Listening Through the Walls

Photograph by John Cuniberti

Hyde Street, near Turk, looks like most Tenderloin blocks. Old market on the corner, a Chinese restaurant. Grit, noise, smells, but a little better than it used to be. Unless you look at the ground, you wouldn’t know 245 Hyde Street was anything special.

If you do look down, at the dingy sidewalk at 245 Hyde Street, or if you know a few things about music made in San Francisco, you’ll know there’s a lot going on in that building that’s better kept quiet.

The whole city doesn’t need to know the guys from Train, or Earth, Wind & Fire, or whoever, are inside, right then, while the engineer gets drum sounds. They’ve got work to do.

It’s important to know, however, that they were there, and gajillions of other bands were there too, over the past 50 years. With any luck, bands that can afford a commercial studio for at least a couple days will keep making music there for years to come. If the studio can stay alive.

Hyde Street, fka Wally Heider Recording, has survived multiple ownership changes, management changes, leaking ceilings, leases, sub-leases, ugly carpet, renovations, fights, gear coming in and getting ripped out. Lately it successfully fought its building owner—BNN LLC—that had plans to demolish the building for condominiums. Oh, but BNN planned to preserve the façade. How kind of them.

Like a Phoenix, Hyde Street Studios has reinvented itself dozens of times and has survived longer than any other big studio in or near San Francisco.

Coast? Condos. The Plant (Sausalito)? Gone since 2008. Fantasy Studios (Berkeley)? Gone. Rumor is it’s destined for future condos.

Defying the odds of a gentrifying, greedy city and a diminished recording industry, Hyde Street keeps humming. And that plain-looking, circa 1929 building in the heart of the Tenderloin has 50 years of stories behind its thick concrete walls to prove it.

Here are a few I picked out from my book, “If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour Through San Francisco Recording Studios”—originally published in 2006, re-released by me in 2019. Why? Because these stories need to stay in print.

Enjoy the tour.

.  .  .

San Francisco’s recording landscape experienced a seismic shift on April 27, 1969, the opening date of Wally Heider Recording. At the time, San Francisco had a few large-ish, pretty good recording studios, but none of them as slick as Heider’s.

Heider already had a successful L.A. studio, also named after him. Many San Francisco bands—the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Moby Grape, to name a few—all recorded either at Heider’s in L.A. or at their respective label studios. Even if they wanted to stay local, they couldn’t. The labels called the shots and S.F. didn’t have a facility that compared to the L.A. or NYC rooms.

Until Wally Heider Recording Studio came along.

Heider sold his Studio 3 in L.A. in 1968 and leased 245 Hyde Street. The building previously housed film offices, screening rooms, a soundstage, and storage for 20th Century Fox. It sat across from the legendary Blackhawk nightclub, where Heider reportedly recorded some Miles Davis performances for CBS. The hot jazz club was long gone when Heider moved to the neighborhood. In its place: a methadone clinic.

No matter. With a few calls, Heider had his new studio booked solid.

Jefferson Airplane booked Studio C to record their sixth album, “Volunteers,” months before the room was even finished.

Grace Slick drove her new Aston Martin from Airplane Mansion on Fulton Street to Heider’s each day, parking it in the “No Parking” zone out front. Apparently DPT wasn’t as strict back then.

The band worked Monday through Friday. They usually started in the afternoon, took a break for dinner at a nearby restaurant, sometimes at Original Joe’s at Taylor and Turk, then resumed work at Heider’s until three or four in the morning. Friday nights, producer Al Schmitt would catch a midnight PSA flight to L.A. to spend weekends with his family.

Friends and fellow musicians stopped by often, adding to the relaxed vibe as well as the album itself. Jerry Garcia added pedal steel parts to “The Farm.” Nicky Hopkins took a break from Quicksilver Messenger Service to play piano on several tracks, and many other friends came by to listen, smoke a joint, or just hang out.

“We were always having visitors,” recalls Schmitt. “Janis [Joplin] would come by, Big Momma Cass … David Crosby would stick his head in every so often. Anytime anyone was in town they’d drop by the studio. A big part of the day was socializing, which was one of the reasons records took as long as they did [back then]. And my job was to keep it all going, because me and [manager] Bill Thompson were the ones getting all the calls from RCA!”

Calls to Schmitt became even more frequent, and heated, after he turned in the record. Kantner voiced his opinion about the Vietnam War and the time’s heated political climate on “We Can Be Together” as well as on the title track, which he wrote with Marty Balin. RCA nearly rejected the record.

“When they heard ‘up against the wall, motherfucker’ [on “We Can Be Together”] they almost died!” says Schmitt. “They were not going to put this record out. They said, ‘no way. You have got to change that.’ And I said, ‘you know what; you’re going to have to talk to them because they’re not going to change it.’”

And they didn’t. Jefferson Airplane did not give in, but the label did, and released the album as is. It became the band’s fourth Top 20 record and went Gold within two months.

Engineer Fred Catero stepped into Heider’s to engineer and co-produce, with Carlos, Santana’s landmark “Abraxas” in 1970. He recorded everyone in the same room, and with very little use of gobos (sound isolation panels) and/or isolation booths. This was typical at the time.

Sometimes the band showed up an hour late. Sometimes the heat didn’t work. Cold fingers drug down the session. Bassist David Brown sometimes played the same part over and over, hour after hour. Their frustrations paid off: That album gave us “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va,” and so much more.

.  .  .

At a time when rock seemed to dominate Heider’s lair, Tower of Power’s presence was a welcome change. The Oakland combo chose Heider’s to work with then-staff engineer Jim Gaines, who had a keen R&B sensibility from time spent at Stax Records. 

The original Tower of Power rehearsed five days a week at a shared rehearsal hall in Berkeley. Bandleader/tenor sax man Emilio Castillo took special care with arrangements for this record, as it was his first album as producer.

Because the studio was so busy, Sometimes TOP couldn’t even start until midnight or 1 a.m.—the earliest Gaines was available. He was known to work three sessions a day.

With the band on point and Gaines at the board, the recording proceeded smoothly … until about halfway through, when Warner Bros. fired lead singer Rick Stevens, guitarist Willie Fulton and saxophonist Skip Mesquite. Apparently they missed some gigs, most likely due to “chemical enhancements,” which didn’t sit well with the label.

Meanwhile, Gaines had an almost-done record with Stevens and the others all over it. What to do?

Start over.

TOP brought in “Saturday Night Live” bandleader Lenny Pickett to play lead sax, Bruce Conte on guitar and Lenny Williams on lead vocals. Chester “C.T.” Thompson, who would become Carlos Santana’s keyboardist/bandleader in the mid-80s, also joined the second round.

“We started out with one killer band and went to another level with a second killer band,” said Gaines. “But it took almost a year, because we recorded it twice.”

Gaines mixed the album in Studio C, adjusting each track by hand—there was no automation in 1972. Not only did Gaines have his hands on the board, but so did everyone else.

“So you’ve got five guys at the console pushing faders up and down, with their little marks,” Gaines said, referring to what engineer Fred Catero calls “the great horse race.” “By the time you get to the end of the mix, all the faders are wide open because everybody wants to hear more of their parts, and you’ve got to start all over. In those days, it was community mixing, and the more community got involved, the worse the mix got.”

It turned out all right. “Bump City” gave Tower of Power its first national exposure and a hit single (“You’re Still a Young Man”).

.  .  .

The Pointer Sisters started their debut album at Pacific Recording in San Mateo and finished at Heider’s in 1973. “These were very talented and unique people,” says producer David Rubinson of the Oakland group. “They were very free people, so the concept was to take this freedom in a totally different direction [than Atlantic had]. To help them find their voice was really something challenging and wonderful.”

“Sleeping Alone” would not have happened in such a special way if it weren’t for some very efficient people in Rubinson’s office. He was down in L.A. with Hancock when he received a message from his San Francisco office that Stevie Wonder had called. When he returned his call, Wonder said he wanted to come up to S.F. to record some songs he had written for the Pointer Sisters.

“When?” Rubinson asked. Wonder replied, “How about three o’clock?”

“You mean today?”

“Yeah.”

“I grabbed Herbie and we flew up to S.F.,” Rubinson recalls. “My office people got the studio and the other musicians and the Sisters together, and we had tape rolling by five p.m. What a session! We had Stevie and Herbie on keyboards together! Standing in the studio in the middle of this was one of my most memorable moments.”

Wonder didn’t actually have complete songs written when he showed up, just a hodgepodge of riffs, ideas, and a few bass lines and chords. “He would start playing a groove, or a melody, or a riff, Herbie would check it out, and something would start happening,” says Rubinson.

“But for some reason, Stevie’s ‘phones went out. This was common then. So he yells out, ‘Hey, I can’t hear my piano in my phones!’ I couldn’t hear him, and the engineers in the booth didn’t, either. So he says louder, ‘Hey, I can’t hear my piano in my phones!’ Again, we couldn’t hear him. So then he says, ‘Well, I’ll just pretend that I can.’ Such a profound statement, really. It says, ‘the hell with letting the technical shit become crutches instead of tools. We run the technology. And, most crucially, I know what the hell I’m playing, and I can hear it in my head anyway.’ We cut three tracks, but they had no titles, no lyrics, no real form, they were just tracks of music. So, we had to get a basic concept for the title and create a song form from the fragments and pieces we had. That meant we had to experiment with rough stereo mixes of all the music, and with different forms. Then we spliced it for hours, into a few plausible song forms. The sisters wrote a song that fit the track, called ‘Sleeping Alone.’ So then I had to splice the 2-inch multitrack tape to re-create the song form we used on the multi. Then we could record vocals. Every splice was tedious, but we got it done, finally. And the synergy is still terrific. Not precisely simultaneous, but palpable.”

.  .  .

Dead Kennedys first came to Hyde Street in 1982 to record parts of “Plastic Surgery Disasters.” Oliver DiCicco, who engineered their full-length debut, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” worked on other portions  of the album at his studio, Mobius Music.

“Thom Wilson [The Adolescents, T.S.O.L.] started producing the record, but left halfway through,” engineer John Cuniberti recalls of “Plastic Surgery Disasters.” The band self-produced from there on out. “They were really outstanding,” he says. “They really stood out from the pack of punk bands happening at the time.”

Cuniberti managed Hyde Street by day and worked with DK by night. He kept this schedule through two more albums: “Frankenchrist,” which he engineered and mixed with Biafra supervising, and “Bedtime for Democracy,” which he engineered.

“The way those DK records were recorded and mixed created an ambience that was atypical of other punk bands at the time,” he says. “Most of their records were recorded very dry, but they wanted to manipulate the recording environment to produce a sound that no one else had.

“‘Frankenchrist’ is like no other punk record ever made, and no other has been made like it since,” he continues. “There was a sound to that record that was very uniquely Dead Kennedys. Jello knew what he wanted, and he was very well prepared when he came into the studio. The band recorded very straight; almost like a live performance. Later, they became enamored with reverbs and delays—anything to make them not sound like the Sex Pistols.”

Through the ’90s, Biafra continued to make Hyde Street appearances, sometimes with The Melvins. (The name changed from Wally Heider Recordings to Hyde Street Studios in 1980.) Primus, Mr. Bungle, Exodus, Four Non Blondes, American Music Club, and later, Cake, Sun Volt and a host of others also passed through.

In 1990, engineer Matt Kelley worked the graveyard shift with Digital Underground. The success of those sessions, “Sex Packets,” led to calls from Spice 1, 2Pac Shakur, and George Clinton.

The studio survived the dotcom bust by chopping big rooms into smaller rooms, by turning lounge areas into ProTools suites, and by renting any nook and cranny they could. Tenants subleased parts of their studios to other producer-engineers to pay the rent as artists started moving work to home studios.

Talk of demolition started back in 2005. “The long-term plans are to tear it down,” studio owner Michael Ward told me at the time.

Keep fighting, Hyde Street.

____

Heather’s book, “If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios,” can be purchased at this link: bit.ly/ifthesehallscouldtalk

Find out more on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ifthesehallscouldtalksf

Heather R. Johnson spent 15 years either working in recording studios or writing about them. The recession changed all that. She now works as a healthcare and medical copywriter in Oakland. When Fantasy Studios closed in July 2018, she got irritated enough to rerelease her book, “If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios.”