Portrait

Glyn Johns knows what it's like to be in a dark room with Keith Richards. By Kate Holden.

On hallowed sound

He has spent years in the dark with the music. He’s heard it throb and break, rise and rise and cease. The silence, like no other silence in the world: a recording studio, start of a take, engineers absorbed at the controls, musicians’ fingers poised above the strings and keys and kit. That hitch, that intake of breath (one, two, three, and…). Then the sound.

Sound, noise, good grief what’s that racket; oh man, the music. One note at a time – hundreds of notes, hundreds of millions of notes. Fifty years of days, months, sessions of those sounds. Guitar, drums, bass, voice. My god, the music this man Glyn Johns has heard!

But he sits there looking like, and we say this affectionately, a retired maths teacher. Pale yellow jacket, the type English people wear to the library, kind of pouchy, and slacks, and a smooth-shaven genial face with glasses; short greying hair. Did he ever have a ’60s shaggy do, the wild-man thatch, a coat with an astrakhan collar? In the photos of the old days, he looks sweet, doe-eyed with a beard and a clean fringe. I’d like to ask him: all those cool, cool superstars you worked with, the chaos and drugs and girlfriends and you busy behind the console with your dials and levers, no time for vanity – did you ever feel just a little like a nerd?

But Glyn wouldn’t have cared. You can tell; he’s amusing, relaxed, he loved his work, he’s loved it all the time. Never done anything else, not in the half-century since he left school. “I happened to hit the ground running at a time which was pretty good. I definitely think I had the best of it.” He had the best of it, the best of them: The Stones, The Kinks, The Beatles, Eagles, Rod Stewart, Faces, The Clash, Midnight Oil… Recently resumed a friendship with Eric Clapton. Heard about Keith Richards going clean: “Oh, Keith.” He chortles, shakes his head. “I worked with him…” He must have said that phrase almost as often as he heard the music start. Glyn Johns is a node of the ’60s. It’s entirely possible the whole thing mightn’t have happened the way it did, if it weren’t for him.

“What surprises me,” he says cheerily, “is that I’m still alive.” But not because of the drugs, not the booze and pills and partying, the carnival chaos of the ’60s and the woozy afterparty of the ’70s. “Because I worked the most ridiculous hours – just obscene – for days and days and days, for weeks on end, without any time off at all.” He has missed one single session in 50 years, with a toothache, and turned up politely to explain in person. It would seem tactless to ask this nice older gentleman in his yellow rain jacket what he got up to at the parties. I suspect he got a mild hangover, and apologised to his wife.

So he’s written a book, a memoir: Sound Man. Nothing too technical, though there’s a famous drum recording set-up that is known by his name (he considered having a sealed section, just for the nerds). It’s the stories, the musicians, the history of music, the tales he’s told a thousand times. Mick, Ray, Neil, Joan, Emmylou, Boz, Dylan… Though no gossip, he reminds. Just the biz.

Do you mind being the repository for all that stuff? Is it like being the engineer, not the star? He doesn’t think of it like that. He’s no one’s grovelling tech, he’s a professional. “To be a producer is to have an ego bigger than anyone else’s, and to express your opinion louder.” His nice face is smiling. “The ego bit was supposed to be sarcastic. I do hope I’m not too egotistical – but the fact of the matter is that if you are responsible for a group of people, you have to make decisions every few seconds. It’s completely instinct. Therefore,” and he chuckles, “I’m very often wrong. If you’re not sure you don’t show it, and if you’re wrong you don’t own up to it.”

And in those darkened rooms – for he’s still working, still zooming from London to LA, in demand with Ryan Adams – he is certainty, instinct, damn good. This take, that feel. Do me a favour, try it again. He prefers band recordings to solo tracks, despises the modern music industry’s cynicism, its cold algorithmic compilations of fractions of notes and syllables. “I just think that’s disgusting.” No click tracks for him.

“I think that’s what’s missing now, is that everything is so clinicised that it’s difficult for anyone to make a connection with it emotionally because it’s stripped away. It’s been disinfected – antiseptic. It’s very clever I suppose, but it has nothing to do with the performance of a piece of music. At least for me.”

He’s heard hundreds of thousands of performances. Johns is there in each one, not a breath on the track, not a note from his guitar, but in implication, a kind of shaping: cupped hands holding. It’s been his life. He speaks in complete sentences, comfortable and engaged, no brain damage, no haggard burned-out glare, brisk and droll. “I have a rather stupid theory,” he remarks, “that music has had a very positive physical effect on me. It’s nonsense of course but…” The frequencies, you mean? “I don’t know, I don’t know! There is no question about it. Of course, music can put you to sleep, or it can be extremely invigorating. It covers just about every emotion there is… that’s the idea, isn’t it?” Dear Glyn, indeed it is.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "On hallowed sound". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

Continue reading your one free article for the week