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From Clapton to The Clash: Legendary Producer Glyn Johns on a Lifetime of Rock and Roll

on May 25, 2016, 12:00pm

If you are a human being of a certain age — let’s say post-adolescent — and happen to have wandered within 100 feet of a radio at some point in your life, chances are you have heard the work of rock ‘n’ roll recording engineer and producer Glyn Johns. Few people have done more to shape the amorphous thing we call rock music, stretching and bending its fabric to encompass everything from The Beatles to the Eagles, from Clapton to The Clash.

Of course, like any good, self-effacing Englishman, Johns would probably be horrified at the notion that he’s done anything, really, besides put in a few decades of honest work. In his mind, it’s simply a matter of extreme good fortune that he happens to appear in the liner notes of such classic rock albums as The Who’s Who’s Next, Eric Clapton’s Slowhand, and the Eagles’ self-titled debut. “My whole enjoyment of making records is finding an artist that I respect and admire and trying to capture what they do in as true and honest a way as possible,” he tells me over the phone from London. Echoing a sentiment that often crops up in his 2014 memoir, Sound Man, he admits, “I always feel extremely fortunate to be in the room.”

Ethan Russell "Let It Bleed"

Photo by Ethan Russell

In professional sports, they often talk about “players’ coaches” — signal-callers who appeal to their athletes’ egos by staying out of the way and fostering an atmosphere of mutual trust. Johns approaches recording in much the same way, starting from a place of respect and refusing to impose his will on the artist he’s working with. “There’s a very fine line when you’re making a record as a producer or an engineer,” he explains, “whereby you interfere to such an extent that it becomes more of your tastes than that of the artist. And that, in my view, is a very dangerous line to cross.”

Johns’ extensive discography is proof enough that artists — especially high-profile, upper-stratosphere rock artists — like working with the guy. Dig a little deeper into that discography, and you’ll unearth snippets of genuine praise for a man who suffers praise as he might an itchy wool sweater on a summer day. In the credits to Faces’ 1972 album A Nod Is as Good as a Wink … to a Blind Horse, the band made sure to include the following message: “Thank you Glyn, you made all the difference.”

at console 4 From Clapton to The Clash: Legendary Producer Glyn Johns on a Lifetime of Rock and Roll

Photo by Neal Casal

Though compliments may not be his cup of tea, the 74-year-old Johns cherishes the relationships he’s maintained throughout his career. “There are several individuals that I still maintain good friendships with from bands that I worked with,” he reflects, before listing off a veritable who’s-who of rock royalty (including, yes, a member of The Who). “I’m still friends with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. I’m still quite friendly with Ronnie Wood from the Faces, and Pete Townsend and I are very good friends. With bands, there are usually one or two that you become really good pals with.”

Johns has returned to the limelight lately thanks to a work he just completed with another old friend. Eric Clapton’s I Still Do marks the first time the pair have teamed up since 1977’s iconic  Slowhand, and as such it feels like an ideal time to revisit some highlights from his career. As our own Adam Kivel wrote in his review of the album, “Much like the entirety of the last chunk of Clapton’s career, I Still Do acts as a pleasant reminder that he’s still around and to check out where he came from.” The same can be said for Johns, but in this case, “where he came from” happens to include five of the most classic rock albums of all time.

The Beatles – Let It Be (1970)

LetItBe

The first album that sticks out — jumps out, really — in Glyn’s discography is what would end up being the final record by The Beatles. The Fab Four initially hired Johns to oversee a live recording of them in concert as part of a planned documentary that never got off the ground. “I was retained to be their recording engineer for that project, and there was no producer,” Johns recalls. “The idea for my version of the album came up out of frustration, because all of a sudden we didn’t have an album.”

His version of the album presented a band at the peak of its powers as nobody had ever heard them before: human, vulnerable, and prone to mistakes. “I found the rehearsal process — them sitting around in the room playing and working on the material — I found being a fly on the wall for that absolutely fascinating,” he recalls. “They’d already rewritten the book completely. It was quite astonishing what they’d done. And this brought them right back to the beginning, where it was just the four of them sitting around playing, with [keyboardist] Billy Preston on occasion. They weren’t up on the pedestal where everybody had put them. They were just four guys. And they were amusing. They were quite capable of making mistakes, and I found that refreshing. And I thought it would be wonderful to show the public that that’s what they were capable of being.”

Fate intervened, however, and those tapes were never released as Johns intended. “After the band broke up,” he remembers, “John Lennon took the tapes and gave them to [Phil] Spector, and he overdubbed a whole load of crap all over them and turned it into something else, or tried to turn it into something else, which I didn’t think worked at all.” Johns is adamant that he doesn’t have sour grapes about how things went, but he does make a point of drawing a contrast between himself and Spector. “He didn’t have any respect, in my view, for the artist. He used the artist as part of the process to achieve whatever he wanted, and he was really the artist.”

The Who – Who’s Next (1971)

whosnext From Clapton to The Clash: Legendary Producer Glyn Johns on a Lifetime of Rock and Roll

A far less controversial experience unfolded a couple of years later when Johns teamed up with Pete Townsend and The Who to produce the follow-up to their epic rock opera, Tommy. “Originally the music was written to be in a movie that Pete had written the script for, called Lifehouse,” Johns recalls. “That didn’t materialize in the end, and I suggested, with the music being as strong as it was, that we should just go in and make an album of the music, because it certainly stood up on its own without the story or the script.”

It’s nearly unfathomable to think that, without a little guidance from Johns, one of the great rock records of the 20th century might have ended up as scraps on the floor. Thankfully, The Who heeded his advice and retreated to The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio at Mick Jagger’s house in the country. “The idea to record [there] was suggested probably by Pete and not by me,” Johns says, “but I was happy to do it because I had already used that facility with the Stones.” Even so, it eventually became impractical to complete the album there, and the band retreated to Olympic Studios in London — a more spacious yet equally familiar home.

One of the most remarkable sounds on Who’s Next comes at the very beginning, in the swirling introduction to “Baba O’Riley”. Townsend had recorded the part on a synthesizer and sent it to Johns before the sessions, and the producer instantly recognized that it functioned as a kind of rhythm part. “That was entirely Pete’s creation, to create a rhythm part from a synthesizer,” he says. “I don’t think anyone else had ever really done that. It was just extraordinary.” Johns took this to its logical extreme during the recording process, isolating the synthesizer from the multi-track demos and asking the band to play to its rhythm. Still, he refuses to take an ounce of credit for one of the most iconic introductions in all of rock music. “That was entirely Pete Townsend,” he claims, a hint of awe in his voice.

Eagles – Eagles (1972)

eagles From Clapton to The Clash: Legendary Producer Glyn Johns on a Lifetime of Rock and RollSay what you want about the Eagles — it’s probably already been said louder and more violently by someone else — but their 1972 debut endures as perhaps the defining article of California rock. It’s no surprise that the famously contentious band had a difficult time figuring out what exactly they were in the early stages, but Johns had no trouble detecting their greatest strength. “I heard them sing a particular song with very simple backing, just an acoustic guitar,” he recalls. Though not particularly impressed with anything he had heard prior to that, he was blown away when he heard the band’s members harmonize.

These days, of course, harmonies seem like an intrinsic part of the Eagles’ identity, the same way the Ramones are linked to power chords or Hendrix to his wah pedal. Still, and in typical fashion, Johns is hesitant to say he had much to do with the Eagles ultimately becoming one of the biggest rock bands in the world. “I did help to formulate their sound insomuch as I took what I thought was the most astonishing thing about it and magnified it,” he laughs.

Johns would also go on to work with the Eagles on their next album, 1973’s Desperado, but he parted ways with the band after some contentious episodes in the studio. “Part of being a producer, there’s a psychology involved,” he reflects. “In the case of the Eagles, I did try and placate their arguments and remind each and every one of them that they were equal members of the band rather than anyone being the leader, which eventually happened anyway after they got rid of me. But initially I thought that they were all clearly as important as each other, and that it was important to maintain that as well as possible.”

The Clash – Combat Rock (1982)

combat rockWhile Johns caught the Eagles just before their career took off, he didn’t work with British punk pioneers The Clash until they had nearly run their course. Fresh off releasing the controversial and bloated double album Sandinista, the band had returned with another effort that was similarly stuffed to the gills. “It was quite self-indulgent,” remembers Johns, who was brought in by Mervyn “Muff” Winwood, head of A&R at CBS in London, to make the album more presentable.

“He didn’t think it was as good as it could be, so he asked me if I’d have a look at it, which I’d agreed to do. Fortunately, Joe Strummer was very up for my involvement, and he was very happy for me to rip it to pieces and put it back together again,” Johns laughs. Strummer wasn’t exactly unhappy with the record, but he was fascinated to see what might happen if he allowed Johns to “let loose” on it. So the two hunkered down together in the studio and began shaping what would eventually become the Clash’s final LP, Combat Rock. “He was great fun to work with while we worked on it,” Johns says of Strummer. “It was just him and I, and we had a great time.”

Though he doesn’t remember the intimate details of their conversations, Johns says the process was pretty straightforward: “Basically, he’d bring a song up, and I’d say what I felt was wrong with it. I edited a lot of the songs and made them a lot shorter.” He didn’t use all of the material Strummer had brought to the table, and he did force him back into the vocal booth for a few new takes, but overall Johns remembers the experience fondly. “I just made the whole thing move a bit more quickly in order to keep the listener’s attention more. We just had a good time, really.”

Eric Clapton – I Still Do (2016)

istilldo From Clapton to The Clash: Legendary Producer Glyn Johns on a Lifetime of Rock and Roll

All of this brings us back to Clapton, another artist with whom Johns recently shared a very good time. Listening to I Still Do, the two seem perfectly at ease with one another, playing off each other’s strengths instead of getting in each other’s way. You would never guess that they hadn’t spoken for decades.

Shortly after the duo recorded Slowhand together, Clapton went straight and gave up drugs, prompting him to cut ties with most of the people who had been in his life at the time. Though Johns never got drunk or high with him, he never questioned Clapton’s motives in leaving their friendship behind. “I was one of the people he stopped hanging out with to enable him to get himself sorted out,” he explains. “As I said in my book, I completely understood the process and was in sympathy with it, however I was saddened by the fact that he was no longer my pal.”

(Read: Eric Clapton’s Top 20 Songs)

As soon as Clapton read that passage of Sound Man, he called up his old friend and set the record straight. “What are you talking about? Of course I’m still your friend,” he said, and over the course of a couple dinners, the pair agreed to make another album. Funny how life works sometimes, isn’t it?

I ask Johns if, because they have that long relationship and because Clapton specifically sought him out, he looks at I Still Do as more of a partnership than some of his previous efforts. He laughs quietly to himself. “It’s funny you should say that. In conversations recently, he’s described making this record as a partnership, which was very generous of him I think. However, I feel that I had far less to do on this record than I did when I did Slowhand. He had a very clear idea about what he wanted to do, and he set about it, and I just assisted him along the way. And enjoyed every second of it, I can tell you.”

When your day job includes working with some of the most influential musicians in the world, it’s not hard to imagine enjoying every second of it. But those musicians don’t get where they are without help from producers like Johns, who have seen and heard enough to know when a record sings and when it sucks. Just don’t ask the Englishman — a combative but wonderful conversationalist — to pay himself any compliments. That’s one thing he’s painfully bad at.

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