Remembering Andy Johns
Johns, speaking with PG at the L.A. Amp Show in 2010
If there were a gold standard for recording studio resourcefulness and professionalism, Andy Johns may well have set it. Johns, who died Sunday at age 61, is perhaps most famously identified for engineering landmark LPs from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in the early ’70s, and was also a producer of considerable prowess—taking the helm for albums from Jethro Tull, Free, and Humble Pie in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and Van Halen (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge) and Joe Satriani (The Extremist) in the ’90s.
Johns may have been equally capable of manning the desk as producer as engineer, but his sonic legacy will likely be his absolute mastery of the latter role. On the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, he deftly captured the band at both their tightest, fieriest, and most gloriously ragged extremes—subtly but profoundly enhancing and highlighting the band’s muscle and killer rhythmic instincts without sacrificing an ounce of their feral potency.
On Led Zeppelin II, III, IV, and Houses of the Holy, Johns helped enable Jimmy Page’s ambitious and then explosively blossoming light-and- shade production vision. Johns was every bit as adept at recording the wrecking-ball monstrosity of Page’s riffs and John Bonham’s thunder, as he was the deceptively complex psychedelic and pastoral atmospherics that were critical and a beautiful juxtaposition to Zeppelin’s heavier side.
As rock evolved, Johns proved no less resourceful. In 1976, inspired by the streamlined and punchy sounds Johns conjured on the Stones’ Goats Head Soup LP, a then relatively unknown Tom Verlaine requested Johns engineering services for what would become Television’s groundbreaking debut Marquee Moon. Johns, keen to capture the skeletal power of Television’s sprawling art- punk jams, initially recorded Billy Ficca’s drums with almost Bonham-like enormity. Verlaine, however, had other, very opposite ideas of how the band should sound on record.
In the end, Johns’ open-mindedness and adaptive engineering skills helped make Marquee Moon a study in recorded intimacy and minimalism that’s not only closer to Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings of the classic John Coltrane Quartet than Led Zeppelin III, but which informs and inspires art-punk and indie rock to this day. Taken together, these two very different snapshots of John’s work attest to a musical instinct, command at a mixing desk, sense of craft, and selfless professionalism that above all else, served the song and artist’s vision.