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Not Fade Away: An Interview With Andy Johns
Legendary studio engineer and producer Andy Johns died at age 62 on April 7, 2013. He is survived by his brother, famed record producer Glyn Johns. He had been hospitalized with a liver ailment, but had been working until that time.
John’s renowned credits include the iconic Rolling Stones albums Exile On Main Street, Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock and Roll and Sticky Fingers. His fingerprints are also heard on the soundtrack of the band’s film, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.
Other classic rock works he has engineering credits on include Led Zeppelin’s sophomore album, Led Zeppelin II, as well as Led Zeppelin II, III and IV, Physical Graffiti, Houses of the Holy, and Coda.
Other albums with his handiwork include self-titled works by Blind Faith and Eric Clapton, as well as Clapton’s Crossroads.
Joni Mitchell also benefited from Johns on her Shadows and Light album, as did Jethro Tull on their Stand Up and Living In The Past albums.
His production work includes albums with Humble Pie, Autograph, Bobby Whitlock, Ronnie Wood, Free, Steve Miller, Joe Satriani and Bon Jovi, as well as Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.
Johns will arguably be most remembered for his work with the Rolling Stones, and for his masterful achievements in capturing the late John Bonham’s drum sound at the Headley Grange studio in Hampshire in 1971 for Led Zeppelin.
As the rock world mourns his death, perhaps his own words would be best at this time: hence, this interview with Johns, which was conducted prior to his untimely passing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How did you become involved in engineering and production?
Andy Johns: I liked music a lot, like my brother Glyn. I used to go to the studio with my brother, who is eight years older than me. I was like 10 or 11. So I’ve been hanging out in the studios for years.
Then, when I was 14 years old, Bill Wyman gave me a bass for Christmas. Bill was a big hero of mine. It was Christmas time, and I already had all my Christmas presents, and I was pretending not to be disappointed at all. Glyn comes in and says, “Oh, yeah, something from Bill Wyman.” It was the one he used to use on TV! I was flabbergasted. So I started playing bass, and played in a few bands.
I started working in studios when I was about 17, and still playing bass on sessions and things.One of the first sessions I was ever on, in fact, was Jimi Hendrix.
Quite soon after that, I started engineering. I was doing stuff like Blind Faith, Free, Traffic, and Jack Bruce’s first solo album. We did a of of work together.
There weren’t really a lot of young guys doing engineering in London. We were really suited, so it was easy for me to pick up a lot of acts. Plus, I had known people who were hanging around Glyn. I did three albums with Led Zeppelin.
I did the Stones for about three or four years, including Exile On Main Street, which was really a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that.
RCM: Exile is a masterpiece work.
AJ: Yes. I’m still really, really proud of it. Yes, it was a really traumatic thing. I was just a kid. I was maybe 21. And it took 11 months. We spent six months in France, as you know, at Keith’s house in Nellcote.
RCM: I know it was a crazy time, with the lack of electric power, people hanging out, and all of that there.
AJ: It was pretty bizarre. It was right on the Mediterranean. I had never seen anywhere else. I was just a kid. We worked in the basement. It was a real struggle getting a sound. Everything took so long. Getting there at six n the morning every day – we were supposed to start working at six.
Keith (Richards) would quite often show up playing, and everyone else would show up, maybe at 10, 11 or 12. Sometimes, we would do a basic track for like a week. Three or four hundred takes.
It was pretty bizarre stuff. Weird people hanging around. Very weird people hanging around. Then we came over to America, and finished it at Sunset Sound. I had only been over here a couple of times before. Then I moved here to Los Angeles in ’75. Been here ever since.
RCM: What do you remember when you listen to Exile on Main Street?
AJ: I do remember one very specific circumstance. My favorite song on the album is Rocks Off. I’ll never forget. Keith would sort of go to sleep…Put it like that.
It was about six in the morning. Me and Jim Pierce had this huge villa in Monte Carlo, and Keith would just…go to sleep. You know what it was like.
And I was like, I’m on the phone, “Where’s Keith? Where the fuck are you?”
I’d say, “Keith, man, we’re with Mick. Come back here immediately.”
After 10 or 20 minutes, he came back, and put on this straight-ahead rhythm part, so the song went from working really well, to being for me. Out of all the rock and roll songs I’ve ever done, just the time and the feeling is comfortable. And I’ve been searching for that feel again, if that is possible. The way it came out just blew me away.
I think of all the people I’ve worked with, all the heroes, you know, they’re all just people, but Keith. Keith’s still fucking Keith. Keith is still like…Keith Richards. It’s weird.
RCM: Who are some of the other people you want to talk about?
AJ: Autograph. I got them that deal. I was kind of pissed I couldn’t do the album, but I couldn’t because I was working with Stone Fury. I also did demos with Giuffria, like Call To Your Heart. But it was the same thing.
Everyone had release dates they had to make. Stone Fury got their deal just a little bit before Giuffria.
So I could only do one record. Giuffria wanted me to do it, and I referred them to someone else, and I ended up putting some more parts on it and finishing touches.
The end result, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. I mixed it. They didn’t give me the right credit, but I think I fixed that. The album should have given me a production credit, rather than just a mixing credit. I worked with Al Staehely, who used to be in Spirit. I did some work with Pat Thrall.
RCM: Do you have an ultimate goal in production?
AJ: When I was a kid, I used to wake up and say, “Today, I will make the best single ever,” or some sick thing, after sleeping for an hour. It’s a silly goal. There is no such thing as the best, or the worst. It’s just a matter of taste.
Now what it is, I’m going through a learning experience, because there is so much new equipment around. I always kept to same sound that I first started with Led Zeppelin. It was that big, ambient rumm sound, which I would like to think I did start, which began with the song When The Levee Breaks.
I just used two mics up above, in the house we called “Heavy Grange.” Haunted it was, too. Weird place.
There were these long stairs, and this hall, and I just used two mics and compressed it. It was the first times drums really sounded the way they do to me. If you stand next to the drums, you hear this big noise. A lot of the effects we now use are about the same as using rim mics, the short, sharp, non-linear echo thing.
So right now, I’m trying to catch up on the technology that’s been going on lately, that perhaps I have not been involved as much as I ought to be.
I’ve been into pretty much au natural sounds. Like you can hear the people actually playing – not just a bunch of ideas like, “Play here and use this part,” da, da, da. So you can hear people going through this emotional process thing, while they’re playing. I don’t want to be too mechanical. I’m trying to learn everything out there, but I still want it to be where there is human emotion.
RCM: What do you have to say about any of your live recordings?
AJ: Delaney and Bonnie, my brother Glyn and I did that with Eric Clapton. Did an album with Ginger Baker, and also a live album with Free.
I did that movie with the Rolling Stones, called Ladies And Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones (note: buy the DVD in our Online Store here), some time ago. I remember the version of Love In Vain. I used to cry every time I heard it.
RCM: There was Ron Wood’s project, as well.
AJ: Yes, I did an album with Woody, called 1234. I also did the liner notes. They were pretty funny. The album was recorded in Woody’s garage. It was freezing, but it was wonderful.
(Writer’s note: Part of what Johns’ liners notes quipped, “Ron was going to charge himself for garage time.”)
AJ: My God! That’s Jimmy Page!
(Andy is temporarily glued to the TV, fixated, watching Page.)
Jimmy Page comes from the same town Glyn and I do, Epsom. His dad had a car dealership across from the tracks, Page Motors. Pagey was always such a sweetheart.
When I was working with Zeppelin, there were some things going on when I was there working that were so strange.
Really odd peculiar behavior. I wouldn’t want to point at Jimmy or anybody, but there were some really funny things happening. That was one of the reasons I stopped working for them.
RCM: Yeah, I’ve heard some pretty interesting tales I was told by a couple of artists. Let’s just leave it at that…What has been the greatest advance in the last 10 years?
AJ: All the stuff with the computers.
RCM: In the days when videos and MTV were of major import, did you ever record with video in mind?
AJ: When I worked with Rod Stewart, he mentioned a little bit about visual images when it came about, if Pete Townshend was 24 (at that time), and doing the rock opera Tommy, it might have been a little different.
RCM: What sessions, other than Exile were outstanding to you?
AJ: I was working with Humble Pie, and Glyn was with Howlin’ Wolf. It was the album Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, of course there was Ringo, Clapton, Charlie Watts, Wyman, everybody.
It was a small room, millions of people. Howlin’ couldn’t even listen through to his parts. Howlin’ is taking Clapton through these licks, saying, “I’m gonna die soon, and I want you to pass it on.” It was so intense. Eric eventually got it. Sometimes there would be something that could be only described as magic.
RCM: What other session just blew your mind?
AJ: I saw it a couple of times with the Stones.
A funny time was when Mick (Jagger) was wanting to get away from Decca Records in the worst way, and contractually, he still had to give them one more song. He decided on Cocksucker Blues. He told me he wanted the worst outtakes, the worst mixes. And you’ve heard the lyrics…
RCM: Yeah, I’ve had the red vinyl bootleg forever.
Andy then takes me to a British pub to have some drinks, and I later explain that I have a plane to catch. Andy jokes a lot in the car, and is still going on with Stones stories. He talks about a reference to John Wayne in the Stones’ song “Star Star,” which had to be removed from the mix, or else Wayne would have sued. “He had no intentions of being on a Stones album,” Andy remarked playfully.
Driving down Hollywood Boulevard, we pass the stars on the sidewalks. “Really, it’s the music that will always play through your head.”
Johns is survived by his wife Annette, sons Evan, Jesse and William, grandchildren Lennon, Everly, Charlie and Luca. He is also survived by his siblings Susan Johns, and famed record producer Glyn Johns.
Below, enjoy a video of Andy and Lance Keltner discussing Exile on Main St.:
February 26, 2021
February 19, 2021