By Glyn Johns
Rider Press 2014, $27.95, ppxvii-315
wasted opportunity" or "A book which offers facts and anecdotes
galore, one which readers won't stop reading till they get to the last
page"? Well, maybe readers will be surprised to know that both tags can be
said to be appropriate for this recently published Glyn Johns autobiography. In
the light of quite different points of view, of course, as I hope it'll be
clear by the end of this review.
wasted opportunity" is precisely what I thought while reading this book
for the first time, in the light of my interests and accumulated knowledge
(while I think that the weight of my expectations wasn't an important factor in
this case). After reading the book for the second time, this time keeping in
mind what I imagine to be the accumulated knowledge and expectations of the
proverbial "average reader" to whom I have to report what's inside
Sound Man, I thought the book to have considerable merits.
Johns's accomplishments as a producer and sound engineer is the stuff of
legends, of course (he was admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in
2012). The blurb on the cover reads: "A life recording hits with the
Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, the Faces...".
While the back cover has blurbs by Sir Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pete
Townshend, Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records), and (the Rolling
Stones' former bass player) Bill Wyman.
can be said that Glyn Johns played an important part in the history of what
nowadays we often refer to as "classic rock", adding a
"transparent" touch (Johns is not the kind of record producer whose
"sonic fingerprint" is clearly visible to the naked eye) to a good
slice of both "rock masterpieces" and "minor albums" (meaning:
fine albums which were not commercial triumphs, a good for instance being the
second album by Family, Family Entertainment). While his mix work on Combat
Rock by the Clash is a good witness to his versatility, and his ability to
produce fine results in unfamiliar circumstances.
seen the ads, I was eager to read this book, hoping to get to know more than a
few secrets about the way albums I've listened to for ages had been engineered.
My hope was based on solid ground: Glyn Johns has always been a
"sober" man, so his memory can definitely be trusted. My secret fear
was that this book would only offer what is already well-known thanks to
interviews (I have a fond memory of the one which appeared in US Musician
magazine), and to a chapter in the book by Stuart Grundy and John Tobler titled
The Record Producers (BBC Books, 1982). It was also logical to expect the book
to have a whole section - or, at the very least, more than a few comments -
about the "current" way music is recorded: Pro-Tools, plug-ins,
"mixing-in-the-box", and 1.200 "virtual tracks", given the
fact that Glyn Johns was one of the original champions of "rock"
music as something that was played by a group of people in real time.
have to admit that the first chapter I read was the one about the recording
sessions for Led Zeppelin's first album. I'm sure readers are aware of the fact
that, right from the start, there were many different opinions about who had
really been in charge when it came to that album's sound and recording techniques.
Well, reading the small, dry chapter about said album, what came to my mind was
three different layers of lawyers weighing every single comma. With Glyn Johns
contribution to the album being limited to "My technique for recording
stereo drums" (pp117-118, with pictures on p119).
hope I don't sound too nasty when I say that the one and only revelation I got
from the book was learning how Glyn Johns quit smoking: while recording The Who
By Numbers, as a reply to Keith Moon who - under fire for drinking too much -
accused him of smoking incessantly.
have a quick look at the book's mistakes. It's quite disconcerting to read in
the copyright section that "Sections From 'Stones European Tour, Spring
1957' previously published in Stu", given the fact that in 1957 the Stones
still wore short pants. In the "Selected Discography" compiled by
Andrew Alburn the Howlin' Wolf album titled The London Sessions is filed under
the year 1974, while the album was recorded in 1970 and released in 1971. In a
photo caption on p258 there's the word "Paricipants". While on p198
Joni Mitchell's trusted sound engineer, Henry Lewy, becomes "Lewey".
story has its start with Glyn Johns joining the Parish Church Choir, then it's
tome for a self-made bass, then it's time to play the guitar, then - at 17, in
1959 - it's time to start a "cover band". After falling in love with
Lonnie Donegan and his "skiffle", it's Folk and Blues books and
records. Then, totally by chance, Johns becomes an assistant engineer at IBC
Studios in Portland Place, London, "without a doubt the finest independent
recording studio in Europe at the time".
recording session have him meeting such people as Jimmy Page, Cyril Davies,
Nicky Hopkins, Ian Stewart (the Rolling Stones' original piano player, who'll
become his good friend), and Jeff Beck. Meeting Andrew Oldham, the Stones'
producer, will lead Johns to engineer for Oldham's label, Immediate. While
meeting producer Shel Talmy will have Johns engineer records by such
Talmy-produced artists as The Who and The Kinks. It's at this point that Glyn
Johns becomes the first "freelance" sound engineer.
after the other we meet Pye Studios in Marble Arch, world-famous Olympic
Studios, people like Don Arden and Chris Blackwell, and Basing Street Studios,
where Glyn Johns does the mixing for the Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and Songs
For Beginners by Graham Nash.
March, '68 Glyn Johns records his first album as a producer: Children Of The
Future by The Steve Miller Band (there will be more albums by the group and
Johns, such as Sailor and Brave New World). Then there's the Beatles adventure,
with the 1969 sessions at Twickenham Film Studios, and then, in Savile Row, the
famous "concert on the roof", and the whole Let It Be.
names: David Anderle, Jim Gordon, Rita Coolidge, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker. The
Stones album Let It Bleed. The London Sessions by Howlin' Wolf, a moving
chapter. Then Humble Pie, Boz Scaggs, the Who - Lifehouse and Who's Next. Neil
Young with Jack Nitzsche and The London Symphony Orchestra recording two
Harvest tracks: A Man Needs A Maid and There's A World. The Stones at the
Marquee Club. Quadrophenia. Johns's bitter-sweet adventure with the Eagles. The
whole Small Faces/Faces chapter. The first (unreleased) sessions for the
Stones' album that will become Black And Blue. His collaboration with Joan
Armatrading. Eric Clapton's Slowhand. The whole series of benefit concerts for
ARMS in 1983.
brief chapter about overdubbing and the importance of playing as an ensemble (p169),
a few words about the 80s and 90s, and - though there was still more to come -
the feeling that a cycle was complete.
try to end this review in an unambiguous way. I believe that those who are
interested in a reliable first-hand narration about a big slice of rock music -
mainly, though not exclusively, of the 1965-1975 decade - will find a lot to
read here. But one unavoidable question is: Would this book be any different
had its author been a member of some group's entourage, or a management's, or
maybe a journalist with privileged access, such as one from a London weekly
like the Melody Maker? My answer is "no". So this book - which could
not exist had Glyn Johns not been the engineer and producer he was - gets
almost no added value from his professional involvement at that time. Which
makes this book both "a wasted opportunity" and "a book which
offers facts and anecdotes galore, one which readers won't stop reading till
they get to the last page".
Beppe Colli 2014
| Dec. 16, 2014