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Even if he did have something to sell, Johns would not talk about it to the press. He does not do interviews and hasn't since the early '90s. He has made himself especially difficult to find, splitting his time between his native England and the south of France. His friends know how to reach him, but he keeps all other comers at bay. Through his manager, he declined to be interviewed for this story. "Glyn's just not interested," was the reply, "and won't be."
But now is just as good a time as any to ponder and praise Glyn Johns, before the history books further shove him to the margins and off their pages altogether. Already he's in danger of being forgotten--which is amazing, astounding, fookin' appalling, considering he practically invented the sound of classic-rock radio and is the only man who can say he recorded the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin (and the Faces, the Eagles, Joan Armatrading, Traffic, John Hiatt, Eric Clapton, Steve Miller Band, the Clash and too many others to list without turning this story into a record store's inventory). It is nothing short of inexcusable that when Capitol Records recently released Let it Be...Naked, the stripped-down version of the Beatles' adios, it did not use any of Johns' original mixes and suggested track listings, discs of which are considered legend among Fab fetishists who've collected the bootlegs for decades.
Johns, whose son Ethan has become the favorite producer of Ryan Adams and the Jayhawks and other alt-country beloveds, merits a few index entries in rock histories and band bios; Rolling Stones histories, especially, rank him as a major-minor player, considering he was the first to record the band and had them stolen out from under him by Andrew Loog Oldham, who would go on to manage them. But he is conspicuously absent in books about those who spent their careers on the other side of the studio glass. There are many how-tos and tell-alls from rock producers, but none that give him more than passing mention, even though entire chapters are devoted to his lesser-known acolytes. He deserves his own book but can't get his own paragraph.
"You know why he's never done his own book?" explains his old pal Ian McLagan, keyboardist for the Small Faces and Faces. "He doesn't remember anything. I had a book coming out [All the Rage] and called him about a couple of details, and he said, 'No idea, mate.' He said, 'All the sessions have blended into one, so I don't remember what was a Stones session or a Beatles session. It's all faces--this, that and the other.' Of course, he was probably exaggerating, but it is quite funny."
Even the Internet is woefully short on information about Johns: The All Music Guide reveals only that he was born in February 1942 in Epsom, England; that he was a performer for a while, recording for the legendary Pye label; that he apprenticed in the mid-'60s under Who producer Shel Talmy; and that he produced such albums as Steve Miller's Sailor in 1968 ("his first big break," says the Web site), Who's Next and Sticky Fingers and Desperado. And do not look for a photo of Johns on the Web: There is only one, a terribly small and grainy snapshot likely taken in the '70s featuring Johns hiding behind a beard. He appears briefly in the 1999 Classic Albums Series documentary on the making of Who's Next, but he doesn't look as intimidating and formidable a man as legend has it. Sitting behind a mixing board, peeling back the layers of "Baba O'Riley" to isolate Pete Townshend's guitar or John Entwistle's bass, he looks almost delicate.
"They all come hurtling in like a herd of buffalo," he says, as the piano intro gives way to Keith Moon's machine-gun drums and the rest of the band. "Brilliant."
There is no way to define quite what makes a Johns recording so special; after all, he did not write the songs, he did not sing them, he did not play guitar on any of them. He was just the man behind the glass, fiddling with knobs and rolling tape and making sure none of the magic disappeared into thin air. He was a pro at an early age, recording for IBC Studios and Olympic Studios just as British bands were taking to rock and roll. It was a time when most Brit producers wore lab coats and white gloves. It was Johns who brought the Stones into IBC to record; it was Johns who heard the future in their backward-glancing blues.