“An island that changed music forever.” A dramatic claim from the producers of Under the Volcano, which had its world premiere at SXSW Online 2021, March 16-21. It may not have changed music, but it certainly produced some of the greatest pop music of the seventies and eighties. Watching this film, I felt like I was enjoying a playlist built from my youthful record collection.
So, what island and how did this happen?
Start in London
Sir George Martin was the producer for the Beatles. Producer is only part of it. His credits include composer, conductor, arranger, audio engineer, and musician. He was deeply involved in all the Beatles’ original albums, earning the nickname The Fifth Beatle. His talent also contributed to film (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Live and Let Die) and theater (Tommy, Cirque du Soleil).
His work in London with the Beatles centered around a large recording studio, originally EMI, then rechristened Abbey Road Studios. In 1965 he broke away from EMI, founding his own studio, Associated Independent Recording (AIR), taking much of EMI’s talent with him. When the Beatles broke up, Martin decided to do something different. Under the Volcano explores his decision to create a new kind of studio.
Australian filmmaker Gracie Otto, as director and screenwriter, explores Martin’s decision and ultimately his adventure in creating a music studio on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Otto uses interviews, archival footage, and even 8MM films to tell the story of a man and a studio that made more memorable music than any others in what may now be viewed as a golden age of pop music.
Music recording studios typically are in downtown areas, with tight schedules and a business-like atmosphere. Martin observed that this probably wasn’t the optimal environment for creativity. He began to look for something new.
He found the island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in that string of islands between Trinidad and Puerto Rico. Nicknamed “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” as it resembles coastal Ireland and was colonized by many Irish, it’s only ten miles in length and seven miles in width. Martin fell in love with it, and it became the home of AIR Montserrat.
The film shows the construction of the studio, an adventure in itself. Montserrat didn’t have the infrastructure to create what was then a cutting-edge electronics environment, but Martin persisted and the studio, and the swimming pool next to it, came to life.
A recording studio with a swimming pool? Yes, and a bar. Martin felt that musicians could not be as creative in a business environment as they could in a more relaxed atmosphere.
He built it and they came.
The musicians who came to AIR Montserrat, and what they created there, entertained a generation. The film contains many reminiscences by a large collection of artists.
Jimmy Buffet recorded there, saw the volcano which dominates the island, and named his next album Volcano.
Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran commented, “When we arrived it was like being in a surrealist painting; the volcano, giant lizards, no media scrutiny. There was silence. Do a few hours work, then go off and have fun in the sea.”
Elton John wrote “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” there. He recalled, “We wrote it in twenty minutes and got the guys together and recorded it.”
The Police recorded their third album there. Sting said that Martin was more like a presiding genius than a producer. “He looked after us,” he said, “and I learned to windsurf.”
Dire Straits, America, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Deep Purple, and the Rolling Stones also recorded there.
Wind and Fire
The dream did not last forever. In 1989, hurricane Hugo left 90 percent of the island’s population homeless and in 1995 the volcano erupted, killing 19 and leaving half of Montserrat uninhabitable. The ruins of the studio sit in a restricted area because of continuing danger.
In 1997, Martin organized a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to benefit Montserrat. The concert featured Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Buffett, Eric Clapton, and other musicians who had recorded on the island. Proceeds from the concert and DVD were used for relief and restoration on Montserrat.
The film, an awesome trip through musical memories, will be distributed by Universal Studios.