Glyn Johns may be the most successful recording engineer and producer of his generation, if not all time — you’ll find his name in the notes to everything from Abbey Road and Let It Be to old AM radio staples by Led Zeppelin, the Who, Eric Clapton, the Eagles and Bob Dylan. His extraordinary resume makes it all the more amazing that he has said that the best album he ever worked on was Joan Armatrading’s self-titled third record.
That Armatrading’s breakthrough 1976 album is not endowed with the exalted status of those other records is a sign of the institutional racism in the realm of rock journalism. We arriving a little late to the dance, but look at Rolling Stones‘ much-lauded list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and consider the absurdly infrequent appearance of women. Armatrading’s third album may be one of the list’s most glaring omissions.
To borrow a phrase from one of Armatrading’s contemporaries who did have a pair of albums on the list, and who unlike Armatrading was also included in the magazine’s authoritative “Greatest Songwriters” list as well, “You don’t like strong women ’cause they’re hip to your tricks.”
In a 2014 interview promoting his memoirs, Sound Man, Johns was asked about the song “Down to Zero” which opens the album. While he had little to say about working with, for instance, the Eagles, Johns expressed regret he did not get to work with Armatrading more. And when the interviewer praised “Down to Zero,” he lit up:
It’s good, isn’t it? That woman is absolutely remarkable. She was like a breath of fresh air. That’s not the right phrase, but it’ll do for the moment. When I first discovered her, she took me down a musical road that I had no idea that I could even identify with. Fortunately for both of us, not only did I identify with it, I was able to help in some small way. But I learned a tremendous amount from working with her. She’s an exceptional musician. She’s a great guitar player, never mind about a wonderful singer and songwriter.
Another song from the album, “Love and Affection,” gave Armatrading her first charting single, and our personal favorite was picked for its b-side. “Help Yourself” is a timeless tune which feels especially relevant these days as inequities such as Rolling Stones‘ narrow list are being called out.
The second side of this awesome album opens with “Join the Boys,” in which Armatrading, with her characteristic confidence, describes starting a band which will “succeed where others failed” and “take the world by storm” (the song became a set list staple). “Join the Boys” features her uniquely percussive guitar playing and uncommon approach to rhythm — sounding like no one else, Armatrading may well be addressing the industry when the song opens:
Are you for or against us?
We are trying to get somewhere
Looking around for a helping hand