WHAT MIKE STONE DID ON HIS SUMMER (OF LOVE) VACATION
There are really two engineers named Mike Stone. Unfortunately, Wikipedia has mashed together both of their discographies under the single bio of the Mike Stone from the UK who is responsible for work with Queen. The “other” engineer named Mike D. Stone is a pioneer in the LA music scene; he was the first employee of Record Plant LA and ended up engineering albums for the likes of the Bee Gees, Joe Walsh and Frank Zappa. The latter Mike Stone is now battling a health crisis and his friends and family have started a GoFundMe.com campaign for a costly medical treatment that could save his life. The following story has been adapted from an in-progress oral history of the Record Plant (NY, LA, Sausalito) that is being written by Martin Porter and David Goggin; it contains valuable first-person contributions by Mike Stone. If you enjoy reading the following excerpt, please make a donation in his name. And if we collect enough money, more of these exclusive early-days Record Plant stories are sure to come.
To donate click: https://www.gofundme.com/michael-stone-stem-cell-transplant
Fifty years ago, Mike Stone was invited by his uncle Chris and aunt Gloria to spend his summer vacation in New York City. For a high school kid from the Valley in Los Angeles this alone was reason to pack his bags. When he heard that his uncle had hooked him up with a job in a recording studio he was literally out the door.
Mike was a great cleaner, which immediately endeared him to his boss at the studio, a young engineer named Gary Kellgren who drank beer, smoked menthols and worked incessantly, despite the fact that he didn’t own the place. Mayfair Recording Studios on 7th avenue in Times Square was owned by former Atlantic Records Chief Engineer Clair Krepps who had built the mixer, monitors and a unique tape machine console that housed the first Ampex 8-track tape machine in an independent studio in New York.
Mayfair was a strangely configured studio, even for the time. You walked right into the studio from the office-building hallway, which often caused delivery guys to interfere with in-progress sessions and once led Mike Stone’s uncle Chris to walk in on Frank Zappa who had his head buried inside a grand piano and his legs up in the air. Kellgren himself was constantly disappearing under the console to fiddle with a wire or switch that always seemed to go out. The peg-board walled studio was poorly lit, badly isolated, and in need of a console that didn’t click.
Still, it had that 8 track, which, in those days, was a very big deal. The Beatles had just released Sgt. Pepper’s and while they blew everyone’s mind about the new studio possibilities, it was actually recorded only on a 4-track machine. The recording business was tracking to its own version of Moore’s Law in those days, escalating from mono to 3-track, to 4-track, to 8-track in just two years.
When Mike Stone first started out as Kellgren’s summer gofer, the engineer was working alongside a tall, black record producer for MGM/Verve named Tom Wilson who had block booked Mayfair for one of his artists, Frank Zappa. Formerly from Columbia Records, the Texas-born, Harvard-educated producer had worked with Dylan for three and half albums, and was credited with turning him onto folk rock on Bringing it all Back Home. After Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence initially failed, he took it back into the studio for guitar overdubs and some slap-back echo, taking it beyond folk music and turning it into the popular hit.
Wilson, Zappa and Kellgren were spending endless hours recording and editing two album projects at once that summer — repairing the master tapes of Zappa’s orchestral recording, Lumpy Gravy, and pushing the envelope with a mash-up of original takes, orchestral left overs, assorted voices, and tape machinations for what would become We’re Only in it for the Money. Mike Stone had never heard music like this before. He was hooked on working in a studio. With Zappa seated cross-legged atop the tape machine console, and with the whole process documented for a home movie, Mike Stone spent his summer (of love) vacation watching Kellgren pasting the composition together bar by bar.
Gary and Frank, like everyone else at the time, were obsessed with what George Martin and the EMI engineers had achieved with four tracks on tape on Sgt. Pepper’s. Gary and Frank copied the album onto tape so they could start and stop, rewind and replay it randomly to figure out exactly what they had done. This glorified office space in the heart of the porn district of New York City was Gary Kellgren’s Abbey Road. His Beatle was a tall, thin, bearded wild man who, in a creative about-face, decided that he would use this new project he was recording at Mayfair to satirize the Beatle’s creative achievement and the public image of the world’s greatest rock and roll band. The final edits of Lumpy Gravy were made by Frank himself in his Greenwich Village apartment in 1968. Money also involved a studio named Apostolic that had upped the multitrack ante by installing the town’s first 12-track machine. However, the work Zappa did with Kellgren throughout Mike Stone’s summer internship and into the early fall of 1967 was among the most experimental of his early career.
One day Zappa walked into the studio soaking wet. It was pouring outside, with lightning scorching the Times Square skies, and with thunder rattling the cheap studio glass. Mike Stone remembers Zappa coming up with the idea to record the thunder. They found an ultra-long microphone cable and ran it out the studio and into the office, where Gary climbed out in the downpour, sticking a microphone out of the window to capture the thunder, stretching way outside in the rain, a human lightning rod amidst all that electricity. It was all about getting Frank his sound.
Mike Stone also saw his uncle Chris spend hours in the studio, going through the Mayfair books to see how the studio business worked. Several times he overhead conversations between his uncle, Kellgren and Wilson about a new business venture they had in mind, a new type of recording studio that was more like a living room than a lab, but he was too young to pay attention to the early business dealings that would result in one of the most famous recording studios of all time. The partners even picked a name for the place, Abaddon, which Kellgren liked because it was one of the Knights of Hell and uncle Chris liked because it would make them the first recording studio in the Manhattan Yellow Pages.
Mike Stone only worked weekdays so he was more than curious when Kellgren asked him to start working weekends as well; he overheard some excited conversations between the engineer and his future partners about something special going on. It was one weekend in late July that Mike Stone, a high school kid from the Valley, first met Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix worked together with Kellgren at Mayfair Studios for four sessions in July 1967. It was Hendrix’s first use of an 8-track recorder. During those late nights, Mike Stone watched as Kellgren nailed a few cool multitrack tricks for the guitarist; how he created a metallic mandolin-like sound that Hendrix ultimately used alongside the harpsichord he played on Burning of the Midnight Lamp. Kellgren’s wife Marta brought in back-up singers from Atlantic Records, another Hendrix first. The song became one of Hendrix’s favorites, despite the fact that it didn’t chart; still it sold him on the idea of working on his next album with Kellgren; and it convinced Kellgren and uncle Chris to get ahold of some money to open their own room.
Zappa and his crew were back in the studio working on the Money project in early August. Tom Wilson had both Frank and a new Andy Warhol group named Velvet Underground scheduled to work with Kellgren in the fall. Mike Stone went back to high school in Los Angeles and hadn’t the slightest idea that he’d ever set foot in a studio again. Little did he know that he would receive a call from his uncle 18 months later that he needed some kids with strong backs to demolish an old production company on 3rd Street that would become the second stop in the Record Plant empire, Record Plant LA. Mike Stone would become the first employee of Record Plant LA where he stayed for most of his career, first as a janitor, then as an assistant engineer to Bill Szymczyk, and then as a house engineer, working on some of the first recording sessions with the Bee Gees and Joe Walsh and later, as if going full cycle, alongside Frank Zappa.
During that summer 50 years ago there was one more adventure that Mike Stone would long remember. One afternoon, Kellgren asked him to join him for a photo shoot of the cover of the Money album that he and Zappa had been working on. Together they went to the midtown loft of photographer (soon to be filmmaker) Jerry Schatzberg who had built a replica of the Sgt. Pepper’s album with Zappa’s art director Cal Schenkel, complete with cut-out characters and fruit and vegetable typography. Both Tom Wilson and Jimi Hendrix were there. So was Zappa’s pregnant wife Gail. Kellgren was photographed, but not for the cover art; though his headshot was embedded in a policeman’s badge on the inner sleeve, his work on the album was actually imprinted across the top of the album cover in the form of a lightning bolt crossing a blue/black sky, commemorating the night that Kellgren hung out of a Times Square window in the middle of a thunderstorm to get his client the right sound.
Enjoyed this story? Want to help Michael Stone? To donate to his GoFundMe.com campaign, click: https://www.gofundme.com/michael-stone-stem-cell-transplant