Andy Johns: Producer behind seminal albums by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Television
Wednesday 10 April 2013
The engineer and producer Andy Johns worked on many landmark rock albums of the late Sixties and Seventies, including Led Zeppelin's II, III, IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti; Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll by the Rolling Stones; and Television's celebrated debut, Marquee Moon. Though he followed the same traditional route, from tape operator via engineer and mixer to producer as his older brother, the more famous Glyn Johns, the ten year age difference meant that they seldom collaborated – even if both occasionally appeared on the same credit lists when they separately assisted name producers like Eddie Kramer or Jimmy Miller.
More prone to the rock'n'roll lifestyle than Glyn, Andy Johns admitted that, much like Miller, his time with the Stones resulted in him developing "a bit of a drug problem. Working on Exile was really long, sitting around in the South of France, waiting for the band to show up. There was always smack around. The boredom is why I started doing it," he admitted. Yet he recognised Exile's significance and helped complete the project in a marathon three-day mixing session at Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles in March 1972.
"I knew more about what was on the tapes than anybody else, because I was concentrating so hard. I knew what all the details were. Everybody else was sick of the damn thing. I learned about perseverance. I also learned that there was another way to live, beyond the norm," he said. "Rock and roll back then meant a little bit more than it does now. It had social significance, breaking down the establishment. It represented the way a generation felt about things."
Born in Epsom, Surrey in 1952, he attended The King's School in Gloucester. By his mid-teens he was already within the Stones orbit, since his brother shared a house with Ian Stewart, the group's pianist and "sixth member". Glyn presented him with a bass he'd acquired from Bill Wyman and Andy was intent on emulating his hero and becoming "the next great bass player of all time" – until he started accompanying Glyn to Olympic Studios in Barnes during school holidays, realising that what his brother did "looked a lot better than working".
Within a few days, in 1967, he was assisting Kramer on the sessions for Axis: Bold as Love, the seminal second album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. "It was a serious learning experience," he recalled of another time running the tape machine and errands for the Stones as they cut the psychedelic manqué album Their Satanic Majesties Request. "Back then, you didn't need to train for years. I got a lot of work straight away," he said of his step up from tape op to engineer. In November 1968 he depped for Glyn and assisted Miller during the recording of the Stones epic "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at Olympic.
Like Glyn, Andy was not exclusively attached to one studio facility, and undertook a lot of work at Morgan Studios, helming Free's 1969 debut Tons of Sobs, and engineering and mixing Jethro Tull's second album, Stand Up, a No 1 in August 1969. The same month he received his first production credit for Ahead Rings Out by Blodwyn Pig, the blues-rock group led by the former Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams. "I didn't know what I was doing then. I didn't have a clue," he later reflected, somewhat unfairly, since both the Blodwyn Pig debut and their follow-up, Getting to This, which he also produced, reached the Top Ten in the UK.
He reverted to an engineering role for releases by Traffic, Ten Years After, Spooky Tooth and Blind Faith, and began developing a trademark style on the Free albums he produced before and after their 1970 breakthrough with "All Right Now", which he missed out on because of commitments at Morgan. "I was the only engineer there. I was just at the point of absolute nervous exhaustion," he remembered.
He recovered and perfected his diplomatic skills and production touch with the Stones, and made sterling contributions to classic Led Zeppelin tracks like "Stairway to Heaven" and "When the Levee Breaks". In 1972, he produced the self-titled debut by Bobby Whitlock, of Derek and the Dominos fame, as well as Why Dontcha, the first album by the power trio West, Bruce and Laing, and Free's swansong album, Heartbreaker.
In the mid-Seventies, he relocated to Los Angeles. His involvement with the pioneering New York group Television might have seemed unlikely, but guitarist Tom Verlaine had been listening to Goats Head Soup. "My first impression was that they couldn't play and couldn't sing and the music was very bizarre. But after we finished mixing, we went to some rehearsal place and played it on these large speakers, and I was bowled over," said Johns, who beautifully captured the dual guitars of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd on the tour de force title track, "Marquee Moon", and made Television one of the most influential acts of the post-punk era.
In 1978, he showed his versatility as the right-hand man to Tom Dowd, helping to turn Rod Stewart's "Da' Ya' Think I'm Sexy?" into a disco smash. The following year, he engineered Shadows and Light, Joni Mitchell's excellent double live set. From the mid-Eighties, he hit another purple patch, with a steady stream of big-sounding rock albums for Gary Moore, Ozzy Osbourne, Cinderella, Joe Satriani and Van Halen.
Even if he loved talking about compressors and developed a wonderful understanding of 5.1 mixes, his approach to production remained simple. "My idea is to make it sound as if you are at the best rehearsal that the band ever did, and you are about twelve feet back from the stage," he said.
As a producer, his forte was the layering of guitar parts and achieving a meaty drum sound, but he had other strengths. "With arrangements, it's obvious to me when something isn't working and it's easy for me to figure out how to make it work. I have a firm grasp on how I want the thing to end up instead of vacillating all over the place," he said.
His recent credits included Chickenfoot, the eponymous 2009 debut of a supergroup featuring Satriani, Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame and Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers. "There's been ups and downs," he commented in The Encyclopedia of Record Producers. "But I've had a lovely time. There's one or two things I'd change, but not much."
Johns' sons have also gone into music. Will Johns, his son from his first marriage to actress/model Paula Boyd, the sister of Pattie Boyd of "Layla" fame, is a singer-songwriter. Evan Johns, his son from his second marriage, was the drummer with the US alternative group HURT between 2004 and 2008.
Andy Johns, producer and engineer: born Epsom, Surrey 1 January 1952; twice married (two sons); died Los Angeles 7 April 2013.
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