RECONNECTING WITH THE RECORD PLANT IN SAUSALITO- THE EARLY YEARS

Written by MARGIE ESTBERG. 

It’s hard to remember back to the year of 1972 when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon were drawing up documents to attempt a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese, gasoline was considered high at $.36/ gallon, and John Lennon performed a live benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, which was recorded and only to be released posthumously fourteen years later in 1986.

Also in that same year, the late engineer Gary Kellgren and music business partner Chris Stone opened their third, and what would be the final, Record Plant, in a building which had been a former cheesecake factory (no relation to the current Cheesecake Factory restaurants). The Record Plant studios were known for their innovative designs, “dead sound,” and musician-friendly interiors. They chose the beautiful bayside city of Sausalito in southern Marin County, California, as its final location. (It had already been a hit with artists and producers in New York, and then again in the second studio in Los Angeles. The original studio in NYC no longer exists, but the Los Angeles studio is still an active recording studio.) The move was suggested by drummer Buddy Miles and in agreement with Tom Donahue, the iconic DJ from KSAN radio. But it was Gary Kellgren, known to be a “wild” man at times, who had the idea to have a studio away from the normal noise of the larger cities, as well as the eyes and ears of the brass in the record companies in L.A., and Donahue who would do remote shows from the studio to help promote it and encourage artists to record in this new environment.

The studio had its opening in October 1972, where individually-carved spherical redwood invitations were sent out to guests. The details of the invite were on the outer edges of the invitation, but the swirling center portion was omitted until the guests arrived at the studio where it would fit perfectly into the invitation to form a sphere (the invitations still remain on the wall in the entry to the studio). The best, and most notorious, remembrance of that evening was seeing John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrive dressed as trees.

The final construction continued after the opening, eventually including Studio A, Studio B, and later Studio C, which would become the infamous studio, “The Pit,” which was modified at the request of Sly Stone. The “pit” itself was sunken 10 ft. down and contained space only for the engineer and recording equipment. On the actual studio floor itself above the “pit,” there was also a small bedroom set off to the side. It was envisioned to be a studio where an artist could record privately, while comfortably under the bed covers (Sly had designed the bedroom area, in which he would enter into through giant lips. He also had the doorknobs of the bathroom moved higher, so as not to receive any unexpected young guests. The bathroom remains to this day with the raised doorknobs.) However, with the sunken mixing boards, the artists were unable to see the engineers, so it ended up being rarely used and was eventually filled back in with cement and no longer exists as it was; though, it is still the first thing that every guest asks about. The Sausalito studio also contained a jacuzzi, as did the L.A. location, but this one had portholes in the wall next to it where artists could watch the cavorting in the water from inside. It was rumored that women would be invited in, so the artists could have some entertainment outside while still remaining at the studio. The studio itself was window-less, outside of the portholes. The area where the jacuzzi was originally, is now a large garden sitting area, including a fire pit and “zen garden”- quite different from the imagined area before.

Early on, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Hagar, and America did some recording at the Record Plant. But it was the recording of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Rumours” that brought the studio to the forefront. (Note: Ken Caillat, its producer, is a current partner in the new envisionment of the studio.) During breaks in recording, Stevie Nicks would retire to the infamous “Pit” to write, bringing along an electric keyboard and her crocheting. One night while relaxing on Sly Stone’s bed, she wrote the famous hit (and now popular commercial jingle) “Dreams.”

During the studio’s earlier years, Rick James set up home at the studio with a small bedroom, which had been an office, and in which the bed encompassed the whole room. There are stories of the copious drugs and debauchery that went on in there.

In the late 70’s, a young artist from the Bay Area named Prince Rogers Nelson wanted to record an album entirely by himself by recording all the vocals and playing all the instruments himself, and at the behest of no one. He told Warner Bros. Records that “I don’t want any producer of yours (sic)!” However, Warner Bros. was not keen on that idea and assigned him Russ Titelman as his producer. Prince chose to ignore him and completed his album. Prince, the perfectionist he was known to be, recorded an unbelievable amount of vocal tracks on each song.

And during these years, there were some individuals who were a major part of the Plant’s success:

The Record Plant’s control room, circa 1973. (Photo: Steve Barncard)

THE RON NEVISON YEARS

In 1974, American producer Ron Nevison was in London working with The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Bad Company. After an aborted attempt at a final Faces album with Rod Stewart, the record company decided to try to do a live album in America using the Record Plant’s mobile trucks. After recording concerts for three weeks, Ronnie Wood asked Gary Kellgren and Chris Stone to come and hang out in London during the break. Nevison was doing a session with Ronnie Wood, of future Rolling Stones fame, in a studio that he had just finished designing and building at Ronnie’s house. It was during this visit that Ron was offered the position of chief engineer for the Record Plant as Gary was having a difficult time keeping up with the busy schedule. He accepted.

Ron recalls being at Ronnie Wood’s house when Gary Kellgren walked up and handed him a bindle at the end of a session. Ron, while not being a drug fiend nor an abstainer (as this was the 70’s and the days of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”), simply put the bindle in his pocket, said “cool, thanks,” and forgot about it. A couple weeks later, he found it in his pocket while at a dinner party, and as he brought it out of his pocket, the group signaled that it should be shared. So Ron cut it up and they discovered, to their chagrin, that it was not cocaine as Ron had presumed, but rather angel dust. Needless to say, the night didn’t end the way they expected.

As Ron prepared to move back to the U.S., he was followed by droves of British artists as this was the time of a gas embargo, and the resulting power outages made for unreliable studio recordings. Also, the Labor Party had won the election and declared that British artists had to pay taxes on anything they made outside of the country, thus prompting the moves.

Flying back to L.A., Ron was picked up by Gary in his yellow Rolls-Royce with a license plate of “GREED.” On the way to Gary’s house in the Hollywood Hills, Gary made a stop at an apartment. As they walked up the stairs, a beautiful young woman stepped out. Gary motioned to her and told Ron that she was his “gift to enjoy”(sic). Ron remembers thinking that after traveling for 11 hours, that was the last thing he wanted to do. He just wanted SLEEP!

The crazy hi-jinx with Gary continued in Sausalito, when after being taken out on the S.F. bay in Gary’s speed boat, the guys decided to “moon” the Sunday patio diners at the high-end restaurant The Trident.

Initially, Ron stayed in Los Angeles but frequently traveled up to Sausalito when needed, boarding a helicopter at San Francisco’s SFO airport and flying a circuitous route to Berkeley and then onto Sausalito, before returning to SFO. While there, he stayed at either of the two homes in Tam Valley that the Record Plant owned, or for more quiet stays, at the Casa Madrona Hotel. During one of his visits to one of the Tam Valley houses, he woke up and discovered glitter on his face as Rick James had been there recently. Not that that was probably all that was left behind from Rick!

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Ron did albums for Flo and Eddie (previously The Turtles), Eddie Money (“Playing for Keeps”), Heart (“Heart”), Survivor (“Vital Signs”), Grace Slick (“Software”), and three albums for Starship (incl.”Freedom at Point Zero”). These jobs were often sent Ron’s way because of his previous work with The Who, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, and The Rolling Stones. (He was even asked to produce a song for teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy, and an album for (Broadway performer) Rex Smith, as they were both trying to branch out into rock music.)

In the middle of recording what Rex Smith hoped would be his sojourn into rock, he came to Ron one day and said he got offered a job to perform at the Miss Universe Contest in Peru. Ron told him that they were right in the middle of the album, but Rex countered with the fact that they were going to pay him $25,000., to which Ron replied “OK, if you take me!” So Rex and Ron, acting as Rex’s personal producer, traveled down to the contest in Lima. During their time there, they were separated from the 147 contestants, who were constantly surrounded by chaperones… except for the final night after the contest was over, and there were 146 girls who were extremely sad and needed what might be described as “consoling.” Early the next morning, Ron was awoken by loud knocking on his hotel door. He heard a slight, heavily-accented female voice call out “Miss Wales? Miss Wales??” Ron opened the door to tell the woman that Miss Wales was not in his room. After closing the door and turning to walk back to the bedroom, he saw a sash with the clearly written words “Miss Wales” resting on the back of a chair in the living area. Needless to say, he managed to get Miss Wales quickly on her way back home.

In late ‘84, Bernie Taupin, who shared manager Michael Lippman with Ron, sent him a cassette with “These Dreams,” a song he had composed with Martin Page. Ron thought it would be a perfect match with Nancy Wilson of Heart, which is how they came to record the song. While working on it for the “Heart” album, they did a rough take with Nancy’s vocals. While doing the final mixing of the song, he noticed that Nancy’s voice cracked on the lyric “every second of the night…” He ended up taking a great cut from the rough take to replace it. However, when Nancy played the final cut for her mom, she said her mom complained about the fact that her voice was “cracking.” Ron begged her to not make him redo it because he thought it sounded perfect. Needless to say, that is the cut that is on the album.

After recording for over a decade at the Record Plant and being one of its busiest producers, Ron continues to produce music, and now often doing it remotely at his home in a quiet town in the Columbia River Gorge.

 

THE ARNE FRAGER YEARS

In 1984, Stanley Jacox bought the Plant and was removed shortly thereafter as the feds suspected him of methamphetamine distribution and took over the studio (something that would happen again decades later). “Club Fed,” as it was now known, was then sold to Bob Skye with Arne Frager as his business partner. I spoke with Arne, quite a character and still active in the music business, about his experiences at the Plant. His anecdotal recollections:

Tom Lord-Alge was another character who left his mark at the Plant. Arne was alone with Tony!Toni!Tone!, an Oakland-based R&B group, recording the album “The Revival” in Studio C. Alge, a well-known engineer, for some unknown reason, loved to sit in the parking lot in his rented Mustang and race the engine while holding the brake down, creating a lot of burnt rubber and smoke, which would then filter into the studio. The smoke in the building forced Arne and the band to vacate the building, believing there was a fire. Alge was already gone, so they had no idea what had happened until a week later.

-After recognizing that there were only boy groups who were popular at the time, Arne decided to go try to find a girl group. He discovered a band in Houston named Girl’s Tyme and made up of 6 pre-teen girls. They were signed to a record deal, and Arne brought them out and put them up at the Holiday Inn in Mill Valley while they recorded and produced their first album with their lead singer, a young girl named Beyoncé Knowles.

In 1990, there was a sought-out grunge band in Seattle called Mother Love Bone. Their manager Kelly Curtis wanted them to record out of the area due to lead singer Andy Wood’s drug problems. They finished the record at the Plant and returned to Seattle where Wood died of an overdose. The band searched for a new singer and found Eddie Vedder, and they changed their name to Pearl Jam.

During 1992, Arne’s partner Bob Skye filed for bankruptcy and Arne bought out his portion of the ownership. During his years of ownership, Arne replaced the gear and equipment, and updated the studios. His late wife Rose designed the intricate 3-D wood artwork that still remains in Studio A. In 1994, Arne redid Studio A for Metallica. Adjacent to that studio is a bathroom that was modified to accommodate handicapped individuals. Rose decided to go in and create a mural over the “larger” walls, inscribing the names of most of the artists and bands who had recorded there in the 70’s and 80’s. The names are etched in pencil over all the walls, in which case if you were ever in there to use the restroom, you had quite a lot of detail in the artistry to entertain you! It is quite a masterpiece!

In 1992, Arne received a call from Tom Whaley from Interscope Records. Linda Perry, and her S.F. band 4 Non Blondes, had a song that needed to be finished, but their budget was depleted. He asked if they could pay $500. for a session when the going daily rate then was $1800. Arne agreed, thinking it would give his then-assistant engineer Mark some good experience. The song “What’s Up” was completed and would go on to sell approximately 8 million copies.

Famed Russian-born producer, as well as talented multi-instrument musician, Walter Afanasieff discovered the Plant and loved the fact that Studio A was painted purple at the time. He would later bring Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey, and Kenny G to record at the studio.

In the early 90’s, an unknown artist from Oakland, who had been selling his self-produced recordings out of his car, came to the studio to record. He was known for having some of the most raunchy lyrics ever. This young man became the iconic rap star Too Short.

In Arne’s last years at the studio, Santana came to record what would be an incredible comeback album. After recording for decades with Columbia Records, Carlos was cut by the label and was looking for a new record deal. He met with Clive Davis, someone he knew well, and when Clive asked him what he wanted, Carlos replied “I want to connect the molecules to the light.” Carlos often spoke in metaphors, but Clive understood immediately that he wanted a hit record again. They would end up doing half the album at the studio, and this album became “Supernatural,” which would become a huge hit, particularly with Carlos’ collaborations with Rob Thomas, Eric Clapton, and many others and would go on to sell millions of records.

THE HALLOWEEN PARTIES

The Plant, famous for its annual Halloween parties, had a particularly “ferocious” guest at one of the parties in the early 90’s. A young woman came naked, except for strategically-placed painted-on tiger stripes. The male guests could be heard excitedly saying “have you seen the TIGER??”, while the female guests could be heard repeating that same phrase with equally-passionate disgust.

Years later, Arne became tired of running the studio due to the changes in the recording of new albums and their distribution, as well as the new streaming platforms which put a huge dent in the music production industry. He also was fed up with the constant disputes with his new property owner/“partner” Michael Indelicato* and decided to move on, selling the studio itself to Indelicato. He said he enjoyed his time at the studio with all the different artists, and there was only one artist he didn’t hold out any love for and that happened to be a particularly popular white soul singer. Other than that, he looks back at his time at the Plant fondly and is still in the music business, producing under the name (only) of The Plant Studio Records. He now prefers, and centers on, discovering and recording with new talent.

*Michael Indelicato would later get into legal and financial trouble, and the studio was seized again, this time by the bank, and remained unused during most of the 2000’s up until it’s recent purchase.

ADDITIONAL ALBUMS RECORDED AT THE RECORD PLANT (up until the early 2000’s)

Prince “FOR YOU”
Bob Marley and The Wailers “LIVE AT THE RECORD PLANT ‘73”
Rick James “STREET SIGNS”
Sly and the Family Stone “FRESH”
Aretha Franklin ”FREEWAY OF LOVE”
Aretha Franklin “WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO?”
Whitney Houston “WHITNEY”
John Lee Hooker “the healer”
Tony!Toni!Tone “THE REVIVAL”
Girl’s Tyme (incl. Beyoncé) “GIRL’S TYME”
Mariah Carey “EMOTIONS”
Too Short “CAN’T STAY AWAY”
E-40 “WAKE IT UP”
Tracy Chapman “LET IT RAIN”
Fleetwood Mac “RUMOURS”
Grateful Dead “WAKE OF THE FLOOD”
Metallica “LOAD”
Van Morrison “INTO THE MUSIC”
Santana “SUPERNATURAL”
Journey “RAISED ON RADIO”

Part Two: Coming soon- The rebirth of the Record Plant as the Record Factory

 

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