After getting up and running in the early 1970s with some celebrity local musicians and KSAN broadcasts (see part one of this feature), the Record Plant in Sausalito seemed to be thriving in the last half of the decade. Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, and Rick James all used the studio to record hits, and it’s where Prince cut his debut album. Yet there was no small amount of turbulence behind the scenes, culminating in the Plant almost getting shut down in the mid-1980s before reasserting itself as a top recording facility.
For all the glamour passing through its grounds, not everyone was enamored with the sounds. Although Fleetwood Mac did more than 3,000 hours of recording there for Rumours in early 1976, relatively little was used on the final album, which was largely recorded later that year in L.A. studios. Stevie Nicks may have used the privacy of the sunken area dubbed “the Pit” to write “Dreams,” though it was just as famous as a retreat for drug use by musicians and their visitors.
“The Pit was a complete idiotic idea,” says engineer/producer Stephen Barncard. “That’s how hard the studios were fighting to get those kind of clients.” While the drug use it fostered might have helped attract name players, as Barncard points out, it wasn’t always conducive to the best results. At one session he worked with short-lived semi-supergroup KGB (who included Mike Bloomfield, Carmine Appice, and Barry Goldberg), “Keith Richards was in the next room, and he was apparently passing around some kind of green snortable substance. [Producer Jim Price’s] friend who came along had snorted it up, and got really ill. That kind of put a pall over the whole session.”
As an engineer, Barncard is also critical of the space from some technical respects. “Even perfect equipment doesn’t necessarily always guarantee you’re gonna have a better record,” he feels. “I am really a fan of natural acoustics, of natural spaces. The Record Plant did not have natural spaces. It was the most unnatural. It was designed for totally isolated, multi-track recording, where you don’t have leakage between the tracks. Where you can go and punch in and fix things, and you won’t have anything behind there to give away the fact that you punched in there.
“Stevie Wonder, Songs In the Key of Life? That’s the deadest record ever recorded. That’s the Record Plant sound. I didn’t like to record there because I lacked time to make stuff sound decent, but I liked the people, the gear and the location,” Barncard continues. “Many, like [producer/engineer Jim] Gaines, were able to create hit records from there, and that’s all that counts in the end. But they had the gigantic budgets and my experience was a couple of overnight quickies and two weeks with New Riders of the Purple Sage, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. In the end, we’re talking different styles of producing, and it’s all good.”
Projects continued to roll into the Plant in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the studio’s ownership was in flux, soon threatening its very existence. Co-founder Gary Kellgren, the engineer/producer who was the artistic force behind the operation, drowned in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1977. In the early ’80s the other co-founder, Chris Stone, sold the Plant to a quadriplegic teenage music fan, Laurie Necochea. In 1984, a year before her death, it was sold to Stanley Jacox.
Around that time, the Pit was rejigged for more constructive purposes. “While I was doing the Con Funk Shun record [‘Electric Lady’], John Fogerty calls me,” Gaines said. “He’s coming out of retirement, quote-unquote, and he wants a studio. I had just opened up [the former Pit as] the little C room in the back. He said ‘Jim, I’m just gonna do this record myself. I’m playing all the instruments. Can you engineer it?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m in the middle of a record, I’ll give you my assistant Jeffrey Norman. Just move into the back. We need to open up the room anyway, and you’ll be easy.’
“When we turned it back into a real studio, Centerfield was the first record cut in that little room. There would be days when I had Starship in one room, Huey Lewis in another room, and Fogerty in the other.”
Yet soon after that, Jacox was accused of manufacturing amphetamines in his home and investing some of the proceeds in the Plant — and the studio was actually taken over by the federal government.
“The day the studio was shut down, I had a session with Journey,” remembers Gaines. “I noticed there’s a lot of cars in the parking lot for 9:30. As I’m approaching the door, here comes federal marshals; all kind of police are surrounding me. They said, ‘We’ve just taken possession of the studio, and we need to interview you.’
“They went through the studio, looking for drugs. They thought that was the source of the ‘drug manufacturing,’ quote unquote,” Gaines says. “They didn’t find any drugs. I mean, there might have been a joint or something in one of the road cases, but they were highly disappointed.
“They basically told me, ‘Look, we’re gonna take possession.’ Fortunately, I had Journey in there with all their gear and stuff. I said, ‘Well, you can’t take possession until I get all my band’s gear out of here, and tapes. ‘Cause we’re working on a record, and you cannot have any of this stuff. It doesn’t belong to the studio.’ I called the band up and said, ‘We gotta clear outta here. Everybody come and get stuff.’
“It was shut down for around six months or so, maybe more. At one point, the federal marshals offered me a position to open and run the studio. I said to them, ‘Look, if my clients knew I worked for the federal marshals, you think that they would come in here? Here’s the deal. Take my secretary, make her the studio manager, and I will come in and do some work.’ I actually opened the studio with Santana when that part reopened.”
Gaines was also working with Santana at the studio for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
“Carlos and one of his main guys had just left to go shopping when that quake hit. I was working with Chester Thompson doing some organ overdubs. We were in studio A; I didn’t think we were gonna get out of there before that damned thing came down. When it hit, you can feel there’s some low-end rumble or something going down. So CT looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘What are you doing?” And we both said, ‘Uh-oh.’
“And we hit flying into that door, man. We’re out on the ground out in the parking lot, and the ground is rolling along. I had a bottle in my car; we sit in the parking lot, found us some cups, and turned the radio on, listening to ‘Bay Bridge collapsing and the freeway collapsing.’ One of the consoles got beat up pretty bad, and twisted a little bit. We was down for about at least three or four days. Phones didn’t work. The only thing that worked was the fax machine, for some reason. We never figured that out.”
Previously: Running the Record Plant Part 1: The Early Years.
Coming in part three: the final two decades of the Record Plant, leading up to its closure in 2008.