Inside the Fifth Beatle’s Secret Recording Studio

Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and more recorded songs and albums at George Martin’s recording studio on Montserrat, which today stands in disrepair.

Thousands of miles from London or Los Angeles, on a dot of land in the Caribbean Sea, Sir George Martin, the so-called fifth Beatle who died Tuesday, ran a secret music studio beneath the palms, cranking out hits with the biggest stars in the music industry for more than a decade.

Martin did this on the tiny island-nation of Montserrat, the same one devastated by the explosion of a volcano last century that buried half the island in ash.

Montserrat is a puddle-jump flight away from Antigua, the island so close that when the volcano blew, residents of the other island described the “snow” (really ash) that blanketed them.

Yet, whereas Antigua has modern hotels, golf courses, and cafes, Montserrat is simpler and less manicured.

A family of dog-sized iguanas calls the holes beneath the historic sea-facing cannon guarding Carr’s Bay home; most of the island isn’t mapped in detail, including the hidden treasure of the island: the secret recording studio Martin built in 1979 that was a tropical playground for music legends of the 1980s.

Icons from the Police to the Rolling Stones jetted in to the green, hilly island for multi-day musical binges and a change of scenery.

Associated Independent Recording’s Caribbean outpost—known as AIR Montserrat or Air Studios—had all the mod cons of their famous London recording studio, except it was in paradise, the paradise Martin enjoyed, seasonally, until his death.

All the Sirs recorded there: Elton John, Paul McCartney (and some members of Wings); the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson (although he didn’t record there), Eric Clapton, and Stevie Wonder also made the trek.

Lou Reed’s 1980 release Growing Up in Public was one of the first albums recorded in the studio, and, just months before Hurricane Hugo wrecked it forever, the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels was among the last.

In between, a who’s who of 1980s musicians traveled to record sessions there. Some, like Luther Vandross’s Montserrat Sessions, including “So Amazing,” were only released years later.

This is hardly Mustique or St. Barts: the coastline is rugged ocean, not baby blue bays. Only recently have the sort of waterfront watering holes you’d expect boldfaced names to frequent opened up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a beach chair or even shade.

But the tranquility of the island appealed to Martin, who lured his clients to his compound on a hill.

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The views, like any other hilltop on the island, included nearby peaks, distant deep-blue horizons, and lots of greenery, a far cry from the heavy bricks of Air Studios’ current digs at Lyndhurst Hall in North London. The music he and they made there is light, carefree.

They included Duran Duran confections, Elton John chart toppers like “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” (OK, that one wasn’t so airy), and Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory.” Montserrat was also where the Police danced with islanders in their playful “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” video. In it, they play with and climb over the recording equipment in Air Studios.

Yvonne Robinson, then Yvonne Kelly, the managing director—now a radio personality in England—recalled long days with each band keeping a different schedule with communal dinners at 7 p.m.

She said that although George was not on the island all the time, he was there when he was producing, and he visited often. “I grew up having to explain where Montserrat was and sometimes not being able to find it on a map. George changed that.”

I stayed at Martin’s. Well, he wasn’t home, but his island home, Olveston House, is a public guesthouse and restaurant when he’s not using it.

I was surprised to arrive at the modest raised white building not far from the road on a patch of green surrounded by tropical flowers.

Inside the furnishings were frozen in time and basic. You’d never know who owned it from the outside, but the walls are lined with gold records and photos taken by Linda McCartney of some very familiar young men: the Beatles, including icon shots of Paul folded in a chair, cupping earphones over his head in the other Air Studios, and John’s head seemingly floating in space.

I had the place to myself overnight, literally. I could have stolen priceless rock ’n’ roll memorabilia, from Paul McCartney and Ultravox gold records to Linda’s signed photographs of the Beatles, an odd-shaped swimming pool, and island children on the beach.

Instead, I sang to myself from cuts on the McCartney Give My Regards to Broad Street gold record hanging in another, unlocked and open guest room.

“Here There and Everywhere,” seemed appropriate, as did “No More Lonely Nights.” I discovered a tiny piece of paper with the guest house wifi password: “Penny Lane.”

There are six records in total, fixed to the wall, but manager Margaret Wilson doesn’t seem to worry they’ll disappear. “Only really nice people come to Olveston House and Montserrat in general,” she said via email.

Olveston House is less Bob Marley than Bob Dole, not lush but homey and austere.

A man who could have built a castle or party pad, instead lived in a simple former plantation owner’s home converted in the 1960s to a guest house, with normal-sized bedrooms and a wraparound concrete-floored porch furnished with wicker and a worn table etched with a map of the Caribbean.

Between Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the 1997 Soufrière Hills volcanic explosion that buried half the island in ash, much of Montserrat is off limits.

There are no maps showing the route to Air Studios. Once you reach the end of the long and winding road that crosses the island, the route dissolves into a dusty construction vehicle-pressed sandy ditch.

Descriptions and old photos suggested the studio was on a ridge on the side of the river closer to Martin’s property. It was almost exactly where one half of the island was cut off by an intermittent stream.

I followed one road until it crumbled into grass and dirt at the top of a steep hill, then took off on foot in flip-flops, but the hike only ended in a radio tower with a view.

Back down and across the riverbed, I thought a back road looked promising. Luckily, a jeep rumbled past, and I recognized the driver as a new friend from the espresso bar I’d visited that morning.

He told me Air Studios, or what remained of it, was just uphill.

The paved road quickly opened to a ridge flanked by rusted orange fake-looking horror movie gates. One panel said “Air,” the other, “Studio.”

I walked toward the few shaggy palms hiding most of the building, which had a very Brady exterior, and not much else visible behind the foliage. I was scanning the ground for what, I didn’t know. Sting’s hat? A scarf Mick Jagger might have dropped in the 1980s?

I’d read the building had long been ransacked of anything valuable. I just wanted to peer in.

But the windows were higher than the driveway and the whole building was behind a fence with ominous warning signs about the dangers inside. “This is Private Property,” “These Premises Are in Unsafe Condition,” they screamed. I was undeterred. I could not have come all this way just to give up, but I also didn’t want to break the law or my neck, so I did my best.

The building edges were littered with odd bits of metal and plastic, a TV monitor, broken wood, as though the hurricane had happened the previous month, not the previous century.

I hoisted myself up on the ledge and could just make out the room that I’d decided was one I’d dubbed the ballroom, but was certainly smaller in person, the one I’d seen in a video of the Stones playing in.

It was difficult to see much, but, since nothing blocked the windows, except broken wood slats, I decided the flagstone wall was one I’d seen in the video, and figured the other window must be the studio itself where the Police played.

Although everything else was in shambles, the wall was exactly as it had appeared in the video. I was overcome with the intoxicating idea that I was where the Beatles once were. I decided to climb up to get a better look.

There was a lot of foliage and debris, but on the far end it was possible to catch just the right angle to look past the concrete exterior spiral staircase, and a two-tiered deck.

I tried to glance out at the view and do the “this is the same view they saw” mind trick that makes you feel connected to someone you don’t know.

The best vantage point seemed to be a raised ledge. I was just barely able to boost up and see across the lawn to what I could now see was once a pool. There it was, the pool in the McCartney photo in the hallway at Martin’s guesthouse. This, this was that pool. She, they, I had all been here.

After my trip, I asked Margaret Wilson about the music Sir George liked and listened to.

Her answer stunned me. “Sir George is profoundly deaf,” she wrote. The man who brought the world so much music was, in his final years, no longer able to hear it.