May 31, 2021
by Carla Hay
“Under the Volcano” (2021)
Directed by Gracie Otto
Culture Representation: In the documentary “Under the Volcano,” a predominantly white group of people (with some black people), who are connected in some way to the now-shuttered AIR Studios Montserrat, discuss this famous recording studio that operated in Montserrat from 1979 to 1989.
Culture Clash: People who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat had various reactions to the laid-back, “isolated from the modern world” atmosphere of Montserrat.
Culture Audience: “Under the Volcano” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in hearing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of some the 1980s’ biggest pop albums at this very unique recording studio.
The nostalgic music documentary “Under the Volcano” takes viewers back to a bygone era of recording studios. It’s a comprehensive history of AIR Studios Montserrat, which operated from 1979 to 1989. The recording studio, which was in an isolated part of the Caribbean island Montserrat, hosted some of the biggest names in rock and pop music.
And the documentary is a wistful rememberance of how AIR Studios Montserrat started as a dream music nirvana for celebrated producer George Martin, who founded the studio that was tragically destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Martin died in 2016, at the age of 90, but his widow Jane Martin and their son Giles Martin are interviewed in “Under the Volcano.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
Directed in a traditional and engaging manner by Gracie Otto, “Under the Volcano” uses the expected format of mixing archival footage with new interviews conducted for the documentary. The documentary has a lot more photographs than video footage showing what it was like to be at AIR Studios Montserrat. And that’s probably because before digital cameras existed, it was a lot more costly for artists to film behind-the-scenes footage. And it was a lot less common than it is now for artists to film themselves at work in the recording studio.
“Under the Volcano” has a very good representation of many of the famous artists who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat. (AIR is an acronym for Associated Independent Recording.) Some of interviewees include all three former members of The Police; former Dire Straits members Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher; Jimmy Buffett; Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes; former Ultravox frontman Midge Ure; Deep Purple members Tony Iommi and Roger Glover; Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White; musician Ray Cooper; and America singer Gerry Buckley.
However, some of the biggest AIR Studios Montserrat alumni and their perspectives are noticeably absent from the movie—chiefly, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Viewers of “Under the Volcano” will have to settle for people talking about these superstars in the documentary, instead of hearing these legendary artists’ first-hand accounts of their experiences at AIR Studios Montserrat. For example, stories about John’s recording sessions at the studio are primarily told by two musicians from his band: drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone.
Not having these superstar artists in the documentary doesn’t lower the overall quality of the movie, but there are times when the documentary feels a little incomplete without these points of view. The “Under the Volcano” filmmakers undoubtedly made their best efforts to include these artists in the documentary. But, for whatever reasons, these legends weren’t available to be interviewed.
Fortunately, “Under the Volcano” included other important perspectives besides those of the recording artists. Several people who worked behind the scenes with the artists at AIR Studio Montserrat are also interviewed. They include music producers Chris Kimsey, Chris Thomas, Neil Dorfsman and Ian Little, as well as sound balance engineer Michael Paul Stavrou.
Some of the former longtime AIR Studios Montserrat employees are also interviewed, such as chief technical engineer/general manager Malcolm Atkin; managing director Yve Robinson; managing director Dave Harries; chef George “Tappy” Morgan; housekeeper Minetta Allen Francis; and studio managers Steve Jackson, Lloyd Oliver and Desmond Riley. And for the perspectives of people in the local Montserrat music industry, the documentary includes commentary from the late musician Justin “Hero” Cassell (who died in 2010) and radio DJ Rose Willock.
George Martin (who is best known for being the producer of the Beatles) came up with the idea to have a recording studio in a remote island location after he fell in love with Montserrat and wanted to do something radically different with his career. By 1979, he had been closely associated with famous London recording studios Abbey Road Studios (formerly known as EMI Recording Studios) and AIR Studios London, a recording facility that George Martin founded in 1965. And he wanted a change of scenery that was more laid-back than what professional musicians were used to experiencing at big-city recording studios.
According to George’s son Giles Martin, “I think my father was tired of the confines of a very rigid company structure … And he wanted a place that was more artist-friendly. Abbey Road obviously created great music, but the fridge was locked at night. They [people working late at night at Abbey Road] had to break in to get milk for their cups of tea. Even the loo [Britlish slang for toilet] roll had [the name] Abbey Road on it, so you wouldn’t steal it. It was like a very proper English factory.”
It’s mentioned in the documentary that George Martin originally thought his dream recording studio in the Caribbean would be on a large boat. But he quickly scrapped that idea when he found out how noisy the boat engines would be and would thereby ruin the any audio recordings. He decided on a remote location in Montserrat that had an element of danger to it because the recording studo was situated right in the shadow of a volcano.
The idea was that the recording studio would also have its own living quarters—like a recording studio resort—so the people working on the albums didn’t have far to go to eat, sleep and party. Furthermore, Jane Martin says, “George was looking for something that wasn’t in the middle of London … And his plan was that there would be a lack of hangers-on. It would just be [the artists] and their families.”
Giles Martin says of his father George: “He was a mad visionary, in a lot of ways. I think he liked the idea of pushing boundaries. So, if you think about what he did with the Beatles in the ’60s, he pushed the boundaries in the recording studio.”
Here’s how some of the musicians who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat describe the atmosphere:
Dire Straits leader Knopfler says, “Going to Montserrat was like going into a dream. It’s always different. Reality is always different from what you think it would be … It didn’t have the sophistication that you’d feel straight away if you went to Antigua … It was far more innocent, far more quiet.”
The Police frontman Sting comments, “I love the idea of wilderness on the edge of civilization. I think the volcano itself is a presiding spirit over the island. It definitely gives you the sense that you’re living on the edge of something seismic … There’s definitely a mystique about the island. “Ultravox founder Ure says, “You felt as though you were in a time warp. This little island had a heart that you could feel.”
Air Studios Montserrat’s former managing director Robinson says of Montserrat: “They used to call it the hidden gem of the Caribbean and the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Montserrat was colonized by the Irish. And that’s why the island was so different, because it’s really a friendly place. It’s got a magic about it.”
Four years after AIR Studios Montserrat opened in 1979, Montserrat experienced another musical claim to fame when local musician Arrow had an international hit with the 1983 soca song “Hot Hot Hot,” which was later covered by several artists (including Buster Poindexter’s 1987 version) and has since become a staple song at wedding receptions and other parties. Although the most famous artists who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat performed pop and rock music, many of the arists were influenced by soca and the laid-back atmosphere of the culture in Montserrat.
The Police recorded their 1981 album “Ghost in the Machine” and their 1983 best-selling blockbuster album “Synchronicity” at AIR Studios Montserrat. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the biggest hit single from “Ghost in the Machine,” has a Caribbean rhythm, and the song became the first Top 5 hit single in the U.S. for the Police. The music video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was filmed entirely in Montserrat, including footage of the band in the AIR recording studio.
Dire Straits’ Knopfler says that the band’s biggest hit album, 1985’s “Brothers in Arms,” has two songs in particular that were directly influenced by the Montserrat vibe: “So Far Away” and “Walk of Life.” John Silcott, a local Montserrat technician who worked at AIR Studios Montserrat at the time, says he’s the Johnny who’s namechecked in “Walk of Life.” (Stay until the end credits of “Under the Volcano” for a cute moment of Silcott dancing to “Walk of Life.”) It’s also mentioned that “Brothers in Arms” (which includes Dire Straits’ biggest hit single “Money for Nothing”) was one of the first albums digitally recorded in its entirety, specifically for the CD format, which was new at the time.
“Under the Volcano” is geared for an audience that’s not too concerned about hearing a lot of technical recording studio jargon. Therefore, the documentary doesn’t have much talk about the studio equipment used at AIR Studios Montserrat. However, producer Neil Dorfsman comments, “Part of AIR’s fame was these three incredible-sounding Neve consoles—and they had one at AIR Montserrat.” According to a 2019 Globe and Mail article, this Neve console still works.
Other notable albums recorded partially or entirely at AIR Studios Montserrat include Elton John’s “Jump Up!” (1982); “Too Low for Zero” (1983) and “Breaking Hearts” (1984); Earth Wind & Fire’s “Faces” (1980); Duran Duran’s “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” (1983); and the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” (1989). Not surprisingly, many of the hit songs from some these albums are featured in “Under the Volcano,” such as John’s “I’m Still Standing” from “Two Low for Zero” and “Sad Songs Say So Much” from “Breaking Hearts,” as well as The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from the “Synchronicity” album, the biggest hit song and album recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.
The Police drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers remember that the process of recording “Ghost in the Machine” and “Synchronicity” was at times uncomfortable because Copeland and lead singer Sting famously had personality clashes with each other. Copeland says that he had to record his drum parts for “Ghost in the Machine” in a separate room that was not close to the main recording studio, so that isolation felt strange to him, and he never got used to it.
McCartney sought refuge at AIR Studios Montserrat a few weeks after the December 1980 murder of former Beatles member John Lennon. A grieving McCartney ended up recording parts of his 1982 album “Tug of War” album there, as well as parts of his 1983 album “Pipes of Peace.” McCartney and Wonder’s chart-topping 1982 duet “Ebony and Ivory” (which was on the “Tug of War” album) was also recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.
The documentary includes a story of a raucously fun, impromptu jam session that Wonder played for some very lucky people at a local pub. Some audio of that performance is included in the documentary. The sound quality isn’t the greatest, but it’s easy to hear how electrifiying and special that atmosphere must have been.
It’s also mentioned that many other musicians (such as McCartney, Dire Straits and Buffett, to name a few) often did private jam sessions at Montserrat, where local people would sometimes be invited. As a longtime radio DJ in the Montserrat, Willock says that these famous musicians felt like they could let loose in this relatively remote area, because the locals weren’t as star-struck by famous musicians as much as the locals were star-struck by famous athletes.
Flamboyant piano man John is fondly remembered in the documentary as one of the most beloved artists at AIR Studios Montserrat because he treated the staff so well and liked to cheer people up. Former studio employee Riley calls John “very generous,” and says that it wasn’t unusual for John to pay for an “open bar for everyone.” Riley adds, “When guys are down, he brings them up.”
Of course, being a rock star in the 1980s was synonymous with heavy partying. The documentary doesn’t reveal any stories that are scandalous or salacious, although it’s hinted that the recording studio’s staff had to be accommodating to whatever party whims their studio’s clients wanted. And because this is a laudatory documentary about the recording studio, there are no #MeToo or gender discrimination stories about this very male-dominated environment.
Sure, the filmmakers could have asked the people who were interviewed for tabloid-like stories, but it’s highly unlikely that the people who were at the recording studio back then would do an on-camera “tell all” for a documentary. It’s something that people would more likely talk about for a book or feature article. Instead, the documentary has people raving about things like the delicious meals prepared for them by AIR recording studio chef Morgan, who says, “That was the best job I ever had in my entire life.”
The closest thing to an epic partying story that’s told in “Under the Volcano” is that John’s song “I’m Still Standing” was inspired by him being surrounded by other people in the recording studio who had passed out from too much partying. John looked around, laughed, and said the immortal words, “Well, I’m still standing.” His lyricist songwriting partner Bernie Taupin decided to use that line as a jump-off point to finish the song’s lyrics.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s White remembers how welcoming the local people were in Montserrat. He says that women dropped their fruit-cutting machetes and applauded when the band’s instrument cases showed up at the airport. “We hadn’t even gotten there yet! And it was beautiful.” He adds, “For us, the biggest thing was just the whole experience of going there.”
And speaking of weapons with blades being thrown, producer Kimsey laughs when he tells a story of how Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards didn’t take too kindly to music manager Peter Mensch (who was a consultant on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour) suggesting how the band should do a musical arrangement of the song “Mixed Emotions.” In reaction to Mensch’s suggestion, Richards threw a knife at Mensch. Needless to say, the Rolling Stones didn’t take Mensch’s advice on how to write and record the song.
Buffett, who has made a career out of the “tropical party” lifestyle, remembers what it was like to for him and his fellow American band members to experience some culture shock at the pubs in Montserrat when they first started getting to know the area. “There was a bit of a colonial aspect of things that did not fare well with the American band,” Buffett comments.
Buffett says that one of the things that irritated him and his band was the Montserrat pub custom of ordering drinks, one at a time, by writing down an order on paper. After being told by AIR Studios Montserrat manager Denny Bridges that it was just the way things were done, Buffett remembers saying in response, “Well, why don’t I just buy the whole fucking bar?”
Despite these inconveniences, Buffett says he has overall good memories of spending time in Montserrat, where he states, “I lived on my boat, off and on there, for 20 years.” Buffett recorded his 1979 album “Volcano” at AIR Studios Montserrat. The album’s title was inspired by the volcano located near the studio.
Buffett comments on recording in Montserrat: “It was a lovely working environment because you didn’t leave, I would say, the reign of creativity. You were constantly involved in the creation of the community, as opposed to being in Nashville. To me, there are two ways to go into the studio: You can go and look for perfection, or you can capture the magic.”
Because tranquil Montserrat was not a big tourist attraction, visiting musicians often had to adjust to living without some of their usual creature comforts. Some musicians used it as an opportunity to spend more time outdoors for athletic activities. Sting has happy memories about being taught windsurfing by a local named Danny Sweeney, whom Sting calls “a very brilliant man … The people who taught me things are my heroes.”
Not all of the musicians were comfortable being in Montserrat for a long period of time. Duran Duran’s Rhodes admits he got bored with being on the island, in contrast to Duran Duran lead singer Simon LeBon, who loved spending time swimming and sailing in the ocean. Rhodes comments that after a while, he was ready to leave Montserrat when Duran Duran was recording part of the band’s album “Seven and the Ragged Tiger.”
The album’s first two singles (“Union of the Snake” and “New Moon on Monday”) were recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat. Rhodes believes that the band made the right decision to continue recording the album elsewhere that was better suited for the dance-oriented pop/rock music that Duran Duran was making at the time. “I’m not sure we were in the right head space to make the kind of record that might have been a little more chilled,” says Rhodes of recording in Montserrat. “We wanted to make something full of energy.”
Rhodes also says that Montserrat wasn’t ideal for anyone who missed the hustle and bustle of a big city. There were also safety issues of having a recording studio in a relatively isolated area. Rhodes comments, “It was really brave of them [to build the studio there], because if something went really wrong, the closest port of call was Miami.”
And there was always the possible threat of a volcano eruption, which did indeed happen in 1995, causing massive destruction to Montserrat, six years after AIR Studios closed down on the island because of Hurricane Hugo. Elton John drummer Olsson comments on his AIR Studios Montserrat experiences, “I remember thinking a few times: ‘What if the volcano goes off?'” Earth, Wind & Fire’s White quips: “I’m from Chicago. We don’t do volcanos.”
Today, AIR Studios Montserrat is a broken-down shell of its former self, and it’s off-limits to the public. The documentary includes footage of what the former recording studio looks like now: a series of run-down and empty rooms, with some parts of the building reduced to rubble. The damage caused by Hurricane Hugo and the volcano eruption were enough to make the location of AIR Studios Montserrat completely inhabitable, even if the structure was rebuilt.
Cooper says, “When the volcano went off, that was a pinnacle point of change—a point when nothing was ever going to be quite the same again in the way that we recorded, in the way, in the way that music was dealt with— those magical moments were going to be no longer.”
However, the music, memories and legacy of AIR Studios Montserrat live on in many ways. “Under the Volcano” is a solid tribute to this influential hub of creativity. And the movie will bring a lot of joy to anyone who’s a fan of rock and pop music from the 1980s.
UPDATE: Universal Pictures Content Group will release “Under the Volcano” on digital and VOD on August 17, 2021.