Classic, Rock

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

There is no compelling reason to do a story about Glyn Johns at this moment. The greatest producer in the history of rock and roll, the man whose name is in your home if you own any of the most important and influential and merely famous music made in the 1960s and 1970s, has nothing to sell at this very moment, save for the CD reissues that bear his name in small type. In fact, Johns has not been behind the boards with any regularity since the mid-1990s, and even then his output was sketchy and sporadic--a Belly album here, a Joe Satriani disc there, that's about it.

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.

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.

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 Nextand Sticky Fingersand 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.

"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 Winkand 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 feelthe 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.

"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 Nextmight have remained an unrealized Townshend fantasy about teenage wastelands.

"Glyn is not afraid of opinions," says Leadon, whose forthcoming album Mirrorwas 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.

"I actually asked Glyn to produce one of my records in the '80s, and he was quite brutal," McLagan recalls. "He listened to all the songs and said, 'There are songs there in that?' I said, 'Oh, very unkind.' But he is brutally honest and fair. I actually sent him an album I made a couple of years, three or four years ago, because we were talking at different times because of the book, and never got a comment. He obviously hated it. I still keep sending them to him, so fuck it. One day he'll like one."

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