In 1978, American singer Jimmy Buffett was riding high on the success of louche beach bum anthem “Margaritaville” when he flew to London to mix his live album You Had to Be There at AIR Studios. There he was introduced to owner George Martin, the legendary producer and arranger known as the “fifth Beatle” for his influence on the band’s sound. Martin suspected he’d found a kindred spirit in Buffett, and began earnestly pitching him on his latest ambitious venture. He wanted to build a second base for AIR Studios on Montserrat, a volcanic island in the Caribbean he’d recently visited and fallen deeply in love with. Martin envisioned it as the ultimate rock star home-away-from-home: sun, sea, sand and the most impressive bespoke recording console that pioneering audio designer Rupert Neve could build him. “I just said: ‘You really don’t have to sell this to me, George!’” says Buffett with a laugh, speaking over the phone from northern California. “I can sail to work!”
AIR Studios Montserrat opened in 1979 and over the course of the next decade produced a string of hits to rival any studio on the planet. Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory”, Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” and Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” all came into the world beside the deep blue pool at Martin’s idyll. The Police included Montserrat locals in the video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, taken from the Ghosts in the Machine album they recorded on the island.
Then, in 1989, disaster struck. First Hurricane Hugo tore through the studio, destroying buildings and most of the equipment. Then, in 1995, Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, displacing two-thirds of the island’s population and leaving the ruins of AIR in a mandatory exclusion zone in which it remains to this day.
The volcano was considered dormant when Buffett turned up in Montserrat with his Coral Reefer Band early in 1979. He arrived still hunting for a title for the record he planned to make there, and didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “The house we rented had this big picture window facing the volcano, so we sat there and wrote the song ‘Volcano’ looking out at it,” he remembers. The chorus goes: ‘I don’t know where I’m a gonna go when the volcano blows.’ “At the time, people were going up and bathing in the sulphur mud baths,” points out Buffett. “It was never considered harmful, and then it blew!”
“Our songs are escapist, but we weren’t there to escape,” he says. “We went down there to do work that would reflect the kind of songs I was writing and the kind of life I was living on St Bart’s. We really felt it should be recorded in the same environment, so that’s why I was so glad and so lucky that George put that studio down there. We came out with what I still think is one of our best records.”
Under the Volcano’ is available now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD