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Born just outside London in 1942, Glyn Johns was sixteen years old at the dawn of rock and roll. His big break as a producer came on the Steve Miller Band's debut album, Children of the Future, and he went on to engineer or produce iconic albums for the best in the business including Abbey Road with the Beatles. Even more impressive, Johns was perhaps the only person on a given day in the studio who was entirely sober, and so he is one of the most reliable and clear-eyed insiders to tell these stories today.
In this entertaining and observant memoir, Johns takes us on a tour of his world during the heady years of the sixties. He remembers helping to get the Steve Miller Band released from jail shortly after their arrival in London, he recalls his impressions of John and Yoko during the Let It Be sessions, and he recounts running into Bob Dylan at JFK and being asked to work on a collaborative album with him, the Stones, and the Beatles, which never came to pass. Johns was there during some of the most iconic moments in rock history, including the Stones' first European tour, and the Beatles' final performance on the roof of their Savile Row recording studio.
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Glyn Johns was the producer or engineer of a number of rock's classic albums, including those by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, the Who, the Beatles, the Clash, and such singular artists as Joan Armatrading and Ryan Adams. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Someone asked me the other day: What exactly does a record producer do? My answer was: “You just have to have an opinion and the ego to express it more convincingly than anyone else.” Every time I start another project I wonder if I am going to get found out.
So much of what any of us achieve in life has a massive element of good fortune attached. In my case, you can start with being born in 1942, which tipped me out into the workplace just as things were getting interesting in the music business, along with a whole host of artists who were to change the face of popular music. They were to drag me with them on the crest of a wave through an extraordinary period of change, not only in the music they were writing and performing but in the structure of the industry itself. Every now and then, when the opportunity presented itself, I would try to “express my opinion more convincingly than anyone else,” and there were a few who took notice.
I started working as a recording engineer in 1959, just before the demise of the 78. It was the beginning of the vinyl age. Mono was the thing and stereo was only for hi-fi freaks.
Bill Haley and His Comets had started the American rock and roll invasion in Britain in the mid-fifties, and it had been rammed home by Elvis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry, to name but a few. They dominated the charts in the UK, along with ballad singers like Doris Day, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como. British artists were just copying whatever was arriving from across the pond, even singing with an American accent. There had not as yet been a homegrown response. Music was still extremely safe and somewhat insipid in comparison to what was to follow.
The record industry as we know it now was in its infancy. In England they were grappling with the trickle before the floodgate opened to the changes that were about to take place. Those in charge had no concept of what was about to happen and most certainly did not lead the way. As a result, some of them fell by the wayside, others were led by the nose, and some were clever enough to sit back, keep quiet, and allow themselves to be carried through the next few years by the explosion of youth that was to take over.
The ensuing years were full of excitement, much adrenaline, many dawn choruses, and extremes of every emotion you can imagine. I was blasted through my youth into middle age with an extraordinary combination of creative people, sounds, rhythm, and lyrics in a period of time that I believe is unlikely to ever be repeated. I have been extremely fortunate in witnessing firsthand some wonderful moments with some truly fantastic, innovative artists while making records as an engineer and producer over the last fifty years, and watching the creative process change into something almost unrecognizable from where I started. All this while plowing my way through the minefield of “the business” and the incredible cast of characters it threw up—managers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, promoters, publishers, and so-called executives, large and small.
AT IBC STUDIOS IN THE SIXTIES.
Ihave no idea why my mother took me as an eight-year-old to join the parish church choir. My father was an atheist, and she drifted in and out of Christianity throughout her life, never attending church on anything like a regular basis until my father retired many years later. Perhaps it was because I had shown an interest in it at school, although my only memory of singing in the choir at my primary school was, when I was five, being pulled out of line and slapped on the calf by an extremely rotund Miss Butterworth for talking when I should have been listening. I remember this incident clearly and have often wondered why, as I can recall very little else from those early years. Maybe it was the vicious expression on her fat face. I remember she bit her bottom lip as she applied her hand to my bare leg with as much force as she could muster. I was embarrassed and cried and could not understand the satisfaction she seemed to get from the experience.
There I was, committed to two choir practices a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, three services on Sunday, and as many weddings on a Saturday that required the services of the boy sopranos. Weddings were the best because we got paid for them. At first, I got nine pence for each one, which increased to one shilling and sixpence when I eventually became head chorister. So if we did three or four weddings on a Saturday the proceeds would go a long way in Lowman’s store, with a lot left over for the odd puncture kit for the bike or a visit to the local indoor swimming pool. Four Old English pennies to get in and three to buy a bag of hot chips from the fish and chip shop on the way home.
My life very quickly began to revolve around the church and the two-and-a-half-mile walk to and from it. It would take me past Lowman’s and on to the churchyard with its narrow, winding asphalt path that threaded its way through tilting ancient gravestones leading straight past the vestry to the west door of the church. The path was faintly lit with sparsely placed lampposts, which on a foggy night in midwinter threw a mysterious damp haze on the gravestones and the gathering of young boys waiting impatiently for the arrival of our great leader, Mr. Felton Rapley, the choirmaster and extremely accomplished organist of St. Martin’s Parish Church in Epsom.
Mr. Rapley was a very large man who always seemed to be in a hurry. He had a serious, all-knowing face like an owl. He had thick horn-rim glasses, thinning gray hair, and a gray walrus mustache. He was intimidating to an eight-year-old. However, he was to become my mentor during the next few years. Perhaps he was my first hero.
Sometimes I would arrive early for choir practice, and as I approached the church, I could hear him rehearsing his next recital. I would sit outside on the wall by the vestry door in the dark, transfixed by the sheer size of the organ’s sound penetrating the dimly lit stained-glass windows. The whole sensation was magnified by the fact that it was taking place in the middle of a graveyard that dated back to the fifteenth century.
There is nothing quite like the experience of singing with a large group of people, your senses being bombarded by all those harmonics and actually contributing some of your own. Felton Rapley spotted my enthusiasm quite early on and quietly took me under his wing. As I grew older he encouraged me more and more, giving me the odd solo and slowly boosting my confidence until he made me head chorister at the age of eleven.
He was considered to be one of the finest pipe organists in the country, performing regularly on BBC radio. He would give a recital every fourth Sunday after Evensong, and one such Sunday he asked if I would stay after the service and turn pages for him. I naturally jumped at the chance to see the great man perform. We could never see him when he played during a service. The organ loft was way up above us some thirty or forty feet, surrounded by this massive array of pipes, rather like a giant Gulliver’s panpipes. Although this was opposite where I stood in the choir stalls, I could only ever see his balding head and his shoulders swaying, physically accenting what he played. He had a long mirror up above his head so he could keep his eye on the transgressors eating boiled sweets or reading the Beano or Eagle comic during one of those interminably boring sermons.
Evensong finished and I followed Mr. Rapley as he propelled himself up the steep narrow stone spiral staircase that led from the vestry up to the organ loft. His enormous frame brushing the walls on either side, with his long black gown flowing behind him. He always seemed short of breath on the flat, as a result of him smoking large numbers of Senior Service cigarettes when outside the confines of the church, so by the time he made it to the top he seemed to be completely knackered. He sat down heavily on one end of the organ bench, bent over, and with some difficulty changed his shoes for a pair of patent leather slippers. I remember being terribly impressed, having never seen anything quite so opulent. He swung round, squeezing himself between the bench and the three keyboards that fanned out in front of him, set the music on its stand, and pressed a couple of preset buttons, which caused the two vertical banks of porcelain knobs on either side of the keyboard to jump in and out with great speed and a resounding thump. As he began to play, he was transformed before my very eyes. His energy level seemed to quadruple. The cumbersome movement of his somewhat overweight body disappeared and became fluid, his fingers flying across the keyboard with extraordinary speed and accuracy. His shiny feet dancing over the pedals with the dexterity of a ballet dancer.
I found this transformation, and the sound that was belting out of the organ pipes, completely enthralling. The sheer energy and emotion of it had a profound impact on me, as I realized that the performance of a piece of music could have such a dramatic effect not only on the listener but also on the performer.
Most years when we were children, my mother would take my two older sisters, my younger brother, and me to stay with her brother Robert, known as Chum, on his farm in Devon for our summer holidays. It was an idyllic, magical place for me. Beautiful rolling countryside, woodland, and streams to explore. All new experiences to interest and excite the senses of a small child from just outside the suburbs of London.
My uncle Chum quickly became one of my favorite people. He was an extremely handsome man with a kind, somewhat weathered face and a wonderful twinkle in his eye. He would sit and tell stories of his life before the Second World War. How he would race his Bugatti at Brooklands motor racing track in the thirties. My mother had newspaper clippings of him and his older brother George, who raced for the Bentley team and had won the European Grand Prix in the thirties.
It was in that farmhouse kitchen that I became totally infatuated by a completely different form of music than that of the church choir. In the evening, after dinner, he would play Django Reinhardt records and then take out this old acoustic guitar and sing these wonderful American folk songs. My uncle was a fine player and had the most encapsulating voice, but more than anything it was his personality and the manner in which he performed the songs that made such an enormous impression on me, as he turned into the character that each song’s story required with consummate ease. It was a similar experience to that of watching Felton Rapley play the organ, the performer being transformed into someone else as the music took over.
When I was twelve or thirteen, the local operatic society performed Handel’s Messiah at the church and I was asked to be a soloist. Being the only child, and I am sure for dramatic effect, I sang my solo from the sanctity of the organ loft with the comfort of being close to Mr. Rapley. This was much better, as I was looking down at the scene from on high and felt secure from the massed singers and audience of several hundred people below. Shortly after this, Mr. Rapley suggested that I audition for a weekly religious program on BBC radio that featured a boy soprano. The lad who had the job was getting on in years and his voice was about to break. I passed the audition and excitedly waited for my big opportunity, that is, until my voice broke, and that was the end of that. The first of many disappointments in the music business.
· · ·
Icalled into Mr. Lowman’s store on the way back from church one Sunday and we got chatting. I told him how my next-door neighbor had lent me a four-string tenor guitar and how I was trying to teach myself to play it. He asked me to wait a minute and reappeared with a pristine, lime-green Guild electric guitar. “Borrow this,” he said. “I’m looking after it for my brother.” I had never seen anything like it. I took it home and just looked at it in the case for several days, petrified that some harm would come to it if I took it out. I eventually plucked up the courage and as I had no idea how to play it, sat around posing with it in my bedroom, periodically checking myself in the mirror. I soon returned it to Mr. Lowman with much gratitude. I was hooked.
I stayed on at the church as a server and started going to the church youth club on Wednesday nights. Among other delights, we would have discussion nights and play table tennis and were taught ballroom dancing, which didn’t appeal to me at all, but at least you got to put your arm around a girl legitimately. One evening we had a talent night. I remember a boy in his early teens no one had seen before, who sat with his legs swinging over the front edge of the stage and played an acoustic guitar. He was pretty good, he may have even won, but I don’t think anyone in the hall that night had any idea that he was to become such an innovative force in modern music. This was to be my first meeting with Jimmy Page.
· · ·
By the time I was fifteen, in 1957, my head was being turned by traditional jazz. There was a band that had been formed by some of the seniors at school, but when I showed interest, I was rejected on sight, with a cuff round the ear for impertinence, as I was considered to be nothing but a “snotty” youngster from the middle school. The clarinet player in the band was Dick Morrissey, who went on to become one of the all-time great English modern jazz saxophonists. Many years later, I booked him as a soloist on a couple of sessions at Olympic Studios. When I reminded him of the incident at school, he was kind enough to say he remembered it but I’m pretty sure he didn’t.
So, not to be put off, I made myself a tea chest bass and started playing with the Terry Emptage Band at my older sister Sue’s college’s student union Thursday-night do. I was several years younger than the rest of the band so there was not a great deal of communication between us but I didn’t care. I was playing and having a ball.
It is the simplest of instruments to make and to play. Having acquired from the local grocer a large square plywood crate, originally used for shipping loose tea, you turn it upside down (as the top has been removed to get at the tea), and nail a long pole to the middle of one side. Then attach one end of a piece of picture-hanging cord to the top of the pole and the other through a hole in the middle of the top of the chest. To play it, you just put one foot on the box and vigorously attack the cord with your right hand in some sort of rhythm while altering the pitch by pulling back and releasing the pole with your left.
My biggest problem was getting around. I managed to devise a way of carrying the bass on my bicycle. I would put it over my shoulder and stuff the pole under the handlebars and pedal for miles in a most precarious manner. Everything would be fine if it was not a windy evening. It’s a wonder I ever made it anywhere unscathed, or unarrested for that matter, for being a danger to others on the road.
Soon there were more gigs around the area. I couldn’t travel much more than ten miles if I was to be fit enough to play on arrival. This inclu...
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