The island of Montserrat in the West Indies became a Caribbean Pompeii when in 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano woke up. The capital was buried in more than 12 metres of mud while the rest of the island was mostly wiped out except for a small unaffected area on the northern tip. Under a thin layer of earth, Monserrat is still burning underneath. Only a few thousand residents remain, rebuilding life on the northern tip, forbidden to visit their old homes in the restricted southern exclusion zone. Located right on the border of this exclusion zone, partially covered with ash and hardened mud, engulfed in tropical overgrowth, is the ruins of AIR, one of the most prolific recording studios in music history. At least 67 albums were recorded here with legendary musicians including The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, The Police, Sir Elton John, Lou Reed, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder– and the list goes on.
A trusted urbex photographer Shane Thoms, is currently exploring the Caribbean, spending time on the island of Montserrat and emailed me with the news that he’d managed to sneak into the sacred studio, currently in an advanced state of decay. Built in the mid-1970s by Sir George Martin, the man who signed The Beatles and produced every album they made until they disbanded, for eleven years, AIR (Associated Independent Recording) boasted the most advanced recording technology of the era and was the recording destination of choice for rock and roll royalty.
In the music video for “Every Little Thing She does is Magic“, you can see Sting dancing across the soundboard in the editing room at AIR, where they chose to shoot the entire video clip. For The Rolling Stones comeback album in 1989, “Steel Wheels”, after taking up residence with the band at AIR, Keith Richards said, “if you’ve got everybody on a little island with nowhere to go, and you’re actually living almost in the studio, then…you get a lot more done, quicker.” Their album was one of the last to be recorded at AIR in Montserrat.
Just a few months after the Stones left their musical paradise in 1989, a Category 4 hurricane hit Monserrat, severely damaging nearly every single building on the small island. When George Martin returned for damage control several weeks after the storm, the first thing he did was open a piano key-board to find that all of the keys were covered in mould and knew instantly that the studio electronics would be in even worse shape. He later said in an interview, “I realized then we were done.”
The music business had also changed; record labels were no longer keen on the idea of sending their artists across the world where they couldn’t have control. If Martin was planning a comeback for his caribbean outpost of AIR studios, it would have been foiled just a few years later when the Soufrière Hills volcano went from dormant to devastatingly active, turning half of the island into a modern Pompeii (get an idea of the aftermath here). With AIR right on the border of the exclusion zone and the volcano’s last eruption as recent as 2013, the doomed studio could be buried at any moment.
In 2011, an American archaeology team called SLAM working with the Montserrat National Trust surveyed the ruins of the AIR Studios complex.
“The contrast between the vibrant video recordings of musicians previously working and playing in these spaces and the current state of silence and utter dereliction was shocking—the door to the recording studio hanging off its hinges and engulfed in tropical overgrowth, many rooms partially ﬂooded, roofs and ﬂoors sagging and rotting, the pool full of sludge, and volcanic ash blowing every-where.”
They found materials around the studio including recording tapes, floppy disks, technical manuals, artist booking forms and empty guitar cases.
“Locals informed us that beneath the ash was a spot where cement was poured from time to time, allowing recording bands to mark their visit by scratching signatures and messages or pressing handprints into the wet cement… This site is pregnant with meaning and memory and cannot lightly be disregarded, but how it should best be memorialized is no simple question.”
Although AIR was stripped of its principle recording equipment under the direction of George Martin, over the years, the music producer continued to pay a local caretaker to clear the site of debris to create walkways and keep the ruins as safe as possible. It’s as if Martin understood that AIR Studios would become a kind of sacred place to visitors seeking a piece of its haunted rock and roll history.
The Police, hanging out poolside at AIR studios
The present day AIR studios has become a physically dangerous place however. “Wasps now inhabit the property with a number of nests dangling from ceilings, window panes and walls,” says Shane, who photographed what’s left of AIR (all his photos here), hidden away on a narrow road side.
The future looks bleak for AIR, but while its physical existence is rotting away on the wrong side of the island’s volcano path, the people of Montserrat are keeping its memory alive. Despite its present day situation, the opening of AIR Studios is still ranked as a key historical date on the website of Monserrat’s Tourist Board.
The studio’s old wooden bar where the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Black Sabbath and Eric Clapton helped themselves to drinks in between sessions was relocated to the beachside Soca Cabana bar, a popular spot on the safe Northern tip of the island at Little Bay. The bar has rock and roll plaques and encourages patrons to “Drink at the bar of the stars”.
Paul and Linda McCartney with the seventies stonework of Air Studios in the background
For the locals who hadn’t heard western music before the arrival of the studio and its music legends, AIR’s legacy has become a source of pride. Having cast its spell over the ill-fated island, I guess it’s just like they say; rock and roll never dies.
The Rolling Stones recording at AIR in Montserrat
Urbex photographs by Shane Thoms, an Australian photographer who has a passion for decay, abandonment and disrepair. Discover more of his incredible adventures.
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