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The sound of Shel Talmy

Shel TalmyOf 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.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good to see a man of your vintage finally getting to hear and applaud Perpetual Langley’s Surrender, a great record from a great era of girl pop. Ace Records along with RPM have done a wonderful job over the years of promoting this still maligned and critically under appreciated period of female pop music. Compilations like Ace’s Where The Girls Are series and the Girls From The Garage and Girls With Guitars sets all have great items on them, as do RPM’s Dream Babes Volumes. This isn’t just fan gush. I could get seriously polemical here about why girl pop still gets a bad rap, but I won’t. I’ll just throw this thought into the mix, rock boys muscling in and appropriating girl pop territory is as worthy of our attention as the supposed white appropriation of black music forms. Rant in progress…..developing. Just consider how many UK beat groups started off with covers of girl group or female R&B. Please Mr Postman. Chains. Time Is On My Side. Just One Look. Doo-Wah Diddy etc etc. Food for thought.

    June 6, 2017
    • Indeed, Rob. The Beatles (with Ringo on vocals) covering the Shirelles’ “Boys” was the one that always amused me most.

      June 7, 2017
      • Arf arf. Runs deeper than that of course, as I’ve blabbered on at great length about in my psych book (which you very kindly praised in your Guardian end of year round up in 2015) I would contend that the way that the Beatles (and others) positioned themselves at the mic was borrowed entirely from the girl groups. Rock and roll groups didn’t stand like that pre-62-63. It’s open to debate of course. Do-Wop and close harmony groups approximated the same stance.

        June 8, 2017
  2. Chris Michie #

    Thanks, Richard. Entertaining, perceptive, and informative – as usual. I have always been somewhat stunned by the sound that Talmy got from The Who and The Kinks and, not to knock Mick Avory, often try to guess which Kinks tracks Bobby Graham or Clem Cattini are on. Not being a drummer myself, I am somewhat in the dark here, but I’m hard put to think of many English beat group drummers who could provide as much drive and confidence as you hear on the first three Kinks albums and contemporary singles. Ringo, Viv Prince, Charlie Watts? The list is a short one.

    Also good to see a glancing compliment for John Burgess. I was a Manfred Mann fan before I got into the rest of the London R’n’B bands and would argue that, next to The Beatles, they were the best produced band of the period. The song choices were great, the recordings well-balanced, and the albums and EPs were value-packed. Strange as it may seem, I first discovered essential songs by Smokey Robinson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner on Manfred Mann records.

    I look forward to hearing Making Time. If it weren’t for this blog I might not know it existed.

    June 6, 2017
  3. Colin Harper #

    Shel’s way of capturing/creating the recorded sound for the Who, the Kinks et al. is rightly celebrated – a real dragging of the mid-60s London-based recording industry into a new era and way of thinking, even if he had a ‘sound’ that wasn’t easily replicated at the time.

    But I always think that his work with the Pentangle has been under-celebrated. He produced their first three albums spanning 1968-69 (‘The Pentangle’, ‘Sweet Child’, ‘Basket of Light’) and three singles as well as Bert Jansch’s 1969 album ‘Birthday Blues’ and there is a certain power and atmosphere about those recordings that they never caught again. Of the subsequent albums ‘Cruel Sister’ was very dry and honest in its own way, but lacked the energy that Shel brought; ‘Reflection’, being a 16-track recording, was richer and more successful in the ‘sound’ department; ‘Solomon’s Seal’ was somehow rather ‘small’ sounding with a tightness in the mix rather than the expansiveness and sense of an event that Shel’s productions brought – while simultaneously not seeming artifically boosted, somehow.

    Maybe it was all down to his mic placement and whatever compression tricks he brought from the US that the British engineers of the time seemed unable to get.

    Whatever, his production on wholly acoustic instrumental tracks from the first Pentangle album, for example, like ‘Bells’ and ‘Waltz’ – where it’s all about sustained tension and ultimate release – make them gripping and exciting, yes, even the drum solos. Adding carefully placed touches of cathedral echo to parts of a bass solo on ‘Waltz’ (subliminally keeping the listener’s interest in what might have been a challenging section on a ‘pop’ record) was clever. He somehow made a very esoteric jazz/folk assemblage into something like an underground pop group, and I suspect that contribution had a signifiicant role in why they became so successful so quickly.

    June 7, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Thanks for cluing me into the Pentangle connection . And here I thought I had no clue who Shel was and had nothing to contribute to the conversation . I owned and loved both Pentangle albums ( as well as claim Renbourn as my main inspiration ) but back then I hardly payed attention to who the producer was focusing solely on the music and the players . So now after reading Richard’s article and your comment I’ve got a great excuse to revisit those two incredible gems

      Good lord . Pentangle . What a band of phenomenal musicians they were .

      ” Oh the cuckoo she’s a pretty bird ……… “

      June 9, 2017
      • Colin Harper #

        You’re welcome, Sliger. Some vintage Pentangle product coming soon from a UK label, but I can’t say anything more as yet.

        June 11, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Colin ; About the forthcoming vintage Pentangle .. give me a rattle here on any future comment of mine if you think of it when more details are available / released as I’m obviously interested .

      As for the production questions .. when I’m thru moving and have the audiophile / melomane stereo & turntable up and running I’ll have a serious sit down / listen to see if I can determine from the original vinyl what the differences between Shel’s work and the other albums are cause ; a) you’ve peaked my curiosity and b) along with ‘ slinging ‘ there’s years of SR&E in my past as well 😉

      @ Richard – How about an extended article on the genius of Pentangle and their members ?

      June 12, 2017
  4. Got to give credit to Alec Palao as the prime mover of this anthology. He was the researcher, compiler, producer, and liner-not writer.

    June 7, 2017
    • Quite right. Alec Palao did a very fine job on the compilation and annotation of the set.

      June 8, 2017
  5. Hi Richard,

    Thought you’d like to know that my first proper singing gig was working with Shel Talmy recording the lead vocals for ‘The Mick Cox Band’ double album in 1972 (released 1973 on Capitol Records), which reached the Top 100 in the USA album charts, probably due to Mick’s connection with Eire Apparent, before disappearing without a trace.

    The backing tracks had already been recorded and Mick and Shel were just waiting for a suitable and available singer. So, because Mick had been playing a few shows with Arrival, he very nicely asked me if I’d complete the album by singing the lead vocals, which meant learning a load of songs in a very short space of time.

    Throughout the sessions, I constantly believed that my work would eventually be ditched because I didn’t consider myself to be a ‘singer’, but I continued trying my best because Shel was a very nice bloke to work with and extremely encouraging, plus the princely sum of £200 came in very handy…

    My memory of Shel is that he was a very calm man who didn’t say too much or get rattled easily. He just got on with the job of producing a nice record and I’d say he knew his way around the mixing desk better than anyone, despite his blindness.

    Just found this track on YouTube from the ‘The Mick Cox Band’ double album, “Redirecting Mary” http://youtu.be/i9q8HlGdaLs which I don’t remember much about, apart from these renowned players: Alan Skidmore, Mick Weaver (Wynder K. Frog) & the Kokomo Singers, to name but a few.

    Anyway, thanks for the great writing, as usual. Your followers might be interested in the fact that you and I first met on the helicopter that took the group Arrival, along with quite a few notable freeloaders, to the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Did you return with us directly after our show on Friday or remain at the festival for the duration to hear an incredible line-up that included The Who, Joni, Sly, Free, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez & Jimi Hendrix? We were committed to a gig the next day in Devizes of all places, so had to ‘fly’ back to town…

    Keep up the good work.

    Tony

    June 8, 2017
    • Thanks, Tony. What a lovely tale. As is the one about me hitching a lift in Arrival’s helicopter to the IoW in 1970. Four days later I flew out of there again — but by very different means. That’s another story.

      June 8, 2017
  6. Paul Crowe #

    Yet another informative piece, Richard.

    Thanks once again and to the contributors above – there I was thinking I was well informed on the 60’s British period !

    June 8, 2017
  7. Phil Shaw #

    I bought Makin’ Time on a single by The Creation when it first came out – I have a feeling there was a story about lead guitarist playing his instrument with a bow, which doubtless impressed my teenaged mind. If you’ve ever watched BBC-TV’s splendid Great Pottery Throwdown you’ll have heard it because bits of it are repeatedly used on the show – someone knows their music!

    I remember being particularly excited by the artwork for the 45s on Shel Talmy’s Planet label – black and white showing a globe – which seemed very ‘modern’ compared with the stuffy old Parlophone, Decca and Pye middles. The Reaction label, which The Who were on, had a similarly eye-catching look in blue and silver.

    I’d never heard of Perpetual Langley, which surprises me, given her striking name and the quality of the tracks I’ve just listened to online. Further investigation reveals the sad news that she died in an accident in 1988.

    June 8, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      I wonder was ‘Perpetual’ a mishearing by someone that ended up on the record label? ‘Perpetua’ is an Irish Catholic name that would probably sound pretty odd to anyone in Britain and coupled with a surname beginning with an ‘L’ you can imagine how it happened.

      Other fun examples of record label mishearings include, seemingly, the first Jethro Tull single credited to ‘Jethro Toe’ (I’m imagining a Saarf Laaaahndan accent saying ‘Jethro Tull’ over the phone to someone in a pressing plant) and the Ralph McTell album ‘Not Till Tomorrow’, which was the result of a label person calling Ralph up and asking if he had an album title yet, to which his answer was…

      June 8, 2017
      • A bit off topic, but a mate of mine used to work in a record shop in Bedford, early 70s and it was his job to read the local Top 10 down the phone to the local paper The Beds Courier (the very one that Steve Peacock used to write for, see earlier post on here.) It must have been a particularly bad line one week in 1974 because a record by Steve Wonder called Please Mr Nigel was printed in the paper the following week. You know the one. “He’s a man with a plan/got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/please mister…

        June 8, 2017
      • Phil Shaw #

        Her brother Gerry, with whom Perpetual Langley apparently formed a duo at one point (imaginatively called The Langleys) is quoted as saying her full name was Mary Perpetua(l) Langley.

        Who knows whether it was a mis-hearing or not – good theory – but it’s a memorable moniker and a good single.

        June 8, 2017
  8. Chris C #

    Great post Richard. I would love to have interviewed Shel T in my ongoing research into The Who but it never happened. What I do know is that he made an absolute fortune off them, a 5% royalty on all their albums and singles up to and including Who’s Next as a result of the out-of-court settlement agreed in 1966 after The Who (encouraged by managers Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp) flagrantly breached their production contract with him. He made more from Tommy, Leeds, WN etc than the individual members of The Who, and I believe he continues to do so.

    June 8, 2017
    • Now that IS interesting, Chris.

      June 10, 2017
      • paul platz #

        Chris
        dont know where you got yr info but I think yr mixing the Kinks with the WHO..Shel certainly got an override on REACTION/NEW ACTION material but I think it stopped there..could be that my memory is fading!

        June 12, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      I’m sure Chris is correct, Paul. I thought the tale about Shel making a fortune from Who records up to Tommy (getting a greater percentage than band members combined for records up to then, long after his association with them) was well known. I’m sure it’s been referred to by band members in documentaries.

      June 12, 2017
      • And I don’t think Chris, of all people, would confuse the Who with the Kinks…

        June 12, 2017
  9. It was amazing to see your old picture of Shel Talmy. I had forgotten what he looked like since that Ben Carruthers session in 1965. It brought it all back. It also brought back the IBC studio in Portland Place where it took place, which was a large dingy converted first floor Edwardian drawing room with green drapes everywhere. The control room was a mezzanine at the back up some stairs and the mixing desk looked like something out of a ship’s bridge with faders like sticks with large black nobs on stickling out of a slime green metallic box. Studios are often forgotten spaces where life changing music happened. They gave character to the music. In fact every studio had its own sound then. I think that might have all been lost now.

    June 14, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      I think some London studios of the 1960s are ‘forgotten spaces’, Ian, because there appear to be very few photographs and moving images from them – certainly compared to the likes of Columbia Studios in New York, where every time Miles Davis walked into one in the 50s someone seemed to be shooting reels of evocative B&Ws, as if Ashley Khan or future box-set compilers had time-travelled back to the era and commissioned them to do so!

      There’s the odd bit of EMI studios newsreel from the 60s, such as the clip with Brian Epstein in the control room and a Cilla Black session behind him, and another Cilla session with Burt Bacharach conducting an orchestra (extremely camply), for ‘Alfie’ I think.

      There’s a clip of Mickie Most in a studio somewhere in London in 1966 with Herman’s Hermits in a Granada documentary, and I seem to recall a clip of the Who in a London studio mid 60s (I forget what they were doing) and a 1964 clip of Tom Jones & the Squires in a studio (a small one, so hardly Decca) for a BBC programme… and then there’s the oft-recycled-in-documentaries clips of Andrew Oldham in a studio (in colour) from ‘Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London’, or one of Peter Whitehead’s films, certainly… and a short clip of Quintessence in one of Island’s rooms from a counterculture docco… but I’m struggling to recall much more.

      Has anyone ever seen photos from Olympic, Sound Techniques, Trident, Pye, De Lane Lea, Regent Sound, etc from the 60s? There are a handful of shots taken by an engineer of a massed guitar session at Decca one day c.1966, in a vast studio – presumably West Hampstead No.1, but I’ve seen no others… The recent-ish book on British Recording Studios (I forget the author) does well in pulling images together, but often a few pics from a period promotional brochure are all there are.

      As far as the studios’ sound goes, there are plug-ins for recording engineers now available that replicate the sound of certain legendary studio desks – if not the ambience of the rooms themselves.

      June 14, 2017
      • The problem might have been that no one had cameras then. I could barely afford the bus fare to the studio let alone a camera, film and developing. I have almost no pictures of myself from the 1960s apart from daft posed group shots taken by various photographers. Let’s face it the Americans just had more money. We were the poor relations. I think John Wood of Sound Techniques fame is still alive. He must have some old photos of his studio as it was his own baby. I can almost remember its smell and the sound of its lovely Bechstein piano. The studio was the invisible presence on every record made in it …great recordings by Nick Drake, the Fairports, John Martyn and many others. I don’t miss much from that time but those studios I do. Even Island Records with its peculiar Pirelli rubber floor and useless grand piano. Places of mystery, expectations, power, vain hopes and gleaming analogue technology.

        June 15, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      I agree about the reasons why there’s little visual evidence, Ian – and in a way the lack of imagery helps the artefacts of those places retain their aura in the imagination for those of us who weren’t there at the time, or the place. The balance has swung far too far the other way, to my mind, these days. I was in a queue at a chain coffee shop recently and the woman in front of me arranged a couple of the chain’s standard packs of chocolate wafers and took a pic of them with her telephone. Maybe she had a good reason for doing so, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be. Posting it on Facebook to let everyone know shop X in location Y had wafers? The banality was breathtaking. (I don’t own a mobile phone or a camera, so maybe I’m biased.)

      June 15, 2017

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