Fifty years ago, the rock ‘n’ roll angels and demons haunted the new Record Plant Sausalito, and they are still singing and howling today.
On Oct. 29, 1972, Gary Kellgren and Chris Stone unveiled their newest location of the fabled Record Plant empire. Today, as a new crew of studio entrepreneurs are working to reopen this storied recording landmark, we look back at the beginning – when two rock businessmen from LA opened this luxury resort studio by the San Francisco Bay.
Record Plant openings were always flamboyant events and this was going to be the topper. Beatles historians retell that the rock ‘n’ roll “it couple,” John Lennon and Yoko Ono were both there, dressed for Halloween as (Record) Plants. We looked into this at length during the research of our upcoming book, RECORD PLANT DIARIES, and here’s what we found:
CHAPTER 44: BUMS IN BAGS
The opening party for Record Plant Sausalito on Oct. 29, 1972 was going to be a Masquerade Ball. And in keeping with the tradition of “big” Record Plant party invitations, this one was a yin-yang-carved one-inch slab of redwood with flamboyant lettering and decorated with silk-screened pumpkins and the familiar multicolored psychedelic Record Plant logo.
Studio owner Gary Kellgren sent one of the invitations to John and Yoko at the studio in New York but received no response; the pressure was on his partner Chris Stone to deliver them for Gary’s grand soiree.
First, Stone tried local radio DJ Tom Donahue who had produced the Beatles’ last public concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966. Donahue said he made a few calls but never received a response.
Beatles roadie Mal Evans had been hanging around the LA studio but couldn’t get an answer, either.
Phil Spector, as usual, was MIA.
Finally, as a last resort, Stone tried John’s engineer and Record Plant New York owner Roy Cicala who literally laughed in his face.
Less than three weeks before the party, Stone knew he had to break the bad news to Gary. He flew up north to tell him that he had struck out with John and Yoko, taking an early-morning PSA flight and helicopter connector, and arriving at the site that was, even at this late date, still in a state of chaos.
Tom Scott and Tom Flye were up in Sausalito, overseeing the studio construction. After months of little progress, they whipped their crew into action, commissioning the studio’s (rented) API console and wiring the Record Plant’s first pair of 3M 16-track tape machines. It was the same technical set-up they had just used to upgrade Studio B at Record Plant LA for Stevie Wonder.
The designer of the nearby Trident Restaurant, Dave Mitchell. and his team of redwood artisans, worked 72-hours straight on an enormous, multi-tone marquetry of a sunburst that covered the entire wall of Studio A. Velvet-covered plywood clouds hung from the ceiling of Studio B. Mitchell had already crafted a reception floor inlay of a redwood tree, room-size murals, and an amalgam of other ornate wood designs in the bathrooms, meeting rooms and halls. His work, which would define the opulence of the space, was either going to be Chris and Gary’s greatest achievement or their ultimate creative folly. As things turned out, it would be both.
The room was a now-standard Tom Hidley control room design, with its compressed ceiling, masonry walls, and large soffit-mounted monkey-lip monitors. But this time Kellgren and his artisans added an illuminated stained glass arch overhead that would make it difficult for the engineers to see the console controls. Several former-World War II boatwrights were hired out of retirement to help finish the build with a unique, nautical-feel. It all looked cool — very Marin County — and that was the point.
Once again, the opening of Record Plant Sausalito was supposed to be a rock-star extravaganza. Tom Donahue called every musician and producer in town to stop by, and Kellgren scrambled around the clock for weeks with a team of coked-up carpenters to complete the job on time.
The studio owner had already selected a bright-purple Napoleon costume for his Bay Area debut; the outfit let him support his ailing arm like the famous French general posed with his hand in his pocket. Like Napoleon, Kellgren felt invincible, having built three-major studio complexes, in three major markets, in just over four-and-a-half years. Record Plant Sausalito was Gary Kellgren’s Fontainebleau.
The Los Angeles Herald Examiner sent a journalist to report on the Oct. 29th party and interview its star attractions, John and Yoko:
“They came from all over — the beautiful people of the inner jet set of the music industry, surrendering their silk-screened wooden invitations at the door to enter the costume ball, heralding the formal opening of Record Plant in Sausalito. All evening, there were rumors that Yoko and John were flying out from New York to attend. Suddenly, two costumed partygoers entered, covered from head-to-toe in black-vinyl bags. They walked in the front door, through the party, and out the back door never again to be seen. Yes, everyone agreed certainly that Yoko and John had flown 3000 miles to have this moment of anonymous sport.”
Were those two-bagged partiers really John and Yoko?
The writer from the Herald-Examiner inferred that it was a long way to fly for a five-minute party-walkthrough. However, other news outlets helped spread the rumor:
Melody Maker reported:
“Record Plant is opening studios in Sausalito (right across the bay from SF). To celebrate they are giving a party —attendees are John and Yoko, Don McLean, Neil Young and America.”
Rolling Stone magazine confirmed:
“Record Plant Studios opened a new branch in Sausalito, California, today, and celebrated with a big opening party. John and Yoko were reportedly in attendance — in the Halloween spirit of things, dressed as trees (record plants?).”
Engineer Lee Kiefer was there:
“John and Yoko supposedly came dressed in two, big, old, huge trash bags. No one ever knew whether it was John and Yoko or not. No one ever saw them.”
Apple Records exec Allen Steckler, who received one of the redwood invitations and was working on Yoko’s new album in late October 1972, said, “To the best of my knowledge they did not leave New York during that time. I would have remembered that.”
An authority on the couple’s day-by-day activities, “Lennonlogist” Chip Madinger, concluded that, if they had gone at all, it would have been a very quick day trip, since Yoko performed one of her art pieces in Lower Manhattan on the night of October 28th and then re-tracked two songs for her solo album at Record Plant New York on 44th Street the night of October 30th.
As was their tradition, the Record Plant business partners ended the night alone, this time seated in a pair of commercial-airline pilot seats that had been installed for producers in the back of the control room. Stone mixed himself a martini at the bar, while Kellgren cracked open a beer and lit up another Kool.
“Well, I got a Beatle.” Kellgren said, in a “told you so” tone of voice.
“You’re telling me those bums in bags were John and Yoko?”
“Those were trees…get it, ‘record plants’…and they’ll be saying that John and Yoko were here for the opening for years.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
For the remaining five years of their partnership, Kellgren remained adamant that John and Yoko were there — that he never hired stand-ins to propagate the myth that rock royalty traveled cross-country for the opening of Gary Kellgren’s greatest studio creation.