Rock star excess hit its peak in the 1980s. It went beyond the bad behavior of throwing televisions out of hotel rooms, or the decadent pleasures of mud sharks and Mandys. The Beatles, who were the biggest band to come out of the rock and roll era, set standards for excess, beating Elvis’s Pink Cadillac tour when they thought about buying their own Greek island. Their success was ensured by their producer, George Martin, who allowed the band to exceed the limits of the EMI studios they created music in. Gracie Otto’s documentary Under the Volcano is the story of how Martin’s post-Beatle career enjoyed greater heights by finding an entirely new level of indulgence. For the second time in his career, the “fifth Beatle” exceeded all expectations about how to produce a sound.
Martin bought an island in a tropical paradise, and turned it into a sonic Shangri-La. In 1979, he built AIR Studios Montserrat, a recording studio equipped with more than just state-of-the-art technology and the most pristine equipment. The studio had an atmosphere, and Under the Volcano does a fantastic job airing it. The documentary does it primarily through the music. We hear the difference in tone when someone goes through the trouble of allowing space between notes. It augments this with personal recollections, some from new interviews and others through archival footage.
All the biggest recording acts recorded on Montserrat, and everyone has great stories. Paul McCartney records Tug of War there, collaborating with Stevie Wonder, who is remembered jammin’ until 4 in the morning at a tiny club. There is a pool right outside the studio, so Elton John has a perfect place to dump finished recordings when he’s in an off mood. Of course, Jimmy Buffet is one of the first musicians to record there. It’s an island. It’s got water. It’s got all the makings for a margarita. He recalls buying a bar because it took too long to pay for drinks.
“This little island had a heart that you could feel,” Ultravox’s Midge Ure remembers in an interview. The musicians “took over the studio.” Verdine White from Earth, Wind & Fire describes how the staff became part of the band in their own way. The song “Let Me Talk” is about the studio’s driver. AIR Montserrat’s housekeeper, Minetta Allen Francis, remembers inviting everyone to dinner, where one member of the band had eyes for her attractive daughter. “He did not get her,” she says.
The documentary is nestled on a great sound track of instantly recognizable hits. Songs like “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, “Rio” by Duran Duran, and the Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” were recorded at AIR Montserrat. As well as albums including Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Hot Hot Hot by Arrow, and Elton John’s Too Low for Zero. The documentary captures how Martin wanted to give artists the chance to be one with nature. McCartney retreated to record on the island soon after the murder of John Lennon. Lou Reed remembers missing the sounds of the streets. Roger Glover of Deep Purple prefers to recall reveling in the quiet. Interviews with Mark Knopfler and Tony Iommi underscore how the artists genuinely enjoyed their time at AIR Montserrat.
We get the feel of how Martin wanted players to create music in a tropical paradise, far away from the distractions of record labels and the media. But the documentary also shows how the bands could get away from the fans, but could never escape each other. “We went there for the isolation,” Stewart Copeland says. “Here we were in this paradise, which we soon turned into a living hell.”
The drummer of the Police groans at the memory of having a “main songwriter” who would “not reveal their songs until we needed them,” and occasionally bringing the songs in fully formed. This was the case for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which the band all knew was a hit, but had nothing to add to the demo until they gave up and tracked onto it. AIR Montserrat staffers Lloyd Oliver and Desmond Riley remember singing backing vocals for The Police. Archival footage shows them asking about dance moves, which comes across as both hysterically funny, and instantaneously identifiable.
The biggest revelation which comes out of the documentary is that George Martin has shoulders. Let’s be honest, Beatle fans, we can barely imagine him without a tie. In The Anthology series, George Harrison, who didn’t like Martin’s tie at first sight, forever pegs the band’s producer as above-the-fray with the single, underplayed, phrase “got cross.” In an archival clip which comes early in Under the Volcano, John Lennon explains how Martin translated the Beatles’ aural imaginings into musical arrangements. The songwriting guitarist describes himself through hysterically inarticulate Scouse rhythmic bursts, much like his playing. But when he begins to characterize Martin, his voice takes on the upper-class London broadcast accent of the studio maestro, and Lennon even stops fidgeting.
Two minutes later, we see George Martin sipping on a bottle of beer, with his shirt unbuttoned. Then we’re shown pictures of him bare-chested, on a boat, enjoying the sun, surf, and freedom of the salt and black sand. It will be a long time before we see him in long pants again. His son, Giles Martin, offers much-needed insight into the genius behind the man behind the soundboard, and much more into the gentle, but passionate man who brought out the best in musicians.
Under the Volcano should have spent five minutes on Martin’s pre-Beatles career. His son casually mentions Martin’s Goon Show humor, but most viewers won’t know about his work with legendary comedians like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. We hear about him as a producer, but there is no mention of Martin’s early solo work, recording electronic dance music under the pseudonym “Ray Cathode.” This was done in 1962, the same year Martin began working with the Beatles. But it is as revealing as it is fun to see home movie footage of Martin shaking his pelvis like Elvis.
The Dire Straits recorded their global takeover album Brothers in Arms at AIR Studios. It was one of the first all-digital albums, promoted heavily by the manufacturers of the early CDs, and ultimately acts as foreshadowing to the demise of the studio. One of the reasons the loss of AIR Studios is so great is because it was the last, best, studio built to capture the purest and truest tones onto analog. With digital, as Stewart Copeland explains, drums may be recorded in a big room, but someone is still going to do the bulk of the work with technical applications.
The documentary builds steadily to the final act. Under the Volcano presents a segment about rebooting the Rolling Stones, only to have AIR Studios get caught in a crossfire hurricane. Not because of the Stones, though. Jagger admits the band had a history of trashing whatever studio they worked in before they left. A perfect example is how they upturned the French Riviera recording Exile on Main Street. Keith Richards, the only man on earth who could do it, reunites the Rolling Stones just to fulfill a promise from an island resident. Keith had been recording at Montserrat with his X-Pensive Winos backing, and insists on fun in the sun. The Stones’ 1989 album Steel Wheels is the last record produced at AIR Studio, but the band leaves the studio intact.
Hurricane Hugo hits soon after, and marks the end of the studio. The documentary shows footage of the damage, and an archival interview catches Martin describing piano keys covered in green. The film cuts to home movie footage of sound equipment being packed up for the return flight to London. But the final disaster is heartbreaking. People who lived on the island all their lives had no idea what dormant means until everyone loses everything in one fleeting moment.
The Soufrière Hills Volcano erupted in July 1995 after over three centuries of inaction. The volcano footage is, sadly, beautiful. Acrid billows boil over pristine green, the waters heat up, and the studio in the small Caribbean Island paradise becomes a modern “Atlantis,” as Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes put it. A thing of myths, legends, and mythical and legendary music. As the first clouds begin to block the sun, a disc jockey tells listeners it’s okay to pray, or to cry, but promises she’ll be there for them.
The film also should have spent more time on the impact of the natural tragedies. Hurricane Hugo left 11,000 out of 12,000 island residents homeless. The Soufrière Hills volcano eruption killed 19 people and rendered more than half of the island uninhabitable. “It looked like nuclear winter,” Sting remembers, recalling how he sailed past it years later. Montserrat, a tiny British Overseas Territory, is a victim of the very colonialism the bands admit to. While Martin’s fundraising concert and album helped rebuild the island, it is still in recovery.
“You bring something out of nothing, and it always goes back to nothing again,” Martin philosophizes toward the end of the film. The studio is now an integral part of rock folklore. Under the Volcano is a definitive account of the decade-long run of the studio, and its place in the musical pantheon. But it suffers from its exclusions. The space between notes adds to the fullness of the sound. Spaces left in history can’t be heard. George Martin would have turned them up in the mix.
Under The Volcano will be available On Demand and Digital on Aug. 17.