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17 November 2021

How one recording studio embodies everything that went wrong in the Eighties

In a documentary on the Air studio, there is an absence of that ineffable vibe that turns some into sites of pilgrimage.

By Tracey Thorn

It’s Friday evening and I’m watching a music ­documentary; this time it’s Under the Volcano, which tells the story of the Air recording studio in Montserrat. It was built by George Martin and opened in 1979, offering “all of the technical facilities of its London counterpart, but with the advantages of an exotic location”. That exotic location – a lush, mountainous island in the Caribbean, blessed with sheltered coves and sandy beaches – seemed perfect for the luxury template that was to inform a certain strand of Eighties pop music. Think Duran Duran on their yacht in the “Rio” video, and you get the picture.

The film starts, however, at the end of the story, with the place in ruins. Devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and major volcanic eruptions in the Nineties, the studio closed down and the abandoned buildings are now derelict, with leaking roofs and damaged floors. At the mercy of the elements, they have taken on that eerie quality of places that were once clean, dry and comfortable but where nature has now taken over.

I am reminded of photos of the mansions on Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, north London – nicknamed Billionaire’s Row – that have been neglected by their overseas owners. The empty houses have a strange, dark beauty. Grand staircases are covered in moss, hart’s tongue ferns grow between smashed floor tiles and dry fountains are golden with lichen. There are empty swimming pools, crumbling ballrooms, rotten carpets and peeling paint; the avenue has been described as “one of the most expensive wastelands in the world”.

There’s something about these kinds of ruins that makes me shiver. We are so ephemeral, they remind us. Even our sturdy buildings are temporary; the opulence with which we surround ourselves will not last. I think of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and the horror of that creeping desert: “Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.” And, of course, its most famous line: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – which brings me back to the Air Montserrat film. Look upon my works indeed, I thought, as the story progressed, and I began to despair. For whatever the tragedy of the place’s fate, perhaps a greater tragedy was that it never quite lived up to all its promise.

There are music documentaries that you watch and think, I wish I’d been in that room. But not here. There was a curious bleakness amid the luxury, an absence of that ineffable vibe that turns some recording studios into sites of pilgrimage. The film seemed to show people who had a lot of money, but who were not necessarily at their creative peak.

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It was like a demonstration of everything that went wrong in the Eighties. An overemphasis on technical precision led to band members recording in separate spaces; an over-abundance of money led to them wasting time, losing touch and forgetting why they’d ever formed a band in the first place. The best of the Seventies was over, while the best of the Eighties was happening elsewhere.

So, yes, Dire Straits recorded Brothers in Arms, which, yes, sold by the shedload, but UK critics hated the album. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder suddenly appeared on screen, but – oh no – to record “Ebony and Ivory”; the Rolling Stones made “Steel Wheels” and Elton John made “Too Low for Zero”, and it was all just a bit meh.

The film’s interviewees would have disputed all of this, of course, and were full of great quotes such as “Music is the liquid architecture of the emotions” (!) but the whole parade left me with a feeling of emotional flatness. Aside from anything else, so few of the bands seemed to be having any fun. Duran Duran felt unmoored from their natural urban environment, and the Police hated each other, as Stewart Copeland says: “Here we were in this paradise, which we soon turned into a living hell.”

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Well, maybe great records don’t come out of paradise. There’s a thought.

[See also: At my son’s damp student house in Brighton, I’m reminded of the winter of discontent]

This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand