Shel Talmy. Just the sound of his name evokes a time when London was on the verge of exploding. Though he produced and shaped groundbreaking early work by the Kinks, Who, Easybeats, Creation, Manfred Mann and a youngster named Davy Jones (later Bowie), as well as British folk giants like Pentangle and Roy Harper, Talmy was Chicago-born. He cut his teeth in the studios of Los Angeles before embarking for England in 1962. John Kruth sat down for a refreshing chat with the veteran producer, who offers some fascinating insights into “Swinging London” of the 1960s.
Sheldon “Shel” Talmy is one of those lucky people who knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life. He had a precocious love of all forms of popular music (rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, folk, country) and, more importantly, an obsession with recording technology. And he was lucky enough to be born and raised into his teen years in Chicago. By the age of 13, young Shel was a regular member of the “panel of experts” on Quiz Kids, a popular NBC-TV show aired out of the Windy City.
His luck continued when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1955, where, after graduating high school, he had access to the recording industry in his backyard. Always a quick study, Talmy absorbed all he could learn on recording techniques and microphone placement and even experimented with the studio equipment when the paid sessions were over for the day. He worked with some of the big names in the L.A. music industry, including the so-called Wrecking Crew.
His luck went into overdrive when, in 1962, he went on a European vacation, first stop Great Britain. On a whim, he presented some acetates that he purported to have produced for Capitol Records in L.A. (actually, his friend Nick Venet produced them) to the head of A&R for Decca Records, Dick Rowe. Rowe hired him on the spot, and England became the first and last stop on Talmy’s European vacation.
John Kruth picks up the story from Shel Talmy himself:
PKM: In the early ‘60s you worked at Conway Studio in L.A. and credited them with giving you the opportunity to develop as an engineer, to rely more on your ears and intuition more than by-the-book recording techniques.
Shel Talmy: Yeah, I was encouraged to experiment, and take the time to make things sound better, which is the whole point, isn’t it?
PKM: It seems obvious, but these days people are making records with Pro-Tools. Engineers and bands stare at screens, instead of listening to the music they’re making, and often make edits based on what they see rather than what they hear.
Shel Talmy: That’s an unfortunate development. You’re talking about guys who have no idea how to make a record, really. I came from the analog school and operate in a totally different way. I actually like using Pro-Tools a lot, but I don’t rely on it.
PKM: So, you had been working at Conway Studios in 1962 when you took a trip to England, on a friend’s advice, to see what was happening.
Shel Talmy: Yes, Phil Yeend, who I worked with at Conway, kept extolling the virtues of London. I was in my early twenties at the time. So, before life passed me by, I went there to check out what was happening. I was good friends with Nick Venet [a producer at World Pacific Studios, who signed the Beach Boys] at Capitol Records who told me to take his acetates and say I made them. I went to see Dick Rowe at Decca Records [the A&R man who famously turned down the Beatles] and played him Lou Rawls [“Music in the Air”] and the Beach Boys [“Surfin’ Safari”], and he said, ‘You start today!’ The second record I did with Decca was a hit [in 1963] by the Bachelors called “Charmaine.” From that point on, I had a whole bunch of hits and stayed for 17 years.
PKM: Can you give us some background on London in the days before it began to “swing?”
Shel Talmy: London had suffered during World War II, and there was still rationing going on into the late 1950s. When I landed in London, it seemed like everyone was about to explode. I was at the right place at the right time. There were about 400 of us who would all turn up at the same parties around Kings Road. We would sit around late into the night talking about what we were gonna do, and then the whole damn thing exploded – everything from photography to modeling, acting and music. It was all happening at the same time. The Ad-Lib was the club, along with the Revolution and the Speakeasy where all bands would hang out. Later on, there was the Club Dell’Aretusa and Tramp.
PKM: The Kinks seemed to personify everything about Mod London at the time. Their earliest hits were a series of visceral rockers, but then Ray [Davies] picked up an acoustic guitar and began making highly articulate, witty social commentary. Was he inspired by Bob Dylan’s early tours of the UK?
Shel Talmy: I always got the impression that Ray was a fan of British Music Hall. I’m not sure he was affected by Bob Dylan. I think he liked what Dylan was doing, but I don’t think it particularly impacted him one way or the other. He was essentially a commentator for England while Dylan was not. I think Ray [Davies] was, without question, the social and political commentator for England with songs like “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and “Well Respected Man.”
PKM: What was it like working with Ray?
Shel Talmy: Ray was incredibly prolific. He’d go home and come back with a dozen songs the next day. We’d go through his stuff, and I chose a lot of the material they recorded. I might tell him, ‘that one needs some more work’ or ‘that’s great! Let’s do it now!’
PKM: There seems to be some discrepancy over who produced “Waterloo Sunset”. Ray claims that he produced the track [which appeared on Something Else, the last album Talmy produced by the Kinks in 1967]. Can you set the record straight?
Shel Talmy: “Waterloo Sunset” is great song, maybe the best he ever wrote. He didn’t produce it. I did. Ray has said a lot of stuff that is, uh, not necessarily accurate. But that’s not that unusual. I’ve seen Glyn Johns credited for producing an album I made with the Easybeats [laughs]. Hey, I’m used to it. Unfortunately, it happens more often than you think!
PKM: You tend to be thought of as a rock producer, but you also worked with a lot of folk and acoustic acts, including Pentangle, Ralph McTell and Roy Harper. Were you into the folk music scene in L.A. before you went to England?
Shel Talmy: From the mid-Fifties on, there was, in L.A., a club called the Ash Grove that had every folk artist there was. I was a regular there before I went to England. The London folk scene was active, but it didn’t really get popular until several years after folk music in America had pretty-much died. By the time I was producing some of those artists in the late ‘60s, it only lasted perhaps another five years before going downhill.
PKM: Most people are familiar with Roy Harper for singing Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar,” or the Led Zeppelin track “Hats Off to Harper,” but don’t know his songs, and what a good fingerpicker he is. You made two albums with him in 1967 and 1968.
“McGoohan’s Blues”-Roy Harper-One of this great artist’s masterpieces, from the album Folkjokeopus, produced by Shel Talmy:
Shel Talmy: Initially, Roy was hard to get on with. He was difficult, hard to work with and had a chip on his shoulder. I didn’t understand why or for what reason. Eventually we worked it out and years later he told me he appreciated what we’d done together.
PKM: I really like Harper’s guitar playing. You also recorded Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, who all drew heavily from both blues and Celtic traditions, as did Jimmy Page. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you the dreaded question! [that has dogged Talmy for years… Did Jimmy Page fill in on lead guitar on the Kinks’ 1964 single “You Really Got Me” in lieu of Dave Davies?]
Shel Talmy: Thank God! Look, they were all very, very good guitarists. They could play in any style. Jimmy wasn’t particularly folk-minded, it’s fair to say, but he could sure play his ass off!
PKM: Speaking of playing your ass off, you also cut some tracks with Steve Marriott [Small Faces] who was greatly underrated, I think.
Shel Talmy: Unfortunately, he was drugging at the time. We got most of the whole band together [Small Faces], except for [bassist] Ronnie Laine, who was ill at the time. We went out to Marriott’s house with a remote truck, way out in the country. We were supposed to start at eight o’clock at night and never got going before midnight. Eventually everybody got pissed off and quit. [Two tracks “Lookin’ for Love,” backed with “Kayoed (by Luv)” were released in 1977 as a single along with the LP Reunion which featured Rick Wills on bass and Jimmy McCulloch on lead guitar].
PKM: How did it go working with Pentangle? [Talmy recorded their first three albums between 1968-‘69].
Shel Talmy: They were one of the best bands I ever worked with. Excellent musicians and singers. Jacqui McShee was brilliant. She couldn’t sing a bad note if she tried.
PKM: Beyond the fantastic guitar duo of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, Danny Thompson [who was also heard on recordings by Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and the Incredible String Band] is a monster bass player.
Shel Talmy: Yes, a great bass player!
PKM: You’ve worked with a lot of great bass players with totally different styles, from Danny Thompson to John Entwistle.
Shel Talmy: I used Herbie Flowers, John Paul Jones and don’t underestimate Pete Quaife [the Kinks’ original bassist] who was also great. I’ve always tried to use good musicians – period. I have always gotten on well with musicians, having great respect for them and not being a musician myself. The musicians who are “artists,” I’ve had a few problems with [laughs].
PKM: You never shied away from giving the bass some real presence on your records, where it was often shoved to the rear or lost on a lot of recordings in those days.
Shel Talmy: Well, not with me! I liked balanced tracks. If I’m using an instrument, I wanna hear the damn thing!
PKM: Working with a drummer like Keith Moon, you had to get a great drum sound.
Shel Talmy: I’m credited with doing a lot with the drums as well in popular music. When I got to London, everyone was using just three- or four-track recorders and put three or four mikes on the drums. I started using twelve, because I could! They said, “You can’t do this! It will create phase!” I was like, if it does, it does. But I had way more control over the drum sound than anyone. I liked making loud records and got the reputation for making the loudest records that anybody had made at that point, with “You Really Got Me,” and obviously the Who. A month after “My Generation” came out, everyone was using twelve mikes!
PKM: What was it like to go back to mix the Who’s My Generation album in 2002?
Shel Talmy: I had no problem with it! I remember pretty much everything I ever did.
PKM: But a lot had changed between the time you recorded it and remixed it.
Shel Talmy: The only thing that had changed was the technology got better, so I was able to do more with the remix and remaster.
PKM: Growing up in the ‘60s, the first blues I heard was by British bands, the Rolling Stones doing “Little Red Rooster,” and the Yardbirds’ version of “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Was it strange, having been born in Chicago and hearing real blues musicians, to suddenly hear second-hand interpretations by a generation of young rockers?
Shel Talmy: For me, it was the other way around. I’d heard the blues way before I got to England. It wasn’t that unusual really. They were all really good musicians who played the blues pretty well. Now, do I think that any of them played as well as Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf? Probably not! [chuckles]
PKM: The blues really became an obsession for a lot of young Brits at the time from Alexis Korner and John Mayall, to the Stones, and the Pretty Things. Even David Bowie was in a group called the Manish Boys.
Shel Talmy: David liked the blues a lot and he played reasonably well. But if you’re talking about great blues players, there were very few, maybe none. I honestly think you had to grow up in the American South to really understand what that music was all about. Those bands played pretty well. I’m certainly not putting them down. I used to see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at the Ash Grove. They were regulars there, as was Odetta.
PKM: It seemed like America was asleep at the time on its own Black roots music, and thanks to the Brits we picked up on it again.
Shel Talmy: Well, I think that music, as well as the American Songbook will live forever. Even some of the stuff that I produced is still played every day.
PKM: Some of those tracks have the same power and energy as the day they were recorded. A producer can make or break a record, no matter how good the song or the artist is. Take Aretha Franklin for example. She never sounded the same after she worked with Jerry Wexler.
Shel Talmy: No, she didn’t. That’s a good example. Wexler was a very good producer.
PKM: Wexler’s records always had a great feel.
Shel Talmy: I’m pretty much the same way. If I had a great take that had the right feel, but with a wrong note in it, it didn’t bother me. I would cope with that. Of course, we’d try to cut it out if possible.
PKM: There’s a lot of ways to produce records. Some producers go for the feel, some bring the party. Some producers get involved with the arrangements, others can’t find a middle C on a piano! Ahmet Ertegun was known for lying on the couch and talking on the phone while keeping one ear on the session.
Shel Talmy: I knew Ahmet, and yes, there was some of that going on. Because I worked with bands, most of who couldn’t read music, I got involved with helping them work out the song’s arrangements. If you’re a hands-on producer, that’s what you do!
PKM: What did you think about Bowie’s cover of “Friday on My Mind” by the Easybeats [on his 1973 album Pinups] that you originally produced?
Shel Talmy: I think he was having fun! It’s almost like a cartoon version of the song. [The original 1965 track] was a fun song to produce and record. I knew immediately it was going to be a hit. There was no doubt about it.
PKM: When you first met Davy Jones [as Bowie was still known in 1965 when Talmy recorded the single “I Pity the Fool,” with the Manish Boys] did you immediately see his potential? Did you know he was going to be a star?
Shel Talmy: I always knew he was gonna make it! It was a question of time! I liked him from the get-go. I liked what he was doing, what he was writing. I liked the songs. I thought the tracks we made were going to be huge, but it took the fucking market six years to catch up to him. I thought it was gonna happen quicker. Unfortunately, I didn’t participate in his major success. But the stuff that we did together was a step towards what he finally scored with. He acknowledged that. It wasn’t him, it wasn’t me, it was the market, and they weren’t getting it. You can’t win ‘em all [chuckles].
PKM: Bob Dylan once said he liked Manfred Mann’s covers of his songs best. You produced their version of “Just Like a Woman” in 1966, along with their album As Is.
Shel Talmy: Manfred played Dylan’s songs extremely well. The band was a lot of fun. They were all college grads, very smart and had a tendency to stop in the middle of the take to debate some political point. We got through the sessions but I sometimes I felt more like the resident shrink than the resident producer!
PKM: Those often go hand in hand. Like most Americans, I didn’t hear the Creation until after the fact. “Making Time” was a great piece of power pop!
Shel Talmy: My greatest regret… They were a great band and wrote great songs. They were great on stage and were just making a deal with Ahmet [at Atlantic Records] when they broke up [in 1968] and I couldn’t keep them together.
PKM: You worked quite a bit with Nicky Hopkins.
Shel Talmy: I found Nicky Hopkins after somebody told me about this kid who was a great piano player. I used him for some sessions and introduced him to everybody, and they started using him as well. Nicky was perhaps the best rock piano player, not including Jerry Lee Lewis! And Nicky was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Whatever session he was on, he had the knack for playing whatever was necessary.
PKM: I almost forgot to ask you about Chad & Jeremy, who are all but forgotten these days.
Shel Talmy: They were an extremely good duo, who were then copied by a half dozen other duos. I knew the moment I heard “Summer Song,” it was gonna be a hit, as well as “Willow Weep for Me.”
PKM: It doesn’t seem that time has been that kind to them but those were beautiful songs.
Shel Talmy: That music is no longer in fashion.
PKM: There was a lot of great harmony singing on your records, whether by Chad & Jeremy, the Easybeats, the Kinks and the Who…
Shel Talmy: That was something I always appreciated.
PKM: Yes, but it seems like the lack of harmony in music now is reflective of the lack of harmony in the world today.
Shel Talmy: Music can certainly cure a lot of things. Maybe you just have to blast everybody’s fuckin’ ears off with it [laughs]. But it doesn’t look very good at the moment.