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Ben Carruthers and the Deep

Ben Carruthers2The other day I went to hear some tracks from the new album created by T Bone Burnett from a set of lyrics abandoned by Bob Dylan in 1967. Invited to do whatever he wanted with Dylan’s words, Burnett got together a group of songwriters — Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello — and asked them to turn the lyrics into songs. You can read what I thought of the results here, on the Guardian‘s music blog.

It reminded me of another time someone turned a Dylan lyric into a song, to very good effect. One of my favourite records of the summer of 1965 was “Jack o’ Diamonds” by Ben Carruthers and the Deep, produced by Shel Talmy and released that June on Parlophone. The songwriting credit on the label read “Dylan-Carruthers”. This is it.

It’s a terrific piece of work, perfectly pitched between the exhilarating modernist Anglo-R&B sound of the early Animals, Kinks and Who and Dylan’s intense, inventive folk-rock. Great guitars — heavily reverbed arpeggios, slashing rhythm — with watery organ fills and solo, no nonsense from the bass and drums, and an urgent post-Dylan vocal. A beautifully constructed two minutes and 50 seconds. And a wonderful final chord.

The story is that Carruthers, an American actor who had appeared six years earlier in John Cassavetes’ great Shadows, was in London that summer to appear in a BBC-TV Wednesday Play, Troy Kennedy Martin’s A Man Without Papers, playing the lead opposite Geraldine McEwan. He visited Dylan at the Savoy hotel (a sojourn immortalised, of course, in D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back), and when he asked him for  a lyric he was rewarded with a piece of paper on which Dylan scrawled a version of the poem that had appeared the previous year on the sleeve of Another Side of Bob Dylan, where it began: “jack o’ diamonds / jack o’ diamonds / one eyed knave / on the move / hits the street / sneaks, leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson / thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay / jack o’ diamonds / is a hard card t play.”

No wonder the backing track is so sharp: the band, created by Talmy for the session at IBC Studios in Portland Place, included two of the sharpest 21-year-old session musicians in London, Jimmy Page on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano, along with a bunch of students from the Architectural Association: Benny Kern on guitar, Ian Whiteman on Lowrey organ, Pete Hodgkinson on drums and a bass player remember only as John. Whiteman later joined the Action, who became Mighty Baby. According to him (on the 45cat website here), it was Kern as much as Carruthers who put the music to Dylan’s lyrics. They also cut a B-side, a Carruthers song called “Right Behind You”, which sounds like Mose Allison taking a stroll down Carnaby Street: here it is.

Benito Carruthers (which is how he was credited on some of his early films) was born in Illinois in 1936, so he was already 29 when he made “Jack o’ Diamonds”. He didn’t make any more records, but there were several further appearances on TV and in movies, including The Dirty Dozen in 1967. He came to see me at the Melody Maker‘s Fleet Street office one day in the early ’70s, and we went to the pub for a conversation of which, regrettably, I kept no record. He died of liver failure in Los Angeles in 1983, aged 47.

I’m biased towards 1965, which I think of as a year of wonders without compare. If you weren’t around then but wanted to know what it felt like, you could do a lot worse than put on “Jack o’ Diamonds”.

* The photograph of Ben Carruthers is a still from Shadows.

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.