Under the volcano: How a rock music legend was turned to dust

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The Independent Online
It was renowned by musicians world-wide as the Air Studio, named because its soundproof recording room was built on ball-bearings to "float" during tremors from the nearby volcano. Belonging to the former Beatles' record producer, George Martin, it was a Caribbean paradise hideaway that churned out classics from the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Police, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Stevie Wonder et al.

Sting and the Police recorded Every Breath You Take here, and filmed the video in a local Anglican church. McCartney and Stevie Wonder turned out Ebony and Ivory here. Local soca-calypso star Arrow cut most of his world-wide hit Hot, Hot, Hot. In the most prophetic song of all, Jimmy Buffett laid down his famous Volcano song: "I don't know where I'm gonna go when the volcano blow."

Now, the recording studio lies abandoned and ash-covered in the shadow of Montserrat's volcano. Inside the "forbidden zone," evacuated and out of bounds, it is threatened with fire or burial under ash, rocks and mud if there is another major eruption. One church used in the Police video has been destroyed. Another is now crammed with refugees who fled the evacuated and devastated capital, Plymouth.

To give something back to the Caribbean island that helped sell their records, the pop ghosts who still haunt the abandoned studio, including Clapton, Sting and McCartney, will perform at a benefit concert for Montserrat on 15 September in the Royal Albert Hall.

Local hero Arrow, real name Alphonsus Cassell and undisputed world king of soca, the Afro-Caribbean-Latin beat, will set the tone at the concert with Hot, Hot, Hot and his volcano song, Ah Just Can't Run Away. "As long as breadfruit and mango down here, I'll be holdin' on," it says. "As long as I can leave me door wide open, I'll be holdin' on. What is to be will be. I will never leave my country."

More than half the island's 11,000 residents have left their country, to Britain or nearby islands, or else simply moved north, to refugee shelters in tents or churches.

The white stone Air Studio building, originally a storage warehouse for the island's waterworks on an old slave cotton plantation known as Hollander's, is perched above the Belham River valley outside Plymouth. Scientists fear the next avalanche of red hot rock, ash and gas from the Soufriere volcano could come down the valley and swamp Hollander's, the studio and the entire low-lying river valley beneath the township of Salem.

The studio, where Sting played pool between cuts and where Ringo Starr slept rather than return to his villa, had been little used since 1989, when parts of its roof were torn off by Hurricane Hugo. Much of its equipment has been sold off to Japan and the outside swimming pool used by the stars is now full of ash. But, perched alone on a lush hillside above George Martin's mansion, Olveston House, it has remained a symbol of Montserrat's musical glory years.

"I found out when I did vocals there, they came out better," said Arrow, who runs a clothing store between recording sessions and has moved his business from Plymouth to the higher ground of Salem. "Maybe it was because I was home, but others told me the same."

Montserratians are not ones to complain, though a few had asked foreign reporters why an array of world pop stars had so far done nothing for the island. But, with no newspapers arriving from abroad, no one in Montserrat had even heard yesterday of the Royal Albert Hall concert, and no one seemed to really care. If anything, the sentiment was that money from the concert was unlikely to get beyond the British or local officials who run the island, one of a dozen so remaining British colonies.

But the stars will doubtless remember the locals who looked after them here. There was Mickie, the studio barman, X, the maintenance man and driver, and Tappy, the studio chef. And, of course, Andy Lawrence, owner of Andy's Village Place, a nearby restaurant and bar.

"Elton [John] proposed to his wife at Andy's. She was a sound engineer at the studio," said X, who still works for (now Sir) George Martin. Like everyone here, no one knows Lloyd Francis, 50, as anything other than his nickname, X, not unconnected with his respect for Malcolm X.

"Yes, Renate worked on the sound for my Hot, Hot, Hot. And I hear she got a few million out of the settlement with Elton," added Arrow as we chatted in his shop in Salem. "The studio had the best chef on the island, George "Tappy" Morgan. George [Martin] hired him from the Vue Pointe [the island's best hotel, now also evacuated] just to keep the stars well fed and happy."

"They all dined here: Sting, Elton, Dire Straits, Simply Red," said Andy Lawrence. "They loved our chicken. We're the Kentucky of Montserrat. We miss them a lot. They're nice people. If you mention my name, they'll say 'yes, I know him, I know Andy.'"

"Mick, who came here with Jerry Hall, once told me what he loved about this place was that he could walk down the street and not be mobbed," said X, wearing a black Keith Richards t-shirt the Stones' guitarist had given to him. "Paul [McCartney] came with a dozen security guys not long after John Lennon was killed but sent them home after the first day. He'd pass through Salem with his wife and people would just say `Hi' and walk on. When Ringo came to visit Paul, he seemed to have a woman bodyguard," added X without a hint of a smile.

"Paul was popular but Stevie [Wonder] was a blind guy, and black like us. People loved him. He used to play gigs at The Anchorage club, in Wapping, just south of Plymouth. "The club's probably gone now. Looks as though it was in the volcano's path.

"It's one of my dreams to see the studio reopen," said X, who looks after Sir George Martin's homebelow the studio. "The volcano kills our hopes at the moment. But once the volcano stops, maybe my dream come true."