Glyn Johns never could have guessed that not getting into college would be the most fortuitous thing to ever happen to him. Doing so could have steered him down any number of successful career paths, but certainly none of them would have involved engineering the sessions that would become Exile On Main Street or Led Zeppelin’s legendary 1969 debut.
More than 55 years after first stepping foot in a recording studio, Johns, now 73, reminisces on one of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes careers in the history of popular music. Memoirs documenting the wild times and unforgettable tunes of the 1960s and 1970s are a dime a dozen, but Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits With The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Faces… benefits from being told from a distance. As the producer and/or engineer on an endless swath of classic recordings, Johns gives a winding but wonderfully detailed account from the control room, recalling all the highs and lows of one of rock’s most fabled eras with the same incisive attention to detail he once lent to records like Who’s Next and Slowhand.
Beyond his ear for sonic nuance, Johns’ storied career was as much a product of good timing as anything else. Having started as an apprentice engineer at the turn of the 1960s, time and place plays a substantial role in Sound Man, as Johns looks back on his earliest days playing with the Rolling Stones, a fortuitous childhood meeting with a young Jimmy Page, and his rise through the production world at a time where the independent producer was assuming power from record labels and A&R men. His jet-lagged narrative takes readers all over the map with sessions in London, L.A., New York, Germany, and other parts of the world, with label heads, managers, and artists including Steve Miller, Keith Moon, Emmylou Harris, and others all dropping in for visits. It can be exhausting trying to keep up with all the action, but it’s fun navigating through Johns’ crystal recollection of the various personalities he’s rubbed shoulders with over the years.
Johns realizes the significance of the world he’s long been a part of, almost too much so at times. He’s occasionally too precious about his ’60s and ’70s glory years, commenting with disdain about changes in the record industry with the grizzled attitude of an old man on his porch. But if he comes from a place of opinionated authority, he’s earned it, and it’s that strong, assertive character that drives much of Sound Man. Johns walks a fine line between generous collaborator and no-nonsense producer, and some of the book’s most winning moments come in watching him manage the egos around him. The man who patiently coaxed a winning performance out of ailing guitarist Mac Gayden was also the one who demanded a note from Eric Clapton explaining his tardiness to a session.
Sound Man validates much of the mythology that’s long surrounded the well-documented classic rock period, but Johns’ account offers a lot more than warmed-over folklore. In his story of a relatively ordinary guy existing in a world that’s often times anything but, Johns has turned his day job into a memoir colored with warmth, humor, and intimate detail.