Shel Talmy was one of the most important and influential rock producers of the 1960s. Raised in Chicago and trained as a recording engineer in Los Angeles, he moved to Britain in 1962, bluffed his way into a producer position at Decca Records, and soon became one of the U.K.'s first independent producers. Most famous for his work on the earliest discs by the Kinks and the Who, he also produced dozens of other artists of the era, including the Pentangle, Manfred Mann, the Easybeats, David Bowie (when the singer was still known as David Jones), and cult acts such as the Creation and Rumpelstiltskin.
How did you first get involved in producing?
I bluffed my way into it over there [England]. I started off here [in L.A.] as a recording engineer for a studio called Conwell, which at the time was on Sunset. The guy who trained me was Phil Young, was English and had come over here and done incredibly well. I was young, I thought it would be nice to go to Europe, work if I could; I expected to be over there about a month or so and figured I could go and see a couple of people and get a job to pay for my trip.
So I prepared myself. My friend Nick Venet, who was at Capitol producing, who had a bunch of stuff that he was doing--he said, "Take what you like." I took a bunch of stuff that he was doing--lacquers that he had just finished--and I went to see Decca when I went to London. I thought, what the hell, I'm not going to be here long, I might as well be as brash as possible. I said, "I am arguably the greatest thing since sliced bread was invented," and reeled off a whole string of hits I hadn't done. The two things I selected to play for Dick Rowe were the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" and Lou Rawls' "Music In The Air." I played that, and Dick Rowe said, "Thank God you arrived, you start next week!" So I did. By the time they found out it was all bullshit, I'd already had my first hit, and they were very gentlemanly, never mentioned that they knew that I knew that they knew.
Who did you start out working with?
The first artist they gave me was a guy named Doug Sheldon. They wanted me to cover a record, "Lollipops And Roses," and it got into the charts low down. They then gave me the Bachelors, who when I got them were three nice Irish guys who played harmonica and did not sing--I rehearsed them in my apartment for six weeks, teaching them how to sing harmonies--I almost got tossed out of the apartment. "Charmaine," which was the first hit I had, I absolutely hated. It took me 15 minutes to do it. I hated it because it was pseudo-country and western, simply because they couldn't do authentic country and western (laughs). I finished the record, and Decca said, "We love it! It's great, and it's a hit!" And they were right! (laughs) Nobody picked up the phones those days to find out if you were bullshitting or not, they wrote letters, a couple of which went to people [in the U.S.] that knew me. And so they wrote back, saying, yes, of course he had done all these things. So I guess I was meant to stay over there.
Did you have any inkling then that there was going to be a big explosion of British groups doing rock and roll?
Hadn't a clue. There was no indication whatsoever. However, by the time I was there six months I certainly knew. In fact, I came back here in September '63 and I still didn't know a lot of people, nor did I have a lot of money. I went to see everybody that I could see in town [L.A.] and I said, "There's going to be a big explosion of British bands. All I need is $5000, and I can tie up every British band there is." I could have gotten the Stones for about $500, the Beatles for maybe $1000, and everybody else for about $100 each. And they said, "Sure kid," patted me on the head, and that was the end of that. I knew, but nobody believed me. I of course subsequently got loads of apologies.
You were at first an employee of Decca.
Yes and no. I was really the first independent producer that Decca ever had, and I think that England ever had. I came over as a total naive, I knew there were such things as independent producers because America had them. I thought I'd better carry this image on, and told Decca, "I'm an independent producer. I don't work for you per se. You pay me, but I get royalties." Dick Rowe, who was very pro-American, thought that was a very good idea. I was sort of exclusive to Decca, but not really an employee per se.
One of the first persons I ran into was Phil Solomon, who has quite a reputation in the English music business. He was one of the biggest crooks of all time. The Bachelors were his band. I had to sue Phil to get my royalties--although they were coming from Decca, part of them were coming from Phil. Dick [Rowe] tried to remain neutral, but things got difficult for him, and I said, fine, I'll go out and see what else I can hustle up. So I really became an independent producer, doing things for a couple of labels at the same time. The Kinks, of course, I brought right into Pye.
Talk about sharks...a guy named Louie Benjamin was the head of Pye at that time. He made Phil Solomon look like a prince. He may be, and still is, my most unfavorite person in the whole record business.
A lot of people who recorded for Pye felt the same way. They were supposed to be the most backward of the big British labels.
[Pye] were the smallest, they were certainly the most backward, and from my point of view they were the easiest to get into. Their sessions didn't cost a whole lot, they had their own studios, so it wasn't a bad deal for Benjamin to give me a sort of deal. I brought in an artist, recorded, and nobody was going to spend a lot of money. It was a trying time--Benjamin was not a wonderful person, but we marched on.
How would you compare the American and British rock and roll businesses at that time?
[The British] were very backward at the time. The equipment, although basically the same, was still not up to what I'd worked with here. It was more primitive. The main problem at that time was really the musicians. There was one set of session guys who could play sort of like American musicians, and if you didn't get them you might as well forget it. If you wanted anything in sort of a soul feel, there was just no way. Unless you got this one set of guys, and it was more rote than instinctive. Of course, not that much later, a whole bunch of kids that had grown up with American rock'n'roll really started playing well. As an engineer, I had been used to using people like Steve Douglas as a great sax player. There was nobody there who could play punky sax. To some degree there still isn't. They've never seemed to completely master it [the sax] over there, for whatever reason.
The guitar is a different story. Big Jim Sullivan was the guitarist I was using. He was really the only one at the time who was worth using.
How about Jimmy Page?
That was about a year and a half, two years later when he finally hit the scene. He was about 18 at the time. I think he did his first ever session for me. Of course I used him on the Kinks.
How about Nicky Hopkins, did you use him?
Oh yes, I used Nicky for years. On everything that needed a keyboard, Nicky was the man. He was dynamite.
How did some of the groups you produced react to having sessionmen on their recordings? There's been a big controversy over whether Jimmy Page played solos on Kinks records, for example.
You know how many times I've answered that question? I wish I had a buck for each one. Jimmy Page did not play the solo on "You Really Got Me," he played rhythm guitar. He never played anything but rhythm guitar on that plus [the Kinks'] first album session. On "You Really Got Me," the Kinks had just added Mick [Avory], and I used Bobby Graham on drums. He played rhythm guitar because at the time Ray would not play rhythm guitar, he didn't think he was good enough. So I said, fine, let me get a rhythm guitarist, 'cause Dave [Davies] was playing the leads. We had Jon Lord on organ.
As far as the Who were concerned--again, I talked to them about it beforehand, and memory's terribly selective when you want to do these kind of things--their backing vocals sucked. And that's why I got the Ivy League doing them. Perry Ford was the pianist, who was in the Ivy League, on that session [for "I Can't Explain"]. So I didn't arbitrarily bring guys in without telling anybody what was happening. I've never done that, and assuming the possibility of ever going into the studio again, I never will do that, 'cause I don't think that's right. I've always gotten along with musicians real well. Of course bands and musicians aren't necessarily mutually inclusive. A band has their own individual plus group ego. Nobody will do more for you than a band before their hit, and less afterwards. I'm not bitter, just realistic.
What was the kind of sound you were looking for when you started working with a lot of rock groups in the mid-'60s?
Originally I couldn't get those kind of bands--they didn't exist. I wanted a rock'n'roll band. I grew up with rock'n'roll, R&B. What I felt I could do over there was give an American sound to a really good rock'n'roll band, and I was on a constant lookout for rock'n'roll bands. I guess the Kinks were the first one I found that I thought were really sensational. They were not nearly as good then as they eventually wound up being.
How did you find them?
I was on Denmark Street one day at Mills Music. Denmark Street was where all the music publishers were. Robert Wace, one of their managers, came in with a demo they had done--they were the Ravens at that time. I happened to be there, and I said sure, I'd love to listen, and I loved them. I made a deal and I brought them into Pye. The rest, as they say, is history.
How much was added in the studio to Dave Davies' and Pete Townshend's guitar sound?
Nothing. The only thing was I double-tracked Townshend and that's about it. We were only working with three-track at the time; in fact, I did "You Really Got Me" mono. So there wasn't a whole lot of room to do anything. Not if you wanted to end up with any generation tape that wasn't pure hiss. Of course, the tape wasn't as good either at that time.
Did the bands themselves ever express any frustration that the sound they got in the studio wasn't as powerful as the sound they got live?
Never expressed it to me. What you could get in the studio wasn't nearly as good then. I always thought that given the time and equipment we were using, we did a pretty damn good job. Certainly, I think that the records they did in those days still stand up. You can still hear bass, drum, and guitars pounding out.
What were the bands you enjoyed working with most?
I liked working with all the bands I worked with. My problems I don't think were ever with the bands, or if they were they were never voiced there in the studio. My problems with the Who were with [their co-manager] Kit Lambert, who was out of his fucking mind--I think he was certifiably insane, if he hadn't been in the music business, he would have been locked up. The problem with him was his giant-sized ego plus paranoia. He felt I was usurping his authority because I was producing these recordings. His partner, Chris Stamp, was hardly ever around. I always got along with Chris, I thought. But Chris never said a word.
Listening to the Who's records after your involvement with them had ended, is there stuff you would have done differently with the same material?
I had always felt that the so-called Who sound, on record at any event, was a good deal my creation. And I don't think that's an ego trip. All you have to do is listen to the record they did before I was with them, the High Numbers record ["I'm The Face"/"Zoot Suit"], and compare the difference. And I certainly felt that after I stopped recording them, they weren't being recorded nearly as well. But I'm probably prejudiced (laughs).
Did you have problems with any of the record labels concerning bands that were radical for the time, like the Who?
The Who was funny, because I brought them to Decca America, who were a very nice bunch of guys, older men who had no idea what rock'n'roll was. They didn't understand what the hell I was doing, but they said if that's what's supposedly selling, then we'll go out and try to sell it, which of course they did. The second record we did, "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," had a bunch of feedback on it, which I believe was the first record which had that kind of stuff on it. I got a cable from them, after we sent it in, saying, "We think we got a bad tape, it seems to have feedback all over it" (laughs). So I assured them that was the way it was. Of course, "My Generation" followed that, which had as much or more feedback on it. They didn't really understand, but they stuck to what they knew best, which was selling a record.
This still holds true today, if you speak to any number of producers, they'll probably tell you the same thing--it's really great to get tied up with a record company who let you do their thing while they do theirs. It is almost nonexistent. With a couple of exceptions, I don't think I've ever run into sales and promotion in a record company who didn't think they were A&R people. If they know how to do it better--and I have said it on more than one occasion--"Why don't you go out and do your own records? Why tell me how to do mine?"
I certainly am open to criticism. If somebody has some valid suggestion, I'll be very happy to take it. In fact, always in the studio, when I walked in I had about a 90% idea in my head of how that finished record should sound, before we got one note down. I always left 10% for flexibility if suggestions came up, and often they did--from a musician, or somebody who did something by accident. I kind of resented promotion people--when the record was finished, after it had already started selling-- telling me how the record should have been.
There have been references to sessions of R&B songs that the Who recorded in 1965 for a possible album. Did you work on those?
They had some demos. I think "I'm A Man" was on it, before they redid it [for the "My Generation" LP], and some others. It was not very well recorded. I saw them live. I think they rented out a church hall or something for the afternoon, that's where I saw them. Kit Lambert [at that time] could not do enough for me, needless to say.
You worked with David Bowie when he was still known as David Jones.
I always liked him. I always thought he was incredibly talented, he was extremely bright, he impressed me as knowing exactly where he was going. He was 17 when I first recorded him, with the Manish Boys. I honestly didn't think that what he was writing at the time had a snowball's chance in hell of making it, but I thought, he's so original and brash, let's take a flier. So we did a bunch of them, and of course they didn't make it, and it wasn't until seven or eight years later that a window of opportunity opened for his style of music. And he made the most of it, of course. There wasn't a whole lot of difference between what I did with them and what he did seven or eight years later, just that at the time we put it out nobody wanted to know. It was weird music.
Are there any unreleased sessions with him?
We did four sides, I think there's another four sides somewhere. I think I even got the tapes. [Note: In 1991, this material was issued on Rhino's "David Bowie: Early On (1964-1966)."]
What did you think of the Creation? [Although they were only modestly popular in Britain and unknown in the U.S., the Creation recorded several singles between 1966 and 1968 that fused mod and psychedelia, with innovative distorted guitar leads by Eddie Phillips.]
I wished they had gotten bigger.
They were a super bunch of guys, who I'm still friendly with as a
of fact. The two mainstays were Kenny Pickett and Eddie
Eddie Phillips deserves to be up there as one of the great rock'n'roll
guitarists of our time, and he's hardly ever mentioned. He was
of the most innovative guitarists I've ever run across.
Jimmy Page stole the bowing bit of the guitar from Eddie. Eddie was phenomenal. I see him every time I go back to England. Very, very nice man.
Eddie was typical working class. He was sort of Cockney, and came from an absolutely 24-karat working class family who were raised to go for security. The fact that he was in a band in the first place was outside the norm of his experience. And when the Creation finally broke up, he became a bus driver of all things. Talk about waste. He was a bus driver for years, and he finally got talked back [to playing]. I think I helped him. I said c'mon, you can write songs, you can play, you can do all kinds of things, get the hell out of this thing. So he is making out, he's certainly a lot happier.
Do you know how he developed that violin-type sound on a lot of the Creation records?
I think he was just fooling around. As I recall, he was practicing guitar at somebody's house and there happened to be a violin bow around, and he picked it up and started messing with it. I heard it, and I said, Christ, let's use that. I've never heard that sound before. So that's how we got into "Making Time" the Creation's first single, in 1966]. And of course Jimmy Page made it his own invention later.
I am continually surprised at the number of people who actually know who the Creation are. They have a real cult following.
Why do you think the Creation didn't become more successful?
They were enormous in Europe, you know, in most of the Continent, except for France. Never quite made it [in Britain] and they went the way of a lot of bands, they decided to break up. I just could not hold them together. I tried. I said, "Hang on, I think we're just about there." But Kenny wanted to go off and do his thing. He and Eddie were fighting at the time, too. They had a personality conflict.
It happened to me with another band, Axiom. Warner Brothers hired me to record them. Super-duper band. It was a super album. Two weeks before the album was to be released on Warner, they decided to break up. And they did, and Warners said, "Bye!! If you think we're promoting this album, you're out of your fucking minds!" I was real pleased with that album. It was fun to do, they were talented, the songs were great.
What did you think of the Easybeats?
More management problems. I had never done anything but hits with them, right? As I had never done anything but hits with the Who. First record out of the box was "Friday On My Mind." Their manager was Ted Albert. I had a royalty deal for records extending through that plus an album. After "Friday On My Mind" became a worldwide hit, he said, "Well, not that you've made them a hit, you're earning x percent, now you can take less." So I said, fuck you (laughs). I said, go record them yourself. So of course he did, and that was the end of the Easybeats.
Ted Albert was most likely bitter because he had produced all their records up to that point. He wasn't their manager, he was actually their producer, but he came over to Britain with them.
Yes, he was their producer. He was also a poor little rich boy, as I understand it. This was [Easybeats manager] Mike Vaughan who told me; he was their working manager. Ted Albert was apparently from a very wealthy Australian family. You're right, he did produce their stuff, but he did seek me out on purpose and brought the band to England because he thought I could do something with them that he couldn't. Once I created a hit, then all of a sudden it reverted back. My problem's always been with management, what can I tell you? I really liked them [the Easybeats], they were a good bunch of guys.
Were Harry Vanda and George Young [then the Easybeats' songwriting team, later a very successful record production team in Australia] getting into production during that time?
Not to my knowledge. Certainly, not on that session, certainly not for the following sessions. They certainly were alert as to what was going on, but then again most of the bands I worked with who made it were alert to what was going on, a lot of whom of course and went on and produced their own stuff. I was very happy to try to tell them anything I could tell them if they wanted to ask. I think producing is an extremely individual thing. If you have the same band with the same song and six producers, you're going to get six different records. There's no secrets, as far as I'm concerned. If they want to learn techniques, fine, I'll teach them techniques. I have to all sorts of bands. If they wanted to go out and produce their own stuff afterwards, it was fine with me. I used to encourage it.
I preferred to do the records with them that I was doing because producing a record should be very much a symbiosis, a partnership between the producer and the band. And if it isn't, then it's not worth doing.
What were your experiences with Manfred Mann like?
They approached me after Paul Jones left and Mike d'Abo became the lead singer. Of course, the whole music press had written them off as dead because Paul Jones was the band, etc., etc., and so I was given this thankless job of doing a record with Manfred Mann sans Paul Jones. I've always liked challenges, what the hell (laughs). So it worked out fine. We continued to make hits.
I think it's fair to say that I contributed, but really Manfred Mann's the guy who led that band, not Paul Jones or Mike d'Abo. He kept making hits, after I was gone, after everybody else was gone. They've had several versions of good bands, and Manfred is certainly a talent. He is a very good chooser of material, that's really where his strength is. He's not a wonderful writer, but he sure can pick material. And he's very good at putting bands together. He's got a concept of where a band should go, and he certainly is the band. It was never Paul Jones.
He [Manfred Mann] was very good at doing Dylan material.
Yeah, he loved Dylan material. And quite frankly, I think we did it a lot better than Dylan did. This morning we were driving around, and there was a Dylan hour. Boy, he was awful. He did some of the most unmemorable material. They played a song that was such a turkey. If I ever heard it, I have chosen to forget it.
I don't think I ever knowingly turned down a band that made it. I brought Manfred Mann originally to Decca, who turned them down--this is the Paul Jones version of the band. I think it's probably one of the reasons they came back later. I brought Georgie Fame to Decca and they turned him down. Of course, at that time I was more or less exclusive to Decca. I really didn't have any other outlets, there was nowhere else to take him. I always felt badly about not being able to convince them. And I can't think of a band I turned down that went out and made it, which actually I'm quite proud of. Not knowingly, anyway. That's my ego trip.
You'd think that after Decca turned the Beatles down, they'd at least be willing to give groups like Manfred Mann a shot.
Evidently not. All I can tell you is that I brought both of them into Decca studios, and did about four or five sides with Manfred, four for sure with Georgie Fame, and they turned them both down. [Decca A&R man] Dick Rowe, historically, is the one saddled with turning down the Beatles. I think he really got a bad rap about that, because a lot of people turned the Beatles down. He wasn't the only one.
I've never heard those original tapes. I'd like to hear them [to see if I would have turned them down]. I don't think I would have, because I've always been very song-oriented. Although they were not a wonderful band musically, the songs were outstanding, even then. And I'm sure I wouldn't have turned them down. I don't think they were ever very good musically. I don't think anybody seriously compares the musicality of the Beatles to the Who, for example, or Led Zeppelin or whatever, because they're not even in the same category. None of them really played their instruments very well. I like Ringo, I'm not putting him down. I'm just saying he was never a very good drummer. By the same token, I'd say everyone agrees Keith Moon was one of the world's greatest drummers. He was sensational.
In fact, I really liked Keith Moon. Moony, as nutty as he was--and boy, was he off the wall--I was closest to him of anybody in the band. Easily. He had such a wacky sense of humor.
You produced a single for the Nashville Teens [most famous for the 1964 hit single "Tobacco Road"].
The most memorable thing about that was while we were doing the session, the guitarist grounded himself on a microphone and got terribly shocked. He fell down, we all thought he was dead. Other than that, it wasn't a very memorable session (laughs). They weren't very good.
Were there any records you did that didn't make it that you were very regretful about?
I did a record with Chris White that was a hit, not the one with the Zombies. I did a follow-up that I really thought was a smash. Oh, I'll tell you which one I really regret--Amen Corner, after I did "Paradise Is Half As Nice." I found a song, in fact the songwriter was Dominic King, he eventually had many, many hits. He was about 15 at the time. He wrote a song that was sensational--absolutely perfect for Andy [Fairweather-Low] and Amen Corner. Right at that time was when Don Arden sold the band to Andrew Oldham. I cut this record, and I swear to you it would have been a worldwide number one. Oldham saw fit not to release it and put out "Hello Susie" instead, which I hated. It was just a straight, very average rock'n'roll song, and it got up to #5 only because "Paradise" got to #1. That other song would have established them on a worldwide basis, I am absolutely positive.
You produced a lot of sessions for the Fortunes.
They were sensational. I loved that band. I've always been very hot on close harmony singing, and they were the best. The first record I did with ["Summertime Summertime"], I really thought was going to be a hit. It started with a bang, and nothing happened to it. It started selling, and to this day I don't know what happened--either it didn't have any legs, or they stopped promoting it, and it fell on its ass. I subsequently did several other records, one of which was a version of the old standard "Look Homeward Angel," which was great--I loved that. I did a lot of records with them. The one I didn't do was "You've Got Your Troubles," which I wish I had done (laughs). But what a great band.
You also did some tracks with Goldie and the Gingerbreads.
I did that record for Atlantic. They were terrific. Ahmet Ertegun liked the record. They put it out, and it made some noise here but it didn't do a lot. That was really all I did with them. I did a bunch of other tracks, in fact Nicky Hopkins sat in, he played piano. We did a couple of jam sessions with [Goldie] on organ and Nicky on piano, and we had some really nice blues jams, just for fun. They were a very good band, the only girl band I've ever heard that I thought really played ballsy music.
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