by Mark Blake
This month, MOJO magazine's cover CD salutes the Stones' 1971 classic. Engineer Andy Johns oversaw the original, and affords MOJO an exclusive peek behind the curtain: "They were tough hombres, man. But they were tough on each other too."
"I'd known the Stones since I was a teenager. My brother [Glyn Johns] had worked with them before they'd even gotten a record deal. So I was just kind of around it. Later, I came to know their producer, Jimmy Miller. We did a few projects together and got on really well.
"The band had gotten about halfway through Sticky Fingers. They'd done the Muscle Shoals sessions and Sister Morphine and had taken a break. Jimmy asked if I wanted to come and finish the record with him. Of course, I jumped at the chance. They'd just built their mobile studio. It was a neat little unit and we were working at [Jagger's house] Stargroves.
"To begin with, they just sat and played for a couple days. And as usual with the Stones after a break they played really badly - until they got into the groove. So they're banging around and after two days they come in to hear the playback in their brand new mobile, with a lot of hangers-on and weirdoes laying about.
"The playback happens and it wasn't very good. Jagger says: 'What the f--k do you think that is? I could do better than that with my Sony cassette machine.' I told him, 'Look, this is a very small space. If you got rid of all these bloody ego boosters, these hangers-on, we might be able to hear a little better. They're soaking up the sound and just about everything else around the house.' He says: 'Oh, you're worse than your brother.'
"I saw him the next morning, and said, 'If you don't think I'm any good I'll bugger off.' He said, 'No, no - you're in.' It was like a test or something. They were tough hombres, man. But they were tough on each other too. I remember one time Charlie actually ventured a suggestion. Mick goes, 'Keith - guess f--king what? Charlie's had an idea! What do you think of that? Come on Charlie - what is it?'
"Keith could be very intimidating himself. It turns out he's actually just an old sweetie; we became very good friends when we went to Jamaica [to record Goat's Head Soup]. I would spend a lot of time in his room, he'd spend a lot of time in my room. I think it had something to do with drugs as well (laughs). But to start with I was really wary of Keith - all that kohl makeup and he was so quiet. He really ran the band, though.
"For example, they were doing Bitch and he was late that day for some reason. And Jagger and Mick Taylor were playing it - and it was kinda limp-wristed. Not happenin', y'know? I walk out into the main room where we were doing most of the recording - this big baronial-type hall - and there's Keith with no shoes on leaning up against the wall with a bowl of corn flakes, looking kinda pissed off.
"He says to me: 'Oi, Andy - gimme that Dan Armstrong guitar.' I give it to him and he straps it on and starts playing the riff and suddenly the whole thing just came alive instantly. It went up about five notches. I thought, F--king hell - what a difference!
"But Mick Taylor really changed the direction of the band; the music got a lot bluesier. He was a phenomenal player, phenomenal slide player especially. He was doing all these gorgeous melodic blues things. The kind of material on Sticky Fingers and Exile..., that's the direct result of them having Mick Taylor and realizing what his talent was.
"Of course, Charlie's still the backbone of everything. And Bill is a very underrated bass player, too. Keith was often redoing Bill's stuff, although on Sticky Fingers he didn't do it so much. Bill worked really well with Charlie - obviously, they'd been playing together for years and years. It was just the usual thing: there's nothing totally unique about the Stones except the particular chemistry that those guys had together.
"At that point, Jimmy Miller still had some influence too. Initially, when he first got with them he was coming up with all kinds of innovative ideas and sounds and ways of working. But they'd kinda stopped listening to him a bit because he'd shown them his bag of tricks, and they'd sorted through them. Like, 'We know what Jimmy does and we've learned it.' By the time it got to Sticky Fingers they'd pretty much set up and play and I'd catch it. Mick and Keith would then make the main decisions.
"I eventually got them to go to Island studios, where we might've cut some stuff. I remember doing the string dates there with Paul Buckmaster. He was Elton John's arranger. I mixed quite a bit of the album at Olympic. In fact, I remember I'd just flown all the way from Los Angeles, which is a fair old hike, and I'd been up the night before, and for some reason I called the studio and there was a message saying, 'You gotta get here quick, Jagger wants to start mixing.' I thought, F***in' hell, I've been up for 36 hours! I think we mixed Dead Flowers, Wild Horses, and one or two other things that afternoon.
"From the time I came on, it was probably about two months before we were finished. At the end of the day, it's a great piece of work. Although it was done over a few separate periods, it all seems to fit. Sometimes it's just synchronicity and it all falls together."
As told to: Bob Mehr