Sonic boom time
On the front cover of Sound Man, there’s a photograph that speaks volumes about Glyn Johns’s central role as one of pop music’s great facilitators. Relaxed, smoking a cigarette and flanked by Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, the dapperly attired Johns is leaning on one of the primitive-looking, Bakelite knob-encrusted mixing desks crucial to his early career as a recording engineer and record producer. When the photo was taken, all three men were still in their twenties.
Not to be confused with his late younger brother Andy Johns, or his own son Ethan Johns – both of whom quickly became eminent record producers in their own right – Glyn Johns, now 72, might be described as the elder statesman of the Johns dynasty.
His fingerprints are all over rock’s back pages. It was Johns who engineered the sonic assault of Led Zeppelin’s debut album, Johns who suggested that the roof of The Beatles’ headquarters in Savile Row, London, should be the venue for what turned out to be their final live performance, and Johns who listened, spellbound, as he raised the faders on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter during sessions for their classic 1969 album, Let It Bleed.
For all his ubiquity where alchemy happened, however, Johns is refreshingly modest, and seems to attribute much of his success to a mixture of happenstance and assertiveness. “Someone asked me the other day: What exactly does a record producer do?” he writes here. “My answer was: You just have to have an opinion and the ego to express it more convincingly than anyone else.” By the end of the book, we’ve been reminded that there’s a little bit more to it than that.
Johns’s memoir is chatty in tone rather then techie. Though he can’t resist some exposition on the miking techniques he used to capture the famously gung-ho drumming of Zeppelin’s John Bonham, much of Sound Man is the stuff of light-but-entertaining anecdote, the England-born producer detailing what went down during countless collaborations, and musing upon the philosophy and complex people-politics of making records.
His first musical hero, he says, was his choirmaster at St Martin’s Parish Church, Epsom, the fabulously named Felton Rapley. An “owl-like” man who would preside up in the organ loft behind “Gulliver’s panpipes”, Rapley made Johns head chorister at the age of 11, instilling musical confidence – and a lifelong love of close vocal harmony. Years later, having attended an early-period gig by the Eagles and declined to work with them, Johns changed his mind when he heard the band sing Most of Us Are Sad unplugged at a rehearsal. “The harmony blend from heaven,” he recalls. “It knocked me clean off my feet.”
Given how hotly contested such openings are today, it’s quaint to read of Johns casually scoring a job at IBC in Portland Place, London, in 1959 – especially as it was arguably Europe’s finest independent recording studio at that time. Johns was engaged as a lowly assistant engineer, and he paints a detailed and amusing picture of his daily trials as gofer/whipping boy in a starchy, strictly stratified world long since gone. One senior engineer, “the aptly named” Ray Prickett, treated him like “an unpleasant smell”, while another, David Price, clipped him around the ear for falling asleep during a session.
All the while, though, Johns was learning. IBC sessions for artists as diverse as the classical guitarist Julian Bream and the 50s/early 60s pop star Alma Cogan were fertile ground for study, and Johns was people-watching, too: “I was not just learning about technical aspects of recording, but witnessing the way people behaved and manipulated one another in a creative environment,” he writes.
Exotically, the first session that he engineered alone involved recording Sir Laurence Olivier as Lord Nelson for use in a production about the Battle Of Trafalgar staged on Nelson’s ship Victory in Portsmouth harbour. From there, Johns quickly graduated to recording bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Who, Small Faces and The Rolling Stones, and we soon get a sense of what a brave new world that must have been. “Previously, the loudest noise that anyone had to record was the cannon in The 1812 Overture,” notes Johns.
Diplomacy and discretion being central to a record producer’s job, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Sound Man is a little light on revelation, and a little too freighted with the kind of cosy sentences that run: “A nicer [musician/singer/producer/engineer] you could not wish to meet.” That said, Johns does make some significant disclosures. We learn, for example, that, in 1969, Bob Dylan asked Johns to ask The Beatles and The Rolling Stones if they would be interested in making an album with him. It didn’t happen, of course, and by Johns’s account it was Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger who nixed the idea.
Elsewhere, there are a number of places where Johns’s aforementioned – and wholly admirable – assertiveness comes across, his career plainly built on gaining respect, not pandering to egos. Castigated by an uppity John Lennon during his primal-scream therapy period for not capturing his warm-up vocal on a re-recording of Across the Universe, Johns says he simply told Lennon that it wouldn’t have been possible while he was still setting the right recording level, whereupon Lennon “begrudgingly sang it again and left in a huff”.
When next they met, it was at Lennon’s New York apartment, Mick Jagger having asked Johns to accompany him there. At the close of a pleasant evening, Johns says he calmly challenged Lennon about “the extraordinary venom” he’d displayed towards him in a recent press interview.
“He turned to me and told me that he had been equally vicious about Paul during the same period,” writes Johns, “and that Paul had got it right when he declared that the only person John was hurting with his vitriolic behaviour was himself. That was the last time I saw him. I’m really glad that my last memory of John is such a pleasant one.”
The episodic, colourful social history aspects of Sound Man make it fun to dip in to. Johns is there to help George Harrison demo Something and reassure him it’s worth playing to his bandmates. In Madrid with Bill Wyman in the late 1960s, he meets the famed bullfighter El Cordobés. We also learn why Jimi Hendrix and his manager Mike Jeffery were not best pleased with Johns after a gig at the Royal Albert Hall, and why The Rolling Stones’s Sympathy for the Devil still gives him the willies.
What we don’t learn that much about, however, is Glyn Johns the man. Though he’s obviously right to focus on his career, not his personal life, it seems a little odd that there are no pictures of him with family members, and that he makes no mention of the 2013 passing of his younger brother Andy, engineer on such classic albums as Led Zeppelin IV and The Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers.
Towards the end of the book, Johns is admirably honest about going out of fashion, something that tends to afflict all record producers sooner or later. “The entire music business seemed to slowly drift further and further away from me…” he writes of his mid-to-late noughties sabbatical. “I happily came to terms with my new life of leisure, always believing that it was not quite over yet.”
It was in 2011 that Johns got a call from the lauded US singer-songwriter Ryan Adams. Johns’s son Ethan had overseen Adams’s previous three albums, but as Ethan was now committed elsewhere, Adams turned to his producer’s father. Back in the saddle, Glyn Johns produced Ashes & Fire for Adams. He has since worked with Band of Horses, Aaron Neville, Patty Griffin and more.
The producer’s parting shot of advice in Sound Man, offered to those of us for whom life may have become “a little mundane”, is simply to join a choir. “Who knows what it will lead to,” he adds. “Look what happened to me.”
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent