Ready Steady Go!
Shel Talmy Reflects on Making London LOUD
One of the reasons why I think I gravitated toward bands like The Who and The Kinks in my teenage years (first and second major concerts I saw, as a matter of fact) was simply the blunt, raw aggression of their sound, contrasted with the poetic expressions of awkward sensitivity in the songwriting. Adolescent angst in a nutshell, right? Now, I’m mostly referring to their initial blasts, those mid-60s singles and albums (which sounded tellingly similar to a lot of the punk stuff I was also getting into) that were already ancient news by the time I discovered them during high school in the early ‘80s. But I didn’t really care. I was just happy those bands were still around and walking the earth at the same time I was.
So I spent a lot of time in record stores searching for their back catalogs, and a lot of time in my room listening to those albums, and a lot of time examining the covers and credits while listening. So I saw Shel Talmy’s name a lot. I knew nothing about recording techniques or music production (still don’t), but clearly this guy was important. He had a major role in the making of some of the most powerful music in rock ‘n’ roll. Later, as I grew a little older and got into (along with tons of other stuff) David Bowie and Motorhead, and investigated some of Bowie and Lemmy’s early, early, pre-fame recordings, there was the name Shel Talmy again! Then I started seeing his name on other old records. What the hell? Who was this Brit with the odd name, and whatever became of him? Was he even still alive?
Well, many years down the pike, come to find out that, yes, he’s still alive, and what’s more, he’s not even British! He’s originally from Chicago, and got his start in the recording business out in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, working as an engineer on tracks for R&B, surf and teenybopper acts.
“I worked for ABC television for a while. I started hanging around a music biz hangout, which was Martoni’s, and met a guy there who had a studio called Conway Recorders, and he asked me if I wanted to learn how to be an engineer. I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like fun’,” Talmy laughs during a recent phone convo. “And three days later I did my first session (Debbie Sharon’s 1961 single ‘Falling Star’). It was like sink or swim, I think, but it worked out fine, and I engineered for the next year or so.”
The owner of Conway, Phil Yeend, happened to be English, and kept telling Shel how wonderful England was. “I thought it would be nice if I could spend some time there before life passed me by, and I planned a trip for about five or six weeks,” Talmy says. “I had a single deal waiting for me when I got back, but I took the precaution of finding some contacts in England, and my friend Nik Venet, who was at Capitol A&R, said, ‘You can take my demos and use ‘em to help get yourself a gig.’ So basically what I did, I got an appointment with [A&R man] Dick Rowe at Decca, and walked in extremely cocky – not how people are supposed to be, but I didn’t really care because I was coming back [to the States] in a few weeks – and I reeled off a whole string of hits I hadn’t done, and then played two of Nik’s demos, which were Lou Rawls and the Beach Boys, and he said, ‘You’re hired!’ Oh, shit…”
Being that Talmy had fed Rowe a bullshit resume, he figured he needed to have a hit for Decca pronto after the company unexpectedly brought him on board as a producer. That hit came with “Charmaine,” a Top Ten UK success for Irish pop group The Bachelors in late 1962. And so Talmy’s “five or six weeks” in England got extended… eventually for some 17 years!
So what it was like for an American to be in London during that time period, when everything was changing so quickly in music, pop art and culture, and there was so much excitement everywhere?
“The word I would use,” replies Talmy, “is unbelievable. It was probably… no, it was the best period of my life. And most people who were there and are still around would probably tell you the same thing. Because creativity just mushroomed and exploded, and rock ‘n’ roll as we were then doing it, we had no preconceived notions about what we had to do – we were breaking new ground. So, that was great. When I got there, I was over on Kings Road, and there were probably 400 of us. If there was a party, probably 400 people would descend on the party, and that included every kind of showbiz or creative talent there was. Michael Caine was there, Mary Quant with the fashion stuff, actors, songwriters, musicians, film people… It was thrilling.”
Shortly after the Bachelors hit, Talmy was introduced to a fledgling group from North London called The Ravens, anchored by frequently feuding brothers Ray and Dave Davies. By 1964, they’d changed their name to The Kinks, and Talmy had taken them under his production wing, helming their recording sessions from their debut single (“Long Tall Sally,” early 1964) through the 1967 album Something Else By the Kinks. This, of course, included their breakout single “You Really Got Me.”
With its punchy electric power chords, that repetitive riff and aggressive delivery, the song (not to mention its follow-up, “All Day and All of the Night” and others from The Kinks’ early arsenal) stood out, and impacted so much of what followed: garage rock, power pop, hard rock, punk.
“I’ve been told that a lot,” Talmy concedes. “I suppose the reason why it was like that was because when I was engineering, I spent a lot of time trying to get better sounds out of what was coming out of isolation and levels. Trying to push the levels as far as you could get it to go without distorting. And when I got to London, the music was what I used to term ‘polite,’ and I think they did as well. They were using three mics on drums, and I was using a dozen, because that’s what I’d figured out, we spent so long figuring it out. And I started doing that, and they said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘I guess you’ll have to wait and see and listen.’ Two months later, everybody’s using a dozen mics. Yes, I like loud! I like levels, I like punchiness, and I like feel. So I guess that’s what I brought with me.”
The sharp sound and style of “You Really Got Me” duly impressed the young guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, who approached Talmy to produce his scruffy mod group, The Who. Talmy scored the band a record deal with Decca in the States (their subsidiary Brunswick in the UK) and produced their first singles and debut album, My Generation. The LP’s explosive title track, along with early sides “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “I Can’t Explain,” pushed everything even further into the red, living up to the band’s growing reputation for Maximum R&B and rowdy mayhem.
“[Pete] wanted to play really loud, and I wanted to add all the feedback,” Talmy recalls, “which…nobody had really captured on tape. I worked very hard on getting that recorded, with the equipment we had at the time. It was difficult. I spent time with Pete in the studio, just the two of us, placing the mics in different combinations where they would pick up all the feedback and that kind of stuff, and let Pete play as loud as he wanted to play, with distortion. Yeah, we worked on it. It didn’t just fall out of the sky.”
And then there was Keith Moon – obviously one of the greatest drummers in rock ‘n’ roll, but also a wild card, thrillingly propulsive but seemingly undisciplined. What was it like recording him in the studio?
“He was perfect for me,” Talmy declares. “In my opinion he was the best rock ‘n’ roll drummer of all time. He was great. As undisciplined as he was, he was also so confident. I’d say to him, ‘I’ve got 12 mics up, Keith, and they’re very expensive, and I don’t care how close you get to ‘em – don’t hit ‘em!’ He said, ‘No problem!’ Hahaha! And he never hit a mic! He was totally in control.
“The greatest thing from my point of view is I had two of the best writers ever in rock ‘n’ roll, with Ray [Davis] and Pete Townshend,” Talmy adds. “When you’re starting with great songs, it makes life a hell of a lot easier.”
Although Talmy did not work with The Who after My Generation (a dispute, primarily with band manager Kit Lambert, that led to My Generation being out of print for long stretches until 2002), and (not coincidentally) they never reached that level of sonic rawness again, an interesting side note is that Glyn Johns – who worked as an engineer under Talmy in the ‘60s – went on to produce several of The Who’s ‘70s albums, including Who’s Next, The Who By Numbers and Who Are You.
But things were just beginning for Talmy. He produced (and put out a few records for) a mid-60s English combo called The Rockin’ Vickers, whose guitarist, Ian Willis, is better known as Lemmy Kilmister, later of Hawkwind and Motorhead, of course, and another of rock’s greatest characters.
“He was interesting,” Talmy laughs. “He was much different [then]. I had a great respect for him. They were a really good band. I thought.”
Talmy also produced The Mannish Boys and The Lower Third, two of David Bowie’s early bands prior to launching his chameleonic solo career.
“He was brought to me by a guy I knew,” remembers Talmy. “He was 17 years old, he was brash – and I knew brash. I thought he was very talented, and I thought he was gonna be a big star. I tried my best, and unfortunately, if you check it out, we were about six years ahead of the market. Because when he finally hit, the things I did with him were almost exactly the same genre as what he finally had hits with.”
And then there was The Creation. The short-lived (in its initial incarnation, at least) English combo is, in fact, the very impetus that led to me being on the phone with Shel Talmy in the first place. He produced the band and released their early sides on his even shorter-lived Planet label. Now, nearly 50 years after their breakup, working from his original tapes, Talmy has remastered and given fresh stereo mixes to every track The Creation recorded between 1965 and 1968 for Action Painting, a definitive 42-song double-disc career compilation (and accompanying 80-page hardback mini-history) that was released last month by the Numero Group.
Digesting the two-plus hours of rip-snortin’ rock ‘n’ roll packed herein, as I have been doing a lot of the past several weeks, you pick up on familiar elements from Talmy’s other productions, most noticeably The Who. The chunky chords; bouncy rhythms; drums careening and tumbling; a guttural low-end rumble; jolting guitar and percussive outbursts; a rollicking piano partying in the corner; tough-but-melodic lead vocals; high-pitched backing vocals; a pop art-influenced image; in-your-face immediacy; action-in-sound. Even as they grew more psychedelic with their later efforts, The Creation lost none of their kick. One of rock’s great lost bands, Talmy says his biggest regret is that “they didn’t achieve the standing they should have. I truly believe they could have been as big as The Who.”
“They were very popular [in Europe],” he adds. “They should have become major worldwide superstars. I had just made a very large deal for them with Atlantic, and they broke up. I could not keep them together. Internal strife.”
So anyway, as I sort of alluded to earlier, a great deal of Talmy’s ‘60s productions had major influence on later musical modifications. Yet Talmy, by then, was strangely absent. Being that he’d produced The Easybeats’ biggest hit, “Friday On My Mind,” logic suggests he would’ve been a natural to produce George Young’s younger brothers Angus and Malcolm’s hard rock band AC/DC in the ‘70s, especially given their signature power chord aggression.
“You know what? It would’ve been nice if they’d asked me!” he laughs. “But they didn’t.”
And British punk rock? Surprisingly (to me), aside from one early session with The Damned, Talmy just didn’t give a damn.
“Because they weren’t very good!” he maintains of the bands. “Musically, most of them really sucked. I mean, The Damned were unusual because they actually were pretty good musicians… I know The Who are considered the progenitors of hard rock, and some even say the beginning of punk. Which I’m not sure is a great compliment! But it goes back to the songs. I thought that very few [punk bands] had really good songs, from my point of view. Obviously there were tons of other people that thought differently, I’m not putting them down – it was a different genre. And wasn’t what I particularly liked, that’s all.” In contrast, while it may surprise many of us who know of him from his rock work, Talmy was a big folk music fan prior that any of that, and he maintains that “Pentangle was, from a musical point of view, the best band I ever worked with.”
Although 79-year-old Talmy (who resides back in Los Angeles) still produces other bands here and there (most recently London combo Hidden Charms), he says that for the most part, by the 1980s, “I got bored. I was doing other things. I had a publishing company, I was writing novels, I was doing business on property and all that kinda stuff. I kind of voluntarily got out [of the recording business].”
Still, he’s very aware and proud of his role in early rock history.
“Who knew at the time, but certainly [those records] have stood the test of time. And the fact that they still are being played today and still are relevant is great news. I love it! These are great songs and great art.
“It’s nice to be remembered,” he admits. “I’m always surprised when people know who I am.”