Pulse Magazine, March 1998


In its 25 years, the Plant studio has recorded--and housed--some of pop music's major players

By James Sullivan

LOCATED ALONG A NONDESCRIPT ROW OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, the Plant Recording Studios look more like a mail-order warehouse for an outdoorsman's company than the site of some of rock's most important sessions--and legendary parties.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary as of last October, the Plant (formerly part of the bi-coastal Record Plant franchise) is home to an impressive list of bona fide pop benchmarks--Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Prince's debut For You. The walls of the rest room are embellished with a sprawling mural-in-progress, delineating many more greats who've logged time there: the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, John Fogerty. Designed for the comfort of musicians who spend weeks, sometimes months on a single session, the sky-lit, redwood-paneled building has a romper-room feel that has attracted more than a few notoriously extravagant clients.

Sly Stone turned a studio into a bedroom and stayed for a few years. Rick James mounted a huge pair of puckering lips around a custom-designed doorway and lived there himself for half a decade. Cash-cow Bay area bands Journey and the Jefferson Starship made the Plant their local hangout.

"You didn't have to leave to get drugs or get high," recalls James. Still, he says, the atmosphere at the Plant fostered plenty of creativity. "I was working 24-7. We'd record for two or three days straight sometimes, then I'd sleep for eight or nine hours."

In 1972, the Plant (then part of the Record Plant studios) was christened at a gala opening at which John Lennon and Yoko Ono showed up dressed as trees. With a guest house, houseboats and part owner Gary Kellgren's purple Rolls-Royce all at the disposal of visiting musicians, the studio quickly developed a reputation as a destination resort up the coast from the music-industry nerve center in Los Angeles.

When Fleetwood Mac pulled into Sausalito to lay tracks for the blockbuster Rumours LP, they brought along a giddy sense of possibility, says songwriter Lindsey Buckingham. "Rhiannon," the second single from the band's self-titled 1975 album (its first with Buckingham and Stevie Nicks), was just starting to explode as the Rumours sessions got underway. "I think the implication was, ‘We're on a roll here, so we better not fuck it up,'" Buckingham says with a laugh.

But with both couples in the band (Buckingham-Nicks, John and Christine McVie) already on the outs, the Rumours sessions were fraught with weird vibes, Buckingham says. So the band did what everyone else seemed to be doing in the mid-'70s--they partied.

"It was just nuts," he remembers. "Everyone was delving in substances. It was kind of funny--when we met John, Mick [Fleetwood] and Christine, I don't think they'd ever even done cocaine. But it was the norm in the subculture, and certainly Sausalito was a shining example of that. We stayed up late a lot of nights."

"It was that era where you found your favorite eight bars and stayed on it for maybe 36 hours," says former Pablo Cruise frontman Cory Lerios, now a successful composer for TV's Baywatch. His band recorded "the better part of four albums," including two that went platinum, at the Plant. "It was a great time, no question."

The high times couldn't last, however, and the downslide began with Kellgren's accidental swimming-pool death in 1977. When short-term owner Stanley Jacox was imprisoned for tax evasion and drug trafficking in the mid-'80s, the Plant fell into the hands of the federal government--which, incredibly, hired a skeleton crew and continued to run the operation.

In 1986, producer Bob Skye bought the Plant at an auction from the government. Two years later, he took on the highly regarded engineer Arne Frager (Paul McCartney, John Lee Hooker) as co-owner.

Today, Frager is sole owner. Recent successes with Metallica and Chris Isaak have reaffirmed the Plant's coveted status in the studio world; the Dave Matthews Band recently finished its third album there, and former Talking Head Jerry Harrison keeps a production office in the building.

"My goal is to re-establish not only hit records but classics" at the Plant, says Frager, who has just launched his own record label, PopMafia. "I saw this as a glorious opportunity to restore the studio to greatness."

Thanks to Karen for posting this to the Ledge and to Anusha for formatting and sending it to us.