Interview: Shel Talmy
For those who don’t know, Shel Talmy was the Producer of such bands as The Kinks, The Who, David Bowie, and The Creation. He was a revolutionary of the 1960’s, an American transplant who rode The British Invasion and helped to conquer his own country. For our purposes in those halcyon days gone by, one of Mr. Talmy’s favorite studio musicians was a young man by the name of Jimmy Page. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with him and ask him a wide range of questions. Nothing was off limits, and many controversies I believe were put to bed. Here is that conversation:
FZ: Mr. Talmy, how are you?
FZ: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.
ST: Well, there’s no music around at the moment, it’s kinda nice to talk about how it used to be anyway.
FZ: First question, you began your career as an engineer in Los Angeles, when and how did you decide to pursue a career in music?
ST: I just kind of fell into it. I was working at a TV studio and the places I hung out at the guys were doing music at the same time. As it happens, one of them was English and he said, “Wanna learn how to be an engineer?” and I said “sure why not.” I decided I liked it, and quit the TV studio and went in the recording studio, which was a lot more fun and came with a lot more responsibility immediately. I did my first session about three days after I had learned how to use the board. Of course things were a hell of a lot more simple then too.
FZ: You moved to London in the early 1960’s. What sparked your decision to move from Los Angeles to London?
ST: Well, I was twenty-one and I wanted to go see something of the world before the world passed me by. I chose London because the guy I was working for was English who had come over to L.A. and had done really well and I thought I wouldn’t mind going over and seeing what was happening. I had planned on staying for about four or five weeks, work if I could, and make a few bucks, then comes back. It didn’t turn out that way because, not to put to fine a point on it, I bullshitted my way into a job right after I arrived and had a hit by the time they found out it was bullshit, so I stayed.
FZ: When you got to London, you were a younger person, without too many connections. How did you manage to get your foot into the studios around London?
ST: I actually made some preliminary thoughts about how I was going to do it. I talked to the people I knew here in L.A. and got names of people that they were dealing with over there. A friend of mine over at Liberty Records gave me the name of a top publisher over there, and my friend Nick Varney, who was Capitol Records A&R said “help yourself to my discs, whatever you want to use you can use. You can tell them it was yours.” I said “fine.” I chose a couple things he was doing at the time which were little rolls from The Beach Boys, which is what I played when I first visited Decca. They said, “thank God you arrived, you start today!” It was kind of like that. I did actually think about the possibility of doing some work there because I was arriving without a whole lot of bread.
FZ: When you worked in London, you worked as an independent producer for Decca and Pye, and studios like that. Was it difficult to get into those studios being an outside man, and not a member of the actual corporation?
ST: I went fortunately to the right place from the outset, which was Dick Rowe at Decca who was very pro-American, knew all about independent producers, which there were none of in England at the time, so when I said that’s what I was, he accepted that. Consequently, I was about the only one at the time who was getting a royalty instead of just a straight salary, which is what all the producers were getting. I was absolutely, incredibly brash, because I really didn’t care. I had no bread, I had nothing to lose, and I actually had a deal in L.A. to come back to, so I wasn’t that bothered.
FZ: Later on you started working with Atlantic Records. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with Ahmet Ertegun?
ST: Oh, Ahmet was great! He was a super guy. I’m sorry I didn’t do more with him. He was of course in New York, and I was in London so it didn’t work out, but he was terrific.
FZ: Just to get into it, how did you get involved with The Kinks?
ST: Being at the right place at the right time I guess. I was in Denmark Street, which you probably know was THE publishing street at that time. I was visiting some people that I knew at Neil’s Music and Robert Wace, who was one of their managers, walked in with a demo of The Ravens, as they were then known. I was standing there, and he said, “Anybody want to listen to this?” and I said, “Okay, I’m here, I’ll listen.” So I did, I liked what I heard. I liked, basically, two or three of the songs. I thought the band was good, not great and we kind of proceeded from there. I went to see them and brought them into Pye, because at that time I decided it was time to expand my horizons rather than just being an independent producer for Decca. So they said yes, and the rest is as they say, history.
FZ: How was your working relationship with The Kinks? Specifically Ray Davies.
ST: Ray was always difficult. I didn’t have a problem with anybody else. Ray was moody, and I think it’s fair to say jealous from the outset that I was the, quote-unquote, producer and that he wasn’t. We were obviously close in age, which made it even more difficult. At the time people were less rebellious as they turned out to be subsequently and sometimes it was difficult, but hey, we worked it out [laughs].
FZ: How would you rate Dave [Davies] as a guitarist?
ST: I think he’s one of the more under-rated guitarists there are. He was an extremely good guitarist.
FZ: He doesn’t quite get the credit that he deserves.
ST: Never, I don’t think he ever got the credit. His inventions of the solos and stuff, I mean, Jimmy Page did not play the solo on “You Really Got Me” which I’ve said about 5,000 times to people who insist that he did. The reason I used Jimmy on The Kinks stuff is because Ray didn’t really want to play guitar and sing at the same time. In fact, Jimmy was playing rhythm guitar.
“You Really Got Me”
FZ: How did you become acquainted with Jimmy Page?
ST: Somebody mentioned that they heard this seventeen-year-old kid who was really terrific and I went and checked him out and I used him. We got along great and he was fabulous. I thought “this kid is really gonna go somewhere,” and I only regret that he didn’t call me when he formed Led Zeppelin. It’s a shame! [laughs]. I would like to have done that.
FZ: People have said he was a favorite of yours. What was it about him that made him such a good session guitarist?
ST: Because he got it, I mean, he was original. At that time in London where there were very few really current musicians. A lot of good musicians, but kind of mired slightly in the past. There was like one or two good rhythm sections and that was it. I originally started using Big Jim Sullivan who was the only other one, and then when I found Jimmy, who I thought was even better because he was more with it. He was doing what I thought should be done and certainly what was being done in the states so it was a no-brainer.
FZ: What went into the decision to use a session musician rather than an actual member of the band in the studio?
ST: I can’t think offhand of a band that I didn’t use the band and used all session musicians. I used supplemental guys certainly like Bobby Graham I used on drums for The Kinks because they didn’t have a drummer at the time. When I did the album I used John Lord on organ. Who else did I use, well, obviously Jimmy [Page]. Harry Ford played piano, and that’s before I found Nicky Hopkins who I used on damn near everything from that point on. I never replaced a band with session musicians; I used additional ones when necessary.
FZ: You’ve stated here, as you have stated many times before that Jimmy Page did not play the lead on “You Really Got Me” and he played rhythm. There is still a lot of controversy about the things that Jimmy played on, especially with The Who and “I Can’t Explain”. Would you mind clarifying specifically some of the sessions you might have used Jimmy on and what he might have done?
ST: Well, Jimmy was only on that first session with The Who of “I Can’t Explain”; he played rhythm. Pete played the lead. Again I needed somebody to fill it out as they were only a three-piece band and I thought it would be good to do that. I had him standing by in case, because Pete at that point, was still more or less a rhythm guitarist, and in fact I think it’s fair to say he evolved into being maybe the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time. He was never a great lead guitarist. So I had Jimmy standing by; he was my security blanket.
FZ: When it comes to The Who, they have stated many times, Pete Townshend has stated many times that The Kinks had a huge influence on their sound. Going into the studio with you, was there am attempt to recreate some of that sound? What was the creative process in the beginning days of The Who?
ST: They had their own sound and the first thing you said is absolutely true. He specifically wrote “I Can’t Explain” to get my attention because I had done The Kinks and their then managers specifically went after me because I had done The Kinks and all that kind of crapolla. So that is supposedly true, however, when I first saw them I thought, “This is to date the best band I’d heard in England.” They had a hard-driving point of view. I mean, they got it you know? Again, I’m using that as an expression, but I think you know what I mean. They weren’t faking it, they actually had it already down.
Shel Talmy & The Who
FZ: When you see a band like The Who or The Kinks or someone like that and they flourish as musicians, was the talent already there when you first saw them? Was Keith Moon already the drummer he became when you first got him?
ST: Oh absolutely! He was and still is for my money the best rock drummer of all time. He was fantastic, just one of those things were he was better than anybody I’d ever heard.
FZ: You have said that The Who were kind of seeking you out because you had worked with The Kinks. How did you two end up working together?
ST: I had a girl working for me part-time who knew Kit Lambert [The Who’s Manager] and he got to me through her. They set up an audition and I went to go listen to them. They were playing in some church hall at the time as an audition place, and that’s where I heard them. It took me I think maybe thirty seconds to decide that they were really good.
FZ: You also produced a band called The Creation. One of the great rock and roll legends is that the Eddie Phillips, the guitarist in The Creation was the first guitarist to use a violin bow on a guitar. Is there any truth to this?
ST: That’s right he did, and Jimmy Page stole it. Eddie Phillips absolutely was first, no question of any doubt. Jimmy has admitted it, at least to my knowledge he has. I don’t know how often he’s admitted it, probably depends on the mood he is in, but absolutely. Eddie Phillips is in fact the absolute best-unknown guitarist of all-time. He was asked to join The Who, and he turned it down. He’s still out there, still playing, doing solo gigs. He’s still having fun. The Creation was one of the better bands of all-time. They should have been superstars, and in fact I made a deal with them for them to sign with Atlantic, and they broke up right before it was supposed to happen. At this time they had number ones pretty much all over Europe. It was one of those kinds of things I could not keep together.
FZ: You were involved in the London music scene pretty heavily in the 1960’s; scoping out acts all the time. Are the any acts that slipped through your fingers that you wish you had had the opportunity to work with?
ST: To my knowledge I never turned down a band that became a hit. Are there other artists I would liked to have worked with? Absolutely. I would have like to have gotten Elton John before who ever did get Elton John. Certainly there were several bands that were terrific that I would like to have recorded, but there is only so much that you can do, and only so many place you can be. As much as you’d like to work the room at the time, someone is going to get there before you.
FZ: When you were producing The Kinks and The Who it was primarily the era of the single. Could you tell when a single that you recorded would be a hit?
ST: On several occasions, yes. I certainly knew “You Really Got Me” was going to be a hit. I certainly knew “My Generation” was going to be a hit. I certainly knew “Tired of Waiting” was going to be a hit. I knew “Friday in My Mind” was going to be a hit. You have certain things that just absolutely stand out so far beyond what the usual run of stuff is. You know there is no question.
FZ: You also worked with David Bowie before he was David Bowie what was he like then when you were working with him?
ST: David was great and we have actually stayed friends through the years, and unfortunately I was six years ahead with David Bowie. The stuff we were doing at the time was just not “in” no matter what we tried, nothing would make it “in” until eventually it became “in” six years later. He kind of evolved from that point on, but he was pretty much the same from the first ten years of his existence.
FZ: You used John Paul Jones, the bassist of Led Zeppelin, John Baldwin at the time. What was he like as a session musician?
ST: Terrific, he was excellent. I used, generally from a bass point of view, I used mainly Herbie Flowers and John Paul Jones on occasion. Those two were like my core guys.
FZ: You had both Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer work for you as engineers who both went on to have pretty successful careers as engineers, what made them so good at what they did? Is there a certain aspect of a person that goes into being a good engineer?
ST: Yeah, I think it’s simply because I as an engineer knew what I was doing and both of those guys and a couple of others absolutely got what I wanted without me having to repeat myself. That’s why they were very valuable to me because I really wanted to spend my time, which is why I stopped engineering and stuck to producing, because they really are two entirely different kind of jobs. I wanted to concentrate on the production end and having the engineering end done the way I wanted it. The less explanations I had to make were my criteria for choosing and keeping on using an engineer and obviously if they could get the sounds I want. That’s what made them valuable to me.
FZ: Were you familiar with [Record Producer and Manager of The Yardbirds] Mickie Most?
ST: Yeah, I knew Mickie very well.
FZ: Do you have any memories of what he was like as a producer, or even just as a person?
ST: I think if he were still alive he would tell you that he started out being a really shitty producer. He got really good as time went on. He hadn’t a clue because he didn’t even have the background as an engineer or anything like that, but he worked, he became very good.
FZ: Did you keep in contact with Jimmy Page after he quit working as a session guitarist and began playing with The Yardbirds, then Led Zeppelin?
ST: Not really, no. We never did, and I genuinely can’t even tell you why we never did [laughs]. I kept in touch with a bunch of others, like Nicky Hopkins and I always stayed in touch. For whatever reason, Jimmy and I did not stay in touch.
FZ: In your opinion, what about the end of the so-called “British Invasion”?
ST: Because things move on, you know if you look at that whole period, the world was lucky enough to have a fifty-year window of terrific music, but it was very different kind of music starting out with swing and went into late disco. For a fifty-year period we had terrific music then it all sort of went down the toilet. The end of the British Invasion was people got tired of it. They wanted to go into somewhere else. Where we are at now unfortunately is not somewhere they should have gone, I don’t think.
FZ: What is your opinion of the producing techniques of today, Pro-Tools and all of that?
ST: Well I love Pro-Tools, It’s not Pro-Tools fault. It’s the people doing this stuff of turning out the crap that there is today. I mean, in my ever to be humble opinion [laughs], I’m not wild about the music today because there’s not much in the way of music. It’s mainly effects and an incredible amount of repetition of using the same chords, and the same effects. It seems to me if you got a chord structure and a phrase that is really good, instead of just using it, why not overuse it and repeat it about twenty-four times in a row? It’s garbage, that’s my opinion.
FZ: Going back a little bit, could you describe some of your technique in terms of how you mike a drum, or a guitar amp? Especially with The Kinks and their fuzz sound. How was that achieved?
ST: Well, the drums, when I was an engineer in L.A. Phil Yen and I, who was the studio owner worked on techniques of miking drums because at that time people were using no more than four or five mics. We actually starting using ten or twelve and working out a way so that they wouldn’t phase and all that stuff. I really spent a lot of hours trying to get it right and that’s pretty much what I brought with me to England. When I first started miking the drums the way I wanted they said, “you can’t do that because it will phase,” and I said, “well I guess you’ll have to watch me and find out.” Three months later everyone is using ten or twelve mics. It took some hard work to get to where it was and how to position the mics and stuff like that; trial and error.
The fuzz guitar, Dave had a Pignose amp that he kept kicking so it was broken and that’s where that fuzz came out. I enhanced it because I had also worked out a technique at that time of bringing up a couple of channels, one where the signal was heavily limited and the other where it was not, then merged the two of them so that there was a balance. It kind of pushed the sound out beyond where it should have been or was more perceived than actual, but it worked.
FZ: What microphones were you using in those days?
ST: Oh, eighty-sevens and forty-sevens. Shure was probably around at the time. 412 I believe; 454’s. Whatever was available, I tried to use the best thing for the best instrument. I used eighty-sevens a lot which are still used today of course.
FZ: Looking back, do you think you would do anything differently in terms of how you recorded those bands? Are there things you acquired over time where you think, “Man, I could have really done something else?”
ST: No, I think for the time I did what was possible to do at that time. I was always trying to push the envelope. I don’t know what else I could have done. I recorded all of my stuff at redline without distorting. I’ve always tried to push it. I’m fairly sure that I am correct in saying that what I did with The Who and with Pete, all the extraneous guitar noises with that first record, in fact one of the records I sent in, which I’m sure you read about to American Decca, they wired back “I think you sent us the wrong tape because there’s all this feedback on it.” So I wired back and said, “That’s part of the record,” [laughs]. I tried to record it and we actually got the recorded thing back down on tape which prior to that time had really not been done I think.
FZ: Obviously in those days there weren’t that many effects pedals, and guitarists weren’t using that to change their sound. Do recall anyone using effects pedals, like Pete Townshend or Dave Davies?
ST: Well there was Wah-Wah pedals certainly. I can’t remember what year they came in, but when they did I started using them.
FZ: You ultimately decided to leave London and head back to Los Angeles, what led to that decision?
ST: Two things. Number one, the weather; I finally got fed up with it. Number two, I got really tired of told why I couldn’t do something, which unfortunately is, and still is, the British attitude as opposed to the American attitude which is totally opposite.
FZ: Are there any bands or acts out there today that you rate highly?
ST: Quite frankly I have no paid that much attention. The ones I have heard have not really thrilled me because most of the current bands, when we’re talking about actual bands, have pretty much, have gone back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and shall we very nicely say “borrowed” [laughs] what was before and applied it to what they are doing now. There is very little original stuff out there that I have heard in the way of current stuff. There is nobody out there in particular that I would go out of my way to go listen to. I think that kind of reflects correctly with what has gone wrong with the current toxic situation, I’m not talking about the teenyboppers now, I’m talking about people who actually want to go hear music. It’s ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s artists that they are going to listen to, virtually nobody current. There are a few, but very few in comparison.
FZ: Are you working on anything currently these days?
ST: Not really. The last thing I did which was fun was mix an album for Fifth Estate who were a ‘70s band in New York. That came out a couple months ago and it’s apparently doing reasonably well I understand. They’re a rock and roll band; that was fun to do.
FZ: Well Mr. Talmy, I really appreciate you taking the time out today to talk to me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
ST: Well, it was fun to do it because you asked good questions and I’m always happy to answer questions that I haven’t been asked 10,000 times before [laughs