Engineer Andy Johns discusses the making of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street’

by Harvey Kubernik

Andy Johns is a world class sound engineer and record producer.

On May 18th his work with The Rolling Stones on their 1972 “Exile on Main Street” album will be re-released in an expanded edition 2 CD-set on Universal Records. In addition, “Exile” a DVD directed by Stephen Kijak, is scheduled for international viewing this spring.

The younger sibling of Olympic Studios engineer Glyn Johns, Andy graduated The King’s School, Gloucester, England in the late 1960s. Before he even turned age nineteen he was running the dials working as Eddie Kramer’s second engineer on classic recording sessions by Jimi Hendrix.

Andy’s engineering C.V. credits include the debut Blind Faith effort, a handful of Led Zeppelin LPs, Mott The Hoople’s “Brain Capers.” His name can be found on The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main Street,” “Goat’s Head Soup,” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Johns’ production work started in 1969 with “Ahead Rings Out” from Blodwyn Pig. Along the way he helped shape the sound on platters like Television’s “Marquee Moon, Van Halen’s “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” Joe Satriani’s “The Extremist and L.A. Guns’ “Tales From The Strip.”

In 2009, came his recent hit album with Chickenfoot. A self-titled debut endeavor with a lineup that consisted of Sammy Hagar, former Van Halen bassist, Michael Anthony, renowned guitarist Joe Satriani and Chad Smith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer.

He’s also just worked on a Blues-based recording with Steve Miller, who he first encountered in 1967 at Olympic Studios, the band Swayback, and in late summer 2009 was behind the board with singer/songwriter, Amy Terrin.

The albums he’s asked most about are Led Zeppelin’s IV and The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.”

Johns was taped for the “Exile” documentary, “Stones in Exile” that will view on US Network television and through BBC Worldwide internationally. The documentary is produced by filmmaker John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak, who is known for his work on “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.”

You had a recording history and personal history with the Rolling Stones before engineering “Exile on Main Street.” And you were a tape operator at Olympic Studios for “Their Satanic Majesties Request” sessions, and knew the band even earlier owing to your brother Glyn engineering their sessions from the beginning of their career.
Andy Johns: Well, I was aware of them when Glyn did their first demos at IBC. They didn’t even have a record deal. I remember him bringing that stuff back to the house. They soon started making records. Glyn used to live with Ian Stewart. And when my parents moved to the country on half terms, which is a four-day weekend, I would go up and stay with my brother in Epson. And there would be all this neat gear around. ‘Cause every time the Stones went to America they would buy stuff because it was obviously half the price. So I’d muck about with all that.

I remember Bill Wyman had this bass that he’d made himself. Handmade bass that used to be under Stew’s bed. And there was a copy of “Satisfaction” in 1965, and it hadn’t come out in England yet. So, here I am this teenager with a copy of the latest Stones’ single, which just happens to be ‘Satisfaction.’ And I started banging around on Bill’s bass and that’s when I really got interested in playing bass. And then at Christmas time, Glyn said, ‘What do you want for Christmas?” And I said, ‘Well, there’s that bass underneath Stew’s bed, you know. I wouldn’t mind that.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Bill is not gonna get rid of that ‘cause he made it himself.’ And I didn’t think anymore about it. And then Christmas day came and I didn’t get very much for Christmas ‘cause I’d already weasled my stuff before Christmas. Everyone else is opening gifts and they’re getting watches, Christmas stuff. And I’m not getting anything. So, I was a bit downhearted, you know.

And at the end, Glyn says, ‘Guess what? I forgot I’ve got something for you.’ And he went out and came back and I could see it was a bass guitar. And I opened it up and it’s this gorgeous little bass that Bill used to use on ‘Top Of The Pops’ program. So that knocked me for six…And I couldn’t believe it. ‘This is for me. What are you, fuckin’ crazy?’ So, obviously, I never looked back.

In fact, I named my first son William in Bill’s honor. I remember we were working at Olympic just after my son had been born, and Bill was doing an overdub sittin’ next to me. ‘So, you had a son.’ ‘I said Yes.’ ‘Well, what you call him?’ ‘I call him William.’ He said ‘What?’ ‘You heard.’ ‘Oh really…’ he got the point.

I heard many years ago some tale where you were actually being considered to replace Bill as bassist one moment for the Rolling Stones.
Andy Johns: I mean, during “Exile” in France one night Mick went, “You know maybe we should get someone else.’ And I’m sitting in the recording truck, and said, ‘Look, you know, this probably wouldn’t mean that much to you, wouldn’t change anything, but if you get rid of Bill Wyman I’m going home.’ Bill is one of my heroes.

What are your memories of “Exile” and how did you get on to the “Exile” recording project? I know you were involved a tad earlier with “Sticky Fingers” and with producer Jimmy Miller. I know you worked with producer Guy Stevens on Mott The Hoople’s classic “Brain Capers” album.
Andy Johns: Guy and I were very close, best man at my first wedding, first real friend I made in the record business.

I got to work with The Rolling Stones because of Jimmy Miller. I’d worked with him as an assistant engineer at Olympic, and then moved over to Morgan Studios. And they made me a full-time engineer almost instantly.

I was the only guy there. I did all the sessions that came in and got a lot of experience quickly. I did Traffic’s “Shanghai Noodle Factory” with Jimmy. And then we worked on the Blind Faith thing. He came in about halfway through on that. Mott The Hoople. Sky, Free’s live album. Then there was a Stones’ session that he brought into Morgan. The first session on ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ And it went very badly. Just horrible. They did not want to be there and there were too many of them for that little place. Al Kooper was there, I think. That was my first opportunity of working with them. And Mick was in a foul mood telling me to turn Brian (Jones) off.

I didn’t do that many sessions on “Satanic Majesties …” Just a few. It was bizarre. And I thought it was pretty silly stuff. You got Bill Wyman out there playing vibraphone? And some other bizarre instrument that Charlie (Watts) was playing. It was just a very poor attempt to compete with “Sgt. Pepper’s …”

Andrew Loog Oldham was still around but not very much and not much of an influence on anything. The last time he was around was during the “We Love You” and “Dandelion” recording sessions at Olympic when the cops showed up at the door and Mick was smokin’ a big joint.

These are a couple of bobbies in uniform. And Mick was so brilliant. He puts this joint behind his back and says, ‘Andrew, what we need on this are two pieces of wood bein’ hit together in unison. Like claves.

‘What about these,’ offered the bobbies as they voluntarily pulled out their truncheons. So he escaped by puttin’ them on the record. And Andrew was spraying the control room to cover up the smell. At the time the Stones were having vast hassles with the cops and another bust would have been the end for them. So, it was a very narrow squeeze. So Jimmy gets me in on “Sticky Fingers.” Which was about half done.

The Stones has just finished putting together their recording truck. It was the first time they ever had anything. I don’t know where the money came from. The truck, it was done for Stew, if anything, because he had been so hard done by them. So they said, ‘OK Stew. You run this.’ And we went to Stargroves (Mick Jagger’s Berkshire mansion) and they played for a couple of days. Not very well. And then the first playback comes. And they have all these fucking hanger-ons. It was just ghastly.

So I do this first playback and Mick is leaning over the mixer at me and he says, ‘What the fuckin’ hell is that? I could do better than that on my Sony cassette machine. What are you doin’ here?’ I thought, ‘Christ, what a nightmare.’ I said, ‘We’ll, if you got rid of these bloody people, it’s a small space, and they’re soaking up all the sound and God knows what else. And then we’ll listen again.’ And Mick says, ‘Oh, all right then. You’re worse than your brother.’ I said, ‘No I’m not.’

And I waited up to speak to him the next morning and I said, ‘Look, obviously The Rolling Stones are far more important than my feelings. If I should go I will go right now.’ He went, ‘No. You’re in. You’ve passed the test.’

Tell me about the Stones’ mobile recording truck?
Andy Johns:
Well, the gear in there was made by this fellow Dick Swetenam who really made the first mixes that you would recognize as a modern mixer. He had things that we now accept as normal. A pan pot on every channel. The ability to add and take away mid range. Insert points. More than one echo send. And they look great, too. They were wrap around things. He was an extremely clever fellow. But he also built this tape machine that didn’t work. It was a fucking joke. Dick didn’t know about tape machines. He knew about electronics. Not transport. So we were always going through hell with that. In the end I got it kicked out and we got a 3M machine. Dick put the truck together. It was his very cool stuff with four speakers in Lockwood cabinets. It could sound very nice in there but it could also be very difficult. The confined space. The camera never worked. The talk back never worked. So you couldn’t see or talk to people. You had to keep runnin´out of the truck. ‘Stop!’ Jimmy and I went to France with that truck.

Stew was supposed to find a house that we could all go to everyday to work. And he couldn’t find one. So we ended up in Keith’s basement. Which of course meant the center of activity is Keith’s house. I don’t know whether Anita (Pallenberg) or Keith really liked that. ‘Cause there were a lot of people involved. They were horn players, technical people, Jimmy Miller, Nicky Hopkins, and were all there every day. And the band…Charlie is living there and Nicky is living there. So a lot of stuff for them to deal with.

Did you have to make some overt adjustments about actually recording in a Villa, a home, from what you learned at Stargroves, Olympic or Morgan studios?
Andy Johns:
I don’t know about adjustments … You just go with what is there. And you try and make it sound as good as you can. The first room I put them in was this basement which was a disaster. It just was too dead. So I moved them to another room that had stone walls. And I had Charlie and Keith in there and Mick Taylor and Bill had his bass underneath the stairs. Nicky Hopkins was in a separate room. And it was tough but some of the things came out rather well. Bianca was very pregnant at the time and I think she showed up once or twice. She had the baby during the record. Mick was back and forth to Paris a few times.

As far as microphones on hand I had the normal standard stuff. Some Neumanns, Shures, Beyers … The mikes were OK. It was just these rooms were a bit weird. Plus it had been a torture chamber during World War II. The villa was a local Gestapo headquarters when the Nazis occupied France. I didn’t notice that until we’d been there for a while and the floor heating vents in the hallway were shaped like Swastikas. Gold Swastikas. And I said to Keith, ‘What the fuck is that?’ ‘Oh…I never told you. This was the headquarters.’ So I guess downstairs they used to do all this dreadful shit. That’s where fires would start, the electricity would go on and off. There was just a very strange vibe down there. There were a lot of people always drifting around.

Let’s talk about “Tumbling Dice.”
Andy Johns:
Obviously it was going to be great but it was a big struggle. Eventually we get a take. Hooray! I thought, ‘Let’s kick this up a notch and double track Charlie.’ ‘Oh, we’ve never done that before.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t mean we can’t do it now.’ So we double-tracked Charlie but he couldn’t play the ending. For some reason he got a mental block about the ending. So Jimmy Miller plays from the breakdown on out that was very easy to punch in. It was a little bit different than some of the others. That song we did more takes than anything else.

“Rocks Off?”
Andy Johns:
It went on for ages. When Mick came back from Paris for the first time he seemed happy with the sound. And Keith would sit down stairs and at one point he sat there for 12 hours without getting out of his chair just playing the riff over and over and over.

And then one night, it was very late, four or five in the morning, Keith says, ‘Let me listen to that take again.’ And he nods off while the tape is playing. I thought, ‘Great. That’s it. End of the night and I’m out of here.’ So I go back to my place where I was staying. (Horn player/arranger) Jim Price and I had this villa. It was pretty spanky. I’m
tellin’ you. A half an hour drive. I walk in the front door and the phone is ringing. I pick it up and it’s Keith. ‘Where are you?’ ‘Well, I’m obviously here ‘cause I answered the phone.’ ‘Well you better get back here, man, ‘cause I have this guitar part. Come back!’

And I returned and it’s now six in the morning and he played the counter rhythm guitar of “Tumbling Dice” which was another Telecaster track, a second rhythm track, the whole thing just came to light and it just knit the whole thing together. That was one of my favorite tunes. Keith used to sleep with his guitars.

It was a very busy mix. It was very difficult to mix. At Sunset Sound I tried mixing it a couple of times and it wouldn’t work. On the last batch Mick called up and said ‘Come back. We can’t beat your mixes.’ I mixed about another 12 songs in a marathon session. I would just leave the booth to have a piss and just go back in the room and that was it. For some reason I brought ‘Tumbling Dice’ up and it just started to work. Sometimes it happens that way.

You had been in Sunset Sound in Hollywood before and worked on some early Led Zeppelin albums.
Andy Johns: Yes. I had been in Sunset Sound and was very enamored of the tapes that I would get from Sunset Sound. I really liked the way “Let It Bleed” sounded that was mixed at Sunset Sound. And I really liked some other stuff that my brother had mixed at Sunset. That’s why when I took Led Zeppelin there and they changed the room, and I mixed all of Zeppelin IV and it sounded like shit when I got it home. But I still knew that had to be me and not the place.

So, I remember talkin’ to Keith in his basement in France. Just Keith and I and I said, ‘Look, the next step is that we’ve got to go and finish the overdubs and mix. Why don’t we go to Sunset?’ And they worked there before. So, ‘Yeah, all right.’ And of course, I loved L.A. 21-year-old English guy, and I had done a couple or three projects there. So I knew people and chicks eventually. ‘Yeah. Let’s do that then.’

We got to Hollywood. It was taking pretty slowly and I was taking a lot of time to get mixes. But they were coming out quite well. We were doing overdubs at the same time. And the Musicians Union guy came by to try to bust us.

The Union said if you were foreign musicians you had to give one per cent of the record to the Union. So they warned me at the front desk, ‘He’s here again!’ So, we’d scrabble around and put everything away and then he’d walk in. I’d pretend I’m just mixing. And in those days, I mean, nobody took four or five months to mix a record. (laughs). You did it in a week. So he was very suspicious. I remember we did go over to Wally Heider studio down the street, and he came in to try to bust us again. And Bobby Keys was actually playing tenor saxophone. And he knew what this guy was. And he comes runnin’ out of the studio into the control room and the door on that control room opened right onto the street in Hollywood. And Bobby has got his sax over his head and he’s gonna smash his brains in. And the guy is running up towards Hollywood Blvd. with Bobby shouting and screaming at him with the sax still raised above his head. And I saw them go round the corner and I didn’t see Bobby again for a couple of weeks. (laughs). I think he went to a bar and just forgot what we were there for (laughs). So we never saw this guy again. Bobby put the fear of Texas into him.

Did you ever have any concerns about taking basic tracks mostly done in France at Keith’s villa for six months at Nellcote and then transferring them to another room like Sunset Sound in Hollywood? I know years earlier during “Between The Buttons” there was some slight loss of tape generation during multiple master tape transfers between RCA studios and Olympic. Although I know that was not the case with “Beggar’s Banquet’ an album your brother engineered and then mixed at Sunset Sound.
Andy Johns:
I had no worries or concerns about fidelity. In actual fact, it worked to my advantage. Because they had this bloody great AMPEX machine that had very high tension on it. And because of this dodgy machine that had been in the truck now the tape was being smashed up against the heads. And it sounded in actual fact a little better. It was much easier to deal with. But you know you don’t think about that. There was certain places…

There used to be a theory ‘If you record at Criteria in Florida you can’t mix at Record Plant’ and stuff like that. I remember Stephen Stills tellin’ me that in the men’s room at Record Plant once. And he was right. ‘Just go on a plane and go back to Criteria.’ So I did. No, that was not really an issue. The issue was trying to retain a balance of continuity.

Because there is Mick and Keith, and Jimmy and Andy, and then there’s Marshall (Chess) and everyone, you know, is trying to get it done but in different ways. So it got a bit silly. But the transfer aspect was done as per normal. You do the basic track, get the arrangement sussed out and do basic track. Then you look for other ideas which quite often appear almost like on their own. They just come out of the air.

I was still learning on “Exile.” So I wasn’t influential really at all about anything except for perhaps choice of song once or twice. ‘This shouldn’t be a single.’ They had been making records for quote some time. Mick saw himself as sort of the producer. Jimmy Miller was on his way out. So Mick would be around for everything. ‘Let’s put the chicks here.’ ‘Let’s have Jim (Price) come up with something for this.’ Somewhat of a martinet. But no problems, and in the end it was pretty much Keith’s final decision. That’s why it was a bit of a mess. Nobody was quite in control because they had given up on Jimmy a bit.

Tell me about Jimmy Miller as a producer and a mate. Spencer Davis once said, “Jimmy Miller was the first genius producer I ever worked with.”
Andy Johns:
Well that’s easy. Jimmy was an extremely talented man. His main gift I think was his ability to get grooves. Which for a band like the Stones is very important. Look at the difference between “Beggar’s Banquet” and “Satanic Majesties.” He put them right back on the rail. So he was quite influential then and came up with all sorts of lovely ideas for them. In fact that’s him playing the cowbell at the beginning of “Honky Tonk Woman.” He sets it up. He was somewhat of a frail individual and they got to him like they got to everybody. Sooner or later you lose your mind. By the time we got to “Exile on Main Street” they weren’t really listening to him anymore. So he felt a bit like a fifth wheel. He was being squeezed out a bit and I was watchin’ that go down.

Jimmy was mad keen and sort of half way in control of “Sticky Fingers” but his grip was slipping a bit. On “Exile” they sort of stopped listening to him and by the time we got to “Goat’s Head Soup” it was like he wasn’t there. That was a very tough record to make. I love “Winter” from that.

You know, Mick and Keith back then could be pretty fuckin’ ruthless. It’s a defense mechanism because people forget how big a deal they were. So everybody and their uncle is trying to grab the hem of their coat. They always want something, you know. ‘Listen to this song. You should really do this song’ ‘I’ve got this great idea for a hotel. Give me the money.’ Constantly. And the dope dealers and the groupies. So I guess that hardens you to a certain extent. I know it has to me a little bit.

On “Exile” Keith would play after the fact. We’d have some time and Keith would say, ‘I want to redo the bass.’ In front of Bill, you know. They were really cruel.

The guitar contributions of guitarist Mick Taylor were apparent to you over your working relationship with the Stones in the studio. And he received a co-write on the track ‘Ventilator Blues.’ You have said it got quite steamy in Keith’s basement ‘cause there was one small window and an electric fan blowing in the summer. So you all had the “Ventilator Blues.”
Andy Johns: Mick Taylor in the studio in France or Sunset Sound was just a shining light. As a person somewhat taciturn. When he plays his guitar and we’d do 100 takes on something he would come up with something slightly different every time. Faultless. Every once in a while he’d drop a note. I mean, that’s expected. His slide playing. He’s put a bottle on his little finger and then he’d do chords with the rest of his hand. So he could do both at once. Usually it’s a separate deal but that was part of his style. His sense of melody was unbelievable.

Every time I knew it was Mick Taylor I’d be sitting at the edge of my seat. He was wonderful but became discontent with his situation. On the 1973 tour of Europe I spent quite a lot of time with him and he would say ‘They won’t let me write any songs. Anytime I have an idea I’m blocked out.’

Later I put Mick onto Jack Bruce who was a good friend of mine and still a huge admirer of him, then and still now. They formed The Jack Bruce Band and Mick Taylor Band with drummer Bruce Gary, who would be a good friend for years in L.A. before he was in The Knack and afterward.

Did you have any specific philosophy on recording vocals during “Exile?”
Andy Johns:
That’s a funny question and I don’t want to be rude. If you’re gonna do vocals you put the microphones up that you are familiar with, an Neuman 87, that’s what I used on Mick and Keith. Then you can put a compressor on it and then you record. If it’s not working you search for other ways of doing it. It usually works.

And the mixing or implementation of the echo chamber at Sunset Sound.
Andy Johns:
We didn’t use it all that much. There had been a fire and when it was re-built it didn’t sound quite the same. But I might have used it on some stuff. I was mostly using EMT 140 plates. On the “Rocks Off” mix we put on an echo effect on Mick’s voice and got lucky. It ties together.

Overdubs were not a problem. Any kind of overdub activity, except for “Happy,” where Jim Price was in charge of horn arrangements. That was his responsibility. And Bobby Keys, who has a mathematical mind, would beat you at chess in three moves. That kind of cracker white trash persona that he puts on is just a front. Born the same day as Keith. I remember a birthday party and got in a lot of trouble for that.

You did?
Andy Johns: Well…I started a cake fight. And then Keith was in the bathroom, one of the old Apple Records houses, big old house, Beatles, and Keith was trying to take a dump or something, and Bobby and I went down the corridor and I had a big piece of cake. And we’re banging on the door and he won’t open it. And Bobby said, ‘You know, we shouldn’t do this.’ And I went, ‘Fuck it.’ And kicked the door in and Keith runs over to the sink and I got him with the cake. Just rock ‘n’ roll fun (laughs).

And I had given him this huge Nazi Luftwaff dagger for his birthday. The first thing he got, you know. So I show up the next day and he’s sitting up with his feet on the kitchen table with this dagger sticking out of his belt and he gives me a lecture on behaviour (laughs). ‘You can’t do that sort of thing. It’s really not right. Come on, man. This isn’t your house and throwing cake around.’ This coming from Keith. OK.

And pianist Nicky Hopkins is all over the “Exile” album.
Andy Johns: Nicky is on everything. He was the best and the greatest. God bless Nicky Hopkins. He added so much to that band. Sometimes you wouldn’t really notice it. But if you take the piano out then the house of cards collapses a bit. He was always coming up with gorgeous little melodies. Earlier, ‘”She’s A Rainbow.” That’s Nicky. Of course he was doing a lot of things like that. Plus he was extremely rhythmic. People don’t remember him for being rhythmic. But he was.

When people think of Nicky Hopkins they think of his right hand. But he would make the groove happen sometimes. If he took him out, ‘Oh, what happened here.’ Which is normal. If they are listening to him they are gonna play around him. Or with him. And if you take one of those elements out ‘What happened here?’ It’s music. See. That’s how it works.

Jim Price and I went into a Nice France toy store. They had Chinese fire works. Big M80 things. Nicky was in this basement room all on his own with the piano and he would sit for a long time with people talking, doing arrangements and he would be head bent over the piano and never say a word and wait.

One day Jim Price suggests to toss a fire work into his room that had a cement floor and stone walls, iron grill in basement, ‘I’m not doing that.’ ‘You have to do this.’ I was very gullible and very quickly tossed it through a tiny window. It was fuckin’ loud. Boom!

Only time I ever saw Nicky really angry. ‘Cause he was meditating. He ran up the stairs, ‘Who the hell?’ Jim made me do it like we were kids. So I miss Nicky dreadfully, he was one of a kind. Never gonna happen again.

Q: What was the food like at Keith’s villa?
Andy Johns:
This French chef would put out these lavish spreads s for lunch and you’d walk out to a big table of artichokes, stuffed tomatoes, sautéed asparagus, salads and lobsters. Wonderful stuff. Big luncheon on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean and these big yachts. It’s France. Keith would come down the steps and go, ‘I wanna a cheeseburger.’ I used to kid Nicky, ‘Guess what? We’re having liver and onions, steak and pie.’ He had a hole in his stomach. Very frail. .

After two or three months the chef just fucked off. He left and Keith got these cowboys who hung around town. A big guy who became the cook who then preceded to set fire to the basement kitchen.

We then had a long weekend and Mick went off to Paris. And these cowboys stole and nicked most of the equipment, Keith’s guitars, Bobby Key’s saxophone. Another wise friendship that Keith had going.

Keith then had Selmer who made the saxophones make another set brass engraved. He felt rotten about these bastards, paid Selmer and took care of Bobby, who was then better of then when he started.

What was the first song actually completed for the album?
Andy Johns:
“All Down The Line.” It was the first one that was finished cause we’d be working for months and months. Mick got very enamored. ‘It’s finished! It’s going to be the single!’ I thought, ‘This isn’t really a single, you know.’ I remember going out and talking to him and he was playing the piano. ‘Mick, this isn’t a single. It doesn’t compare to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Street Fighting Man.” ‘Come on, man.’ He went, ‘Really? Do you think so?’ I thought, ‘My God. He’s actually listening to me.’ (laughs). And then, I was having a struggle with the mix I thought was gonna be it. Ahmet Ertegun then barged in with a bunch of hookers and ruined the one mix. He stood right in front of the left speaker with two birds on each arm (laughs).

I told Mick, ‘I can’t hear it here. If I could hear it on the radio that would be nice.’ It was just a fantasy. ‘Oh, we can do that.’ ‘Stew, go to the nearest FM radio station with the tape and say we’d like to hear it over the radio. And we’ll get a limo and Andy can listen to it in the car.’ I went, ‘Bloody hell…Well, it’s the Stones. OK.’

So sure enough, we’re touring down Sunset Strip and Keith is in one seat, and I’m in the back where the speakers are with Mick, and Charlie is in there, too. Just because he was bored (laughs). And Mick’s got the radio on and the DJ comes on the air, ‘We’re so lucky tonight. We’re the first people to play the new Stones’ record.’ And it came on the radio and the speakers in this car were kind of shot. I still couldn’t tell. And it finishes. Then Mick turns around. ‘So?’ ‘I’m still not sure, man.’ I’m still not used to these speakers’. ‘Oh, we’ll have him play it again then.’

Poor Stew. ‘Have them play it again’ like they were some sort of radio service. It was surreal. Up and down Sunset Strip at 9:00 on a Saturday night. The Strip was jumpin’ and I’m in the car with those guys listening to my mixes. It sounded OK. ‘I think we’re down with that.’ So then we moved on.

I also heard one time at the legendary Record Paradise shop on Hollywood Blvd. that carried all the UK import albums that there was another rumour you left the project or split the scene around the later stages of mixing but then later requested by Mick to come back.
Andy Johns: I went home for Christmas and thought they were not going to ask me back. In February ’72 I was in Malibu doing pre-production on this Jim Price solo album and somebody slipped me a hash cookie. And I don’t like grass and hash. It makes me very paranoid. And it was as cookie. ‘OK. I’ll eat that.’ And then ‘BOING. Oh my God, what’s in this?’ I went into my bedroom and was so paranoid and got a chair and stuck it underneath the door knob so no one could get in. The phone kept ringing. Jim Price said, ‘It’s Mick for you.’ ‘Oh man, not now, Not in this state.’ I pulled myself together. ‘Hello Andy.’ ‘Hello Mick. I’m sure you’re not calling just to say hello.’ ‘Well no….Not really.’ That was fairly honest. ‘Those mixes that you did we just can’t seem to beat them. Would you like to come back and finish the record?’

I was very happy about that. Mick was unhappy about how long it had taken me to do the first five mixes. And thought I was losing it or something. Jimmy Millers’ other engineer guy was Joe Zaganno who died shortly after all these events. And they worked with him for a bit finishing up with little bits of overdubs. Nothing important. And trying to mix. And he couldn’t pull it off. It was tough stuff to do. I had a feeling I was the only guy who could have done it at that time. So Mick and I got together the next day at Wally Heiders and it wasn’t comin’ off there at all. I didn’t like it. He was fairly patient.

We went out to some club one night on Sunset Blvd. It was Soul’d Out that became Club Lingerie. We walk in the door and it’s all black folks during “Super Fly.” The music stops and it’s every face turned towards us, we’re the only white people in the building and I thought, ‘This is it.’ (laughs).And then they recognized who he was and we had a grand old evening.

It was around the corner from Wally Heider. I said, ‘Look, this isn’t working. We’ve got to go back to where we did the stuff that we like at Sunset Sound.’ So we went back to Sunset and Mick said, ‘I’ve been working on this fuckin’ thing so long. Here are the tapes. I am leaving them with you. Get it finished as quick as you can.’

And Jimmy Miller is there but he’s asleep half the time. He wasn’t that involved but just kind of helpful. A bit of moral support. Dear old Jim. So I finished it all up in this one marathon session.

What is this story I’ve heard over the decades that some little geezer, long before downloading and sound file sharing were fashionable buggered off with a master tape of “Exile On Main Street” right under your nose at Sunset Sound. Did it happen?
Andy Johns: When I finished the album I then made a 7 and a half inch IPS copy for the band and left it out front at Sunset Sound in the traffic office. Then a guy shows up like a messenger and picks up the copy. ‘That’s for me. I’m delivering it to the boys.’ Some stranger. It never got bootlegged. He kept it for himself. I was a bit freaked out about it ‘cause I would be the one who got it in the neck.

You also mastered the original album in Hollywood.
Andy Johns: I mastered it on Sunset Blvd. at Artisian, in the same building where CNN stands. My only concern was that the only time I was gonna hear it was in the mastering room. And you had to be able to take it home and listen to it. ‘Yes, I see now.’

In those days we didn’t used to spend a lot of time in mastering which of course is as important of the procedure as anything else. ‘Cause you can ruin it. I think it came out OK. There is one song at the end of side, we were doing vinyl albums then of course, the last inch is very difficult ‘cause the diameters are getting smaller and smaller on the disc and got a bit distorted.

You know a lot of people like that record. What is the magic of the album? It’s a frozen time and rhyme capsule from Sunset Strip.
Andy Johns: Well, I think they were at the height of their powers in a way as far as rock ‘n’ roll goes. Those pop singles and albums they made in the Sixties were stunning.

But with “Exile,” ‘cause its mostly blues-based stuff. “Stop Breaking Down” is probably my favorite track. I remember getting Mick to play harmonica on that. It did not seem like it was finished. My brother (Glyn) had recorded earlier. I said, ‘We’ve got to use this’ because Mick Taylor plays some gorgeous lines and I’m very sure that it’s Mick Jagger playing the rhythm guitar as well. That’s why it’s a little choppier.

It’s an intangible. “Exile” just turned out to be a great collection of music. And I think it was good that it was a double album. Some people say it should have been a single album but you get the feeling of what they were going through of the time and the confusion and the angst and the joy and the drugs and they moved out of England. There were a lot of emotions.

It’s also Hollywood, summer 1972 on tape. Sunset Strip when it still mattered.
Andy Johns: Well, yeah, but it’s not as if we were having these big parties and orgies and things. It was heads down and work.

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