SHEL TALMY INTERVIEW: PART TWO

What was it like working with the Pentangle, who had a very acoustic-oriented sound?

Well, I grew up in that kind of music.  One of my first loves was folk music.  Here in town [L.A.], when I was going to high school, the Ash Grove--I used to practically live there.  They had every great folk artist that ever was appearing there.  I love recording acoustics.  I have evolved a way of recording acoustics that I know nobody else quite does.  I'm happy with my acoustic sounds.  I've always liked acoustic guitars, that's the only instrument I sort of half-assed play--I'm not a very good musician.  So it was no big deal.

In fact I did try early on [to record acoustic music], with a duo called Jon and Alan, and Jon became Jon Mark of the Mark-Almond Band.  [Jon] was a great innovator.  He's the first person, come to think of it, who ever told me about Bob Dylan.  He said, "Watch--this guy's going to be sensational."  Jon was the first guy that ever brought Indian music to my attention, and in fact wrote a song that was sort of based on a drone, a folkish type song, that I recorded with him.  I played that to Ray Davies, who was so enamored with it that he went out and wrote "See My Friends" [one of the first Indian-influenced rock songs].

It was very interesting recording [the Pentangle] because their various musical tastes were so diverse that we did a little bit of everything.  [Drummer Terry Cox] in particular and [guitarist John Renbourn] were very into medieval music, and consequently we did a fair amount of medieval music.  [Guitarist Bert Jansch] was particularly interested in 18th and 19th century English ballads, which were fun to do.  I knew all that stuff from my folk days.  So it was great.  I really enjoyed them. The Pentangle were an interesting bunch of people. Talk about diverse people getting together.

I like folk rock, of course.  In some ways the Pentangle were folk rock, with jazz orientation also.  I did a bunch of folk-type rock music in the early '60s; I didn't really have the right people to do it.  But yes, I like the music.  I grew up with it.

My problems have never been with the bands, they've been with the managements.  Their manager, he was #1 of my most unfavorite people in the whole world, Jo Lustig.  I know a lot of other producers, it's a sort of loosish fraternity, and they've all said the same thing to me: for the most part, the producers never or very seldom have problems with the bands, but usually with the support troops.  If you have to nail a reason down, if you think about it, what is a manager?  It's some untalented asshole who has got a piece of talented property to do things that he--normally it's he--has no ability to do himself.  Basically, managers are warts on the backside of society (laughs).  They really don't do a lot.  I suppose a disclaimer here is of course there are some very good managers.  I have been unfortunate to run into the ones that weren't.

Bands--especially back then, when that whole rock revolution started--were really young and extremely impressionable.  And all the managers that I knew were guys at least in their thirties, and they were sort of father figures in many ways.  They had access to the band on a full-time basis.  And you got these young kids who were thrust into the limelight, most of them from working class backgrounds, most of them with very little money, and they were incredibly impressionable.  It's understandable, from a sociological point of view.  It doesn't mean I loved it. These guys were making five quid a week or something, and all of a sudden they're getting a thousand pounds a night for playing an instrument that they really liked to play in the first place.  Of course they went crazy.

How did your Planet label [formed by Talmy in the mid-'60s] come about?

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time (laughs).  The only other independent label per se was Oldham's label [Immediate], and I thought it would be nice to have a label and do my own thing, and I made this horrendous deal with Philips, out of which there was almost no way I could really have made any money.  But it was fun while it lasted.  In retrospect, I probably did a lot of things I shouldn't have done, but who knew?  I certainly didn't.  I'd never run a label before.

Having the label [Planet] was fun: of course, again I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing and made a terrible deal with Philips, who was distributing the record.  I made some money in the end, but it was such an onerous deal I folded it. It would be fun now, but now we're talking about big bucks.  There's no way to do it on a shoestring anymore.  Not a mainstream company.

Besides the Creation, what artists on the Planet label did you think highly of?

The Rockin' Vicars.  We had a couple good records with them.  I really thought they might make it, and they almost did.

Were there other bands with other companies at that time that you would have really liked to produce?

I would have liked to produce Led Zeppelin, which was really my sort of music.  I did band called Rumpelstiltskin, which was a put-together band of very good session guys, and we almost made it with that one.  We had a whole concept.  We were going to do a comic strip and all kinds of stuff.  It was really a fun thing. And good songs, great music, 'cause these guys really could play. That went on Bell Records, [who] just totally screwed the whole thing up.  It was really unfortunate.  We made two albums that I was very pleased with, that I think should have made it.

I suppose I was sort of spoiled because the Who, musically, were as good as you were going to get.  The Kinks, although not quite as good, were still good, and had, in my opinion, the best songwriter in England.  The Animals I thought were terrific.  I got to know most of those guys quite well.

Did you know Mickey Most [who produced the Animals, Donovan, and others]?

Very well.  Mickey is a real game player, not real well-liked, by the way.  There are lots of stories associated with Mickey, about things he's allegedly done.  I don't know from first-hand experience if he's done them or not.  But he got better as he went along.  I thought his early records were not very good.  He certainly learned his craft as a producer.  How do you argue with success?

His major strength was picking material.  The absolute reverse of Glyn Johns, who was a very, very close friend of mine, who perhaps produced the best sound records there ever were, but could not pick a hit record if it came and bit him.  On balance, I'd rather have a Mickey Most, because records are really 75% the song, I think.  I've always thought that.  Maybe more.  It is certainly a fact that you can have a great song with a lousy band that's a hit, but never the reverse.

How much was Glyn involved on the records you worked on together?

I understand the way you phrased that question...I never worked on a record with Glyn.  Glyn was my engineer.  He was a very good friend at the time.  We had a lot of mutual respect for each other, but I don't think I can fairly say that I worked on a record with him.  I was producing the record, and he was the engineer.  And maybe that's my personality fault.  I could not produce a record, I think, with someone.  It would be very difficult to do.  Somebody's got to steer the damn ship, and I don't think you can have two captains trying to steer in two different directions.  That's certainly the way I always worked.

Glyn was certainly an asset for me because he was such a super-duper engineer.  He certainly helped with the sound, and one of the best things was, we had enormous rapport in that I didn't have to explain to him in any kind of detail what I wanted.  By the time we'd worked together for a short time, he knew what I wanted and gave it to me.  And don't forget I started out as an engineer, so I did know how to get it myself.  So it was a pleasure working with him.  It freed me up to concentrate on producing a record and not have to worry about the sound.

How did you judge what was going to be a hit?

I don't know how one judges what's going to be a hit.  I assume it's some instinct.  You can't always be right, of course.  If you're right more times than not, then everybody thinks you're a fucking genius.  I was a right a lot of times, I've certainly been wrong a lot of times!  (laughs) But I was right enough so that people thought I knew what I was talking about.  I will hear a song and I say, "That is a hit song."

I used to do that with Ray Davies.  Ray, who certainly was one of the most prolific writers I've ever known, would go away and come back the next day with about 40 songs he'd written in the last hour.  We'd sit down at the piano and he'd start going through the songs and I'd say, "That one still needs some work," or "That's great, that's a number one," which is what happened with "Sunny Afternoon."  I heard about four bars of that.  I said, "That is definitely a number one record."

I have no idea if other producers do this--when I hear a song that I think is a hit record, I can hear it finished in my head, the way it should be done, complete, mixed, with  instruments and all kinds of stuff.

Did Ray Davies originally conceive "Face To Face" as a song cycle, or did that evolve as the songs were written?

It kind of evolved.  He was very much into his social comment phase, and all the songs started coming together.  I don't recall that it was especially theme-oriented.  I don't remember it that way.

What did you think of the Kinks' material after you stopped producing them?

The Kinks' sound, and the concept of what they were known for on record, certainly had a lot to do with me.  I was with them from inception, and after we stopped working together, I think it's certainly fair to say that they went through a period where they did not have a lot of hit records.  It wasn't until [Ray] finally returned to the old formula, which was basically "Lola," that he got another smash.

The Kinks had an enormous amount of management problems.  But you've said these affected them very little in the studio.

I have always attempted to keep a working atmosphere going in the studio.  I'm sort of a slavedriver.  I think that's too strong a way to put it, but when we get there, we start the session, and we start working.  Incidentally, I'd never, if I could in any way possibly avoid it, I will not work past eight hours a day.  By that time, it's gone over the top, it's all downhill.  Most often we wouldn't even take breaks, we'd go through.  We'd start working, and continue to work for six or eight hours, at the end of which we'd go have some drinks, eat, bullshit.  But in the studio, it was very much working up a storm.  I think that came very much from the fact that I was an engineer, and it was made clear to me, very early on, that the client was paying x number of dollars per hour, and that he'd better get good service for
it.

Anyhow, I like momentum.  I think you start a session, and I don't think you can break after an hour for a half hour and sit around and then get back to where you were.  It just doesn't happen.  You lose some sort of magic.

Do you think the longer, more elaborate production common today hurts the music?

Absolutely.  Look at Fleetwod Mac's "Tusk."  Does that sound like a million-dollar album to you?  I rest my case.  I think they did themselves a great disservice, both musically and financially. It goes back to what I said about momentum.  I don't think that you have to rush through and finish a whole album in eight hours, but I don't think you should take eight months either.  That would drive me nuts.  I couldn't do that.  I would fall asleep, I would be so bored.  We all know of bands who sit around taking eight hours to get a bass drum sound.  I don't even understand things like that.  If I can't get a bass drum sound in fifteen minutes, then I might as well not be there.  I mean, I know what I'm doing. And maybe that's the answer--they don't know what they're doing, or if they can, they can't make up their mind. Not only could I not work like that, I refuse to work like that!

Were there any instances where...

I walked out on one session, if that's what you're going to ask (laughs).  The Mandrake Memorial.  I don't remember how it came about, but I was asked to do this session.  They came to England, at IBC [studios].  For openers, they played music that I really despised.  It was atonal, as far I was concerned.  And they screwed around, and they couldn't do this, and they couldn't do that.  We did this for a couple days, and in the middle of the second day--it was starting to get even more acrimonious as we were going on--I said, "Hey guys--bye!" (laughs) "Play here yourself, I can't do this shit."  And I walked out.

The leader of that band [Craig Anderton] became now a well-known writer on electronic music and recording.

I spoke to him several months ago by accident.  We laughed like crazy at that whole situation.  He's a nice guy.  Nicer now than he was then!

What was Jimmy Page like when he was doing sessions for you?

Terrific.  He was a great guy.

Why did he wait so long to join a band?

Because he was making a lot of money as a session guitarist. You've got to remember, he was in a working class family, he was 17 or 18 when he started, and all of a sudden he was doing three sessions a day, earning during one of them what he would have earned during the course of a week if he had a regular job as a working class individual.  He was very much in demand.  And I think he liked playing sessions.  It's not an onerous job.  You walk in, you see all your pals there, because there was by that time a fair-sized group of session guys who could do this, there was probably 15-20 guys that all worked the same sessions.  And they were all very good friends.  One of my very best friends was Clem Cattini, the drummer, who was wonderful, one of the great senses of humor of our time.  Not only is he a great drummer, but he lifted a session because he was so funny.  John Paul Jones was playing a lot of sessions.  I used to see him at sessions all the time.

After Jimmy, [I used] Nigel Jenkins, very, very good session guitarist.  Alan Parker, of course, became a very good session guitarist, he was in Blue Mink for a while.  He arranges now and all kinds of stuff.  There were some good guys around.  Finally, there was a bunch of really good session guys that were fun to work with, because they were all from bands originally and decided that they really liked playing sessions better than doing the road thing.

Jimmy initially didn't really want to go out on the road.  He still was living with his mother (chuckles), and I don't think he really liked to travel at that time.  So he played sessions.  He was very reliable.  In fact, the session guys were wonderful. They always, always turned up when they were supposed to.  To be a session guy and in demand, it's imperative.  Afterwards, I assume he got turned on to various substances and did various things that he probably shouldn't have done, and certainly became far less reliable.  He certainly doesn't play as well now as he used to.  Why, I don't know.

I can't remember who introduced me to him.  Either Jim Sullivan, or Glyn Johns, said to try this guy out.  So I did, and he rapidly became numero uno session guitarist.

Was it rare to have an electric rock'n'roll guitarist who could fill in for a lot of groups?

It was unusual to have a session guitarist who could really play from instinct rather than rote.  There were several of those [who could play by rote] around, really good guitarists, but they came out of either swing or jazz or something and were not rockers. They played great, immaculate notes with no soul whatsoever.

How long were you based in Britain?

17 years.

What brought you back to the U.S.?

It's just that it was time to come back.  If anything, I overstayed my welcome.  I got extremely complacent, it was very comfortable living there.  I had a super place to live.  I was doing things I enjoyed, it was fun to live in Europe, and I probably should have come back at the end of 1970-71.  I knew it was all over, and I didn't [come back].  Had I, I might still be in the record business.

What do you mean, "it was all over"?

The music scene was pretty much all over as we knew it.  The '60s were gone, and the early '70s went through a very fallow period, I thought.  It was not the same music scene.  Everything started getting corporate and all that kind of stuff.

Were you still doing much production in the '70s?

I really stopped doing things about '73 or so.  I went on to lots of other things.

Did you see a big change in the British music industry from the time you started working until the end of the '60s?

Sure.  From going to nobody who could really play music from feel, they went to hordes of 'em who could, in a very short period of time, two or three years.  I can only assume that this age group of kids, who when I first got there were probably 16 or so, had been growing up for the last several years with American rock'n'roll, and all came of age at the same time.

Any idea why it all happened in London at that point in time?

It's one of those rare things that happen from time to time. Apparently, the same thing happened, I'm told, in Paris in the '40s after the war, and in Greenwich Village in the '50s.  I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time.  When I got there, I moved to Kings Road in Chelsea.  At that point in time, Chelsea consisted of probably, seriously speaking, 400 people who knew each other who more or less traveled around in one huge rat pack.  If there was a party, all of us would turn up.  And it consisted of every type of creative endeavor that there was--photographers, models, actresses, actors, writers, all that kind of thing.  What it eventually turned out to be was what I had been told college was going to be like, where you were going to sit late into night and discuss the meaning of life and all that kind of shit, which didn't really happen to me in college, but it happened to me in Kings Road.  We sat late into the night and discussed how we were going to make it and what we were going to do, and all of a sudden everybody bloody did! (laughs) It just kind of exploded. It was a real fascinating experience.

I like producing records.  It's very satisfying. I may have been the only straight producer in the whole world.  I can't do anything in the studio other than produce records.  I can't eat in the studio, I don't drink in the studio. I produce records--that's it.

I was dragged down at one point to see the Cramps.  I decided against recording them after hearing them live.  We were not philosophically on the same wavelength.  If they were asking me to do a comedy album I might have looked at it in a different way.  Music I don't think I can do with them.

I'm not crazy about new wave.  I've never liked punk because almost without exception, you got a bunch of punks who do not know their instruments.  And don't want to.  It was sort of anti-establishment, it was cool to go up there and play as badly as possible.  I don't find that particularly amusing.  And energy does not make up for all that.  Yes, they had enormous energy, but I always thought I was in the music business and therefore thought I should be producing records that were music.  I've never been into dischords.  Going back to jazz, I really like jazz, but I never liked dischordant jazz, and it's the same thing with new wave when they went dischordant.  I didn't like psychedelic music very much.  Like the Soft Machine, for example--I hated what they did.

I always wanted to do some country.  Because I grew up in the north and spent most of my working life in England, nobody would dream of offering me a country band.  I really like country music--I think I could do a damn good job with it.  Because I certainly grew up with R&B,  I certainly could do that.  Other types of black music I'm not very good on.  I don't know it well and don't like it as much as R&B.  I really love stuff like B.B. King, Ray Charles, any of the traditional R&B bands, Fats Domino, Booker T. & the MGs, etc.  I've never had an opportunity to do these either, because they were about as popular as hen's teeth in England.  You couldn't find any bands like that--although a couple of the African bands purported to be like that, they weren't.  I'm known as a rock'n'roll producer.  I've done Chad & Jeremy, the Bachelors, and the Pentangle, which is about as far away from rock'n'roll as you can get.  But most people don't remember that.

Who was the most fun to work with in the studio, of the artists you produced?

I'd say they were all sort of fun in different ways.  Manfred Mann was fun.  They were all very intellectual, all college buddies together.  They were very smart, funny, and I had a lot of fun working with them.  I loved working with the Kinks on a totally different level.  They were not intellectual, but they were fun.  I loved what they were doing, and we had a good time.

If I can't have any fun doing it, it's really not worth doing.  I would rather not do a session with somebody that is going to be strictly a grind who I didn't like, and we weren't going to have any laughs during the session, because I think that gets on the tape.  Part of what I'm supposed to do in the studio is provide for, or at least enhance, an environment where everybody can work, accomplish things, and have some fun while we're doing it. In my experience, the longer you go on, the worse it sounds. Almost without exception.  There've been very few records who've managed to sound better after eight months than eight weeks.  And even eight weeks would be too damn long.  It definitely takes longer now to record than it used to, obviously, with 24 tracks and whatever.  Just the physical effort of putting all those tracks together does take longer.  It gets to be overkill, and I try not to fall in that trap.  Just because the tracks are there doesn't mean you gotta use them.  But of course a lot of people do.
 

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