Indispensable Feature Story: Glyn Johns
Glyn Johns is one of the most prominent and respected engineers and producers in music. His discography would be the envy of most, having worked with the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Beatles, Steve Miller Band, and countless others. He’s credited with creating a new technique for recording drums (dubbed The Glyn Johns Method) as well. His illustrious career has spanned five decades. Though his original aspiration was to be a singer, his calling turned out to be behind the boards, an occupation he found quite by accident.
He was certainly born in the right place at the right time. Post-war London was a confluence of burgeoning artist expression that exploded in the early 60s as well as a sea change in the music industry as a whole. The UK music scene in the late 50s was mostly an imitation with many established artists trying to recreate the sounds coming from across the pond without much innovation. Johns and the new generation of talent that converged in London in the early 60s began to make blues and rock and roll their own, and the seeds of the British Invasion were planted.
His musical career started out modestly. He became a choir boy at age eight, and once performed as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah for a local operatic society. Once he was exposed to music beyond his church experience, he was interested in little else. His uncle introduced him to American folk and Django Reinhardt. Later he was enthralled by jazz, even attempting to join a high school group with his homemade bass guitar. He was rebuffed but undeterred. Then, like so many others in his near environs, he heard American blues and rock and roll, and he was obsessed.
A couple of early encounters would introduce him to future collaborators, though he couldn’t have known it at the time. He first spied a skinny kid playing acoustic guitar at a local talent show when he was 14. “He was pretty good…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.” (1) The skinny kid was Jimmy Page, and Johns would go on to produce the first Led Zeppelin album.
Like many other teenagers at the time, he and his mates formed a band called The Presidents. They would play gigs in the area, listen to the latest records, and hang out at the Harlequin coffee shop in Cheam. It was there he first caught a glimpse of a kid riding his racing bike up the hill on the high street. That kid made an impression on him, but the two didn’t actually meet until a few years later. When they did, that was to have profound consequences for Johns. It was Ian Stewart, co-founder of the Rolling Stones, “and boy did that change my life,” he later recalled. (2)
An accidental meeting between his sister and the owner of a small label landed him his first studio gig. He began working at IBC Studio at age 17 where he quickly learned his craft working a wide range of projects from commercial jingles to big band recordings. Working as an Assistant Engineer in one of the few independent recording studios in London before that was the norm, he availed himself of the opportunities that position afforded. After a time, he was able to offer free studio time to local musicians as IBC rarely had any weekend bookings. Sunday Sessions attracted the likes of Cyril Davies with Nicky Hopkins in tow, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page.
In 1962, the bass player from his old band introduced him to “the boy” that would change his life. Ian Stewart, known as “Stu,” was an avid collector of jazz and blues records. The two hit it off immediately and eventually became roommates. Stu wasn’t just a music fan. He was also a pianist and had recently formed a band after answering an ad placed by a guitarist named Brian Jones. Not long after, the fledgling group was joined by two new members: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Jones dubbed the band The Rolling Stones. In less than a year, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts had joined, and the line-up that was to remain until Jones’ death in 1969 was in place -- with one significant exception. After the band signed Andrew Loog Oldham as their manager, Stu left the group. He stayed on as the group’s road manager and touring keyboardist but was no longer an official member of the group he helped create.
Johns had many adventures with the Stones, both in and out of the studio: Mick narrowly avoiding a drug arrest when two policeman wandered into a session after the singer had lit a joint while recording his vocal for “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” police brutality with a near-riot that ensued during a show in Athens, a strange trip with Brian Jones to Morocco, and many others during his tenure as collaborator.
This early association with the band was to pay off for Johns professionally when he began working with the Stones, beginning with December’s Children (1965) through the band’s golden age (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street) to his final collaboration Black and Blue, in 1976.
His association with the Stones and the reputation of having a great ear certainly propelled his career forward. Multiple projects with the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, and Steve Miller, among others, kept him busy throughout the 60s. Other associations bore fruit as well.
"Glyn Johns on Mono Recordings"
1 -Glyn Johns, Sound Man, Blue Rider Press/Penguin Books, 2014, 6
2- Sound Man, 10