Review: Documentary, ‘Under The Volcano’ – A Wonderful Lookback At AIR Montserrat Studios

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m in the throes of the dreaded Dry January these days. It’s very hard to self entertain during the coldest, grayest time of year, especially without booze. Let’s all admit it, January sucks. The Holidays, however you feel about them and whichever you choose to participate in, are over and it’s just a long, dark slog until Spring. Or at least until Valentine’s Day if you’re into that sort of Hallmark Holiday. But with the cold, Midwest weather there’s really no outdoor activities to help divert the winter blues. All there is to do in Kansas City these days is eat and drink… not that there’s anything wrong with that but currently I’m not doing one of those things.

This last weekend my beloved Chiefs played their game on Saturday instead of the usual Sunday football game. My friend Doug came over to watch the game with a couple of boxes full of non-alcoholic beer. While Doug isn’t joining me on the long, slow slog of Dry January he was kind enough to support me. I was surprised how good that beer was, but perhaps I just miss beer. I don’t miss the bloating beer brings on…  Anyway, when Sunday rolled around there were a ton of NFL games on to watch, all of which had playoff ramifications but I could tell the Rock Chick was not enjoying being a “football widow.” I knew I needed something on Netflix and I needed it fast. Some buddies of mine have me in that most dreaded of things, a group text. But last week on the aforementioned group text one of my friends mentioned a documentary that came out last March, Under The Volcano. He said to me specifically, “You’ve probably seen this already, but if you haven’t, you’ll dig it.” I had seen that it was on Netflix (and it was actually on Showtime this last week) but for some reason both the Rock Chick and I thought we’d already watched it. We tend to watch anything about rock n roll if it looks like it’s well done but in fact, we had not seen it. I knew this might be the thing to save my wife from the football induced boredom I was subjecting her to.

Apparently in the mid to late sixties Beatles’ producer extraordinaire George Martin formed a company, Associated Independent Recording (aka AIR). I had no idea George Martin was going to be at the heart of this story. As soon as I heard that, I sat up straight in my chair and started paying more attention. Martin started this company and opened his own state of the art studio in London, on Oxford Street. I think Martin produced Rubber Soul there. The man was genius. Growing tired of the big city and feeling the need to get musicians away from all of that and more isolated for focus, Martin discovered and fell in love with the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Known as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” Montserrat was this sort of unspoiled gem. Martin fell in love with the island but he especially loved the warm and wonderful people there. He bought a property there and eventually bought built a studio down there in 1979, long after the Beatles had gone their separate ways.

In today’s world of Pro Tools, digital files being sent around on email and folks recording music on their phones, it’s hard to understand how musicians and producers used to actually all get together in the same room and play music together. And, lets face it, in the late 70s and 80s, the time covered in this documentary, record companies had bigger budgets. It was a time of decadence but it was a time of great music as well. Often bands or solo guys with their backing band would retreat to the country or some remote location with a studio and live, party, write and record as a group, or some might say, like a family. And what better place to get away from the distractions of the world than in paradise. Many of the guys would bring their family and make it a holiday. They’d work a few hours on music and then off to the beach of if you’re Sting, off to windsurf.

I was aware that there was a studio on Montserrat and vaguely aware that some of my favorite albums were recorded there but had never really investigated it. Again, I had no idea that George Martin was involved. He lived there and would often pop in to check out how things were going even if he wasn’t producing the record. That’s like having Roger Federer come down to check on how your tennis game is coming along. The island of Montserrat is simply beautiful. However, the island has a “dormant” volcano that stands over the island and the proceedings here like a silent, dangerous, smokey sentinel. It’s like recording at the feet of the famous “Iron Man” of Black Sabbath. I knew AIR Montserrat studio closed in 1989 and I kept thinking… “my god, what happened, did the volcano go off?” The studio itself was like a resort. They had a pool right outside the studio – lots of rock star photos jumping into the pool – and an onsite cook and bar. Many locals who worked at the studios or who had gotten to know the rock stars are interviewed and I enjoyed hearing them as much as I did the rock stars. This documentary reminded me a lot of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, only with much better surroundings.

The first album produced at AIR Montserrat was by the Climax Blues Band for those of you who feel like getting in the “way back” machine. Jimmy Buffett was the second artist to record there because – hello, he’s Jimmy Buffet the island guy. So influenced by the island and it’s primary geological feature he called that record Volcano. I love that he bought out the whole bar at the studio one night. If they weren’t drinking at the bar, many of these rock stars would venture out to these little, rundown neighborhood bars nearby and hang with locals. How cool would that be? Especially for the rock stars… to be able to act like a normal person.

So many great acts did records at Montserrat. McCartney did Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace, his first work with George Martin since the Beatles broke up and sadly only weeks after John Lennon was murdered. The Police recorded Ghosts In The Machine and Synchronicity there and Sting fell in love with the place. He recorded his first solo record there too. Artists from Gerry Rafferty to Duran Duran did albums there. They talk about the studio having its own particular sound, like the island was in the space between the notes. That laid back Caribbean vibe soaked into the music like rum into a pineapple. I knew without checking the internet, for example, that Eric Clapton must have recorded Behind The Sun there. Keith Richards brought the X-Pensive Winos down there to record Talk Is Cheap and vowed he’d get the Stones back together and bring them down. As it turns out, the Stones did reunite and recorded Steel Wheels there. Again, so many great albums were done down there.

Alas, the Stones were the last group to record there. Spoiler alert – it wasn’t the volcano that destroyed AIR Montserrat, that honor went to Hurricane Hugo. The destruction caused by that hurricane brought to an end a really wonderful point in time in the annals of recorded music. The property now is “returning to the jungle.”

I was really entertained by this documentary. If you’re into music and how it’s recorded… nay, how it used to be recorded this documentary is for you. It’s really cool seeing all these guys like Dire Straits down there doing their most famous albums. You even learn the truth about how Sting ended up singing on “Money For Nothing,” a story I won’t spoil here. Check it out… it’s January, you’ve nothing else to do, especially if you’re going dry like me!

Cheers!

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