ABOUT AIR STUDIOS
Legendary producer of The Beatles, Oscar-nominated composer and founder of AIR Studios, Sir George Martin was one of the music industry’s most versatile and imaginative talents. He produced a record-breaking 30 number one singles in the UK, and was recognised by the industry with five Grammys and two Ivor Novello Awards.
George entered the music business in 1950, and five years later became head of the Parlophone label at EMI. His early career was built on recording comedy with artists including Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Flanders & Swann. In 1962 he signed The Beatles to EMI and went on to produce every record they made until the band parted ways in 1970. He also produced a host of other artists in the 1960s and 1970s, Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Matt Monro, Elton John, Jeff Beck, John Williams, Cheap Trick and Ultravox.
With three other leading record producers, Ron Richards, John Burgess and Peter Sullivan, he established Associated Independent Recordings and opened AIR Studios in central London in 1970. Its sister studio, AIR Montserrat, was opened in 1979, and for ten years hosted many of the biggest names in rock and pop. Soon after AIR Montserrat was hit by a hurricane and closed, Sir George found an empty church in Hampstead, north London, and created AIR Studios Lyndhurst.
Sir George received his knighthood in 1996, in recognition of his services to the music industry and popular culture. He died at on 8 March 2016, at the age of 90.
In August 1965, George Martin was helping the Beatles conquer the world. Help! had just knocked the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man off the top of the UK singles chart. For the next 12 months Help!, followed by Rubber Soul and Revolver, would do battle with The Sound of Music soundtrack for the number one album spot (briefly assisted by the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath). Despite the vast sales chalked up by the Beatles’ records worldwide, Martin, their producer, was seeing none of the financial rewards, just a weekly salary from Parlophone. What he did next changed the record industry forever.
George Martin assembled a supergroup of record producers for some of the UK’s top acts – Ron Richards, John Burgess, Peter Sullivan and himself – to form Associated Independent Recordings, or AIR. They proposed a new arrangement where AIR would fund the production of new releases, relieving record labels of the cost, and in return take a royalty on sales.
The new freelance producer set-up was a hit. From offices in Park Street, Mayfair, they continued to record the day’s top artists at Abbey Road, Decca and other studios. Within two or three years they were making enough money to take on staff – young engineers like Chris Thomas, whose baptism of fire was The Beatles’ White Album. They were able to bank enough of AIR’s profits to build their own production facility.
Not far from Park Street, on the fourth floor of the Peter Robinson department store at Oxford Circus, was an old banqueting hall that George Martin decided could accommodate two spacious studios. The new facility would be a studio "built by producers for producers."
AIR Studios eventually opened in October 1970 with a star-studded two-day party fuelled by 450 bottles of Bollinger champagne. The first session, overseen by Chris Thomas and John Punter, was for the Average White Band’s third album. Studio rates were £35 per hour. AIR quickly gained a reputation as an academy for the very best young engineers, and became a byword for the latest studio technology, pioneering 24-track recording, multi-track tie-lines between studios and 48-track mixing.
The larger Studio One had a live sound that was great for orchestral work, while the drier sound of Studio Two made it popular with bands. But the big drum sound that bands got in Studio One meant that it was booked out for months in advance, and film people couldn’t get in. Two more studios were added to meet demand.
Classic albums recorded or engineered at AIR in its first decade include Meddle by Pink Floyd, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure (and their three following albums), Paul McCartney’s soundtrack to Live and Let Die, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush, and The Pretenders’ eponymous debut album. T Rex, The Huggett Family, Genesis, Supertramp, ELO and a host of other big names all worked on new releases at Oxford Circus.
The facility eventually closed in 1991, when its 22-year lease ran out. Its time had come, not least because it had become difficult for major artists to come and go without being recognised by the shoppers on Oxford Street.