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Indispensable Feature Story: Glyn Johns

After his first brush with a teenage Jimmy Page during the church talent show and later session projects, he and Jimmy were well-acquainted. In 1968, he received a call from Page asking him to record the new group he had put together with John Paul Jones along with an unknown singer and drummer. Johns jumped at the chance. Not knowing what to expect, he was “blown off my feet. The album we made in the next nine days was a landmark in rock and roll history, taking it to another level altogether.” (1)

He was so excited about what was to become Led Zeppelin I, he couldn’t wait to play it for Mick Jagger at a production meeting for the Stone’s “Rock and Roll Circus.” Jagger was less enthusiastic. Johns suggested putting the band on the show. “I felt that the band was going to be would be an enormous coup. My suggestion fell on deaf ears as Mick didn’t get it at all.” He tried again with George Harrison who didn’t get it either. “I found this slightly disconcerting as I could not understand why they did not get what was so exciting to me…yet Mick and George openly disliked what they had done, seeing no value in it at all.” (2)

It was during the Led Zeppelin sessions that he came up with a technique to record drums that was to bear his name. He credits working with the extraordinary John Bonham in his accidental discovery of the mic set-up that produced an enormous sound. The Glyn Johns Technique is still used, and instructional videos can be found on YouTube. “One over the top, one on the floor tom-tom, one on the base drum, and one on the snare.” (3).

He went on to work with the Beatles’ challenging latter days that resulted in the last Beatles studio album on both Abbey Road and in the challenging latter days that resulted in the last Beatles studio album Let It Be. After the Who parted ways with long-time manager Kit Lambert, the group turned to Johns to usher in their new, post-Tommy with the Who is some of the group’s best, including Who’s Next (with Townshend in recalling, "we were just getting astounded at the sounds Glyn was producing")(4), Quadrophenia, The Who By Numbers, and Who Are You.

One of his most unanticipated projects came at the urging of “Muff” Winwood (Steve’s brother and CBS’ head A&R man) asked him to have a go at producing the latest record for the Clash. Both Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had made their own versions of the record, and CBS wasn’t happy with either of them. Not being a fan of punk rock, Johns had low expectations. To his surprise, “I realized that they were really clever, and that there was a great album to be had from what they had done.” (5) Working closely with Joe Strummer, he reworked what was originally a double album and honed it to the satisfaction of all parties. That album was Combat Rock, and he and Strummer remained friends until Strummer’s death in 2002.

A testament to his great working relationship with his artists, he maintained friendships with many of those he had worked with over the years. These relationships came to fruition in 1983 with the ARMS project, a benefit concert for Ronnie Lane. Lane, a founding member of the Small Faces (and later the Faces) was well-known in the music community for more than just his work as a musician. His mobile studio, built in the early 70s, was used by many bands of the day, including Led Zeppelin (Physical Graffiti), Peter Frampton (eponymous debut), The Who (Quadrophenia and The Who by Numbers), Bad Company (Bad Company and Straight Shooter), Eric Clapton (Rainbow Concert) and many others. When Lane was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, he asked for Clapton’s help to raise money for the Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) charity. Clapton enlisted Johns to make it all happen.

Johns jumped on the phone to Stu (Ian Stewart), Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and Andy Fairweather Low. All of them agreed to participate. Then Stu happened to be at Jeff Beck’s house for a party and mentioned to Beck and Jimmy Page that they would be putting on a show, and both jumped at the chance to help. Clapton also brought in Kenney Jones (The Who and ex-Small Faces/Faces) and Steve Winwood. Ultimately, there were a series of concerts in the UK and US, with additions of Paul Rodgers (Bad Company, The Firm) and Joe Cocker.  The project was a huge success, with $1 million raised from the US Tour alone. It wasn’t enough to save Lane, however, and he passed in 1997. Yet Johns’ ability and desire to pull off this enormous project is ample evidence he was a great man both in and out of the studio.

Of course, this is a mere sampling of the projects that Glyn Johns contributed to in his extraordinary career. His influence on music cannot be overstated.  He worked with an incredible array of musicians and made them sound the best they possibly could. He helped a generation of artists come into their own and was alongside them as they evolved from imitators to innovators. Few engineers and producers could hope to have a similar impact, and music fans are the richer for his many contributions.

"Glyn Johns | The Beatles Get Back Premiere"

Part One

Glyn Johns Discography

1-Glyn Johns, Sound Man, Blue Rider Press/Penguin Books, 2014, 116

2-Sound Man, 116

3-Sound Man, 117

4-Neill, Andrew; Kent, Matthew (2002). Anyway Anyhow Anywhere – The Complete Chronicle of The Who. Virgin

5-Sound Man, 254

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