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. This interview focuses upon his British folk-rock work.
What did you see as the major differences between folk-rock in its British and American manifestations?
I think there was more folk music in England in the mid-'60s. It was pretty much over in the States. It had gone to folk-rock probably Dylan, after he went electric, I would think. Certainly, he must have been the last of the folk singers, quote unquote, when he was still doing his acoustic stuff. And the singer?songwriter thing was always evolving. I suppose James Taylor and all that crap started out, perhaps, as folk, but I don't equate that in the same category as the Limeliters, or the Kingston Trio. Those were truly folk. What happened in the mid-'60s in America was not truly folk. It was people who had probably been influenced by folk, like I had been originally, and who had moved on. And the same thing, certainly, applied to some degree in England, but not nearly as much. So consequently you wound up with people like the Pentangle, who are still going strong. Some sort of fusion was starting to take place, but the fact remains, is that Bert Jansch was still doing a solo career very successfully as a folk singer. And so were a lot of others. Ralph McTell, who I recorded, by the way, was basically a folk singer. And that really exist...I can't think of any instance of that existing past the early '60s in America.
That method of recording acoustics that you mentioned in our previous interview -- do you think that made the Pentangle's records stand out from other folk-oriented British ones of the time?
Do I think it made them stand out? Yes, absolutely. Because up to that time, I don't think anybody had really been recording acoustic guitar like I was recording acoustic guitar, and because of the nature of all sorts of stuff, like the tape available at the time and the electronics, the apparent level of the acoustic sound definitely stood out. And it also changed the sound to some degree, it made it more bell?like, from the method I evolved in both recording and, of course, mixing it.
Prior to 1965, you'd done some stuff on pop records that, while it wasn't called folk-rock, had some elements of it in the acoustic sounds. With Chad & Jeremy and Jon Mark, although I'm not sure if you recorded Mark prior to 1965 or not.
Oh yeah, I did. He was truly folk, by the way. He was absolutely a folk singer. It was only later on that he started getting into jazz and Indian. He's the first person that introduced me to sort of Indian music, and ragas and things like that, which is how [the Kinks'] "See My Friends" came about.
There's nothing he did solo with you that came out, is there?
I did record him. Nothing came out solo, 'cause you couldn't get arrested with him. He was terrific.
Did you have any sense that folk and rock were going to be coming together as much as they did?
I had a sense of that. I don't think that I specifically had a sense that folk-rock was going to become a force, which I'm not even sure it ever really did in England. I think it was just part of what we were recording, and who was doing it, and as you pointed out, yes, certainly, some of the Kinks stuff, like "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," were geared towards folk. And Ray, again, started out basically as a folk singer. I mean, in his very early days, he was influenced by folk as well as blues and we specifically did that as a folk thing, as a folk-rock thing. It obviously was a spoof. And it was meant to be. Consequently, that came around the same time as Dylan going electric, wasn't it?
Yeah, shortly afterward.
And so yeah, we did that on purpose. That was fun to do, and I'm not sure that we thought profoundly enough to think it was going to become a specific genre. Folk-rock in general, I think, was an evolution, and I mean I was aware of it, and it seemed obvious that at some point, "we're going to have to put a beat behind some of these things." So I think that just happened. I certainly didn't sit down and think it out specifically, and I have no idea if anybody else did.
When you referred to you and the Kinks spoofing folk-rock, would that be "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" or "Well Respected Man"?
Both of those, sure. "Well Respected Man" was written, of course, about one of their managers. And to this day, I'm not sure he even knows about it. We were all in on the joke at the time, but (laughs) I'm not sure he was. They were sort of pompous, but they were nice guys.
In our prior interview you'd referred to the Pentangle's manager, Jo Lustig, as one of your least favorite people.
I really shouldn't speak ill of the dead. He's now dead. But I will. The reason why I said he was my #1 most unfavorite person was because he tried to screw me, and I caught him, and he wasn't happy about it, and I was even unhappier about it than he was. So that's where that lay.
However, as I have discovered along the way, there have been many jerks, crooks, scumbags, who have a talent for both discovering talent and promoting it. And Lustig was one of the best PR people I've ever known. If he'd been a straight shooter, he would have had his place in history, I think. That wasn't the case, but it didn't stop him from being a hell of a PR guy. He certainly put me into Pentangle. They had gotten...I think that Bert and John Renbourn had gotten together, played gigs occasionally. And I think that's where they ran into Jacqui as well. And then I think Danny was always around, because he was the one guy that crossed over. He played everything. He played jazz, he played folk, he played rock, you know, whatever. And he was friends with Terry Cox. And so I think they all decided to get along, to try this kind of fusionist-type thing. Certainly it was probably the most rewarding stuff I ever did, because we did everything from medieval chants to modern jazz, and all the stages in?between. And that was just great. Every session was a new session. They all got on very well.
Especially on those early records. They even did "Sally Go Round the Roses."
I love that. I still play that occasionally just to hear it, because it's so good. And again, it's something that could be a hit again now today.
So you got involved in producing the Pentangle through Jo?
Did he seek you out?
Yes. We were cooperating, quote unquote. We were sort of actually half-assed partners in their publishing, and I met Jo via John Cassavettes.
The film director!
And actor. And Jo had done PR for John. In fact, he did the film Shadows that John first did. Jo was from Brooklyn. He was a loud, obnoxious New Yorker. I know several. He was one of them. He looked like a bulldog, and he had no class and very few manners. But like a lot of unfortunately obnoxious loud-mouthed New Yorkers that I know. He wasn't any worse or any better than any of 'em. But he was in England (laughs). And they were kind of thin on the ground at that point.
In any event, I was also doing some book publishing at the time. I had a quite successful book publishing operation. That's sort of how I got involved with Jo, because of a book that I was doing. And we sort of moved on from there. He said he had these people, and of course I knew who Bert Jansch was, and I knew who Danny Thompson was. So I said, "Oh yeah, absolutely." So I did that. He put me onto Roy Harper, too. He was managing Roy Harper. So he did me some good turns. And then he tried to screw me (laughs).
Did he manage anyone else in the folk or folk-rock scene there?
Yeah, he had Stealer's Wheel, I think, or one of that bunch. It could have been Stealer's Wheel, I can't remember now. He had, oh, what was her name. He had a girl singer with a Mexican name [Julie Felix]. She never really made it. I haven't thought about her in 30 years. Yeah, he did a bunch of stuff. He was sort of there. He was involved, I think, initially, as I recall, the reason why he wound up in England, is he came over doing PR for Nat King Cole. And he stayed. So he was into swing and folk and stuff like that, jazz. As I said, even the worst people I've ever known have had something to redeem them in some way or another. And that was his. He was a fabulous PR.
I just read in the new Sandy Denny biography that he wanted to have Sandy be the singer in Pentangle, but shied away from her because of her drinking problem. Did you ever hear about any plans to have Denny in the band?
Never. I mean, it's possible, but if so, I wasn't privy to that conversation. When I met them, they were pretty much decided that this was going to be the lineup, and that's the stuff they were going to do, and of course, we were then going through the various things. Because they all brought all these amazing musical influences together, which is why we ended up doing such an eclectic mix of music.
What were the best and most frustrating parts of working with them?
The best parts probably were the fact that they were as good as they were. They were the best, I thought, of their representative fields. They were all intelligent, which always made me happy (laughs). It made it a lot more fun. And they were all just super-duper musicians, and I mean really, I guess, it was really the superstar group of that time for the type of music they were doing.
The worst part...well, there wasn't any really worst part. I mean, I got along better with Danny, who I'm still friendly with, by the way, and Terry Cox, than I did with the other three, who were...I'll tell you the reason why. I haven't even tried to articulate this, but I will now, 'cause I'm thinking about it. They considered themselves the elite. And kind of looked down on the others to some degree. Danny didn't give a shit because he's Danny, and he [has] a great sense of humor. He would take shit from anybody. And Terry, pretty much the same way. So I became the target to some degree (chuckles), which didn't bother me in the slightest. I was fine. Bert is Bert. He is in a category by himself. He certainly did influence a bunch of people, and he was certainly aware of it. Jacqui is the most surprising of the bunch. She'd look like butter would melt in her mouth, and the absolute opposite is true. But a fabulous singer. Don't get me wrong, I never had any problems in the studio with them. I just didn't hang out with them, that's all. In the studio, she was fabulous. She could be up drinking and smoking all night, and come in and sing absolutely brilliantly.
Which of the Pentangle recordings are your favorites?
"Sally Go Round the Roses," "Light Flight" I think's the other one I really like a lot. Actually, I listen to them every now and then just for the pleasure of listening to them, quite frankly, which I don't do with most of the stuff I've done. They were excellent, and it's a shame that they didn't stay together longer, and it's a shame that I didn't do more or whatever, except that they were starting to fade at the time, and I was running into my problems with Lustig and all that stuff. So there's a lot more they could have done, because it was a huge field of music to select.
Like a bunch of top British folk-rock groups, they had a lot more success in England than here, where they're pretty much a minority interest. Why do you think they weren't bigger in the States?
Well, I don't know what accounts for anything. Hell, if we knew that, you could just stay in some little tiny room, give advice, and be a billionaire. I don't know. I think maybe partly their age, partly the fact that when they were doing this, which was '69-70, that kind of music was not happening here at all. They had a fan base, and I believe they actually played Carnegie Hall. I think they did pretty well there. They did pretty well at the venues they did. But without the type of super-duper promotion, and I'm not even sure that would have worked, I don't think that they could have gotten any further than they did. A different time, as well. Now, with all the medias available, perhaps they would have done better. Perhaps they would have done worse. It's hard to say. I'm not surprised they did not became superstars in the States. The music wasn't happening. Correct me if I'm wrong, but who else was doing what they were doing here at the time that were bigger than they were?
There was no one. In England, the group that was most comparable to Pentangle in terms of British commercial success in the style was Fairport Convention. And it was the same thing with them in the States, where they weren't nearly as big.
Exactly. And tell me an American group that was even remotely in the same category. I don't think there was one.
I would agree. Folk-influenced rock at that time in America was very much weighted toward singer?songwriters.
The Neil Youngs of the world and all that crap were strictly doing what they were doing, and not even remotely where Pentangle was.
How did Sweet Child come about with having one studio album paired with one live album?
That came about because they were doing a concert at whatever hall it was, and and we decided it would be nice to have a live concert, which I was happy to do, because I love doing live events. So we did that, and I believe Translantic wanted a studio album as well. So we did both. Additional-expense-wise, doing live in those days was dead simple, and not particularly expensive. So I was able to record it and edit it and all that kind of stuff, and mix it, for a reasonable amount of money. And then we just had a normal studio album. They decided to put it out as a double album.
I think Bert Jansch is the most distinguished talent in that group...
He is, and I think he actually got a lot from the group. Because when I did his solo album, there was something missing. Even though we used some of the same musicians, he wasn't getting input from...he and John Renbourn really played well together. They fed off each other. When he was doing his solo album, that really wasn't the case.
Could you see his influence on Page and Young?
Oh, absolutely. I think Page, who as you know I found very early on, was influenced by virtually everybody at that point, including Big Jim Sullivan and some of the American guitarists, and certainly Bert Jansch. I think he picked up everything like a sponge. He was good. And I can see him having an influence on him, because a lot of the '60s guitarists, of course, started out as being influenced by folk/blues guys, starting with Lonnie Donegan.
Now, moving on to Roy Harper.
Roy Harper was not a bed of roses. He was basically a card-carrying anarchist and revolutionary and all those good things, and all I wanted to do produce records. I didn't want to hear some political bullshit spiel. So it was fractious. But then again, that's his personality, I believe.
He's still going now, with so many albums it's hard to keep track.
It doesn't surprise me in the slightest. I think there is an element of disenfranchised types out there who believe themselves to be disenfranchised. The kind of people who support the Dead Kennedys, for god's sake, there's a group of them out there. He doesn't sell millions, he sells [to] a few group of people. And he always will, because of the type of stuff he does. The best thing you can say about him is that he hasn't compromised himself. Apart from the stuff I did with him, of course! (laughs) What I did was make him sound a hell of a lot more professional than he is, or was, or will be. And I think he resents that, quite frankly.
Were you hearing things in his songwriting and singing that were different than anything else going on at the time?
Well, you know, I liked a lot of his stuff. A lot of his stuff I thought was absolutely crap, which I pointed out, and I'm sure that didn't go down real well either. John Peel's sort of offbeat show is the kind of stuff that Roy Harper appealed to. I mean, I'm talking about the days when John Peel would only play really oddball stuff that nobody else would play. Which, quite frankly, doesn't appeal to me on a regular basis. I can take some of it. So I found a lot of his stuff to be garbage. It was self?indulgent, and it was not particularly musical, and lots of other stuff. And I tried to apply some structure to it, and he's basically an unstructured artist, if you want to call him that.
That partially answers my question about his long, convoluted song structures. Was there editing involved in the studio?
No, it was more talking and talking until we got to some sort of rapprochement where (laughs for quite a while) it was maybe not good enough, but a close enough compromise for both of us to live with it. I'm not wild about long, rambling things with no beginnings and no ends, and this is more or less where Roy was at, at that time. Where he is now, I don't...I haven't listened to Roy in ages. I mean, we had professional musicians. We had Danny Thompson, for openers. And I don't remember who else was on the sessions. But they were all really good musicians, and they went along with us to a point too. But these were guys who wanted to make a record for god's sake, you know. And Roy had another agenda. So it was difficult, to say the least. It wasn't, certainly, the most pleasure I've ever had in a record session.
What were your impressions of Ralph McTell?
He was fabulous. And that rates right up there with one of my biggest disappointments of all time. Because we cut some fabulous stuff with him that Warners was jumping up and down about, and it was too commercial for him. He was afraid he wasn't going to be able to go to his local pub and drink anymore, and he literally ran away. After we recorded this stuff, he went to Cornwall or somewhere, and he hid out until Warners agreed that they wouldn't put it out.
That's kind of strange, because he did have a huge hit eventually [with "Streets of London"].
Yeah, but he didn't expect it to be. He didn't really want to have fame. I mean, I've never known an artist like that. I think he lived in Clapham, or somewhere like that. He wanted to go to his local pub every day, he wanted to have his mates around him. He did not want to be recognized. He liked to do his little folk gigs at pubs or little clubs. And that was that. That is what made him happy. And all of a sudden, we were doing a very polished version of what he had been doing. And I'll tell you, with all ego intended, it was absolutely fucking brilliant. It was really great stuff there, and he wrote some great songs. And I think it would have been a huge, worldwide hit. It would have established him as a superstar, as a singer-songwriter, because we were at that point again where he wasn't just folk, he was going to be a singer?songwriter. And he ran away (laughs heartily). It was a great disappointment to me.
Anyone else you want to talk about?
If you're talking about folk, I suppose, I really gotta mention the Bachelors. They really were folk, truly folk people when I got 'em. They were three harmonica players who played just acoustic guitars and a bass, and were doing pretty much folk stuff. And we started doing this sort of phony country and western stuff. This is what they had the hits with, but they were really Irish folkie guys. Chad & Jeremy were the obvious models, to me, for Peter & Gordon, and certainly very folky. I mean, probably comparable in the early days of Simon & Garfunkel.
The Bachelors to me are kind of like the Springfields, doing a kind of eclectic pop-folk-country with a bit of rock, but not really there in terms of mixing folk and rock.
I remember them [the Springfields] well. Yeah, they both probably started from the same place as pure folk. My brief from Decca, they were basically the first artist I was given, the Bachelors, when I lied my way into the gig in the first place. However, on reflection, maybe they didn't take everything I said as gospel, because these guys did not sing. They had harmonica players, and I had to rehearse them in my little tiny flat and point out who was doing what in terms of what they're supposed to sing, and how to do backups, and all that kind of stuff. Which was, probably at that point, not my strong point. But there was nobody else around to do it, so I did it. And the other part of the brief was to [do] something commercial with them. I think they were going to try and capitalize on folk and country. That was really where it was going, I think. I guess there was no real parallel here in the States, I don't think. And since these guys were not born-and-bred country-western types, what came out was kind of a deviation that somehow worked. There was an Australian guy...
Frank Ifield. I think they were trying to capitalize, as a group, on the Frank Ifield thing.
I knew them [the Springfields] all at
time, and I liked what they were doing. They sounded more folkie to me
than anything. They were sort of like...they were like the New Christy
Minstrels, but with three voices (laughs).
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