The Art & Science of Sound

The Rise & Fall of George Martin's A.I.R. Montserrat

If you’ve listened to pretty much any music in the past fifty years you’ve heard something George Martin was involved in either as producer (of every one of the Beatles albums for example), or scores of hit records by other artists. Even if you’re not a pop music kind of person, you’ve probably heard some of the finest classical records or movie scores ever recorded that were sessioned at Martin’s AIR (Associated Independent Recording) studios in either London or the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

The original AIR Studios opened on Oxford Street in London in 1970. A who’s who of rock and pop artists, as well as classical, and movie and television scores were produced there until the lease on the building ran out in 1990. In 1991, Martin moved AIR Studios to its current location at Lyndhurst Hall in Hampstead, North London where it is still in operation under different ownership and is considered one of the top five recording facilities in the world.

But it is the story of Martin’s dream studio in Montserrat that is the most interesting to music lovers and historians.

While on vacation in 1977 George Martin fell in love with the island of Monserrat, a forty square mile island in the Lesser Antilles about 300 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. The island’s population was around 11,000 at the time.

Martin opened AIR Studios Montserrat in 1979 as the technical equivalent of AIR London but with the added flavor of its exotic location. For you trivia buffs, the first album recorded there was Climax Blues Band’s 1979 Reel to Reel and the last album finished there was the Rolling Stones’ 1989 comeback record Steal Wheels. In between, 74 other albums were recorded there including some the absolute top records of the 1980s.

The list of artists who spent time at Martin’s island paradise reads like a veritable who’s who of rock royalty: Elton John, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Rush, Black Sabbath, Duran Duran and Luther Vandross to name just a few. Two of the Police’s biggest selling albums Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity were recorded there. Check out the video for Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and you’ll get a good glimpse of the inside of the studio in it’s heyday, as well as Police guitarist Andy Summers dancing on the custom Neve console, which I’m sure gave Sir George some fits when he saw the playback.

Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits’ biggest record was also recorded there and local island legend has it that Mark Knopfler and Sting wrote I Want My MTV at a local watering hole down the lane from the studio. Brothers In Arms is also considered one of the finest sounding albums of all time and is an excellent example of the quality of work the studio churned out during its operation.

In 1986, the studio was described as one of the preeminent recording facilities available anywhere as this blurb from the studio’s own marketing material attests:

Recently refurbished control room now featuring 60 channels by SSL with automation and TR and 12 fully integrated channels by Rupert Neve of Focusrite, two 32track Mitsubishi X850 digital machines and 24track Studer A800. Digital mixing on two Mitsubishi X86. Very comprehensive ancillary equipment list. 

In 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated the island and the studio never re-opened. Several weeks after the hurricane came ashore, Martin went to his island paradise to assess the damage. Upon opening one of the studio’s pianos and seeing the mold that had quickly engulfed the instrument the writing was on the wall. “I realized we were done,” Martin when recounting the visit years later – if the piano was that badly damaged the damage to the electronics was insurmountable. Plus, the economics of the recording industry were changing – hurricane or not, AIR Montserrat’s days were numbered.

In a 2014 interview with the BBC, Martin explained, “After ten great years of recording there the music business had changed. The moguls running the business no longer wanted their artists miles away, outside their control. That coincided with the devastation caused by the hurricane and sadly the studios had to close.”

Martin removed the salvageable gear from the studio and during the next five years he paid a caretaker to keep the grounds up. Martin understood the importance of his studio and he wanted to maintain it as much as possible if only for posterity.

That all came to another devastating end in 1995 when then Soufriere Hills volcano erupted. The long dormant volcano was immortalized in Jimmy Buffet’s 1979 song Volcano, but the volcano’s eruption changed the island forever and ended any possibility of AIR returning to its former glory. Today, all but a small section of the northern tip of the island is covered by over 36 feet of mud, and parts of the island are still burning under the blanket of ash that changed the island paradise forever. Today, less than 1,000 people live there.

Michelle Graham was a fifteen-year-old Montserratian who sang backup for James Taylor during a session at AIR and who went on to record with a near-countless number of acts. “I don’t even remember all the people I sang backup for. When they came [to the island to record] they obviously asked for island singers,” she recounted in 2016.

George Martin’s AIR Studio Montserrat is an important piece of music history, and although only the most adventurous among us will ever have a chance of even glimpsing the now dilapidated studio, the importance of the place lives on in the sounds of the classic albums we all still enjoy.

Photograph of AIR Montserrat in its current condition Copyright Shane Thoms. Click here for more pictures of AIR Montserrat by Shane Thoms.

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