Glyn Johns – Sound Man

I know from experience that if I’ve produced or mixed an album, no matter how happy I am with it or how much I love the songs or the artist , once it’s finished I can never just LISTEN to it for pleasure. Every note and instrument part reminds me which microphone I used, where the musician was standing at the time or how a particular idea came about. There are albums I’ve worked on that I cherish but I wouldn’t put them on a playlist.
If you’re Glyn Johns, the list of artists to avoid is as follows:
The Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zep, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, the Small Faces, Rod Stewart, Steve Miller, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Johnny Cash, Johnny Halliday (!?!)…the list goes on and on into an almost absurd litany of greats from the 60s and 70s all the way up to the current day with Norah Jones and Ryan Adams.
The man mixed, produced, hung out with and jet-setted his way through the golden age of British and American Pop, Rock, blues and folk. What’s more he did it stone cold sober. I suppose someone had to be in order for these legendary albums to actually get made. Someone had to push the right buttons at the right time. He drank tea and smoked 60 cigarettes a day right up until a deal with Keith Moon made him quit overnight – the cigarettes that is. Keith didn’t keep his end of the bargain and carried on drinking but Glyn appears to have cultivated an image not unlike George Martin in that he was regarded as a sort of schoolteacher/parent figure in the studio. So much so that one day Eric Clapton actually came in with a note from his wife to explain why he was late and Glen Frey (Eagles) eventually sacked him partly because no drugs were allowed in the studio under his watch. This is even more remarkable when we know that unlike George Martin, Glyn was the same generation as the musicians he worked with and even found time early on to have a solo career and a hit single in Spain. This last fact led to a bizarre scene where he stepped off the plane in Madrid to find photographers were ignoring Bill Wyman and eagerly snapping him instead.
This is the fourth Autobiography of celebrated 60s music producers I’ve read (George Martin, Ken Scott, Geoff Emerick) and I was pleased to find an authentic voice on the page with not a ghost writer in sight, unlike some of the others. This inevitably leads to a bit of repetition and a bit of rambling here and there but for the most part Glyn keeps it real and rooted in reality or as close as he can remember it. It’s fairly stark in style but with this cast of characters why would you embellish? One result of the sparse prose is the practical details that jump out such as the sheer number of transatlantic flights he made in any given month. London, New York, London – Los Angeles. Sometimes for no other reason than to check out a new act. Glyn spent half the 60s on a plane and the other half in a studio. With the info in this book I could draw up a league table of the carbon footprint of classic albums. Maybe he used the flight time to write his diary which I imagine was just dates, people and places. He seems like the sort of man who made lists and those lists would have been: hung out with Lennon, partied at Ringo’s place, yet another tour with the Stones, turned down Joan Armatrading, dinner with Jonie Mitchell, mixed some Beatles tracks, fell out with Clapton, got Steve Miller out of jail…
Anecdotes abound and he tells it straight, not holding back on what he thought of people back then or now. This even extends to criticising himself (how very British) for being a difficult character with a bad temper.
Like many of his contemporaries he knows only too well that historically he was in the right place at the right time and his own tale shows clearly the extent to which the music industry today – despite all the digital era revolution – is still firmly rooted in the choices and actions of a few such as himself who started their careers at the dawn of the 60s. For someone with his track record it would be unreasonable to expect him not to cling to the values of that era, but to his credit he readily acknowledges the need for change and evolution.
“My only plea is that the methods I was taught are not ignored and forgotten as this would be a great loss to the recorded performance of contemporary music of any era.”
A quick search online would reassure Glyn. He is possibly the only sound engineer in history to have a recording technique named after him. In an age of digital production ease, the details of how classic albums were made continue to be pored over, emulated and fantasised about, often to an unhealthy degree. Your legacy is safe Glyn…

Extra note:
Glyn’s playlist options may be seriously reduced but reading his book has added to mine. I will now have the pleasure of checking out the following lesser known albums that slipped through the net or according to Glyn, didn’t receive the public they deserve. Among them:

Paul Kennerley: White Mansions. An album made with a cast of superstars.
Leon Russell’s eponymous album in 1970, also with an all-star cast.
Pete Townsend & Ronnie Lane – Rough Mix. A side project for both musicians, recorded, according to Glyn’s recollection with a passion and a budget that would make any modern artist green with envy. The track “Street in the city” with a full 60 string orchestra is particularly worth a listen.

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