Guide to British Music of the 1960s

January 2024

Book Review: Sound Man by Glyn Johns

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Glyn Johns is one of the best-known recording engineers and was responsible for recording many of the greatest singles and albums ever released, working with amazing artists. This autobiography is a fascinating insight into the life of a top recording engineer without going into technical detail about the recording process.

Like many of the artists for whom he engineered, Johns was influenced by the emergence of skiffle and rock & roll in the late 1950s. In the same way he sought to learn the guitar. He did play as part of a group, the Presidents, and also released a number of solo singles. However, these failed to trouble the chart compiler. He found his way into studio engineering and this is where he started to develop his expertise. The engineer works alongside the producer to ensure that the recording has the best sound. This starts with how the studio is set up with microphones positioned in the best places through to undertaking the actual recording. Studios used to have their own in-house engineers but the role of the independent engineer grew during the 1960s. Artists would often have a preferred engineer.

Glyn Johns worked with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Small Faces, Georgie Fame, the Pretty Things, Chris Farlowe, Pentangle, the Move, Spooky Tooth, Procul Harem, Traffic, Billy Nicholls, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin and many more during the 1960s. As such, his expertise is evident on so many classic tracks of the decade. His CV also included the Steve Miller Band, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Humble Pie, Neil Young, the Faces, the Who and many more, certainly a Who's Who of classic rock.

As his career developed he often had a broader remit to cover the role of producer. In recent years, Glyn's work has come to the fore again with the release of the full version of the Beatles' Get Back / Let It Be. Certainly Glyn Johns' attire does stand out in this film! As George Martin only had brief involvement in this process, Glyn Johns oversaw the production and engineering. He was not given decent equipment at Twickenham Studios so George Harrison's personal console was brought in. After the filming and rehearsals transferred to the basement of Apple, Magic Alex's state of the art studio was nowhere to be seen so equipment had to be brought from EMI's Abbey Road at very short notice. At the end of January 1969, Glyn Johns oversaw the recording of the final concert on the roof of Apple with cables running from the roof down to the basement studio.

What is amazing to look at nowadays is the equipment that Johns is working with. This appears primitive compared with today's advanced, digital recording equipment and techniques but great artists and engineers could create masterpieces with these 1960s consoles. Many of the greatest albums ever released were recorded on four or eight-track analogue consoles and onto tape. Overdubbing and multi-tracking were achieved through bouncing onto a spare track, gradually building up the overall sound.

This book is an amazing read from start to finish. It moves fast, as did Glyn Johns. He would often finish a session in one studio, perhaps in London, then fly to Los Angeles for another session and then back to London. However, the book could have been improved but more detail on some of the classic albums such as Let it Be, Who's Next, Aftermath, Between the Buttons, Beggar's Banquet, Abbey Road, A Nod's As Good as a Wink, etc. Johns engineered all of Small Faces 1960s recordings and, while the band is given its own chapter, a greater insight into Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake would have been fascinating.

Published: 24 November 2015

Penguin Publishing

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