LP “Too Low for Zero”. The album was marked as a comeback for Elton, whose previous four albums had failed to produce international hit singles and had disappointing sales compared to his string of hit records released during the first half of the 1970s. “Too Low For Zero”, composed with Bernie Taupin had spawned the hits “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing” (inspired by a stoned colleague’s protests that he was still on the job).
While recording the album is where Elton got the best compliment of his career. As is told that George Martin had compared Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Elton’s band to The Beatles. Martin said that Elton John was the first artist that he’s ever seen to have so much harmony, synergy, talent and creativity since the Fab Four. Martin’s AIR Studios wasn’t just the re-birth of only Elton John, but also The Rolling Stones who were on the verge of breaking up. Mick and the band had recorded their comeback album, “Steel Wheels” that featured a big hit for them called: “Mixed Emotions”.
AIR Studios saved both Elton and The Stones, it also supplied the place for the break up of The Police. The films focused section about The Police’s two albums created and recorded there are the films best highlights. Especially considering that all three members: Sting, Stuart Copeland and Andy Summers are on camera recounting their growing personal differences in the studio. Where other bands grew closer in the vacation style environment, these guys actually grew apart.
The Police recorded their fourth album “Ghost In The Machine” and their swan song album “Synchronicity” at AIR Studios. Their biggest hits from these two albums were created and recorded there: “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, “Every Breath You Take” and “King Of Pain” to name a few. A fascinating story told through drummer Stuart Copeland, he explains how “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was recorded in one take and that one take is the actual cut on the album.
After they finished recording their final album “Synchronicity”. Sting had stuck around “for a holiday” and Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits came to AIR Studios to record their new album “Brothers In Arms”. Knopfler asked Sting to guest on “Money for Nothing”, one of the hits that made their “Brothers in Arms” LP help to put them into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame. “You can hear the island” all through the LP, band member John Illsley says. Especially on the dreamy, laid-back “So Far Away From Me” that features its oceanic breeze synthesizer and calypso tinged guitar.
But the richness of the documentary isn’t purely the anecdotes and insights into the inner workings of these legendary musicians and their albums. Otto also highlights the locals that were just as integral to the island with people like the chef, the housekeeper and the windsurfing instructor that catered to the island’s guests that all give the documentary a heart and personality. The film is filled with fun anecdotes that give an insight into how unique this period of time was. Just imagine, sipping your beer in the town’s secluded dive bar and seeing Elton John pop in for a pint or having Stevie Wonder host an impromptu jam, that goes on until four in the morning.
Otto inserts home movies, still shots of parties, jam sessions and other video footage to paint a winning picture of a time and a very sunny place that is now gone, where the best of the era recorded the songs that had defined it. And what songs they were, as a lot of these songs are foundational 80s classics. Hearing the songs again after continuous airplay will help restore the power that they may have lost through their constant repetition through the decades.
Sir George Martin’s remote live-in studio in paradise, was a place beloved by these legends that sat literally “Under the Volcano”. Otto’s film serves as an ode to a lost studio, but also to a lost time. The studio rose and fell within the 80s and left the music industry that surrounded it to start shifting rapidly. But the documentary serves as both a celebration and overview of a beloved era of music, while showing a love for the people of Montserrat.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)