Heroes (Part 13)
Chris Thomas & Glyn Johns
producers Chris Thomas and Glyn Johns
Who were the most influential British producers of the Seventies? John Morrish nominates Chris Thomas (pictured) and Glyn Johns, for work from Procol Harum to Joan Armatrading.
SOME PRODUCERS have left their mark on music not by overt procedural or technical innovation, nor even by the 'discovery' of new talent, but by the consummate professionalism with which they approached every job that came to them.
The two greatest professionals in British recording, certainly through the late 60s and 70s, were Chris Thomas and Glyn Johns. Their paths to success and their approaches to the work, were very different, and yet strangely they seem to have arrived at a concensus in their answers to that central question; how far should the producer go in reshaping the material he is asked to put onto tape.
Their careers form a neat counterpoint through the years when British rock music was at its high point; between them they must have worked with most of the major artists of the day.
But let us take their careers separately, starting with Johns at IBC studios in 1959, a humble if ambitious tape-operator. Graduating to an engineer, he worked on early releases for the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces and many others.
Later, he became what was probably Britain's first freelance engineer, a career move that left him only a handful of studios that would allow him to use his skills. This contributed towards his fierce allegiance to a particular type of recording environment, something that was to seem somewhat idiosyncratic later on. While most producers seemed happy to follow the escalation from 8-track to 16, then to 24 and beyond, Johns would tell anybody who cared to listen that a set of good valve microphones and a decent 16-track machine should be good enough for anyone.
An interesting early experience was the Small Faces "Itchycoo Park", where Johns was the first person to use phasing, then a tape-effect, invented for him by his Olympic studios' assistant George Chkiantz.
His reaction was characteristic; "As far as I'm aware, that was the first record to use phasing; although I'd love to be proved wrong. I think the Beatles used variations of it, but I think that was later. And I decided that having used it once, I'd never use it again — and I haven't."
Later, Johns was to extend his dislike of effects to the point where a little echo was all he could bear to use. He is in that sense a representative of the "photographic" school of production, an inheritor of a tradition that goes back as far as... well, as far back as Edison.
As an engineer, he did what he was told, but slowly he began to move into full-scale production, though in the early days he did not usually get the credit. His confidence grew: "I think any confidence I had had been acquired because I'd worked solidly for ten years, six or seven days a week, three sessions a day before that, with some of the finest artists in England and in all manner of music from classical to jazz to orchestral to jingles," he told John Tobler and Stuart Grundy in 1981.
One early record to bear the Glyn Johns credit, this time as co-producer, was Family's "Family Entertainment". The hallmarks of Johns' expertise are there; clear, clean vocals, ringing acoustic guitars and rich violins.
The next landmark was the Who's "Who's Next", an astonishing sounding record when it appeared in 1971, and a disc that has retained its appeal. Johns came in as "associate producer", trapped in a layer of his own between the Who as producers and a whole galaxy of "executive producers".
He took on the job a little reluctantly, doing a week's trial first, then staying. It taught him a new respect for Pete Townshend whom he'd known since the "My Generation" days. Townshend introduced the synthesiser in a way that was more musical than anyone had believed possible but Johns got it down on tape with no more fuss than if it had been another guitar.
With the Eagles, Glyn Johns began to get the international recognition he deserved, though the actual beneficiaries of his skills seemed less convinced. Of the "Eagles" album he said, "I made that album and I made it with a very clear idea of the sound I wanted to get with them and the way I wanted to do it, and although they didn't let me know at the time, they didn't like it very much — they didn't seem to be over-enamoured of what was going on."
When he found them, the Eagles were struggling to be a rock'n'roll band. He wasn't impressed, but hearing them sing an all-acoustic number during a break in rehearsals, he found the sound he wanted. The two-and-a-half albums he put together for the Eagles reflect that: he wraps them in a gentle and melancholic wash of harmony. Later, they went to Bill Szymczyk, who did away with the sense of loss and gave them a punchier, harder-edged sound. It was a pattern that was to recur, more devastatingly, with a different artist.
That artist was Joan Armatrading. The three studio albums that Glyn Johns made with her stand as the pinnacle of his own achievement, and indeed are unmatched in terms of sheer sonic beauty, certainly among British recordings.
Armatrading had already made two albums which had won some critical enthusiasm but had not sold. Johns' first album with her "Joan Armatrading" was, as the title suggests, a new beginning. "The best I've ever made," is how John sums it up himself.
The key to all three is simply excellent playing, superbly recorded, using methods of utter simplicity. But there is a progression, as Joan seeks to become more direct, and rockier. In the end, she left Glyn Johns behind in the search for accessibility, but he can feel pleased that he captured what has, so far, been the best of her work.
One part of the Armatrading sessions that was unusual was the actual selection of a band to back her, and a substantially different band for each album, at that.
It was an important contribution — and it marked the far limit of Johns' musical involvement in a record. Earlier, with Boz Scaggs' "Moments", he felt he had gone too far. "I actually think I blew it by contributing too much... Every night we'd go in and he'd play me half a chord sequence or a riff or something, and I'd whip it into something with the band. Before he knew what was going on, there was a track recorded."
Johns is as fierce a critic of the cult of the producer as he is of the way equipment manufacturers have bullied the industry into accepting technological progress it doesn't need. Of a typical Phil Spector record he says, "every note on it's his, he probably wrote it, he'll tell the person how to sing it, note for note. He's the artist, and it could be anybody singing it. And I hope in my position that isn't the case."
He prefers writer-performers: "It's their personality and the whole thing about them that you're trying to present, and so, hopefully, you keep yourself as subtle as possible." "As subtle as possible": it sums up Glyn Johns' best work.
Not for Chris Thomas the years of slogging that Glyn Johns had to put in. In late 1967 Thomas, a guitarist and former music scholar, wrote to George Martin to ask for a job. He got it as Martin's assistant at Air London.
One of his first jobs was to deputise for the holidaying Martin on the recording of what was to become the Beatles' "White Album". George left him a note telling him to report to the Beatles at Abbey Road, a task that would have daunted a lesser man. Instead, Thomas just got on with it, even playing the famous harpsichord part on "Piggies".
Next he wasted a lot of time with the Climax Chicago Blues Band, before being invited to take charge of Procol Harum, a big-name band who had slipped badly since their hit "Whiter Shade of Pale". Under Thomas's direction, the band began to look toward the important American album market.
"Home", the first album Thomas did for Procol is also the most basic, with his energy going into getting down good sounds with a minimum of fuss. The record boasts a rich bass-end, and like Glyn Johns', a strong vocal sound.
It was with the next album, "Broken Barricades", that Thomas began to make his mark. "It was the first time I really thought of an idea for an arrangement of a song, which I believe was the title track, and the idea was to break the song into two parts in the sense of the chords on one hand and the arpeggios tinkling away on the other. That was the first time I'd tried anything like that, messing around with sounds and arrangements of songs — in terms of sound. When people say, "Oh, that sounds like a Chris Thomas production" I think they mean that the sound and the music bounce off each other. That was a specific thing from the line about "glittering sand", trying to make the music sound like what's in the lyrics," he told Tobler and Grundy.
It was a happy collaboration, though it mirrored the increasing trend toward the grandiose that was typical of the era. Procol's next album was with a full symphony orchestra, no less, and although Thomas miraculously contrived to make it sound like a single uninterrupted performance, it was actually a performance followed by an hour of re-recording, then edited together to cover up the inevitable cock-ups. "Virtually every edit that we tried worked, and I felt that God must be looking after us," recalled Thomas.
"Grand Hotel", which followed, went for a similarly expansive sound, especially on the title track, apparently for a parodic effect. The "chocolate box" effect, Thomas called it. More effective were experiments with a wordless female vocal obbligato on "Fires (Which Burnt Brightly)" and out-of-tune pianos on "For Liquorice John", done for real in the studio rather than fiddle with harmonizers, as would be the case today.
Those two albums really established the sound of Procol Harum, in that unique antiphony between organ and piano. Sadly, "Exotic Birds and Fruit", which followed was an album too far. The band's lyricist and eminence grise, Keith Reid, made Thomas think about the double-edged nature of his exceptional skills in arrangement. "On 'Exotic Birds', I didn't find the songs were really inspiring me very much. I was almost having to manipulate ideas, like 'What can I think of for this one?' In fact, at one point I was sitting there looking completely vague, and the band were a bit stuck, because they were starting to wind down a fair bit, and Keith Reid said 'Why don't you do a Chris Thomas production on it?'"
"I think he meant to tart it up a bit, in the way that I had come up with some really crazy ideas for some of their songs... So when Keith said what he said, I thought that was it".
But if Thomas oversaw the declining years of one rock legend, he saw the beginning, or almost the beginning, of another when he was invited to sort out Roxy Music's "For Your Pleasure". Really, nothing could have been further from the straightforward aesthetics of Procol Harum than Roxy's dilettantish mix of trash and High Art.
A track like "The Bogus Man" says it all. A lengthy introduction of drums, bass and tape-loops gives way to a burst of quasi-Schoenberg atonal saxophone, and then to one of Bryan Ferry's more sinister lyrics. Small wonder that many people queried Thomas's involvement with Roxy, seen by some as a musical joke with no obvious punch-line.
In retrospect, it's probably Roxy's best record, with the same marvellous eccentricity as the debut yet without the obvious production failings.
Sadly, it's no part of a producer's function to keep a band together, and when Eno departed, Roxy lost half of its spirit and more than half of its ideas. Thomas was a faithful lieutenant to Bryan Ferry in his search for the perfect pop song, but the band's originality had been left behind.
Unlike Glyn Johns, Chris Thomas has been an enthusiastic user of the new technology as it has arrived, even when dealing with so basic a band as the Sex Pistols, for whom he produced (with Bill Price) 1977's "Never Mind The Bollocks". He put them down on 24-track, using more tracks than you might expect for drums. According to Bill Price, the drums were recorded by using mikes at various distances with the outputs being put through Kepex gates so that they come on simultaneously. The result is an absolutely tight attack with a resonant decay: that's the theory.
It's hard to imagine Glyn Johns doing anything like that. He's the original "two overheads, one on the snare and one in the kick-drum" expert.
And yet, although their histories and methods could hardly be more different, they somehow have arrived at approximately the same place in terms of how they see the producer's role.
They seem to have agreed that the producer's job is to record, with as much active participation as is necessary, a musical event. But there's no way a producer can breathe life into a session that is not happening.
Thankfully, the continuing success of their careers proves that there is still a place for the kind of skills that Chris Thomas and Glyn Johns possess in abundance.
READING: "The Record Producers", John Tobler and Stuart Grundy. "Glyn Johns interviewed by Mel Lambert," Studio Sound, June 1981.
LISTENING: Johns: "Family Entertainment", "Who's Next", "Eagles", "Desperado", Clapton's "Slowhand", "Joan Armatrading", "Show Some Emotion", and "To The Limit". THOMAS: Procol Harum, "Home", "Broken Barricades", "Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra", "Grand Hotel", "Exotic Birds and Fruit." Roxy Music, "For Your Pleasure", "Stranded", "Country Life", "Siren". Sex Pistols, "Never Mind The Bollocks". John Cale, "Paris 1919". "Pretenders", "Pretenders II". Elton John, "The Fox", "Too Low for Zero", "Broken Hearts".
Feature by John Morrish
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