The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench is about to release a solo album, You Should Be So Lucky, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns. In this star-studded archive piece from Uncut’s December 2011 issue (Take 175), Johns takes us through producing and engineering The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and more – not a bad CV, you could say… Interview: Graeme Thomson
Glyn Johns began his career in 1959, joining IBC studios as a trainee engineer fresh from school. In the early ’60s he became rock’s first freelance recording engineer, and later was the first studio boffin to graduate from button-pusher to creative producer. At 68 he’s still doing “bits and bobs”, and remains self-effacing about a job that’s seen him play midwife to some of the greatest albums ever made, from Beggars Banquet and Let It Be to The Eagles and Who’s Next. “A producer can fuck up an artist’s career much easier than he can enhance it,” he tells us. “I’ve just been very lucky to work with the people I have.”
THE SMALL FACES
Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (Immediate, 1968)
Psychedelic music hall, proto-metal wig-outs and deliciously surreal verse from Stanley Unwin, wrapped in a lavishly packaged baccy tin. Johns engineered…
Johns: The Small Faces were one of the most incredible bands I have worked with – they were so energetic. If they’d have gone to America they would have ruled the world. I’d engineered pretty much everything they’d done, then they started making their own records without a producer and using me as engineer. In reality I contributed to the production as much as any producer, but the concept of the album was Steve and Ronnie’s, and the idea to use Stan Unwin was also theirs, which was a brilliant piece of fun. They were amazingly speedy in their approach to recording. There were occasions when someone would write a song on the way in, or Steve said, “I wrote this on the loo last night.” It wasn’t all tied up with a pink bow, but if you had a session, invariably you’d come out with a completed track at the end of it. What I remember most is trying to control the fits of laughter in the control room when Stan was doing his links, because he was hysterically funny. He was fabulously sweet with the band, too. He obviously didn’t understand what on earth he was doing there, but he went for it big-time. There was a huge amount of affection, and his dialogue really made that album work.
THE ROLLING STONES
Beggars Banquet (Decca, 1968)
The Rolling Stones’ imperious return to primal rock and blues was recorded at Olympic with Johns, the band’s regular engineer, working alongside new producer Jimmy Miller…
…Satanic Majesties had been Mick’s attempt to keep up with The Beatles – and failing dismally – so this was back to basics. Jimmy had a subtle effect on what they were doing, but really and truly Mick and Keith produced The Rolling Stones and always did. Bill and Charlie were extremely pliable, pleasant and professional, and Brian Jones was the most brilliant musician – but very often wasn’t the easiest person to work with, based on his state of mind. By this point they were taking an immense amount of time to make a record, because almost nothing was written outside the studio. Keith would have a riff or a chord progression and he’d sit and play it with whoever else was around. That could go on for two or three days! It was unbelievably boring, actually, and in the end I stopped working with them because huge portions of my youth had been spent in a room waiting for them to get it together. It’s amazing that record ended up as good as it did because there are probably better performances of every song in the outtakes, but I still think Beggars Banquet – and maybe Let It Bleed – is the highlight of what they achieved. “Street Fighting Man” is unbelievable, with that driving acoustic guitar. And no snare drum!
Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969)
One of rock’s great articles of faith, four decades after the album’s release, “Dazed & Confused”, “Communication Breakdown” et al remain the foundation stone of Led Zeppelin’s legacy…
I’d known Jimmy [Page] forever. We came from the same town, Epsom, Surrey, and we’d even had a little band together for about five minutes. I’d got him a few sessions in the past, and when eventually he decided to put Led Zeppelin together he asked if I was interested. The sessions were actually booked under the name of The Yardbirds and I had no idea what it would sound like, but when they started playing I was completely blown away. I don’t think I’ve come down yet from the buzz I got from being in the room, it was utterly inspiring and incredibly simple to record. They were well rehearsed and masters at what they did, which is why it took only nine days, including mixing. We were putting the Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus together around the same time, and I took an acetate of the album into a production meeting. I said, “This is going to be huge,” but Mick wasn’t interested in hearing it, so I dragged George Harrison into Olympic to listen to it on the way back from a Beatles session. He didn’t get it at all, which I thought was extraordinary. Too set in his ways, maybe. I still think this album is their best. It shook everything from the roots.
Let It Be (Apple, 1970)
The Fabs’ messy swan song,
recorded live by Johns and then subjected to glutinous post-production overdubs by Phil Spector…
I’ll never forget when the call came. This Liverpudlian accent introduced itself as Paul McCartney, and I thought it was Mick Jagger taking the piss! It was very flattering to be asked, and fascinating to see The Beatles just playing as a band rather than creating a record the way they used to. The idea was to rehearse new material and then do a live show which would be filmed at some Roman amphitheatre in North Africa. But they ended up on the roof of Apple in the freezing cold! It was great seeing the personalities interact with one another, but it was fairly fraught and in the end it became a pain in the neck. Bits of it were a little unpleasant. It was rather sad to see what was going on. George and Paul were bickering but it was more to do with Yoko and John than anything else. Exceptions were taken to Yoko playing such a large role. It was a little awkward, and there was so much else going on I don’t think the album took precedence. It was very disappointing that the record was never released as I finished it. John took it to Phil Spector, who proceeded to puke all over it. It was just awful. I’ve never actually listened to it all. I heard one track and that was enough.
Who’s Next (Decca/MCA, 1971)
A stunning musical statement, blending the band’s trademark powerhouse sound with electronic instrumentation. Includes anthems “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley”, and stunning power ballads like “Behind Blue Eyes”.
I knew The Who because I’d worked with Shel Talmy and engineered “My Generation” and all that early stuff. Their manager Kit Lambert produced Tommy, then I was approached by Pete to do Who’s Next, much to Kit’s chagrin, which is why I’m only credited as ‘associate producer’. That sort of stuff was mind-boggling, but I didn’t give a shit, I just wanted to get in there and do it because it was a phenomenal piece of writing by Pete. It started as an idea for a movie called Lifehouse. Pete had made these extraordinary demos and written a script, which no one really understood. We had a meeting and I think I was the first person to suggest we forget the film and just make an album. That was difficult. I have the hugest admiration for Pete – the word ‘genius’ is bandied about a lot, but I honestly think he is – but apparently it had a fairly negative effect on his view of the whole project.
I’ll never forget recording “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the hall of Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s house in Newbury. There have been a few tracks during my life where the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you think, ‘Jesus Christ!’ That was one of them, “All Day And All Of The Night” by The Kinks was another. Pete knew what he was doing. I didn’t get involved with the synthesisers, all that stuff was pre-recorded by him at home. He’s a fine recording engineer, and he’d come in with it all on multi-track tape. His demos were astonishing and very often we’d nick a synthesiser part or a piano part from his demos and the band would play along to it.
My job was to try and make sure that the other members of the band were satisfied with their involvement while still trying to keep intact what I believed the material required and what Pete wanted for it. That was very difficult. John Entwistle was critical of Who’s Next and said he didn’t want to work with me again afterwards – although he did – because I made him play with a much more regular style and sound. But that was what the material required. It was the same with Keith Moon. Some of the material didn’t require mayhem, it required a bit more thought and control, and that wasn’t his natural way of playing. It was hard to get everyone – including Roger Daltrey – to see the bigger picture, but I don’t think you could say that Who’s Next doesn’t do the band justice.
Eagles (Geffen, 1972)
The original Eagles lineup decamped to London to record their debut, and shortly thereafter became a money-spinning country-rock behemoth…
I was approached by David Geffen and went to see the band in a little club in the middle of nowhere. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed. They were trying to be a rock’n’roll band but they couldn’t play it to save their lives. I didn’t get it, but Geffen kept going on and on so eventually I agreed to see them rehearse. Their set was OK, but as we were about to take a break somebody said, “Hold on, why don’t we play that ballad Randy [Meisner] has written?” They picked up acoustic guitars, stood around the piano and played “Take The Devil”, with the four of them singing. And that was it. Astonishing. So I tried to introduce more of that acoustic sound and concentrate on vocal blend and arrangements. On “Take It Easy”, I got Bernie [Leadon] to play double-time banjo; they all thought it was a bonkers idea but it worked. It was already a great song, but that one little thing made it different. Some of them weren’t over enamoured with that first record, but that wasn’t apparent when we were making it. Once they had a couple of hits off it that was all OK, apparently!
Slowhand (RSO, 1977)
Putting his Enoch Powell moment behind him, Clapton returned to the studio to create perhaps his most enduring work, featuring “Wonderful Tonight” and “Lay Down Sally”…
It was an extremely pleasurable record to make. The first session started at 2.30pm. Eric played me “Wonderful Tonight” and we had it done by 5. That was the template for the record. It was a good bunch of songs and a remarkably good band who were hot to trot. Eric always found it hard to come up with enough material, but he wrote “Lay Down Sally” in the studio with Marcy Levy. It was an attempt at a JJ Cale type of song, we’d already done “Cocaine” and this was a bit of a rip off! Up until this album I wasn’t over-enamoured with Eric due to his, um, habits, but he was in fine physical fettle, and he seemed happy with Pattie [Boyd]. She sent him in with a late note one night: “Please excuse Eric for being late…” It was a joke to underline my schoolmasterly attitude, but you had to be pretty strict with Eric as he’s quite lazy, really. He’d sooner go and play football than record. You had to drag him out, put a guitar in his hands and say, “Come on, get on with it.” And then he’d come up with something stunning.
Combat Rock (Columbia, 1982)
Conceived as a double, Johns was called in to remix the material and cut it down to size. The result: their most successful LP, but the beginning of the end…
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed working with anyone as much as I did with Joe Strummer. A lovely bloke and unbelievably talented. He and Mick [Jones] had been in a New York studio for two weeks trying to mix the record and it hadn’t worked out, so Muff Winwood [Head of A&R] asked me to mix it. Although punk had never appealed to me, I was astounded by the music’s skill, ingenuity and humour, and the quality of the lyrics. But it was a hell of a mess. I started with Joe at 10am, and he was happy for me to get stuck in, edit, chuck stuff out. It was like fighting through the Burmese jungle with a machete. Then at 7pm Mick arrived and I played him what we’d done. He sat there with a sullen expression and criticised everything. I said, “That’s a shame, but I’m afraid they’re done. You were supposed to be here at 10am.” He got pissed off and left. There was a big row the next day then I just got on and finished it with Joe, who was very supportive. It was rather sad, but there are some classic performances on it and they would have been classics whether I’d mixed them or not.
Real Live (Columbia, 1984)
Dylan huffs through selected highlights from the Infidels tour. He gives it a fair shot, but the band – including Mick Taylor and Ian McLagan – never hit their stride…
I first met Dylan in 1969 at LaGuardia. Jann Wenner introduced us and Dylan said, “I’d love to make a record with the Stones and The Beatles, could you pull that off?” Fabulous! I said I’d give it a go. Keith and George were interested but no one else was. Then in 1984 I was asked to record six European gigs. I walked onstage on the first night in France to set my mics up and was thrown off by the road crew! At this point I’d never even set eyes on Dylan, he had a wall around him 10 feet high, minions everywhere. Eventually we had a nice chat and he was lovely. After the last concert I sent him rough mixes and I couldn’t get him off the phone. He was ringing me every day – it was really strange. Also, all the material he’d picked to go on the LP were the very worst takes. I’ve got a feeling it was meant as a test. Either that or he’s tone deaf. I politely talked him through why we couldn’t use those versions, and in the end he let me use what I wanted. I’d always wanted to produce him but doing a live album isn’t quite the same. The band wasn’t great and it was a very odd experience.
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