air studios in montserrat
Air Studios in Montserrat. Photo Courtesy of Air Studios.

When the Caribbean Island of Montserrat Was the Center of the Pop Music World

By: Bob Curley - February 2, 2024

Legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin’s dream was not just to build a recording studio in a Caribbean paradise, but to raise up the fortunes of an island he dearly loved in the process.

On Montserrat, for a brief but glorious time, it all worked beautifully, until nature cruelly brought it all crashing down.

Martin, already famous for his work with the Beatles, fell in love with Montserrat on a 1977 vacation, and by 1979 had opened AIR Studios Montserrat as a world-class recording studio that just happened to be on a small, quiet island in the Caribbean. His vision was to provide a setting where top recording artists could escape to an idyllic and immersive environment, ideal for minimizing distractions and maximize creativity.

Accessible by twice-weekly flights from London via nearby Antigua, AIR Studios was an instant hit and remained a top destination for some of the top names in popular music for the decade between its opening and the island-wide destruction wreaked by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Any dreams of rebuilding were shattered by the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in 1997, which laid waste to the south half of Montserrat and buried its capital city, Plymouth, under a thick layer of ash and rock. The abandoned studio, while not destroyed by the eruption, fell within a vast swath of the island declared off limited to people for safety reasons, relegated to a crumbling shadow of its former glory.

While it lasted, however, AIR Studios produced some of the most memorable music of the late 1970s and 1980s, including Hot Hot Hot by Montserrat’s own Arrow, Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity by The Police, Elton John’s Too Low for Zero, Paul McCartney’s Tug of War, and Steel Wheels by the Rolling Stones.

caribbean island montserrat

“The studio was a dream that my father had that created so much music and happiness,” said Martin’s son, Giles, a producer himself and the musical director for Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary, The Beatles: Get Back. “He never was honest about the financial concerns he had about the studio because he loved this island so much, and the people so much.”

“It’s sad that the legacy my father wanted to leave for Montserrat, for it to be better than it was before, was not the case,” said Martin. “But what he did was remarkable.”

Giles Martin’s memories of AIR Studios go back to age 9, when he visited Montserrat while the studio was being built. Twice-yearly visits over the decade that followed helped him compile formative experiences like having dinner with Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, meeting Elton John and his wife, Renata, and listening to Lou Reed complain to his father about not being able to read the New York Times every morning in those pre-internet days.

He recalled the Police’s Synchronicity as being one of the biggest things to come out of AIR Studios, although he wasn’t privy to the studio where the memorable video for “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” (off 1981’s Ghost in the Machine album) was filmed. 

“As a kid it was this magical box where so many amazing things happened, though I wasn’t allowed into the room,” he said. George Martin’s widow, Judy, and daughter, Lucie, still visit the island every January, and Giles also has returned repeatedly to the island, which still struggles to recover from the disastrous eruption decades later.

Yve Robinson managed the studio in its heyday; her father was from the island and was involved in the music industry; Yve got her dream job at AIR Studios while in her 20s after a chance meeting with Paul McCartney, who introduced her to John Burgess.

“When you’re young you think, ‘If I want something I can get it,’” she said. “Most people I admired were musicians.”

Like Giles Martin, Robinson has cherished memories of AIR Studios: sitting on a beach talking to Keith Richards, meeting a musical idol in James Taylor, hanging out with contemporaries like Duran Duran while they were at their peak of fame. She also met Eric Clapton while he was recording on the island; the two ended up having a daughter, Ruth, together in 1985.

“ I remember Elton John asking me to open the studio in the middle of the night saying, ‘I have a song in my head,’” she remembered; that song turned out to be his comeback hit, “I’m Still Standing.”

“The people in Montserrat are so very nice,” Robinson said. “Everything ran smoothly; it was not a maniacal atmosphere. When Earth Wind and Fire came with their equipment, people were on roadside cheering as they drove up, but they didn’t mob people like Elton.”

“Everyone could just be themselves,” she recalled. “Nearly everything in Montserrat was live music, so if you went out it was to hear live music, like when you were in a garage band.”

For the artists, reconnecting with that energy often paid off in a big way “’Every Little Thing You Do is Magic’ has so much in mind about Montserrat,” she said.

Cy Curnin, lead singer for The Fixx, said the band found Montserrat to be a great place to concentrate. The New Wave band recorded its 1988 album Calm Animals at AIR Studios, producing the hit single, “Driven Out.”

“We checked in right after Keith Richards and the Expensive Winos had been there, and there were cases of Jack Daniels all over the place,” he recalled with a laugh. Curnin himself recalled indulging in some locally made 150-proof rum, going to beach parties to hear local bands play, and being mesmerized by fluorescent crabs swimming in the ocean.

Overall, however, coming to Montserrat “calmed us down and helped us visualize the spirit of our music,” he said. Some of the sounds of Montserrat’s frogs and night insects even made their way onto the record.

“It did introduce you to another element — there’s nothing to distract you other than you other than your own minds. For us, it was a real Robinson Crusoe moment,” said Curnin. “That moment in time was when I felt most in touch with the dreams I had in life.”

With its emphasis on electronic music, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (OMD) might seem an odd fit for Montserrat. But OMD recorded perhaps its finest record, Junk Culture, at AIR Studios in 1983; the album produced the hit singles “Locomotion,” “Talking Loud and Clear,” and”Tesla Girls.” The song “White Trash” reflected the band’s exposure to the island’s music, especially the soca sounds of Arrow. “That’s the only reggae groove song we ever did,” said OMD lead singer Andy McCluskey

“The hardest part of working at the studio was retaining your work ethic, rather than being on holiday,” McCluskey recalled, particularly with Monserrat’s lush mountains and AIR Studios’ swimming pool right outside the studio windows. Still, the band managed to put in long days at work, spending six days a week in the studio over two months and taking only Sundays off to relax on boat rides or visit the local disco, he said.

“Going to Montserrat allowed us to be very sunny and liberated,” said McCluskey, particularly coming off the disappointment of the band’s experimental but commercially unsuccessful 1983 album, Dazzle Ships. “It was the most amazing recording experience of my life.”

Curnin still keeps on his nightstand a book by French writer Michel Tournier, Friday or the Other Island, given to him by Yve Robinson. “For me, the story of Montserrat is that book,” he said.

“Who knows what it would be now if not for the hurricane and volcano?” Curnin wondered. Today, the ruins of AIR Studios remain off limits. The entombed remnants of Plymouth can be visited on guided tours when the volcano isn’t threatening (which still happens with some regularity).

Olveston House, Martin’s Montserrat home that also served as a guest house for visiting performers, remains open as a small inn and restaurant and features a collection of Beatles photos shot by Linda McCartney. The Hilltop Coffee House and Welcome Centre has a nice collection of memorabilia from the AIR Studios era and is run by documentary filmmaker David Lea, who has chronicled the island’s history in several films and also owns the Gingerbread Hill guesthouse.

Montserrat may never again be what is was during the glory days of AIR Studios, but in many ways it remains what it always was: a relatively undiscovered piece of Caribbean paradise full of friendly people and immense natural beauty, along with an intriguing local culture influenced by Irish immigrants that make the island the best place in the Caribbean to be on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I’d like to go back out of personal nostalgia and see what’s happening,” said McCluskey.

“I still have family there, and it’s still home,” said Robinson, who visits Montserrat regularly. “It’s still beautiful and has a lot going for it; it’s just a bit sad for me, because I know what it used to be like.”

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