The sound of Shel Talmy
Of the handful of Americans who landed in the UK in the 1960s to try and reverse the tide of the British Invasion, none had a more profound impact than Shel Talmy. A 25-year-old studio engineer with virtually no experience as a record producer but with a handful of Beach Boys and Lou Rawls acetates given to him by his mentor, Nik Venet, in order to persuade prospective employers of his bona fides, Talmy arrived from California in the summer of 1962. Dick Rowe, Decca’s A&R chief, was impressed enough to assign him to work with the Bachelors. It wasn’t really his idea of pop music, but when “Charmaine” was a hit, he was on his way. And after that came a handful of sessions that changed the way British pop records sounded.
Talmy had worked as a studio engineer in Hollywood, miking up the Wrecking Crew. He knew how to make records that didn’t sound as though the desks were being manned by men in lab coats who regarded distortion as a form of heresy. The results, when he was let loose on a new generation of English bands, included the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night” and “Tired of Waiting for You”, and the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”, “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” and “My Generation”. He knew how to use session men like Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins while retaining the raw energy that characterised the young bands in their club appearances.
Making Time is the title of a new Ace Records compilation of his work in London’s recording studios. It’s full of riches and curiosities. My favourite — indeed, one of my favourite singles of the decade is “Jack O’Diamonds” by the American actor Ben Carruthers and the Deep. As I wrote in a piece on this blog three years ago, it’s based on a poem Bob Dylan gave to Carruthers at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1965, and on a snatch of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song of the same name, and it’s played by a band put together for the session with Page on guitar, Hopkins on piano, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass guitarist remembered only as “John”.
My second favourite is very different, although no less of a pure product of the mid-’60s: “Surrender”, by a teenage singer from Belfast called Perpetual Langley (real name: Mary Langley), is a record I’d never heard before. It’s an early Nik Ashford-Valerie Simpson-Joshie Armstead composition, and Talmy gives it a perfect New York girl-group treatment. That would be Bobby Graham, I think, doing the Gary Chester thing at the drums in IBC Studios on Portland Place, Talmy’s favourite location. It was released on Talmy’s own independent Planet label, which was also the home of the Creation track that gives the anthology its title.
Although Talmy made his reputation with guitar bands, Making Time is quite a varied collection, including tracks by Roy Harper (“Ageing Raver”), Pentangle (“Light Flight”, the theme from the TV series Take Three Girls), the Nashville Teens, Lee Hazlewood (singing one of Talmy’s own songs), David Bowie (as Davy Jones, with an unreleased mix of “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”), the Easybeats, Chad & Jeremy, Tim Rose, and the Rockin’ Vickers (with Lemmy). There’s also “Drowning in My Own Despair” by Oliver Norman, a halfway decent pastiche of the Four Tops “Seven Rooms of Gloom”.
One band Talmy didn’t record at IBC was Manfred Mann, whose manager, Gerry Bron, called him in after they’d been dropped by EMI — who had given the departing Paul Jones a solo contract — and signed with Philips/Fontana. He made two singles (“Just Like a Woman” and “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James”) and one album with the band and their new singer, Mike D’Abo, at the Philips studios on the corner of Bayswater Road and Stanhope Place. Wondering what it was like to work with Talmy, and what made him special, I emailed D’Abo and Tom McGuinness, who told me first of all that EMI had turned down their request to let John Burgess, the staff producer who had supervised their early hits, continue his successful collaboration with them.
“My recollection of Shel is of a cool, hands-off producer,” Tom replied. “We weren’t easy to produce. We were all very opinionated. We were also insecure as to whether we could carry on successfully after Paul’s departure. And we missed the security blanket of John Burgess. I can’t honestly recall how much Shel contributed. I know I read an interview with him years ago where he said something like, ‘Manfred Mann weren’t that easy to produce. They would stop in the middle of a take to discuss the political situation in Nicaragua.’ We were also schizophrenic in direction. Fontana wanted pop hits, but bands like Traffic were showing that albums were the way forward. A divide we never bridged.”
A couple of years ago D’Abo visited Talmy in Los Angeles, to which the producer returned in 1979. “I think Shel found recording the band quite a frustrating experience, pointing out to me that during recording sessions Manfred seemed to be forever making or taking phone calls, invariably related to finding out the latest price for his stocks and shares! I don’t think he felt much of a musical common bond existed within the group, and that perhaps our approach to recording singles was a bit too formulaic. Also, being brought up with American culture, it probably made it harder for him to relate to our English character, outlook and idiosyncracies. As a producer, he knew what format a song should take and trusted his instincts as to what made a hit song. He was a basically shy man, but once he felt comfortable in people’s company, he could be most entertaining, amusing and charming. His track record makes him a bit of a ’60s legend, I’d say.”
That’s certainly true. London was a richer place in those days for the presence of Sheldon Talmy, a man who was never afraid to let the needles go into the red and who celebrates his 80th birthday on August 11.
* The photograph of Keith Moon, Shel Talmy and Pete Townshend is from the cover of Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production.