04 December 2021 08:48
It’s Friday night and I’m watching Under the volcano (Under the volcano), the documentary about the Montserrat Air studios. The structure is the Caribbean version of the homonymous (and historic) London recording studio, also built by former Beatles producer George Martin. The inauguration took place in 1979, to offer “all the technical equipment of its British counterpart but with the advantages of an exotic place”.
At the time, in fact, such a place – a lush and mountainous island in the Lesser Antilles, complete with sheltered bays and sandy beaches – seemed congenial to the luxury typical of a certain line of pop of the eighties. Just think, for example, of the Duran Duran on their yacht in the video of Rio, from 1982.
But the film starts from the end of the story. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and major volcanic eruptions in the 1990s, the structure was closed and today it is in ruins, along with other abandoned buildings in the area, amidst leaking roofs and damaged floors. It is disturbing: it looks like one of those places once clean, dry and comfortable where, however, nature has taken over over time. I seem to see photos of the buildings on Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, North London, that area nicknamed “Billionaire’s row”, with the apartments neglected by their owners who live abroad.
There the empty houses have a strange, dark beauty. The grand stairs are covered with moss, ferns grow between the destroyed floor tiles, the dry fountains are covered with golden lichen. There are empty swimming pools, dilapidated ballrooms, rotting carpets and peeling paint. The boulevard has been described as “one of the most expensive wastelands in the world“.
There is something about this type of ruins that makes me shiver: they remind us how ephemeral we are. Even our most beautiful and robust buildings are temporary. The opulence we surround ourselves with will not last. I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, and to the horror of that chilling desert: “Around the ruins / of that colossal ruin, bare and boundless / the lonely flat sands extend beyond the border”. And, of course, to his most famous verse: “Admire, you mighty ones, my works, and despair!”.
All of this brings me back to the film about the Montserrat Air studios. “Really look at my works,” I thought as the film went on, beginning to despair. Whatever tragedy there is in the fate of that structure, in fact, perhaps its greatest tragedy is that it has never kept its promises.
There are music documentaries that make you think: I wish I had been in that room. But this is not the case. In Under the volcano, in the midst of all that luxury there is a curious desolation: the absence of that ineffable vibration that transforms some recording studios into places of pilgrimage. On the screen, you see people who had a lot of money at the time, but who don’t seem to be really experiencing their creative peak.
It’s like a demonstration of what went wrong in the 1980s. On the one hand, the excessive emphasis on technical precision led members of the various groups to record in separate spaces. On the other hand, the abundance of money pushed them to waste time, to lose touch with reality and above all to forget why they had founded a band. Here: the best of the seventies was over, and the best of the eighties was happening elsewhere, away from the Montserrat Air studios.
And yes, Dire Straits produced us Brothers in arms. Which, it is true, sold in spades. But he was hated by the British critics. Then Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder suddenly appear in the documentary, but certainly not – let alone – to play Ebony and ivory. The Rolling Stones themselves recorded us Steel wheels, Elton John Too low for zero. In short, a somewhat mediocre tradition.
The people interviewed in the film would obviously disagree with all this, as they indulge in phrases such as “music is the liquid architecture of emotions” on screen. But it all left me with a feeling of emotional flatness. Also and above all because very few bands seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves at the Montserrat Air studios. The Duran Duran, for example, felt separated from their natural metropolitan environment, while the members of the Police hated each other. As Stewart Copeland recounts: “We were in this kind of heaven, which we soon turned into a living hell.”
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)
This article was published in the weekly New Statesman.
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