It’s Friday night and I’m watching a musical 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 the technical facilities of its London counterpart, but with the advantages of an exotic location”. This exotic location – a lush mountainous Caribbean island with sheltered coves and sandy beaches – seemed perfect for the luxury model who had to inform a certain strand of ’80s pop music. Think Duran Duran on their yacht in the “Rio” video, and you get the picture.
However, the film begins at the end of the story, with the place in ruins. Devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and major volcanic eruptions in the 90s, the studio has closed and the abandoned buildings are now derelict, with leaking roofs and damaged floors. At the mercy of the elements, they have taken on that strange quality of places once clean, dry and comfortable, but where nature has now taken over.
I remember the photos of the Bishops Avenue mansions in Hampstead, north London – nicknamed Billionaire’s Row – which have been overlooked by their foreign owners. Empty houses have a strange, dark beauty. The grand staircases are covered in moss, hart’s tongue ferns grow between the broken floor tiles, and the dry fountains are golden with lichen. There are empty swimming pools, dilapidated ballrooms, rotten carpets, and peeling paint; the avenue has been described as “one of the most expensive wasteland in the world”.
There is something about this kind of ruins that makes me shudder. We are so fleeting, they remind us. Even our sturdy buildings are temporary; the wealth with which we surround ourselves will not last. I think of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and the horror of this creeping desert: “Around decay / Of this colossal, boundless and naked wreck / The lonely, flat sands stretch out into the distance. And, of course, his most famous phrase: “Look at my works, mighty ones, and despair!” – which brings me back to the movie Air Montserrat. Take a good look at my works, 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 kept all of its promises.
There are music documentaries that you watch and think, I wish I was in this room. But not here. There was a strange sadness in the midst of luxury, an absence of that ineffable vibration that turns some recording studios into places of pilgrimage. The movie seemed to show people who had a lot of money, but who weren’t necessarily at the peak of their creativity.
It was like a demonstration of everything that was wrong in the ’80s. Too much emphasis on technical precision led the band members to record in separate spaces; an overabundance of money caused them to waste time, lose touch and forget why they had formed a group in the first place. The best of the ’70s was over, while the best of the’ 80s was elsewhere.
So, yeah, Dire Straits recorded Brothers in arms, which, yes, was sold in batches, but UK critics hated the album. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder suddenly appeared onscreen, but – oh no – to record “Ebony and Ivory”; the Rolling Stones did “Steel Wheels” and Elton John did “Too Low for Zero”, and that was just a little meh.
The film’s interviewees would have disputed all of this, of course, and were full of beautiful quotes such as “Music is the liquid architecture of emotions” (!) But the whole parade left me with a feeling of emotional flatness. Apart from everything else, so few bands seemed to be enjoying themselves. Duran Duran felt detached from his natural urban surroundings and the police hated each other, as Stewart Copeland says: “We were here in this paradise, which we quickly turned into a living hell.
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Well, maybe great records don’t come out of Heaven. There is a thought.
[See also: At my son’s damp student house in Brighton, I’m reminded of the winter of discontent]