JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Call of the Wild: The Rise & Fall of the Record Plant Studio

For 36 years, rock and roll’s elite made albums and mayhem at the Record Plant in Sausalito, but a little more than a year ago, the place was foreclosed on, and the music died. For the people who recorded or worked there, the studio will be remembered as the site of remarkable creative convergence, in which a flush music industry drunk on a seemingly endless supply of great bands discovered a place where musicians could always count on having a seriously good time.

By Jim Welte

Rick James in Sausalito, 1979. Photo by Michael Zagaris.

On Halloween night in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono walked into 2200 Bridgeway, in Sausalito, dressed as trees. The occasion was the grand-opening party for what was then called the Record Plant Studio. Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren, who had helped launch the Record Plant’s Los Angeles and New York City outposts, wanted to open one in the Bay Area to serve the region’s fertile music scene and provide a getaway for bands looking to record in a remote spot loaded with amenities. They picked a building near the waterfront, just down the street from where, legend has it, Otis Redding penned the opening lyrics of (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay on a houseboat in 1967. The Record Plant had its own Jacuzzi, guesthouses, organic chefs, a basketball court, and a speedboat docked in the harbor. The conference room had a waterbed floor.

See the full story here.

The studio’s hallmark would be its artist-centric philosophy: Stone called the Plant the artist’s living room, and from the time of its launch to its bitter collapse in early 2009, that was often literally true. Whether they were superstar visitors like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, the Dave Matthews Band, or Fleetwood Mac, or backyard bands like Journey, Santana, and Huey Lewis and the News, musicians could hole up at the Plant for weeks on end, recording night and day, having their every wish met, including their need to indulge in a bit of illegality or keep record company suits at bay. Each musician’s time inside the 10,700 square feet of studio space became part of the place’s DNA, and bands wanted to record there because their idols did.

“Studios really do retain the energy of the records that were made there,” says Maureen Droney, who engineered albums at the Plant in the mid-80s. “There was an aura of magic and fun that came from the people who recorded there before.”

In hindsight, the whole proposition was magical. Through six owners, nearly four decades of musical experimentation, and countless gold and platinum recordings, the Plant continued to attract incredible talent. Artists whom no one had heard of (yet) drank up the vibe: In late 1977, 19-year-old Prince spent a few months alone at the Plant playing every instrument for his debut album, For You, leaving only to crash at the house he’d rented in Larkspur. (No guests, no phone calls, no pizzas, no dogs, no hangers-on, nothing, recalls longtime studio manager Michelle Zarin.) But bands at their peak also recorded huge successes there. Metallica made four albums at the Plant, all with producer Bob Rock. From 1993 until 1999, Rock says, the studio’s intimate atmosphere helped the band’s members – local boys James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and Jason Newsted –mature into more well-rounded people. “They became friends and husbands and fathers and more of a family there,” he says. “Other than my own family, it’s the biggest thing in my life.”

A home away from home’s what the Plant aspired to be. For Tower of Power, the staff stocked up on hot chocolate; for Al Kooper, of Blood, Sweat & Tears, someone moved the pinball machine from the lobby into the studio so he could bang away at it during breaks (Kooper also had the staff hook up a harmonizer to the telephone, so he could call people using weird voices). When Beatles producer George Martin was working on America’s 1975 album Hearts, Zarin shocked Martin by bringing him his favorite Cadbury chocolates to accompany his 4 p.m. tea.

For special clients, the owners would move mountains. An enigmatic and die-hard perfectionist, Sly Stone spent so much time at the Plant that Chris Stone and Kellgren built him his own bizarre studio, dubbed the Pit, in which the control room was sunk 10 feet into the ground, with the musicians playing on the ledge above it. Eventually, they constructed a living space for Sly, with a loft bed that he could reach only by climbing through a huge pair of red upholstered lips (an homage to his grin). After Metallica – by then the hottest heavy metal band on the planet – committed to the Plant in 1993, owner Arne Frager spent $1 million on renovations that were partly customized for the band, including raising the ceiling to 32 feet to boost Lars Ulrich’s drum sound. “They basically built the room exactly how we wanted it,” says Rock. Says Zarin, “Making a record was like having a baby. You gave them the support that they needed through their labor.”

And to survive labor, of course, pharmaceuticals are sometimes required. Mick Fleetwood once admitted that he did so much cocaine over four or five weeks at the Record Plant that he “thought [he] was really going insane.” Zarin admits: “There was wildness going on. I mean, wildness.” During Sly Stone’s days, the only way to get to Studio B was to go through Studio A, but if the frequently drug-addled musician showed up early for his night session in Studio B, he’d simply walk right through Studio A in the middle of a session by, say, the New Riders of the Purple Sage. “Nudie suits and all, he’d freak them out a bit,” recalls former chief engineer Tom Flye.

The craziness continued through the ’80s, when extremely productive coke addict Rick James was a Record Plant fixture. James was incredibly prolific during that time, churning out album after album, including Street Songs, which contained the megahits “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby.” Says acclaimed engineer Jim Gaines, who was at the helm during that time, “Bands that weren’t even recording would come by just to see who was there and say hi.” In fact, Sly Stone dropped in one day just to meet James, says then Plant manager Shiloh Hobel. “It was such an incredible moment, these two fabulous forces in music meeting for the first time,” she says. “Each of them was really taken with the other.”

Giant record after giant record came out of the Plant’s creative ferment, from Huey Lewis’ multiplatinum Sports, in 1983, to Santana’s career-reviving Supernatural, in 1999. Even as late as 2007, the Plant was working its peculiar kind of magic. After a decade without so much as a modest hit, legendary Bay Area band Journey began recording there. The band had made most of its biggest albums in the ’70s and ’80s at other Bay Area studios, but decided to find out if the Plant – with a big assist from new Filipino vocalist Arnel Pineda, Journey’s sixth lead singer – could reignite its fire.

It did. “The energy level was unbelievable,” says sound engineer John Neff. “We didn’t expect them to come in with such guns a-blazin.” Those explosive recording sessions lasted three months and turned into a multidisc set of new songs and covers of the band’s greatest hits, which was certified platinum and became Journey’s biggest release in nearly 25 years.

Ten days after Journey left the Plant, upstart piano-rock band the Fray set up shop there to record the follow-up to its multiplatinum debut. Fray drummer Ben Wysocki says that before recording, the band watched the 1997 Classic Albums documentary on Fleetwood Mac’s making of Rumours, which was recorded at the Plant. “You could dream and get geeky all day long at that place. It gives you chills,” he says. “We fed off that energy.”

If that energy exploded from the artists, it was the studio’s string of owners, each seemingly more colorful than the last, who lit the fuse. By many accounts, Stone and Kellgren were the ultimate playboys, able to build a fantastically successful business and have a blast in the process. But when Kellgren tragically drowned in a Hollywood swimming pool in 1977, Stone lost his zest for the business and sold it a few years later to Laurie Necochea, a teenager who’d received $7.6 million in a malpractice suit when over-radiation at Mt. Zion Medical Center in San Francisco left her quadriplegic. (Stone continued to work at the Los Angeles Record Plant for another 10 years; meanwhile, the Sausalito studio was officially renamed the Plant, though people had been calling it that all along.) Necochea, a huge music fan, wanted to rub elbows with her idols, but her trust-fund administrators made changes that incited stalwarts like Flye to leave. The studio was in need of expensive renovations, and Necochea was forced to sell it to Stanley Jacox, who became the Plant’s most infamous name when federal agents raided the place, claiming Jacox had used $300,000 in cash (toward the total price of $550,000) he’d made manufacturing methamphetamine near Sacramento to buy it. The government seized the building and its contents, eventually reopening it in 1985. Soon the studio acquired a new nickname: Club Fed. Santana was its first customer.

Next up as owner was California native Bob Skye, a recording-studio veteran who bought the Plant in 1986 at a government auction. Arne Frager, a well-regarded engineer who’d founded a recording studio in Los Angeles and run two others, became Skye’s partner two years later, and eventually assumed sole ownership of the studio’s operations, though not of the building. For two decades, Frager, a passionate guy with one of the best Rolodexes in the business, poured his heart and soul into keeping the Plant alive. But a massive decline in album sales and in the willingness of labels to pay for studio time, coupled with Frager’s bad blood with the building’s final owner, Michael Indelicato, ultimately shuttered the Plant.

Most studio owners start out as studio engineers, but Indelicato, a jovial East Bay native, was an entrepreneurial collector who, when he bought 2200 Bridgeway in 2005, had made a fortune by visiting tiny western towns and trailer parks and sweet-talking people into selling their old guitars, which he would then resell to dealers and rock stars. (In his most spectacular deal, he met an elderly woman outside Palm Springs whose husband had left her a rare, barely touched 1954 left-handed Gibson jazz guitar. After three hours of gentle nudging in her living room, the woman agreed to sell, after which Indelicato raced across the desert to deliver the prize to Paul McCartney, who was playing at the Staples Center that night.) Indelicato saw the Plant as a good investment and as a way to expand his connections in the music business. But his timing was off. “By that point, the studio world was already at death’s doorstep,” Zarin says. Labels had chopped recording budgets to just a fraction of what they were in the ’80s and ’90s (something like $50,000 per album, instead of $250,000 to $500,000). Nowadays, most bands take what little they can get and spend it on their own digital recording gear. Bigger bands, like Metallica, build their own studios.

Frager and Indelicato both had genuinely good intentions about adapting the Plant to the times, which required studios to diversify or die. (To avert collapse in 2007, Berkeley’s famous Fantasy Studios began doing video-game sound and postproduction on films and TV shows; Studio 880, in Oakland, where Green Day records, fills in the long gaps by renting out digital workstations and recording live sessions for clients like Wal-Mart.) But the two men didn’t exactly hit it off. In Frager’s mind, Indelicato was a lousy businessman who bought the Plant as a toy, then so overextended himself financially that he couldn’t invest in the studio’s badly needed makeover. Indelicato said Frager burned bridges with longtime clients, didn’t work hard enough to keep the place booked, and was behind on his rent from the start. “What Michael and I had wasn’t a partnership. It was a disaster,” Frager says. In truth, Indelicato had overpaid $2.3 million for a building that held an aging recording studio, and he was also sinking gobs of money into Guitar Man, a documentary directed by San Francisco filmmaker Eric Fournier about Indelicato’s life as a vintage-guitar buyer. By 2008, his finances were in tatters. When he evicted Frager for being behind on his $14,800 monthly rent, what little revenue he had coming in also dried up. In September of last year, Greenbrae-based Marin Mortgage Bankers foreclosed on Indelicato’s $5.5 million Tiburon home. “I took my eye off the ball,” he says. “My operating capital was gone.” Several months later, the firm seized the Plant, where Indelicato was then living. He had lost everything, and the Plant was no more.

As dust collects inside the Plant, there is constant talk in Marin and in the music community about what will happen to it. Bad blood notwithstanding, Frager and Indelicato agree that they would love to see it preserved. Frager himself has big plans for it, which include produc ing television shows there, running a music publishing company, and turning part of it into a nonprofit arts incubator that his wife, Mari “Mack” Tamburo, would run. He says he’s been talking with investors but has yet to raise all the money he would need, leading some to wonder why the Bay Area’s ultrawealthy rock stars haven’t dipped into their bank accounts to save the Plant. The Fray’s Wysocki, who has since moved to San Francisco, says that when he first heard of the studio’s demise, he considered it. “I had this fantasy of us buying the building and making that our place. The Plant will definitely pull at our heartstrings for a long time. But owning a recording studio is one of the stupidest businesses you could get into right now.”

In May 2009, when Fleetwood came to town on tour, he was shocked to find the Plant no longer operating, and he made a video outside the building that Frager is now using to generate interest in his plans. But the legendary rocker didn’t exactly open up his checkbook, either. “They don’t want to own the Titanic after the iceberg,” Neff says. “You can still envision Fleetwood Mac piling into the hot tub on the patio or Santana taking a break from a session to go play tennis down the street,” but for now, tucked into a grove of eucalyptus trees on Bridgeway, the Record Plant sits empty of all but its mystique.