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This Guy Knows All the Classic-Rock Greats' Secrets

Glyn Johns and the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger contemplate a song at Olympic Studios in 1970.

Glyn Johns and the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger contemplate a song at Olympic Studios in 1970.

Sound Man By Glyn Johns Blue Rider Press, 320 pp., $27.95

Imagine that this is your work schedule for a few days in 1969: Meeting up with the Beatles, who are recording Abbey Road at the studio of the same name. Then slipping over to Olympic Studios to work with the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed. Then back to Abbey for more time with the Fabs, before wrapping things up that night recording a live Jimi Hendrix concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

That was the real-life drill once for Glyn Johns, the sound engineer/mixer/producer whose name is well-known to classic-rock liner-note readers. Johns has also helped to craft some of the genre's best-known hits from other acts including Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Eagles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Humble Pie, Steve Miller, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, to name a few.

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More recently, he's been behind the studio glass for Ryan Adams and Band of Horses. Still other music-biz notables Johns has brushed elbows with and who appear in anecdotes here include Jerry Wexler, Chris Blackwell, Don Arden, Shel Talmy, Andrew Oldham, Bill Graham, and Clive Davis.

If those two grafs read like a checklist, so does the book as Johns, seemingly a classic-rock Zelig, drifts from studio to studio and performer to performer. And while stories drop like rain, they are often far too brief and rapid-paced.

A couple of items have made some news from this book. One is Johns's admission that Mick Jagger and George Harrison just didn't get or care for the sound of this new group whose debut record he was recording -- some nutty outfit called Led Zeppelin.

Another is that Bob Dylan seriously wanted to make a record with the Beatles and Stones together. And while the idea was met with enthusiasm or indifference by most group members, it was downright squashed by Paul McCartney (whose band was about to break up) and Mick Jagger.

Story continues on the next page.

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Photo by Henry Diltz/Courtesy of Blue Rider Press
Glyn Johns (right) stages an "intense musical discussion" with Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Graham Nash about their music.
Johns is an amiable narrator, but is neither cowed by the famous faces around him nor afraid to give his opinion on their art or how it sounded to more objective ears. When he flat-out refuses to carry a whiny Jagger's drugs for him through air customs, poor Brian Jones gets the job -- and unwanted attention from police.

The never-used-drugs Johns is also not amused by the heroin nodding out of Clapton, or the wild behavior of Who drummer Keith Moon. Laughed off as "eccentric" or just part of his "fun" legacy by most, Moon's antics, Johns notes, usually involved a scary amount of violence and destruction of property -- always someone else's.

But he saves his most withering criticism for what eventually happened to his initial mix of the Beatles' Let It Be. Meant to be a return to raw rock 'n' roll form, the album that was eventually released (and still became a huge success) was awash in strings, effects, and overdubbing of instruments and choirs, much to the dismay of Johns and McCartney.

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Photo by Julia Wick/Courtesy of Blue Rider Press
At 72, Glyn Johns is still active in the studio.
"John [Lennon] gave the tapes to Phil Spector, who puked all over them," Johns writes. "Turning the album into the most syrupy load of bullshit I have ever heard."

Eventually, the public got a chance to hear a version closer to Johns's original work when Let It Be...Naked was released in 2003.

As mentioned, Johns has led an amazing life in the music biz and so, to a lesser extent, have brother Andy and son Ethan, also in the producing and engineering biz. Given his work history, there could have been much more length and substance to Sound Man. But we'll take what we can get from the storied knob-twiddler whose work you know -- even if you don't know he was involved with making it.

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