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Sound Man' Glyn Johns on recording rock's greatest bands

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AP Photo of Glyn Johns at home on November 5 2014.  AP Photo/Alastair Grant AP Photo of Glyn Johns at home on November 5 2014. AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Fifty-five years into a career that he admits he stumbled upon almost by accident, legendary producer and engineer Glyn Johns has finally done something he swore he would never do write the story of his life recording the greatest artists in rock.

'For many years, people have brought it up and I always said, No way,'' Johns says with a laugh during a recent phone interview. Fortunately for classic rock fans, Johns changed his mind.

Johns's just-released memoir 'Sound Man' (Blue Rider Press/Penguin Random House) is a fast moving chronicle of a life immersed in music. Self-effacingly, he says he only happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right people.

Those people include Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Kinks, The Eagles, The Steve Miller Band, The Small Faces, Procol Harum, Traffic, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Boz Scaggs, Neil Young and dozens more recorded by Johns in his first decade in the studio.

Among the behind-the-board tales in 'Sound Man' are the first Rolling Stones session; The Kinks' epochal singles 'You Really Got Me' and 'All Day and All of the Night;' The Who's 'My Generation' and later albums including 'Who's Next,' where Johns served as producer.

He remembers being asked by Bob Dylan to oversee what could have been the greatest rock super-friend alliance of all time a joint album by Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Johns describes visiting each Beatle and Rolling Stone to gauge their reaction to Dylan's idea. All but Jagger and McCartney were on board, he says, with George Harrison and Keith Richards being the most vocal supporters.

Then there was the night in 1968 at Olympic Studios in London when Johns was in the studio with The Rolling Stones for the recording of 'Beggar's Banquet.'

French movie-maker Jean-Luc Godard was also present shooting the Stones for a pseudo-documentary.

'The film crew had put a bunch of lights up on the ceiling of the studio and covered them with a scrim to defuse the light,' Johns told me. 'While the Stones were playing Sympathy For The Devil,' the ceiling caught fire and this huge light fitting fell from a substantial height just missing Keith Richards by inches - literally. If it had hit him, it would have killed him without any question.'

Initially unimpressed by The Eagles, Johns was later won over by their harmonies and musicianship but says he had to lay down the law during the recording of their first three albums.

'The minute that I had the opportunity to call the shots as a producer, I made the request that they leave their drugs outside of the studio and operate in a more sensible and professional way,' Johns says, recalling a particularly angry Glenn Frey.

As an engineer, Johns says it wasn't always easy being the only sober person in the room, particularly in the 1960s.

'I was boringly straight. I've never taken drugs,' Johns told me. 'Back then, nobody was straight. They were all out of their heads 24 hours a day. I never knew what most of the people I worked with at that time were actually like sober.'

In a dizzying sequence of events from February 1969, Johns writes of running back and forth between Olympic and Apple studios to record the Stones and Beatles respectively. As one band would finish for the day, the other would begin.
'Then to Apple again in the afternoon before going on to the Albert Hall that evening to record Jimi Hendrix in concert.'

Of that Hendrix show, after a sound-check, Johns remembers asking Jimi to consider playing at a quieter volume as the great hall's cavernous rotunda would surely render any live document unlistenable.

'He completely ignored my suggestion,' Johns writes. 'If anything, he turned up and the net result was an unlistenable cacophony.'

After instructing his assistant engineer to change reels, Johns walked out on Hendrix, assuming the recordings would be unsalvageable. In reality, the tapes, while still unofficially released, reveal one of the most well recorded Hendrix concerts in existence.

While 'Sound Man' is as fun a rock-read as we've seen this year, it can also be a little frustrating to see Johns pass by some of the important music he helped capture.

When I ask Johns about the fact that parts of his story are missing, he admits that some of his memory of certain events and sessions is gone forever.

'It probably went at the time,' Johns says. 'I worked incredibly hard for a very long period of time and I've done an enormous amount of work with lots of different people. I think it's virtually impossible to remember all of it. Equally, I know I left some stuff out that I didn't feel was appropriate to put in.'

Johns says that one of the unexpected plusses of having written 'Sound Man' has been reconnecting with old friends, either during the writing of the book or after its publication.

'I've reconnected with Chris Blackwell (Island Records founder) after many years. He was a very dear friend for a long time,' Johns says. 'I'm in contact again with Andrew Oldham (manager of the Rolling Stones in the '60s), and I've just reconnected with Eric Clapton, who is someone I haven't had a social relationship with for a long time.'

In 'Sound Man,' Johns laments losing touch after Clapton committed to sobriety in 1987 and distanced himself from people he associated with in his past. Johns writes, 'it seemed I had lost a great friend, having been thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak.'

'He read the book and as a result of me writing that, he wrote to me saying By the way, Iamstill your friend' which was just remarkable, really,' Johns told me. 'The fact that I'm once again in touch with these people has been an absolutely fantastic side-benefit of doing the book.'

Johns says he still loves the work and has lined up several projects for 2015.

'I took quite a lot of time off to write the book and I'm really looking forward to going back in next year. I don't ever want to work full time again, but I'd like to do two or three albums a year. That would be great. I still enjoy producing as much as I ever did. I love it, and I can't wait to get back to the studio.'

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor/Ellsworth)

Last modified on Tuesday, 09 December 2014 23:55

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