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'Under the Volcano': The paradise that broke up The Police and comforted Paul McCartney

·6 min read
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The camera hovers overhead, training its unblinking eye on an empty pool near a neglected home that crumbles into a mountainside in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

Much like the haunting undersea images of the R.M.S. Titanic, the opening shot suggests that this faded house, like the ill-fated British liner, once was home to brilliant parties, dazzling people and epic moments. And so it was.

The new documentary “Under the Volcano” (in theaters and streaming on Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play) brings back heady '80s days. It was a time when recording budgets were limitless and everyone who was anyone – the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, The Police, Marvin Gaye, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Elton John, Earth Wind & Fire, Jimmy Buffett – flew or sailed to AIR Studios Montserrat.

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AIR Studios Montserrat as it stands today, lonely in a human no-go zone, given the continuing threat of the island's volcano. In its heyday, the studio hosted some of the best musicians of the 1980s.
AIR Studios Montserrat as it stands today, lonely in a human no-go zone, given the continuing threat of the island's volcano. In its heyday, the studio hosted some of the best musicians of the 1980s.

More private home than industrial studio, the idyllic ocean-view estate, built by Beatles producer Sir George Martin as a way to fire the imaginations of musicians, held much magic until a one-two punch – Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the Soufrière Hills volcano eruption in 1995 – silenced it all.

In “Under the Volcano,” artists struggle to define their AIR experiences. Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler said “it was like going into a dream.” Elton John’s drummer Nigel Olsson said thinking of AIR “makes me tear up, you can never go back and get the same energy.” But Martin says it best with philosophical simplicity: “Everything has a period. You bring something out of nothing, and it always goes back to nothing.”

Today, Montserrat (population 5,000) is a lush 10-by-7-mile gem in the British West Indies that offers tourists a popular beach escape from city life.

But four decades back, when AIR Studios was in its 1979-1989 heyday, the place was culturally off the map. Some musicians found the isolation restorative (Sting jogged to the studio, entranced by the volcano’s “presiding spirit”) and others grating (Lou Reed was annoyed by the ocean, sand and palms: “I need to hear traffic”).

"Volcano" director Gracie Otto combines vintage videos with present-day interviews to conjure a once-in-a-lifetime place, a musical Shangri-La where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rekindled their cooled friendship, Wonder jammed with locals into the wee hours and McCartney found solace days after the death of John Lennon.

Among the tracks and albums recorded on its fabulously expensive Rupert Neve-designed mixing board: McCartney and Wonder’s duet “Ebony and Ivory,” Duran Duran’s “Rio,” Buffett’s aptly named “Volcano,” the Stones’ “Steel Wheels,” Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” and John’s “Too Low for Zero.”

But perhaps no album better defines both the highs and lows of recording on a fertile dot worthy of Robinson Crusoe than The Police’s final studio effort, 1983’s “Synchronicity.”

The band had quickly risen from punk-ska upstarts to global superstars, and their relationships had frayed. The trio recorded in three separate rooms. Sting alerted his bandmates he was through with the group. Andy Summers had tea with Martin and asked him to produce the squabbling group; he declined but encouraged the band to persevere.

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Andy Summers, Sting and Stewart Copeland work on their "Synchronicity" album at AIR Studios Montserrat. The result was a hit album and a band breakup.
Andy Summers, Sting and Stewart Copeland work on their "Synchronicity" album at AIR Studios Montserrat. The result was a hit album and a band breakup.

The result of that temporary detente was a live wire of an album, featuring the two-part title track, “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”

In the case of The Police, AIR Studios Montserrat proved a classic-forging crucible. But for many other groups, the island vibes were far happier. Among them:

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Island life devotee Buffett embraced his time at AIR Studios, calling out the island by name in “Fins” and eerily predicting the eruption in “Volcano” (“I don’t know where I’m a gonna go/When the volcano blows”), from his 1979 album of the same name.

But he did have an issue with some of the “colonial aspects” of the British territory. Specifically, he didn’t like how the lack of a running tab slowed down service at a local watering hole. “The Coral Reefer Band was not happy,” recalls the “Margaritaville” man. “So I said, ‘I’ll buy the whole bar!’ ”

Stevie Wonder ad-libs songs with locals

Within days of Lennon’s 1980 murder, McCartney arrived in Montserrat with a huge security entourage. But the Beatle soon realized that they were unnecessary in this remote spot, where locals were more impressed with cricket stars than pop stars.

A highlight of Macca’s stay was convincing Wonder to join him to record “Ebony and Ivory,” his hopeful song about race relations. Wonder warmed to the task, and later descended on a local haunt where he led a singalong with locals using ad-libbed lyrics that included, “Paul McCartney is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

Sting thought this collab wouldn't sing

Knopfler and Dire Straits arrived in 1984, not long after The Police had wrapped up, though Sting stuck around to perfect his windsurfing skills.

Mark Knopfler, second from left, jokes with bandmates and staff outside AIR Studios Montserrat. The band recorded their album "Brothers in Arms" at the island studio, roping in a vacationing Sting for a signature solo on "Money for Nothing."
Mark Knopfler, second from left, jokes with bandmates and staff outside AIR Studios Montserrat. The band recorded their album "Brothers in Arms" at the island studio, roping in a vacationing Sting for a signature solo on "Money for Nothing."

Knopfler had composed a cheeky tune about the luxurious rock star life from the perspective of appliance delivery men, “Money for Nothing." He had also recently seen The Police in a MTV promo and had an idea when someone said the singer was on the island. Sting's falsetto “I want my MTV” line defines that single. But he confided to his now wife, Trudie Styler, that he didn’t think much of the song. It hit No. 1.

Elton John inspired by his baked entourage

After a string of disappointing albums, John decamped for Montserrat to record “Too Low for Zero." It proved his best-selling disc of the decade.

Elton John smiles during his stay at Air Studios Montserrat in 1982, where he recorded his biggest album of the '80s, "Too Low for Zero."
Elton John smiles during his stay at Air Studios Montserrat in 1982, where he recorded his biggest album of the '80s, "Too Low for Zero."

"I'm Still Standing” has an amusing origin. When his band came down with the flu and begged off work, John grew incensed and screamed that no one was around. But one entourage member piped up from a marijuana-induced haze: “No, I’m still standing!”

But that song and others almost never were heard. John at one point grew frustrated, and insisted on being given the master tapes – which he promptly threw in the pool. Fortunately, knowing his ways, an engineer had handed him blank tapes.

AIR studios: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Two years after the volcano's violent awakening, Martin put together a concert featuring many of the stars who recorded at his home studio to raise money for Montserratians.

Legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin takes a call poolside at the home he built on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which also contained one of the most prolific recording studios of the '80s, home to hits by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.
Legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin takes a call poolside at the home he built on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which also contained one of the most prolific recording studios of the '80s, home to hits by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones.

"I fell in love right away with the place," Martin told USA TODAY at the time. "In retrospect, to build there was madness. But in my life, I like climbing mountains, doing things people say can't be done."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Under the Volcano': Where the Stones, Police, Dire Straits made magic