Words by Jesse Serwer, Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis—
For reasons that are too obvious to state, the Caribbean has long been a favorite destination among overseas musicians looking to “get away from it all.” Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point in Nassau, Bahamas (site of classic Island Records recordings by U2, Grace Jones and others in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as AC/DC’s Back in Black) and Portland, Jamaica’s Geejam are among the studios that have been established to provide international artists with a mix of state-of-the-art equipment and peaceful island vibes. But the don dada of Caribbean resort studios has to be Sir George Martin’s ill-fated AIR Studios Montserrat.
Martin, the legendary producer and music executive best known for discovering The Beatles, built AIR in the late ’70s as an extension of his renowned Associated Independent Recording Studios in London. AIR Montserrat opened in 1979 (two years after Blackwell’s Compass Point) with “all of the technical facilities of its London predecessor but with the advantage of an exotic location,” according to the AIR website. (The original London studio, founded 10 years earlier, still operates)
Between 1979 and 1989, the studio hosted Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, Luther Vandross and Eric Clapton, to name a few of their more obscure clients. Jokes.
The Police were repeat clients, recording their two most successful albums, Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity at AIR in ’81 and ’83, respectively. Their uncharacteristically goofy video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (in which Sting dances across the studio’s 58-input Neve recording console) was shot at the studio as well as other locations around the island.
“Everything is there,” Keith Richards boasted during the recording of the Stones’ 1989 comeback album, Steel Wheels. “A great bar, great restaurant, great cook. The studio itself is like a plus. It’s the best place to live on the island!” Best of all, the sessions produced this priceless behind-the-scenes video of Mick and Keith:
Just a few months after Steel Wheels‘ completion in 1989, AIR was seriously damaged and declared uninhabitable following Hurricane Hugo. The start of the Soufriere Hills volcano eruptions six years later, which rendered more than half of Montserrat uninhabitable and led to the evacuation of more than two thirds of its people, doomed any notion Baker of re-establishing the studio. Tellingly, one of the first projects done at AIR was Jimmy Buffett’s 1979 album, Volcano. The album’s title track, the story goes, was inspired by Buffett’s alarm at the studio’s proximity to the crater.
Abandoned for nearly 25 years, the facility still exists as a ruin, in the uninhabitable portion of Montserrat known as “The Exclusion Zone.” Baker still maintains a residence nearby at Olveston House, originally built to house visiting stars like Elton John, and has led fundraising efforts for the island— he financed the creation of Montserrat’s new cultural center by selling signed lithographs of the score for the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
For a studio with such a storied and colorful history, there isn’t much documentation of AIR but what is out there is pretty cool. Scroll through for some choice images.