Michael Johnson interview – July 2023

Background information:

Michael Johnson was the assistant Sound Engineer on Joy Division’s Closer album recorded in March 1980. He was also the engineer for New Order’s Blue Monday and Power Corruption and Lies album two and a half years later.

All were recorded & mixed at Pink Floyd's Britannia Row Studios, Islington London.

This was the start of Michael’s long association with Factory Records as their must have/go to sound engineer. He engineered and mixed four New Order albums and nine singles along with many other Factory artists.

He has been compared to Beatles producer George Martin for his calm & methodical approach in the studio whilst dealing with burgeoning rock stars and their penchant for excess.

For the future reference: A Tape Operator or Tape Op, also known as a Second Engineer, is a person who performs menial operations in a recording studio in a similar manner to a tea boy or gopher. They may act as an apprentice or an assistant to a recording engineer and duties can consist of threading audio tape, setting up microphones and stands, configuring MIDI equipment and cables, and sometimes pressing the relevant transport controls on the recorder or digital audio workstation. Due to the increasing ability to produce professional quality recordings at home studios, the experience that can be gained by working as a Tape Op is being lost, resulting in people having a harder learning curve with music engineering and production. (Wikipedia)

Joy Division Central’s Mark Gale (MG) spoke to Michael Johnson (MC) in July 2023.

MG: Hi Michael. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

MJ: You are welcome Mark. Please bear in mind you are asking about things that happened over 40 years ago. Most of my memories are of answers I have given in previous interviews rather than the real thing. So, apologies for that. You have to remember that I didn’t know you were going to ask me these questions 43 years later!

MG: That is a very salient observation and one we should always consider when reading interviews and autobiographies.

Can you tell us about your musical journey prior to working with Joy Division on Closer (March 1980)?

MJ: OK. I moved down to London in June 1977 (Michael was previously living in York) and promptly got a job at a company called “The Tape Duplicating Company” in North London, which was a place that pre-recorded cassettes and 8 track cartridges.

I was friendly with the mastering engineer they had there. They had an 8-track mastering suite where they prepared the stereo masters for cassette and cartridge duplication. I formed a band with some of the people who worked there and they let us rehearse in this master room to record our band at weekends when there was no one in.

So, I got really interested in studio work and I became fascinated by all the studios in London. This was 1977/78 when the studios were at the peak of the powers, a golden era for recording. One day in 1978 I was looking at my sister’s album collection and she had Animals by Pink Floyd and I looked on the back of it and it said recorded at “Britannia Row”.

Thought that sounds like a street name so I got the A-Z map out and I found it's about a mile from where I lived. So, I went straight down there and the door was open, so I walked in, spoke to the girls in the office and said have you got any jobs for a Tape Op? They didn’t as the studio didn’t have a Tape Op so they took my phone number and I got offered a job working in Pink Floyd’s PA warehouse as a gopher and then I became a roadie. I went on tour with Dolly Parton, Herbie Hancock a few people like that. Then a few months later Pink Floyd are recording The Wall and the engineer on that album James Guthrie said we need to have a Tape Op. So, the girls in the office said “Why don’t you ask Michael, he was asking about that”. So, they came and asked my about working in the studio and I bit their hand off!

So, my first week in a studio was working on The Wall by Pink Floyd.

That week Pink Floyd discovered that the company that was investing their money to avoid tax was actually embezzling them and they thought “how are we going to pay our tax bill”? All the moneys gone!

They decided to do a year out of the country for tax reasons so they wouldn’t have to pay any UK tax on The Wall. Which meant they had to leave the country by the 5th of April, so I only worked with them for a few short weeks in person and then they left and went to France.

We spent the rest of that summer rebuilding the Control Room and I was then tasked with doing the sound effects for The Wall. I was going out and recording explosions at quarries, smashing plates, motorway noises, all sorts of good stuff.

They (Pink Floyd) just sent a list of sound effects and we just went out and did our best to record them, we hired a Nagra (a battery-operated portable reel to reel tape recorder), yeah it was a good summer that.

I went to America with Pink Floyd for The Wall shows when they first toured with it. It was a big production we (the sound crew) were over there for six weeks before the first show just doing rehearsals and setting up and I was in charge of running the 8-track tape machine with all the sound effects on (there were no samplers in those days). So, things like the children singing on Another Brick in the Wall Pt2 they were all on tape with a click track for the drummer. I would start the tape machine and drummer would listen out for the click track and then count the band in and the tape machine was being driven by the time code on the three projectors, so it was a bit “Heath Robinson”. A couple of nights it didn’t work, the drummer didn’t hear the click so they would have to play it without the kids singing.

I actually recorded the children singing on Another Brick in the Wall.

Nick Griffiths the studio manager and engineer was in the studio conducting the kids while I recorded them. He got the credit for it.   So, the first thing I ever recorded was a Christmas number one record and I worked my way down ever since!

Years later I was engineering at, I think it was Marcus Studios, London and the Tape Op came up to me and said “Are you the guy that recorded the kids on Another Brick in the Wall?  And I said, yes, and he said “Well I was one of the kids!  I was so inspired by that experience I got a job in the studio myself”.

MG: Wow, what a great way to start your career Michael. A real baptism of fire!

Can you tell us all your recollections of the working with Joy Division on the album that we would become Closer in March 1980.  This was your first credit as a Sound Engineer which was not a bad one to start with – an amazing collection of songs.

MJ: Yes, that’s correct. My flat mate was a roadie for a small PA company and I think Joy Division had done a gig in London.  I think it was supporting “Fashion” whom he was roadieing at the time.  He said, “bloody Joy Division they smashed up one of our mics” and he was moaning like hell about them. So, when I heard they were coming into the studio I was a little dubious about them, but I got on with them great. My dread of this session evaporated very quickly.     

I used to do all the editing when we were mixing. Jon Caffery (sound engineer) would be sitting next to Martin (Hannett) in the control room smoking “Jazz Cigarettes”.

I was really keen, I used to really like tape editing, a lot of people were scared of it, but I used to really enjoy it and I did all that on the album.

MG: Do you remember much about Ian Curtis?

MJ: Not a lot, no. He was very quiet and kept to himself most of the time. He would be in an upstairs office in the studio listening to records. He was listening to albums I think Tony (Wilson) had given him, I know there was a Sinatra album in there. After he had done his vocals, there was no drama at all. He just ran through his vocals and we didn’t really see him much after that. He was involved with Annik (Honore) at the time and the band were “japesters” the rest of them, but he was on his best behaviour because he had his new Belgian girlfriend with him. So, I think he was feeling a bit out of loop with the rest of the band, he could no longer be “jack the lad” he was trying to be the sophisticated the poet and impress his girlfriend and the rest were delighting in winding him up. He didn’t spend too much time in the studio, he just did his vocals and then left.

MG: Am I right it thinking Love Will Tear Us Apart was mixed during those sessions for the final time?

MJ: I think so. Apparently, Factory had phoned around all the studios in London telling them not to accept any booking from Martin to mix the song again. Whether he did mix it again or not I don’t know.

MG: So, the next time you would work with Hooky, Bernard and Steve would be the next time they returned to Brittania Row in October 1982 to record the songs that would become the album Power Corruption & Lies and the groundbreaking single Blue Monday. Can you tell us about the recording of Blue Monday Michael?

MJ: Well Rob (Gretton) got in touch with Brit Row to ask if they could have Closer Sound Engineer Jon Caffery to work on a new album and single with the band producing. Jon was a freelancer; he did not work for Britannia Row, so I said to the studio manager I’d like to do that and the band were cool with that. It helped that I had done all the tape work on Closer.

So, it was about a 3 week session in November 1982 and then we all went to Australia & New Zealand for a tour in December and then we probably had a week tops in January 83 when we mixed Blue Monday and a couple of other songs and then we went to the cutting room and cut it.

MG: Well, that was quite a good four weeks work!

Did you have a feeling at the time that you had created something special?

MJ: Yes & no. You can’t really tell when you are doing something, what you can do is you can say “I like it”, I enjoy that, it was great. I went off straight after mixing it to do a recording in Yugoslavia and I had a cassette of Blue Monday with me. They took me out to party one night and in the car, I said can I put this cassette on?

“Have a listen to this” I said and they were all knocked out by it and that that pretty amazing. So that was the first time I thought we might have something here.

MG: The song itself I read was originally going to be a pre-recorded “play out” backing track to put on the end of gigs so they could have a drink and a take a break. How did it evolve to becoming the bestselling 12” of all time?

MJ: Hooky credits me in his book me suggesting that he add some bass to the track. I can’t remember that but I’m happy to take the credit. Once you add the bass it’s no longer a track that you can press a button and clear off. So, then Bernard put some guitar on it and then Rob said, “You might as well sing on this y’ know, go an write some fuckin’ lyrics”.  So, it became a song, which wasn’t the plan, but thank God it did!

MG: I’ve read that the games room at Britannia Row was used again (as it was on Closer) to create the echo and reverb you can hear on Blue Monday especially on that iconic semi quaver kick drum opening. Would that be right?

MJ: Yes, I had a big JBL monitor which I set up in there, we mic’ed it up.

MG: That intro to Blue Monday is so iconic.

MJ: Yeah, what funny about is and nobody realised this for years, but on the 12” version the first bass drumbeat is missing. The cutting engineer’s a young lad who had just started work at Strawberry cutting room in Victoria, London. Strawberry Studios, Stockport decided to open a cutting room in London, I think was open for three years. So, we went there. It was late at night s they had given us the “junior” to do it. He was a nice lad. He brought the fader up one bass drum beat late when he was cutting the record so that first beat was missed off.

MG: Sounds like typical Factory. The plan was to release straight away in January 83 but they had two outstanding debts of 40 grand to pay so we had to wait until April of 1983 for its release. It’s an extraordinary song that took indie rock music onto the dancefloor in a major for the first time.

You seemed to form a very good relationship with New Order for the “get go”.

MJ: Yeah, we the same age and from the same part of the world, although from a different side of The Pennines (the hills that separate Lancashire and Yorkshire).

MG: Bearing in mind that New Order are just learning about the production process at this time would there be some overlap where you became involved on the production side?

MJ: I’d like to think so yeah and on subsequent records they did give me a royalty, which was unusual for an engineer, so yes, I think I did have a co-production role.

MG: You became Factory Records “must have/go to” sound engineer.

MJ: Yes, I did a lot of work for Factory. I worked for Factory so much in fact I should have had other clients because when they went bust in 1992 owing me a load of money, I took them to court because they just stopped accounting to me for royalties. So, I took them court and they went bust a week before the hearing, so I won, but there was no money to pay me.

So, I had to get a day job and I never got back into working in the studio full time. again. I had relied too much on one client, I have never been very good at business. I had a mortgage and two kids, with one on the way, so I had to get a day job.

MG: Considering your impact on that 1980’s/90’s indie scene that is such a shame. Looking back over your career in music are there certain songs or albums that you are most proud of?

MJ: Well, the ones we are talking about are very high up on there. Some a what I’m most proud of has never been released. A mate of mine from York had a band in the eighties, Eric Barnes. He wrote some real good stuff, but they never got signed. I was also very proud of the single I produced for the Paris Angels “Perfume” (1990). Single of the week in the NME. (A wonderful song that is considered one of the best Madchester era singles now).

I was asked by the people at Suite 16 in Rochdale (formerly Cargo) to produce one of the bands they had recorded for a sampler album they released. So, they asked me would I produce any of them? One of the bands was the “Paris Angels” and I said I quite fancy them they sound quite good. Suite 16 sent me a load of their demo’s and I chose “Perfume”. I really liked Paul “Wag’s” Wagstaff guitar part (Wag’s would later join Black Grape).

I wanted to record “Perfume” but They wanted to do a different song, so I said let’s record the two songs. We did a recording of Perfume at Suite 16 and it wasn’t going very well, they weren’t very happy & stuff. So, I had my Roland 808 drum machine there and a Pro 1 and I started programming stuff to fit with this song and when they heard it, they said that “oh wow that’s great”. So, it completely changed their outlook on that song.

MG: I noticed on your Discogs entry Michael you are credited with having produced Whitney Houston and Curtis Mayfield. Can you verify that for us?

MJ: Unfortunately, that’s not true though I wish it was! With a relatively common name like Michael Johnson, you are credited with all sorts of things, I believe there is country singer called Michael Johnson.

My one regret is I’ve never worked with a really good singer. I’ve worked with some good ones but one I’ve never really really thought – wow! With one exception, when I was “Tape Oping” on a Nick Mason (Pink Floyd drummer) solo record. I’m not sure it was anything he ever released. He was recording some songs that he used to love as a kid and there was one song, I forget what it was called now, I think it was an old Doo Wop and he got various people in including Eric Stewart (10CC vocalist) and he really was fantastic.

He had really good mic technique. We were using a dead sensitive old AKG microphone and he was right up close to it and he never made it pop once. He knew exactly what he was doing, he was fantastic.

MG: Are you still involved in music production Michael?

MJ: Yes, I have my own studio set up at home now for production and mixing.

MG: It has been so good to talk to you Michael. I’ve seen your name on records since I was teenager collecting Indie rock records. So, it has been a real privilege to chat to someone who has such a big influence on my musical journey.

MJ: It’s nice to hear that. I’m just an ordinary bloke who was in the right place at the right time. I’ve been very lucky.

MG: Well, you were the one who as the Troggs Tape puts it who “Sprinkled the fairy dust over the tape” and added the magic! 

Copyright Mark Gale 2023