Glyn Johns speaks sound and vision

Glyn Johns recording The Rolling Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” at Madison Square Garden in 1970. Photo by Ethan Russell.

Glyn Johns recording The Rolling Stones’ “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” at Madison Square Garden in 1970. Photo by Ethan Russell.

By Ken Sharp

IN THE GLORIOUS WORLD of rock ‘n’ roll, record producers are an invaluable commodity. They serve as the key conduit helping to nurture, shape, inspire, guide and ultimately capture the essence of an artist or group. For that same artist/group, coming to the sessions prepared with a bulletproof batch of divinely inspired and chart-worthy songs is crucial. Yet, put those same songs in the hands of a lesser-skilled record producer and the end result isn’t platinum but fool’s gold. Glyn Johns is not one of those producers. His behind-the-boards work speaks volumes (literally) and proves him to be a consummate master of sound and vision.

Just take a look at his impressive CV (curriculum vitae) – it’s uncanny and reads like a who’s who of rock. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Small Faces, The Move, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, Eagles, The Faces, Humble Pie, CSN, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, The Clash and more recently Ryan Adams, Band of Horses and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboard giant, Benmont Tench, all bear his seasoned production/engineer fingerprints.

Glyn’s new book, “Sound Man” chronicles his exciting sonic journey with the legends of rock, offering fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about working on such seminal albums as “Let It Be” (The Beatles), “Who’s Next” (The Who), “Let It Bleed” (The Rolling Stones), Led Zeppelin’s self-titled, “Desperado” (Eagles), “Combat Rock” (The Clash) and countless others.

Join us for a rare conversation with Glyn Johns, one of music’s most revered record makers.

Goldmine: What’s the greatest skill a producer should have?

GLYN JOHNS: Oh, good lord (laughs). That’s a difficult one. First of all, there are many different types of producers and different people bringing different things to the party. Some producers are particularly good at picking songs and some people are particularly good at working with singer/songwriters. I suppose patience would be one thing (laughs). As for me, I seem to use all of my patience up in the studio and have none outside of it (laughs).

GM: So how would you characterize what you bring to the table as a producer?

JOHNS: It’s different for each artist. Different people require different approaches. The statement I just made about there being different types of producers, equally if you do what I do, I’m not always required to do the same thing with every artist, so you have to be prepared to have an open mind when you go into the door. Some artists require a lot more input than others. Some people require a cohesive environment to work in and some people require a lot more input musically than others. It’s very difficult to generalize. No two artists have the same requirements.

GM: Is having a musical background essential to be an effective producer?

JOHNS: Well, I supposed it is an advantage because you’ve been in the same shoes that the artist has at some point. When I was very young I made records as an artist, as well, so I have sort of been on both sides of the glass. So yeah, there’d have to be an advantage.

GM: Being able to speak the same musical language?

JOHNS:  Yeah. But equally as an engineer I’ve worked with several producers who didn’t have that quality but were still extraordinarily good at what they did.

GM: Would one of those producers be Shel Talmy, who worked with The Kinks and The Who?

JOHNS: One of those would be Shel Talmy and another one would be Denny Cordell and Andrew Oldham, too. Andrew couldn’t whistle a tune if he tried, and I don’t think Denny could either, to be honest. I never saw Andrew come up with an arrangement idea or suggesting what somebody should play, but he made great records. He had a great sense of feel. He gave everybody around him a great deal of confidence. He made great records and had fantastic taste.

Johns at IBC in the early 60s. Photo courtesy of Glyn Johns.

Johns at IBC in the early 60s. Photo courtesy of Glyn Johns.

GM: You worked as an engineer on Shel Talmy productions of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and The Who’s “My Generation” album and various early singles like “My Generation” and “I Can’t Explain.”

Johns: Shel and I were a good team. He certainly relied on me to a certain extent, otherwise he wouldn’t have used me as much as he did. But he was the boss. We threw the rulebook away and were breaking rules with those early records by The Who and The Kinks. We went for it.

GM: When you hear those early Kinks and Who records what goes through your mind? Do you think, “I wished we did this differently?”

JOHNS: Good God no, not at all. I still feel really grateful that I was there in the room (laughs). Obviously when I hear those records it may remind me of the session; it may remind me of the individuals involved or it may remind me of just that whole time period and the excitement, the adrenaline rush one got being in the room when those songs were being recorded. Listen, it was purely the talent of the artists. It had very little to do with Shel or I.

GM: Let’s talk about your work with Small Faces. You helped broker their deal with Immediate Records.

JOHNS: I was very good friends with the Small Faces. I’d made their first single (“What-Cha Gonna Do About It”) as an engineer and made almost every record they made. So I was good pals with the Small Faces. I was privy to the problems they had, and one of them appeared to be their manager, Don Arden, who they wanted to leave. They asked me to introduce them to Andrew Oldham, which I did, and he then negotiated to get them on Immediate Records and get them away from Don Arden.

GM: How did the move from Decca Records to Immediate — and being afforded the creative freedom they needed — dramatically improve their work?

JOHNS: Interestingly, the progression that the Small Faces made was a natural one for them and possibly all of the other artists that were in parallel with them at that time. Obviously, everybody was being influenced by everybody else first of all. Secondly, the more success you had as an artist, the more respect you got and the more freedom you got when you were in the studio, and that obviously involved a larger budget (laughs). So purse strings were loosened somewhat and that enabled everybody, and not just the Small Faces, but everybody who was jumping out of the box at that time to experiment more. Before that, at the very beginning, everybody would be expected to turn up with whatever material they were gonna record in the three hours and be rehearsed and ready to go, and it would be done as swiftly as possible. That fairly swiftly changed to people coming in with an idea or, invariably in the Small Faces case, coming in with pretty much a finished song but the other members may not have heard it. So the song would be worked on in the studio and rehearsed. Actually, when you have the facility to work on a song and try things out and play it back, it’s obviously a lot easier than doing it in a rehearsal room before you go into the studio because you’re actually able to see how it’s progressing as a record more accurately.

GM: As producers, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane seemed to have handle on where they wanted to go with the music. They didn’t seem to lack in confidence.

JOHNS: Yes, not in an egotistical way, but that’s absolutely right. They were wonderful to work with and they produced their own records with me engineering, which is another feather in their cap.

GM: Your first experience with the Beatles was in the early ‘60s working on the “Around the Beatles” TV special. You thought they sounded “ordinary” without vocals.

JOHNS: Well, I don’t think they sounded ordinary but they certainly didn’t sound very different from any other band I worked with. If you listen to the early Beatles records, you’ll see what I mean immediately. They were a very competent rhythm section but the sound that they made vocally was what caught the ear initially, along with the song that they were singing. But as far as sounds were concerned, it was the blend of the three voices — John, Paul and George — that really made them successful, I think. So we got to record just backing tracks because they were gonna sing live on the TV show, and that’s when I got to hear them as a rhythm section.

GM: Six years later you get a phone call from Paul McCartney, which led to you working on The Beatles’ “Let It Be” album.

JOHNS: His idea was to do a live show in front of an audience. His idea was to go to an open air amphitheater somewhere in North Africa and take a bunch of fans with them and perform all new songs and have it as a TV show, basically. And then they were to make a documentary of the TV show being made. Paul’s idea was just to have the four of them playing live on stage. So it was to be a concert that I was to record, which would be released as an album; that was the original idea. The trip didn’t happen, so we wound up halfway through a project without a foreseeable end to it, which we all know the result of.

GM: You were shocked to find out that the band’s long-time producer George Martin was not involved.

JOHNS: I was very surprised George was not involved. I had no idea he was not involved, and I thought that was really strange. But as far as the band was concerned, they accepted me readily with open arms and treated me with great respect. It was really nice.

GM: Did the working process in the studio differ with John, Paul and George?

JOHNS: Not really. It was very much a group mentality. They were no different from any other band I worked with; whoever’s song it was had the reins, if you like.

GM: Is the “Let It Be” film a proper reflection of what went on with those sessions?

JOHNS: I must have sat through the film at same point, but I have hardly any memory of it at all other than I was really disappointed with it. The film did not represent in my view what was going on there.

GM: What was the overriding mood of the sessions?

JOHNS:  It wasn’t just like any other session based on the fact that we were not making an album in the normal sense of things. We were rehearsing initially what was to be a TV show, and a documentary film was being made every day as well. So it wasn’t like an ordinary session. There were a lot more people in the room and a lot of what we ended up using was me recording them rehearsing. I remember having the idea that we should light the guys in the studio differently and more professionally, if you like, to give it a bit more mood and have them perform the songs as finished performances rather than as a rehearsal. Well, the point is the film was interfered with by their manager, Allen Klein, in as much as he wanted to have every other individual involved with it cut out of the film so you didn’t see very much interaction going on with other people and the band. I think the film suffered as a result for that purely because I think that would have been quite interesting to see, I think.

GM: Moving from Twickenham to Apple Studios on Savile Row, did the tone of the sessions improve?

JOHNS: It was certainly easier on everybody when we moved the session to Apple Studios. They were in their own environment, and it was an environment they controlled. The studio was in their own office building; it was their studio, so therefore it was their space. The soundstage at Twickenham was this vast cavernous area that was quite difficult to be that comfortable in.

GM: There were major technical problems with Apple Studios as a result of the inept work by a Beatles hanger-on known as “Magic Alex.”

JOHNS: The studio was in shambles. It was hysterically funny (laughs). It was a complete and utter joke.

GM: How long did it take to fix it?

JOHNS: Actually, it took no time at all. We just ripped out everything he’d put in and borrowed equipment from Abbey Road. George Martin stepped in and got Abbey Road to lend us a console, speakers, tape machine, everything.

GM: In reflecting upon the “Let It Be” project, The Beatles had many ideas, from doing a one-off gig on a cruise liner to playing a series of shows at the Roundhouse in London. But they eventually settled on playing a show on the rooftop of Apple, which was your idea.

JOHNS: The idea was a cruise ship to go to Tunisia with Beatle fans on board and do the concert in this open air Roman amphitheater in Tunisia. I don’t remember the Roundhouse; I never heard that mentioned. And the rooftop session came about through Ringo taking me up on the roof of Apple and showing me the roof.

GM: Were there technical challenges in capturing that rooftop performance?

JOHNS: Absolutely no challenges at all. It was very simple. All I had to do was run cables down the stairwell of the building from the roof to the basement — which was where the studio was — and record it. It was not a problem at all. It was a cold day when that performance was recorded, and fortunately, I was inside (laughs), so it didn’t affect me. I was in the basement recording. It was ice cold on the roof to put up the mics and everything, but for the bulk of the time I was in the basement.

GM: Discuss your idea behind creating an “audio documentary, fly on the wall approach” to the “Let It Be” mix. How was this greeted by the band?

JOHNS: Having heard the basement tapes from the band, which I thought were pretty wonderful, I realized what I was witnessing while they were rehearsing the material that became “Let It Be,” this was a very similar situation. There’d been some fairly adverse publicity at the beginning of the project because of a disagreement amongst the band. What I was witnessing in the studio at Apple was them getting on really well. They were really funny and having a laugh just like anybody else would. I was seeing them as ordinary people having a laugh and enjoying each other’s company and taking the mickey out of each other, all of that. I thought, here we are, it’s 1969 and the Beatles were the biggest artists in the world. They were up on a pedestal so high you couldn’t touch them. They had proved to make the most extraordinarily produced records, and here I was witnessing them right back at the beginning sitting around playing and singing live. And I thought as an idea that maybe that would be a great way to have an album out of what we were in the middle of, without an end. So I took some multi-track tapes to Olympic (Studios) after my session at Apple one night and I did a bunch of rough mixes very quickly of what the idea could be. The following day I took the ¼-inch tapes of the mixes into Apple. They had their own cutting room and I got their cutting engineer, Malcolm, to cut five acetates, one for me and one each for the band. And the following day they all came in and said, “You’ve got to be joking.” (laughs) Nobody liked the idea at all.

GM: Too honest, too warts and all?

JOHNS: Listen, who knows why; you’d have to ask them, but nobody liked it and no one thought it was a good idea. And to be honest, I didn’t expect them to jump up and down with glee at the idea at all. It was a bit off the wall for them. It wasn’t until some months later that they changed their minds about it.

GM: When you heard what Phil Spector had done with the “Let It Be” album, what were your impressions?

JOHNS: It was about as far off the mark as you could possibly make it. I did get another opportunity. They did change their minds about my idea before the band split up. I then went away and did what became my version of the album and then the band split up before anything happened to it because the film was still being edited. So my version of the album never got released, and to be honest, I have no idea if it ever would have been released anyway. But what happened is John went off to America and changed his mind and brought in Spector.

GM: Is your version of the album closer to the sound of the “Let It Be Naked” record released decades later?

JOHNS: It probably is. They had my master, my ¼-inch tape to work from, whoever did “Let It Be Naked.” So I’m sure it’s a similar idea to what my idea was. I’ve never actually listened to it, so I don’t know.

GM: After the “Let It Be” album, you went on to do some work on “Abbey Road.”

JOHNS: I did work on “Abbey Road.” To be honest with you, I enjoyed working on whatever tracks I did on “Abbey Road,” but I’m really glad that they went back to George (Martin) and Geoff Emerick to finish the record ‘cause I think that did them justice. I’m very proud of what I did and don’t have a problem with it, but I think that what George and Geoff Emerick did with the final album is brilliant, and whatever I did sort of paled in significance.

Recent photo of Glyn Johns at the helm. Photo by Julia Wick

Recent photo of Glyn Johns at the helm. Photo by Julia Wick.

GM: Share the story about the proposed Beatles, Stones and Dylan joint album.

JOHNS: It was only one person’s idea and that was Dylan’s, which he discussed with me and then I discussed with the other principals. It was a single conversation with everybody and that was the end of it. It never went anywhere and sort of died a death immediately (laughs). It was Dylan’s idea, which I thought was really extraordinary, but I think it would have been almost impossible to actually pull off. But I would loved to have given it a go (laughs). It would have been interesting. Keith Richards and George Harrison were both up for it because they were Dylan fans. Bill (Wyman), Charlie (Watts) and Ringo (Starr) being as amenable as they are would have turned up and played because they love playing (laughs). Paul (McCartney) and Mick (Jagger) were completely and utterly not interested and that’s their prerogative in my view. John (Lennon) was OK with it, but he certainly wasn’t jumping up and down about the idea.

GM: Forty-six years ago you cut Led Zeppelin’s debut album. Can you pinpoint the alchemy the four created together that sparked such power and electricity?

JOHNS: The band was very well-rehearsed before they got into the studio, although it was certainly driven by Jimmy, but I think John Paul Jones played a part. But they all played a part, really. But looking back, it was clearly driven by Jimmy — who I suppose was the leader of the band.

GM: Once you started cutting tracks, was it clear that you needed to do was capture this and stay out of the way?

JOHNS: I was under the impression that I was the producer on the record because that’s what I had agreed to be, so I took the normal role that I worked, which is applying whatever I could to wherever I felt it was necessary without interfering and without holding up the process. There wasn’t a great deal to do because they were so accomplished already and they all knew what they were doing.  They didn’t need leading by the nose, that’s’ for sure. So really and truly I ended up recording it. That was my main input. There may well have been other ideas thrown in but more than anything I got the sound on it.

GM: How quickly was the album recorded?

JOHNS: Nine days, including mixing.

GM: Is there a defining song on that first Zeppelin album that says it all for you?

JOHNS: I like “Dazed and Confused.” That’s my favorite track on the album.

johns-book-Sound-ManGM: While Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were already accomplished and known in recording circles, and Page, of course, with his work in The Yardbirds, Robert Plant and John Bonham were unknown quantities. What impressed you the most about them?

JOHNS: I knew Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, but I didn’t know Robert Plant or John Bonham. I’d never heard of them. They were completely new to me. Bonham’s technical ability was jaw-dropping and the sounds he got were quite remarkable. You couldn’t ask for anything else from a rock ‘n’ roll drummer or with any drummer. Robert Plant had the most extraordinary sound to his voice and his energy level. For me, he was the perfect vocalist for what the other three were providing.

GM: Share the story of playing Led Zeppelin’s debut album for both Mick Jagger and George Harrison and discuss how their impressions of the record did not align with yours. Did that surprise you?

JOHNS: It did surprise me. Listen, everyone has their own opinion. I just assumed because I was so taken with it that my contemporaries — who I’d been working with and for whom we shared a similar opinion about music, otherwise we wouldn’t have been working together — I naturally assumed that they would get it in the same way that I did but they absolutely didn’t. Looking back on it now I kind of understand. I think possibly if I hadn’t been in the room and known Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones the way that I did, possibly I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I did. If I had come to it cold maybe I wouldn’t have gotten it the way that I did. I don’t really know.

GM: You tried to get Zeppelin added on to the bill for the Rock & Roll Circus TV show?

JOHNS: I played Led Zeppelin’s first album to Mick but he just didn’t get it so that’s why they weren’t included in that TV show. Mick didn’t get it and that was the end of it.

GM: Regarding your work with The Who, you mention in the book that you felt “intimidated” working with The Who because Pete Townshend’s demos were so good.

JOHNS: Yes, that’s right. Pete made such complete demos. He’s an extremely fine recording engineer. He had a top-of-the-line studio fully equipped with whatever you’d find in any professional recording studio. So he had the facility to record with wonderful quality and certainly did that. Secondly, he played all the instruments on the demos, which he did. Obviously, he doesn’t play the bass or the drums anything like John (Entwistle) or Keith (Moon). So the demos invariably had a slightly different feel as you can imagine. But one of the major difficulties was translating some of the better aspects of the feel of what Pete’s demos had for The Who, for John and Keith. Invariably, I have to say, they took care of that problem themselves just by their own genius and it didn’t become a problem at all. But with “Who’s Next,” there were a couple of things where I felt we needed to keep more of the feel of the demo than what The Who as a band would normally do with it. That was a bit tricky but it wasn’t that big of a deal.

GM: Cutting “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was one of those moments where you knew in the heart of the record making that this was a watershed moment.

JOHNS: It was astonishing to be there when that song was being recorded. I can’t even think of the right adjective. It was incredibly exciting and hair-parting and quite remarkable. This is a really brilliant example of what I was talking about. John and Keith’s additions to the synthesizer track and Pete’s guitar playing made the song quite extraordinary, and the demo was pretty extraordinary. But obviously the energy and the musicianship that Keith and John brought to the track, along with Pete’s guitar, made a massive difference, not withstanding (Roger) Daltrey’s vocal, of course, which is spine tingling.

GM: Before the band decided upon the title of “Who’s Next,” Keith Moon had an interesting idea.

JOHNS: He came up with the title “All Their Records.” He was trying to be funny. We were trying to come up with an album title and Keith was trying to be amusing and he said, “I know let’s call it ‘All Their Records’ because people will go into a record store and ask for ‘All Their Records’ by The Who.” (laughs)

GM: Speaking of Keith Moon, what made him such a one-off?

JOHNS: Well, he played with such complete abandon with just the most phenomenal amount of energy. The best description of Keith is you’d count him off at the beginning of a song and he’d see you at the end (laughs) and you hoped that everyone would arrive at the end at the same time (laughs). He was just completely spontaneous.

GM: But, as you note in the book, there was a flip side to Moonie where his craziness was often not fun or funny.

JOHNS: In my experience, it didn’t happen a tremendous amount but he could be quite awkward (laughs) to be around. But equally, the end result was always worth it.

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GM: You went on to work with The Who on several others albums. For the album “Who by Numbers,” a bet was made between you and Keith Moon?

JOHNS: I suggested to Keith that he might stop drinking while we were making this record because he was having trouble remembering arrangements, and then he accused me and said, “It’s all very well of you to tell me to stop drinking alcohol. You chain smoke and have smoked like a chimney ever since I’ve known you.” He said if I gave up smoking he’d give up drinking, so I gave up smoking and he didn’t give up drinking.

GM: Not much is known about The Who’s farewell album at the time, 1982’s “It’s Hard,” which you produced. How do you rate it?

JOHNS: My memories of that album are that it was a bit of a struggle. We did the best we could under the circumstances. I think the album could have been better; I wasn’t that happy with it, to be honest. Some of the material is very good but equally some of it is weak

GM: Pete Townshend’s solo album, “Rough Mix” has proven to be among the favorite album you ever produced, why?

JOHNS: Creatively, all the elements came together on that album and, personally, it was a joy to work with two really close friends on that album, Pete and Ronnie (Lane), who’d been really close friends for a long time. It was an interesting experiment to have the two of them as the artists. It was a rather odd combination of people, but I think it worked remarkably well and I think the record is phenomenal. It’s always been a quite disappointment to me that it didn’t get more recognition and didn’t sell better than it did. It’s an astonishing record: I think the two of them are just remarkable on it and the way they complement each other.

GM: You worked on 13 Rolling Stones albums. What’s your perspective on Brian Jones, as he’s a misunderstood figure in Stones lore and seems to get less respect as the years roll on. By contrast, you were greatly impressed with his abilities and described him as the “king of the riff.”

JOHNS: On the very first session that the Stones ever did with me, Brian was definitely the leader of the band. He put the band together with Stu (Ian Stewart); we need to get that straight. Once Mick and Keith started to write songs, Brian’s role as the leader disappeared fairly swiftly. He was a fine musician and he could get a tune out of any instrument that you threw at him without any question (laughs). He was an extremely accomplished musician and certainly in the initial sound of the Rolling Stones, he was equally responsible as any member of the band if not more so. The last period of his life, the last few months that Brian was in the band, he became completely not physically capable of holding a chord down, so he was contributing very little.

GM: You’ve cited “Let It Bleed” as your favorite Stones album, why?

JOHNS: I really like the material on it. When Mick Taylor joined the band, there was that change of sound – plus the fact that they finally had what I call a lead guitar player in the band made a massive difference to the sound. As it turns out, in parallel with that, it was during that period where they came up with some of the better songs they ever wrote while Mick Taylor was in the band.

GM: With killer songs like “Hand of Fate” and “Fool to Cry,” 1975’s “Black and Blue” remains an underrated record in the Stones canon, a record that found the group trying out various players on the record including Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins and Ron Wood.

JOHNS: Mick Taylor left the band the night before we went to Germany to start recording the “Black and Blue” album. So we turned up on the first session without Mick and it was brilliant for me. I don’t mean to be horrible about Mick because in a way it was sad that he wasn’t there, but equally it was just like reverting back to the beginning of the band only without Brian. So Stu was there and Nicky Hopkins was there still, but it was an even smaller unit. There was no producer — I was supposed to be the producer but I don’t think I really was, although I did produce the initial sessions. We all got on tremendously well and we got an immense amount done in a fairly short period of time. Then we moved to a studio in Holland to finish the record and that became inordinately boring because the facility we were working at wasn’t suitable and they were using the sessions to try out guitar players. Frankly, I got really bored. We went from working really quickly and efficiently to not doing anything at all. So I quit on the whole project and went home.   

GM: In your career, you’ve worked with a formidable cast of important artists. Is there one group or artists that you wished you had a chance to work with? In the book, you mention your admiration for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Would they be one of the ones that got away?

JOHNS: Well, you hit the nail on the head. Brilliant. I would have loved to have worked with them. Interestingly enough, when Denny Cordell signed them initially to Shelter Records he called me up and said, “I’ve just signed a band that would be perfect for you but not yet. I’m gonna do something with them first.” He said, “They’re gonna be really good.” But he never ever called me to do it so I missed out. But as I said in my book, if I had made the records perhaps I wouldn’t have enjoyed them nearly as much as I do (laughs). GM

goldmine-mayThe above article appeared in Goldmine‘s “Who Turns 50″ issue (May 2015, Volume 41, No. 5, at left). If you would like a digital copy of the issue, click here. It’s only a $4.95 download! Or if you would like a print copy (the cover itself is worth framing!) call 1-800-726-9966, Ext. 13369, or e-mail missy.fenn@fwcommunity.com.

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