Classic, Rock

Why is the most important producer in rock history a footnote?

"One of the great things about Glyn was, if there was a take--and we used to do take, take, take, take, take, especially on Stones sessions--he'd look at me and say, 'That's the one,'" says Jon Astley, who began working as Johns' assistant in the mid-1960s. "And about an hour or so later, he'd call everybody in and say, 'I've got one to play you.' And we'd go back and play that one, and he was always right, and the band would go, 'Wow! That's so much better than where we are now.' He had that ability to spot the magic moment as it happened."

"He was just constantly listening," McLagan adds from his home outside Austin. "It's a great talent, producing, bit like directing a movie in that you're part of the thing, but you're constantly watching and waiting for something sparking so you can go, 'That's it; that's the light. That's how we do this.' And then you follow that, and you go, 'All right, let's go, next.' He was a brilliant talent, I think. With A Nod Is as Good as a Wink and Ooh La La he made two great band albums. He wasn't moved by Rod [Stewart]'s ego, you know? He wanted to capture everybody. I mean, we're all heavily featured, and I'm very proud of those two albums."

But he was more than mere technician, more than a button-puncher in the right room with the right guys. His records don't sound the same, but they do feel the same--organic, as big as an arena and as intimate as a bedroom. There's nothing to connect his work with, say, The Who or Emmylou Harris or Humble Pie or Waylon Jennings, save for the fact all of it was recorded in large rooms, usually Olympic Studios in London, with everybody playing at the same time. That was quite rare at the dawn of the '70s and beyond, when multitracking turned musicians into puzzle pieces who would be jammed into their respective slots. Johns likes the big picture, seamless and complete.

Between the buttons: Glyn Johns is a man seldom seen or heard from, but his name is somewhere in your house at this very moment.
Between the buttons: Glyn Johns is a man seldom seen or heard from, but his name is somewhere in your house at this very moment.

"He liked people playing together, and he liked the sound of microphones bleeding into other microphones," says Astley, who has remastered all of The Who's back catalog for the brand-new "deluxe editions." "As soon as multitracking came along, everybody went separation-mad. But he kind of liked people sitting around playing together, and that's part and partial to the sound, so this bleeding is going on. He would mike a drum kit with two mikes in the very old BBC style, and the drummer would have headphones on, but the drummer would balance the kit within his headphones, so he would hit the snare harder if he felt it needed to be louder. So the musicians had to be good as well. Otherwise the whole thing wouldn't work."

Johns doesn't fit the image of the rock producer of the 1960s and '70s: He was a serious, sober man who didn't tolerate drug use and wasting time in the studio. "His point of view," says Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon, "was, 'Hey, you're here to work, right? Let's work. If you want to fuck around, get out of here.'" Making music was his job; he'd clock in and clock out, and spend his free time with his family. The Stones drove him mad, The Who got him angry, the Eagles made him nuts. He occasionally argued with the people he recorded (Astley recalls one blow-up with Armatrading, who did her best work with Johns) but knew what was best for each band he worked with. Without him, the Eagles' first two records might have been rock and roll, without the country sound that made them interesting (and rich); without him, Who's Next might have remained an unrealized Townshend fantasy about teenage wastelands.

"Glyn is not afraid of opinions," says Leadon, whose forthcoming album Mirror was produced by Ethan Johns. "He's made dozens and dozens of hits, and he knows what works. He will talk to you about how important it is for a record to have a sound, something unique about it. Having a good song doesn't make a great record. You're well on the way, but you need great performances and a great arrangement. Sometimes Glyn will suggest arrangements, sometimes he'll be specific and come out and hum something to you, or he'll say, 'No, leave that bit out. Do this part again here.' Glyn had the strength of his convictions, and he's not afraid to make decisions, ever."

As of last month, Johns was in a U.K. recording studio remastering Eric Clapton's Slowhand for Dolby 5.1, but he usually keeps his hands off such projects. He did not assist Astley, who is Townshend's brother-in-law, on any of The Who reissues. "His attitude," Astley says, "is, 'Why fuck with something that's perfect?'" Ask Johns' friends why he doesn't make new albums, and they offer myriad reasons: He doesn't want to, he doesn't need to, he'd be glad to if only someone would ask. Then again, McLagan did ask once, and what he got in response was typical Glyn Johns.

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