If you were the type who devoured everything when a new record came out in the late 60s and into the 70s, you scoured the liner notes. A name that kept popping up during my investigations was Glyn Johns. And no wonder, he engineered some of the best albums of the era, by the likes of…well, go back up and read the subtitle of his autobiography.
As with many autobiographies, it is the origin story that is the most intriguing. Johns describes the several chance circumstances that set him on his path, starting with joining a church choir and another was becoming best friends with Ian Stewart. ‘Stu’ was a blues purist pianist who likely did more to shape the formative years of the Rolling Stones than anyone. He only deigned to play onstage with the band when they were performing songs he liked, so Stu was nonplussed when management kicked him out of the band early on as he did not look the part. He remained their sideman and confidante until his untimely death in 1985.
Johns became the first freelance engineer in Britain, and his ability to spot talent was proven several times over. More importantly, his deft touch in the studio was an ideal match with the producer Shel Talmy, transplanted from America. Together they recorded “My Generation,” You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” Arguably, these three songs are the most crucial non-Beatles tracks in the first wave of the British Invasion.
Johns also tried to maintain a singing career in his salad days, with amusing results when he and Bill Wyman formed a management business and take a budding band to Spain. Johns’ version of “Lady Jane” was a hit in Madrid.
Various pivotal British artists weave in and out of Johns’ early stories: here is Jimmy Page, who declines Johns’ invitation to become a hired studio musician for fear of losing his art school grant. There goes Jeff Beck, out the back window of Stu’s room after visiting Stu’s Norwegian girlfriend in the house Stu shared with Johns.
Johns writes in a fluid, droll, easy style with typical British understatement. Although sometimes his sentences are incomplete. His description of getting on the wrong side of Don Arden is amusing; Johns merely arranged for the Small Faces to meet the Stones’ manager. Johns gets threatened by a couple thugs, but the story ends with Johns mentioning he gets along very well with Arden’s daughter, now known as Sharon Osbourne.
Johns’ work with the Stones fueled many stories. One involved a pair of unsuspecting policeman who were checking out the studios’ unlocked door during an all night session. Jagger’s lit joint was quickly hidden, and the bobbies’ truncheons can still be heard in the mix of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” More telling, Johns came to discover that very often, early takes of their songs were better than ones chosen as final. This to Johns means the Stones are actually better than they often sound on record.
A trip to Marrakech with Brian Jones to record a local tribal group is filled with beautiful descriptions of the magical city, little of which the stoned Jones was able to enjoy.
Asked by Page to record the first Led Zeppelin album, Johns is astounded by the band’s prowess. But when he presents McCartney and then Jagger with an acetate pressing, neither believes the band is heading anywhere.
McCartney nonetheless asks him to handle what would become the Let It Be sessions. Johns is well-received by the lads, but perplexed by Yoko’s fifth member status. The band was fairly uncomfortable in the huge Twickenham studio, but after decamping to Savile Row they returned to form. Johns points out that once the band had reached the studio-perfected apogee of Sgt. Pepper they stripped themselves back to basics on these sessions. It was Johns who suggested the rooftop performance, which famously turned out to be their last. The police shut them down quickly, but not until they managed to record a great version of the first song Lennon and McCartney ever wrote, “One After 909.”
The sessions weren’t released until after Abbey Road was recorded; Lennon insisted that Phil Spector be allowed to work on the tapes. The overwrought result nearly gagged Johns. Oddly, he makes no mention of McCartney’s eventual success in releasing Let It Be…Naked, the 2003 return to form. Johns was asked by The Beatles to handle part of Abbey Road, even though he was booked in San Francisco with Steve Miller. The Liverpudlians agreed to pay all expenses for Miller’s band and studio time while Johns jets back to England.
A somewhat chance meeting with Dylan in an airport prompts the bard to ask Johns if he could round up the Stones and the Beatles for an album the Minnesotan was contemplating. All involved but for Jagger and McCartney were game, so it never came to pass.
The recent passing of Joe Cocker makes Johns’ description of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen project quite poignant. Johns mentions many other bands with which he worked over the years, including the underrated Ozark Mountain Daredevils, whose two radio hits belie their deep and wonderful catalog. A few of the band members joined a stellar cast for a 1978 collection called White Mansions, which I affectionately recall as a rather authentic Civil War album featuring Waylon Jennings, Bernie Leadon and Eric Clapton.
A few years later, as if to prove his dexterity across styles, Johns was brought in to help rescue the final mix of The Clash’s Combat Rock. Mick Jones essentially washed his hands of the project after recording was completed, and Johns became fast friends with Joe Strummer.
There have been a bevy of autobiographies from many of the great legacy artists: Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ian McLagan, Neil Young, Ray Davies, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash and Bob Dylan. Most of the books are great. Glyn Johns worked with all these artists, and his book can stand tall among them.