VETERAN RECORDING ENGINEER WRITES ABOUT WORKING WITH THE WORLD'S GREATEST BANDS...
By Don Stradley
The title of Glyn Johns autobiography, Sound Man, can be taken two ways. In his career as a recording engineer and producer, he worked for bands including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Who; he made a life of studying sound. Yet, we could also look at the other definition of “sound,” as in “sturdy,” or “solid.” For in order to survive the unpredictable music business of the 1960s and ‘70s, Glyn Johns had to be sound as a pound.
That solid quality comes through in Johns’ retelling of his long, often fascinating career. He lived a clean life, staying sober while many around him frittered their careers (and lives) away on drugs or alcohol. He tried to remain a gentleman, holding his temper while dealing with musicians who often acted like spoiled, unreasonable children. He enjoyed becoming friends with the people he recorded, yet he knew they’d betray him if it would further their career. Granted, being the voice of reason may not provide quite enough drama for a memoir, but Johns gives it hell.
Kismet is the book’s main theme, for Johns was in the right place at the right time with a frequency that would impress Forrest Gump. Not yet 20, a failure at school and not sure what to do with his life, Johns landed an assistant engineer job at IBC, one of the top recording studios in Europe. The job came about because his older sister happened to meet someone who knew of an opening. Johns admits that that he doesn’t know if he would have had a career in music if not for his sister and several "extreme quirks of fate." Destiny plays a part in other ways – Johns was approximately the same age and living in approximately the same area as most of the key figures in 1960s British rock. “There must have been something in the water locally,” he writes, “as you could have thrown a net over the small area where Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and (Ian Stewart)all came from.”
If the thrilling UK scene wasn’t enough, he also recorded such American powerhouses as the Eagles, and Steve Miller. The American artists could be troublesome. The Eagles were convinced they were rockers instead of a harmony group. Randy Meisner once complained that Johns’ recording of their music didn’t sound good when a radio signal was weak. “I thought he was joking,” Johns writes. “But he was deadly serious.” Miller seemed pompous from the start, wasting time with his ideas for a concept album before he’d even had a hit single. Jimi Hendrix boldly refused to turn his guitar down when Johns asked him to do so for a live recording at Albert Hall. Johns walked out of the gig, knowing that Hendrix’s supersonic playing wouldn’t record well. Bob Dylan was inscrutable, surrounded by "self-important arseholes." The American managers and lawyers Johns encountered were mostly a belligerent, ego-driven bunch. Yet, Johns grew so comfortable in the states that he eventually preferred it to the UK.
Johns hits all of the legendary moments, both high and low, and it’s astonishing that he was privy to so much. He witnessed the bickering Beatles at the 'Let it Be' sessions, and the triumph of the first Led Zeppelin album. There was the night he helped Ron Wood break into his own house. Then there was the parade of hippie charlatans hoping to impress the Beatles, including Magic Alex, a screwball who created a recording console that looked like "something out of a 1930s Buck Rodgers science fiction movie.”
Mostly, there’s his relationship with the Stones, who treated him like a pal until money issues got in the way. Unlike most who write about the Stones, Johns hails Mick Jagger as the group’s heart and soul. The coolest moment in the book is when Jagger shrewdly convinces a pair of nosy cops who'd interrupted a recording session to hand over their truncheons to be used as percussion instruments. Meanwhile Keith Richards is described as combative, unprofessional, and prone to falling asleep while tuning his guitar. Brian Jones, for whom Johns felt “instant dislike,” turned out to be a sort of bumbling savant, with an ability to make music with any instrument that was lying around.
Johns paints in small, easy strokes, never going on too long about a particular incident. The chapters are quick and tidy. There’s a Britishness in his writing, too, which drops in unexpectedly but delightfully, such as when he manages to escape some bullying airport guards “like a rat up a pipe," or when he describes an American he meets as "a regular bloody James Dean." Johns is guilty, however, of abusing the word "extraordinary". There was the "extraordinary talent" of Joan Armatrading, and the "extraordinary sound" of Pete Townshend's acoustic guitar, and the "extraordinary behavior" of Keith Moon. There are dozens of other examples. Even Yoko Ono's voice was an "extraordinary noise that sounded like someone stepping on the cat."
Then again, Johns was living in extraordinary times, and there aren't many other words that suffice.
Johns, who still works in the business with such artists as Band of Horses and Ryan Adams, never reveals too much of himself or the people he knew. He's too much of gentleman. He doesn't give many details about his legendary recording sessions, either. He talks more about masking a bum note on a Joe Cocker vocal, or his technique for recording drums, than he does, say, the work he did with Led Zeppelin. Surely, he had more to say about them than to say their music "blew me off my feet."
There are some moments of blunt observation, though. Most show up when Johns isn't marveling about the "the vinyl age." The Eagles, he writes, were "at each other's throats, disappearing up their own arses." Johns credits John Lennon for having "the quickest wit of anyone I have ever met," but the overall impression we get of Lennon is that he was a temperamental bully, angry for having to rerecord the vocals for 'Across the Universe' and then leaving the studio "in a huff."
The general vibe of these recording artists is that they were like arrogant older brothers, and Johns was like the younger sibling trying to get on their good sides. When he confronts them about their shitty behavior, they shrug. Some send him a nice note. In the case of Lennon, who once disparaged Johns for no reason in an interview, Johns gets "not exactly an apology, more like an explanation."
The book includes some highly moving moments, such as when Eric Clapton kicks heroin and asks Johns to produce the album that would become 'Slowhand', and Johns' heroic effort to organize the ARMS concerts to help raise money for an ailing Ronnie Lane. But Johns' story wraps up too quickly as he skips through the 2000s, and gently laments a music industry "seriously under threat, barely surviving on it past glories." The corporate structure currently in place is scarily reminiscent of the dreary 1950s era when he started, which makes Johns wonder if a new generation can take the industry "by the scruff of the neck and revitalize it." He's not the only one hoping.
But Johns also suspects that as far as the music industry goes, the glory days of 1965-75 may have been an anomaly, and that he "may have had the best of it." That makes his Gump-like journey from choir boy to top engineer all the more fascinating. Extraordinary, in fact.