Glyn Johns’ career as an engineer and producer has been so successful that it almost seems like a Hollywood script. To tick off his list of collaborators is to name many of the most influential artists of the rock era: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Small Faces/Faces, The Kinks, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, The Eagles and legions more.
While there is an element of right place, right time in his story, his simple yet extraordinary gift of capturing the authentic, organic sound of musicians playing together in a studio is remarkable. When “Good Times Bad Times,” “Satisfaction” or “You Really Got Me” explodes out of your speakers, it’s because Glyn Johns had the good sense and skill to get it down on tape correctly.
While on a book tour to promote his new memoir, Sound Man, we had the opportunity to speak with Glyn in Nashville recently to discuss just a fraction of his work. Smartly dressed and full of energy, he sat down at the interview table, ready to get on with it.
We spent decades as a culture working on better and better music reproduction fidelity, only to throw it all away for the convenience of having 5,000 songs in our pocket. What has the shift to MP3 done for the listening experience?
Oh, it’s dreadful! Not only is the sound bad, nobody listens to complete albums anymore. They just pick and choose tracks. Attention spans are minimal. The worst thing about digital recording is that bands don’t record all in the same room anymore. Songs are built track by track. When the guitarist, for example, is putting down his performance, he is reacting to the tracks already recorded. The problem is, the musicians already recorded can’t react to him! When everyone is playing together, there is a back and forth, a give and take that happens almost subconsciously. My fear is that this method of recording is becoming a lost art.
Of course, some artists are very successful recording this way (digitally), obviously. I don’t necessarily like their music, but our parents didn’t like our music, either.
Do you still listen to records?
Yes! There is nothing like that experience. Back when I first started buying records, there was the excitement of rushing home to listen to it, or going over to a mate’s house who had a better system and listening to it there. Much of what I listen to these days is digital, as it is sent to me in file form, demos and whatnot. But I try to listen to these files in the best way possible.
Do you remember the first record that really caught your ear?
You mean the first one I bought with my own money? Lonnie Donegan! I heard his “Rock Island Line” on the radio and went out and bought it straight away. I had never heard a sound like that before, that driving rhythm. It completely turned my head around. In turn, that led me to American folk music and the blues, but Lonnie really started it all for me.
Do you still make analog recordings?
Oh yes, absolutely. The problem is finding new equipment that can record music correctly. I am not a fan of the new Neve consoles.
What current studios can get the sound you’re looking for?
I’m doing quite a lot of work in Mark Knopfler’s studio in London which is called British Grove. It is a most extraordinary facility with the best gear and best mics available. I can’t imagine they are making any money, so it must be a tax write-off! (laughter). It’s a stunning place.
I also like Sunset Sound Factory in Hollywood. I produced Ryan Adams’ Ashes & Fire there. There is a room there that I only started using 3 or 4 years ago. It’s an astonishing sounding studio. When you touch the board, instantly, it feels right.
The South has many legendary studios: Sun, RCA Studio B, FAME in Muscle Shoals, to name a few. Have you worked in any of these buildings?
No, I’ve never been to Muscle Shoals. I did work in Nashville with Paul Kennerley recording Johnny Cash for the Jesse James concept album. Also, I recorded John Hiatt at Ronnie Millsap’s Groundstar Labs Studio for what became the Slow Turning album. It had quite a good sound.
How much does the studio itself affect the finished recording?
Oh, tremendously! A good sounding room, where the musicians can all play at the same time, is key. It’s my job to simply capture the sound.
Are there any artists you haven’t worked with yet that you would still like to produce?
(immediately) Bruce Springsteen. I have always thought we could make an interesting record together. I did ring up Jon Landau, his manager, a few years ago to pitch the idea but nothing came of it.
Well, you have to ask…
Yes, you do! Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen but at least I tried. I would also like to make a studio album with Bob Dylan. I produced a live album of his (Real Live) but I would still like to work with him in a proper studio.
Of all the albums you have worked on, do you have a favorite, one that you are most proud of?
Oh, there are so many…(thinks for a moment). Truly, I think the best record I ever produced was Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane Rough Mix. Both artists were at the top of their game and it all came together marvelously. Admittedly, part of my fondness for it stems from the fact that both Pete and Ronnie were close friends.
Conversely, is there any album you would pull back and redo if you had the chance?
No, I have no regrets, none whatsoever. I might tweak something here or there, but if I was unhappy with something, it was because it was out of my control.
Are there any producers working today that you feel are doing it right?
(emphatically) Oh, no! Really, I don’t have time to keep up with everything. I’m still busy working on my own projects. The good thing about my job is I can’t get enough of it!
Directly after our interview, Glyn gave a book talk at the Nashville Public Library. The moderator for the discussion was Glyn’s old friend and fellow Englishman Paul Kennerley. Their easy rapport and frequent jokes made the proceedings seem like a classic rock-themed Monty Python skit at times.
Working from copious notes, Paul coaxed many stories from Glyn, including a thorough telling of how the ARMS Concerts to benefit Ronnie Lane came together and the unlikely yet true tale of how Glyn achieved a #1 record in Spain with his own recording of “As Tears Go By.” They opened the floor to questions at the end, leading to some interesting exchanges between Glyn and the audience which demonstrated his politely direct manner:
Audience member: Can you walk us through, moment by moment, the recording of the opening riff of (The Kinks’) “You Really Got Me”?
No. (audience laughter) If I could remember, I’d be happy to but I can’t. I do remember sitting beside (producer) Shel (Talmy) and thinking, “This is pretty good.” I also remember intensely disliking Ray Davies and his brother Dave. Next!
Another audience member: In your expert opinion, who was the better rock and roll drummer, John Bonham or Keith Moon?
I get asked this a lot, actually. Obviously, John Bonham was in a league of his own and he knew how to tune his kit really well. Keith Moon, on the other hand, had 900 drums and he tuned them all to the same pitch! He never thought about it. He wanted them to be like biscuit tins, with the sticks bouncing off of them. But you can’t really compare them. I have as much respect for Keith as I do for John, in different ways. Next!
And so it went. If you are even a nominal fan of the rock era, Sound Man will be an enjoyable read. For devout music followers, it is an essential tome. Full of wit, charm and “wow!” stories, it is a worthy addition to the rock history library. Next!
Glyn Johns’ Sound Man, A Life Recording Hits With The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Faces… (Blue Rider Press) is on book store shelves now.
Glyn Johns Official
PHOTO: JULIA WICK