The Record Plant in 2016.

The Record Plant in 2016. (Photo: Richie Unterberger)

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

Hot tubs, water beds, sex, and drugs — all were staples of the Record Plant in Sausalito, home to some of the highest times of any Bay Area studio in the 1970s.

Yet there was no small amount of rock and roll too. The dozens of famous albums partially or fully recorded at the Plant in the ’70s include Sly Stone’s Fresh, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Prince’s debut album For You. The Plant continued its reign as one of the top studios in the Bay Area into the early 21st century, through several ownership changes that, at one point, saw the federal government running the facility.

That wasn’t the sort of atmosphere its founders had in mind when the Record Plant opened in late 1972. After establishing himself as a top recording engineer with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, Gary Kellgren opened successful branches of the Plant in New York and Los Angeles with business partner Chris Stone before the two set their sights on Sausalito. As Raechel Donahue (who coordinated KSAN’s live-in-the-studio concerts from the Plant) puts it, “They invented this idea of having a recording studio that gave everybody a comfortable place to be.”

Into The Mix -400 X 400-02

“Basically, it was a party atmosphere to record in,” says Jim Gaines, who produced and engineered records by the likes of Santana, Journey and Huey Lewis at the Plant. “They built this studio up here to go for the Bay Area bands. But not only that, bring up people from L.A. that wanted to get out of L.A. They had a hot tub in it, they had a boat at one point in time [to] take people out. The house”— where members of bands like Fleetwood Mac would stay during their Plant sessions — “was part of the package deal. And Kellgren was a party kind of guy.”

Indeed, when Gaines interviewed with Kellgren for a job at the Plant, “I’m shaking hands with this guy in this purple or blue Napoleon outfit. He’s got the hat on and everything. I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to work for this guy? Good lord.’ It was all about a big party for him, as well as working. He seemed to put those two together. That’s why the studio was built.”

Gaines turned down the job in favor of staying at Wally Heider’s studio in downtown San Francisco, adding that “when Heider found out that they were coming into Sausalito, he went out and found a building. He had plans to build a studio in Mill Valley to counteract ‘em.” Notes engineer and producer Stephen Barncard, who, like Gaines, also worked sessions at both Heider’s and the Plant, “Wally had plans for a studio in Mill Valley near Tam Junction. I actually saw the plans. He was gonna get [TV and film production company] Filmways to pay for it, and when the Record Plant went in, it was over. It never happened.”

As just one example of the detail lavished upon the facility, recalls Gaines, “the ceiling in Studio B looked like clouds. They were made out of cut-out plywood in different forms, and covered with velveteen or velvet or something like that; they looked like clouds hanging up there. Kellgren was smart; he wanted his rooms to look different. He knew he wanted to make it artsy.”

Jim Gaines at the board during a recording session at the Record Plant in Sausalito
Jim Gaines at the board during a recording session at the Record Plant in the 1980s. (Photo: Courtesy of Jim Gaines)

Word about the Record Plant got out through its lavish opening party, as well as KSAN broadcasts of live-in-the-studio programs featuring such heavyweights as Bob Marley & the Wailers (part of whose October 1973 performance at the Plant was issued on the Talkin’ Blues CD), Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac.

“At this time it wasn’t really common to do live broadcasts, especially from a recording studio,” explains Raechel Donahue. “When we were at KSAN, our version of a live broadcast was me and [DJ] Terry McGovern and a 100-foot microphone cord which I would feed out the window to him, so he could interview people on the street. It really was [KSAN manager] Tom [Donahue], Chris Stone, and Gary Kellgren who figured out, ‘Ah, there’s obviously a way to do this if we could only just figure this out.’”

KSAN kicked off its Record Plant broadcasts with a legendary 72-hour marathon. At one point during Kris Kristofferson’s performance, according to Raechel Donahue, “this wackadoodle guy came wandering through the studio singing ‘He’s a peach pit, he’s a pom pom, he’s a pervert, he’s a fool’” — bastardizing the lyric of one of Kristofferson’s most famous songs, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” — “and then just walked out the other door.”

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

“Everyone who was anyone was there, and they wandered in and wandered out,” Donahue said. “All I had to do was figure how to coordinate that. But that’s kind of what KSAN was all about, figuring out how to make reality blend into music. It was a crazy thing to do, but it did start the whole Record Plant live thing.”

It wasn’t the only craziness at KSAN broadcasts; Bob Simmons, the announcer for some of them, recalls Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider “wandering around trying to get someone to get in the hot tub with her” during one.

The Plant soon attracted not only stars from L.A. and out of state, but also quite a few from the Bay Area itself. The setting was as vital to its appeal as the studio itself. “Heider’s was downtown in the Tenderloin,” says Gaines. “That’s a whole different concept down there. I mean, just to park your car and get to the studio without being mugged is a feat. The Record Plant, you could just walk out, and you’re only like one door from the water. Then you got some public tennis courts down the streets. When I was working with KBC Band — Marty Balin and [Jack] Casady and Paul Kantner — Marty would go down there and play tennis while we weren’t working.”

Stephen Barncard during his days at the Record Plant
Stephen Barncard during his days at the Record Plant. (Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Barncard)

The studio’s most famous feature, however, was on the premises, and more notorious for its, shall we say, extracurricular activities. The sunken area known as the Pit was, in Barncard’s words, “partial boudoir and studio. It’s basically for a place to do track-by-track overdubs and vocals, and then make love to your girlfriend between, in breaks over in the side.”

“Sly Stone moved into that back room for a while,” reports Gaines. “They had a little bedroom for him. Just a bed, with little frilly stuff over it. He wanted all of the doorknobs moved up. It’s like he was a kid or something. The doorknob couldn’t be in a regular place, it had to be like a foot higher. I finally changed that. I said, ‘Man, I can’t deal with this.’ There’s a lot more [stories], but I don’t know if I could tell some of ‘em.’”

More stories about the Pit, the Plant, the Earthquake, and federal marshals taking over the studio are coming soon in Part Two.

Author

Richie Unterberger

Richie Unterberger has written a dozen rock history books, including volumes on the Velvet Underground, the Who, and the Beatles. He teaches community education rock history courses at the College of Marin and the Fromm Institute in San Francisco. Read more of his work at www.richieunterberger.com/wordpress.