The producers managed to get all three members of the Police to appear in this film along with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and Sir George Martin's family. It was a bit of a coup, and without these, it may not have been half the film it was. Sir George Martin owned the studio, and The Police and Dire Strains produced not only the biggest selling albums in the short life of AIR Studios Montserrat, but some of the biggest selling albums of the 1980s. Or indeed, ever. There was no Elton, McCartney, Jagger, and many others, but with the help of band members, producers, home movies and clips from a contemporaneous documentaries, the gaps were seamlessly closed. Too many anecdotes from the crinkly male rockers may have changed the film's balance anyway. But they had Yve Robinson, the former manager, as a sort of narrator, who had met everyone who arrived and could sense their differing responses to the working conditions. The film explained how the already successful Police and Dire Straits, with the help of great timing and a good deal of luck went stratospheric. Partly by design and partly by chance, their music became tied into vast corporate projects to expand new disruptive media, including CDs and the fledgling cable TV. Brothers in Arms was promoted as a gateway to the CD format, which was far cheaper to produce, and more convenient for the user. The refrain "I want my MTV," sung by Sting on Money for Nothing, was MTV's slogan to encourage cable companies to include the channel in their bundles. Sting also got a writing credit on the song for his trouble. The genius of the film, though, was to present the island as an authentic muse. After opening with some words from Knopfler, Sting, and others, about the magic of the place, we went straight to Arrow and the local music scene. There followed interviews with local people about the impact of the studio on their life, and the island as a whole. We finished with Danny Sweeney, windsurf coach to the stars, dancing to Walk of Life. It was a joyous ending to an uplifting film, but the best moment was the recording from the Agouti. Stevie Wonder, over here to record Ebony and Ivory with Paul McCartney, wanted to play in a bar with a local band, and unbeknown to most people before now, there was a recording still in existence. She said she didn't know this when she started working on the project, but the father of Gracie Otto, the film's director, had a copy in his attic. It seems a tall tale, as did several others from the film. But whether she knew she had it or not, it was the moment that presented an unfeigned connection between the music business and the island itself. You do get to genuinely believe that there is something inspiring about the place and that there was a genuine bond between the people of Montserrat and those who came to record here. It was a short film. If you look around hard enough, you will find more gossip and a more detailed discussion of how the studio worked. Articles, videos and stories are easy to find these days. The Keith Richard knife story is told by the man himself in his autobiography. Chris Wright of Island Records talks more in his book about the logistical difficulties of operating the studio and why he gave up his stake. The film showed the delivery of the famous Neve console early on but never mentioned the digital replacement that came in a few years later. The Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels and A New Flame by Simply Red were recorded on the new one. There was talk of whether recordings made in Montserrat had a discernable sound beyond the actual sound of the crickets that made it onto several recordings. If it had, it wasn't due to the mixing desk, which was still in regular use throughout the '80s, but in Los Angeles. The recordings made on it there are less chronicled and revered. Some Albums, like Utravox's Quartet and Paul McCartney's Tug of War, were far more sandpapered than their work elsewhere, but was that more to do with George Martin than the location? Ultravox, and Midge Ure, on his own, came back to record very different sounding albums. We were also told that Dire Straits were heading for something far too mellow for the multi-million selling product the record company had ordered; until they got themselves together. So maybe there is something in it. It may be an overly harsh thing to say, but the job of Air Studios was to make the music sound the way the record company wanted it heard. That's not to say that the bands themselves weren't interested in the success that would bring. For example, Stewart Copeland said that his role as the Police's drummer was not to ruin an obvious hit that "our songwriter" (as he referred to Sting) had brought along fully formed. It's not a role he enjoyed, but he knew what was required of him. McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and Elton John could never repeat the commercial success they had with their Montserrat recordings, but the material was weaker than their output in the 1970s. Would anyone say an artist's Montserrat work was their pinnacle? Possibly it was for The Police and Simply Red. You could also make a case for Dire Straits and Luther Vandross. But besides the songs that were on heavy MTV rotation, how much of it gets an airing on Spotify these days? The documentary comes to a close with the explanation that technological developments were already killing the studio, when Hurricane Hugo finished it off. AIR was built for the 40 minutes of vinyl magic that would appear on the shelves of millions of homes, or could fit on one side of a C90. Recording techniques and musical fashions are heavily influenced by technology, both in the studio and used by the listener. "Every studio has a shelf life," said Knopfler at the end. But there was a period when some of the most famous songs ever written were recorded in a small residential studio with a swimming pool. It's an obscure piece of music history that will undoubtedly drift from the collective consciousness over time. As Bruce Springsteen once sang, eventually the "Calliope crashed to ground", in both the mythical and musical sense of the word. The building has nearly gone, and many of those interviewed have passed their threescore and ten. But the "surrealist painting", as Nick Rhodes described Montserrat, is still here, and we have this film. It will remain a glorious celebration of both the period and of Montserrat itself.
Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano
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On a remote Caribbean island, under the shadow of an active volcano, the world's biggest recording artists made music and myth that defined an era.
October 5, 2021