Sound Man
By Glyn Johns

Blue Rider Press 2014, $27.95, ppxvii-315

"A 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.

"A 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.

Glyn 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.

It 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.

Having 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.

I 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).

I 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.

Let's 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".

The 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".

Sunday 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.

One 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.

In 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.

More 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.

A 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.

Let's 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

Beppe Colli 2014 | Dec. 16, 2014