Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, the Faces….
US: Nov 2014
Spending large amounts of time in a recording studio working and re-working songs to make the best possible recording can be a wonderful, rewarding, and disorienting experience. Moments of incredible creativity and breakthrough are tied together by long stretches of downtime, frustration, and repetition. Engineers are one of the few people in a recording studio who need to be on the entire time. They’re endlessly capturing takes, adjusting levels, moving microphones, hunting down bad cables, dealing with technical and human breakdowns, and putting up with ridiculous demands from bands. The more successful the band in question, one imagines, the more ridiculous the demands can get.
Glyn Johns spent his life working as an engineer and producer for the most successful bands to emerge from the classic rock era. Sound Man presents a highlight reel of his life behind the recording studio glass. This story is an upbeat, steady read that bounces through 50 years of music-making, encompassing the entirety of the British classic rock era.
If you listen to any standard classic rock radio station in any town in America, odds are you’ll hear at least one song that Glyn Johns was involved in in between every commercial break. Johns’s career was at its peak from the mid-‘60s through the ‘70s, and a tiny sample of his work includes engineering work with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and the Small Faces, and production work with the Eagles, the Who, Fairport Convention, Steve Miller, and Eric Clapton. He was working with the Stones as early as 1962, recorded George Harrison’s solo demo of “Something” when Harrison was too worried to play the song live for the rest of the band, and recorded the first Led Zeppelin album in nine days.
Once Johns got started working it seems as if he never stopped. Sound Man jumps from one session to the next, with scant mention of dates or much other detail to ground the reader. This format isn’t going to appeal to all readers, but I imagine this is how his career and life felt to him. Here he is writing about a seemingly typical week in 1969: “I went straight from the plane to Apple [Records] for a couple of days, and then to Olympic Studios for an all-night session with the Stones till six a.m. Then to Apple again in the afternoon before going on to the Albert Hall that evening to record Jimi Hendrix in concert.” For about 20 years, his week really did beat your decade.
The book is short on details related to which mic went where or which compressor got used on what. Though that might be frustrating to some, for readers with little interest in recording studio specifics, the absence of German microphone names and model numbers is actually refreshing and keeps the prose humming. In this respect, it’s quite a different read from Phill Brown’s similarly entertaining Are We Still Rolling?, which is stunning and sometimes hilarious in the level of detail it captures in recording equipment used at a session. (That’s to say nothing of the people involved, food eaten, and drugs consumed.) Johns has little interest in lingering long over the specifics of capturing sound and he unfailingly credits the musicians and bands he worked with as being the main reason the classic recordings that he worked on continue to sound as good as they do.
He chalks up his legendary and still widely-used technique for micing drums to a happy accident while moving microphones in the studio and to working with great drummers: “There is no question that if I had not been working with John Bonham and the extraordinary sound he was giving me, I would not have spotted it.” He describes recording the Motown band in 1965: “They flew the band in from Motown and set up straight off the plane. We turned the mics on and instantly there it was. Just like the records we had been listening to. I remember Terry and me looking at each other with great relief, as we had imagined that we were in for a great struggle, not knowing how the hell the sound was achieved.”
He seems to truly love artists, and this love is the characteristic that comes through most clearly in the book. In fact, he seems to have little interest in claiming much credit or settling old scores. There’s a notable exception for Phil Spector, who Johns writes, “puked all over [Let It Be], turning the album into the most syrupy load of bullshit I have ever heard.” His directness and lack of sophistication (“puked on”) makes the sentiment feel like it’s coming from someone else’s mouth, especially when Johns is able to be wonderfully poisonous in much quicker ways when it comes to other relations.
When called to remix the Clash’s Combat Rock in 1982, he takes the job only as a favor to Mervyn Winwood (Steve’s brother and an executive at CBS Records in London); “I was not a fan of the Clash or, for that matter, any other punk band that existed,” he writes, though he ultimately grows close to Joe Strummer, calling him, “A truly lovely and extremely talented man.”
Johns’ record isn’t perfect, however. Glenn Frey describes working with Johns in Marc Eliot’s To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles; “He was a complete tyrant. We were a really young group and he just lorded it over us. And he had worked with all the heavies, so we couldn’t really argue.” Johns describes being unceremoniously replaced during the recording of the Eagles’ On the Border, after having worked with the band on their first two albums; “Their choice of Bill Szymczyk to replace me was an excellent one. He is an engineer with a far more modern approach to recording than me and, I suspect, as a producer, has far more patience. There is no way I could haves stayed involved with what followed: fairly heavy substance abuse with hundreds of hours in the studio with the band being at each other’s throats, disappearing up their own arses.”
This love and respect for the artists he worked with may be what keeps him from unveiling too many stories about what went on in the studio between takes. Recounting frustration between the Beatles exploding after only two days together in the studio in early 1969, Johns avoids spilling any secrets with the insufficient dodge that, “it’s not [his] place to discuss any detail of what happened, but it is common knowledge that George left the band and was persuaded to return a couple of days later.” There’s a comfortable middle ground that can be struck between feeding people’s curiosity about the going-ons of legendary rock bands and gross rumormongering, but Johns doesn’t always make an effort to find it.
Stunningly, he claims to have avoided drugs his entire life, and he has almost no patience for the hard drug lifestyle he surely spent his life surrounded by. He describes a rather pitiful Brian Jones agreeing to carry drugs through Swedish customs for Mick Jagger by stuffing them in his underwear and a particularly ridiculous Rolling Stones show in 1971 where Keith Richards arrived late, left his car parked in the middle of the street as he couldn’t find a parking space, and then nods to sleep on-stage while tuning his 12-string guitar only to come-to an hour later and continue tuning to an empty club.
Every scene like this is presented as completely stripped of romance. It may be the book’s strongest characteristic that Johns, despite writing about rock royalty, writes from the perspective of an equal. He takes each album on its own merit and is completely willing to spend three times as much space talking about two little-known albums he worked on with the songwriter Paul Kennerley as he does on Who’s Next. He comes off as utterly un-starstruck or impressed with eccentricity for its own sake.
Until the book’s final chapters, Johns spends almost no time discussing his personal life. It may be that he wanted to keep the focus solely on his singular career and the abundance of characters he crossed paths with but it leaves the book feeling a bit incomplete. It may also be that his whirlwind career left no space for a personal life. As his career slowed in the ‘80s before settling into a rewarding groove in the mid-‘00s (including work with Ryan Adams and Band of Horses), Johns is allowed more time for personal reflection. The vulnerability he expresses is refreshing, as is the joy he shows over being able to work on records with his son, Ethan, a highly-regarded producer and studio musician in his own right. When he calls their relationship one “that very few parents are fortunate enough to experience”, that tiny declaration is enough to almost melt your heart.
As it stands, the pace he sets of moving from studio to studio, project to project, is a successful one, and I’m not sure the book would have benefited from any more time spent on his life outside of the studio. Still, the moments that he allows glimpses into his life outside of the studio and the tenderness that he expresses for his close relations leaves you wishing he had included more.
Sound Man succeeds as a chronicle of the evolution of a large part of the classic rock era from someone who was front and center while it was being made. Johns shows only trace amounts of frustration with the music business in which he played such a significant, if unsung, part, and instead expresses gratitude over his good fortune to come into it when he did. “I think I may well have had the best of it,” he writes. Commenting on the Benmont Tench album You Should Be So Lucky, which he produced in 2014, he writes, “A group of like-minded individuals getting together to play music with and pay tribute to one of their peers without any thought of financial recompense. If it should turn out to be the last record I make, I shall shuffle off this mortal coil with a large grin on my face.”
It’s a wonderful feeling to leave the book knowing that the records so many people continue to cherish were crafted in part by someone who seems to still harbor a deep love for what happens when you combine the right people with the best possible recording equipment and create an atmosphere where their creativity can flourish.
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