Crossing the Channel with Producer Shel Talmy

Shire Studio

Studio  |  23/02/2017  |  By Andrew Anderson  |  Add Comment

Andrew Anderson talks to producer Shel Talmy about recording The Kinks, The Who, The Damned and Bowie and how he really got the crunchy guitar sound on You Really Got Me…

Everyone in pro audio has a favourite-sounding record. This is not to be confused with their favourite song – that’s something totally different. No, the favourite-sounding record has nothing to do with lyrics, structure or melody. Instead, it’s all about the sonic qualities: the crunch of the guitars, the crash of the drums, the bump of the bass. This is the record you’d like your recordings to sound like, if only they could. This is the record that feels like it was made just for your ears.

For me, that record is Making Time by The Creation. Released in 1966, it wasn’t a big hit, although it has since gone on to become something of a cult classic (it has featured n a few ads and on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore).

Why do I love it so much? Because Making Time just sounds so bloody immediate. It’s like you are right there with the band as they blast and bash away. It’s as though the producer had taken the energy from ten tunes and vacuum packed it into a single track. It’s the ultimate angry rock song.

Anyway, having fallen for this record I did what any good fanatic would do – I got online and found out all about it. It turns out the man responsible for this ripsnorter was Shel Talmy, an American producer who moved to England in the 60s – and Making Time wasn’t the only great record he made. In fact, his portfolio reads rather like a best of the 60s. You Really Got Me, Can’t Explain, Friday On My Mind…if it involved three chords, razorblade guitars and drums that can blow your ears to bits then chances are Shel Talmy recorded it.

But just reading these facts wasn’t enough for me – I wanted to find out how he made these brilliant pop bangers. After all, these are records that set a whole new standard for how guitar bands should sound. So, I did what any good journalist would do: I rang Talmy at his LA home and asked him all about it…and it turns out the story is even more interesting than I imagined.

“I started out in television working as a floor manager,” says Talmy, who is surprisingly soft-spoken for a guy who made a living making loud noises. “It was a large corporation and I was kind of a maverick, so I soon realised that wouldn’t work for me.”

In what would become something of trademark move, Talmy told the TV guys to take their job and put it somewhere impolite so he could be a recording engineer instead. “I’d met a guy called Phil Yeend who owned Conway Studios in LA. He invited me to work with him, and three days later I did my first solo session. I barely knew what I was doing, but somehow I managed to get through it.”

However, it wasn’t long before Talmy’s headstrong streak struck again, and the fledgling engineer decided to fly over to England. “Phil was from England, and he’d talk about the wonders of Europe all the time, so I thought I’d better go over and see it all for myself – I didn’t want to let the world pass me by.

“I decided to go for six weeks, and right before I left I got a deal with a record company to produce four singles. I told them I’d be back in six weeks…and of course came back 17 years later.”

What started out as a holiday quickly turned into career, thanks in part to knowing the right names – and also a good deal of job interview deception. “I took the precaution of getting some contacts before I went. I had very little bread, so I thought if I could work for a few weeks while I was there that would be nice.

“My friend Nick Venet worked in A&R over at Capitol Records – he’s the guy that signed the Beach Boys – and he said ‘take some of my demos and tell the guys there you did them.’ Once I was in London I managed to get an interview with Dick Rowe at Decca Records. I played him Nick’s demo of Help Me Rhonda, and Dick said ‘okay, you can start today.’”

Blagging your way in the door is one thing, but Talmy would have been fired pretty fast if he’d not been able to back it up. “I’d been an engineer for about a year, and it was a seminal time in terms of exploration and technology. I experimented a lot on how to get better sounds, more isolation and a whole bunch of different things while I was at Conway, so I knew what I was doing. And, like virtually every recording engineer who has ever lived, I felt I could do it better than the producers who’d been telling me what to do.”

Wasn’t he a bit worried about what would happen if he got, uh, found out? Nope: “I was very young, and when you’re young you tend to make those kind of decisions and take chances,” laughs Talmy. “Nobody thinks of the consequences at that age…I figured I had nothing to lose when I went to London.”

Talmy’s combination of sonic experimentation and brash American bravado soon proved to be lucrative, and it was only a matter of months before he had his first hit with The Bachelors’ track Charmaine.

“In retrospect I think they were trying to test me, because The Bachelors were three harmonica players and they wanted to record a vocal song. I had to teach them how to sing as a group in my tiny flat for about six weeks before we were ready for the studio. We cut four sides, and Charmaine seemed the obvious hit.”

It was at that point Decca finally realised Talmy wasn’t quite who he claimed to be; but, as Talmy recalls, by that time Charmaine had already hit number six in the UK singles chart. “At that time nobody was going to pick up the phone and check out bona fides, so they’d sent out letters asking for references instead. Of course the replies they got back didn’t matter once I’d had a hit. They were very gentlemanly about it and never mentioned it, and although I knew they knew I never mentioned it either.”

Charmaine is a rather sweet track, but a world away from the demented vitality of Making Time. How did Talmy get from one to the other? “I grew up in LA with rock music, and my first impression when I got to London was that all music was extremely polite,” he explains. “There was no raucous music at all. It was my good luck to be an American who actually understood this kind of stuff, just as a lot of bands like The Kinks and The Who started coming through.”

And it wasn’t just Talmy’s attitude that was different: his technique was too: “I was doing a lot of the engineering myself, so I was able to get the sounds I wanted. When I arrived everyone was using three or four mics on the drums. When I started using 12 mics people said ‘hey you cant do that – it will start phasing’ and I said ‘just watch and see.’ Soon everyone was doing it.”

A fearful drum tone is a trademark for Talmy’s tracks, one that he says came about as much through working with great drummers as his multi-mic technique: “What I’ve always wanted to do is capture what the band did live on tape…although that’s not always an easy thing to do. I had the good fortune of recording bands with brilliant drummers like Mick Avory, or else I was using amazing session musicians like Bobby Graham.”

Speaking of the Kinks, it was Talmy who first spotted their potential: “I was in Denmark Street visiting a publisher when one of the Kinks’ managers walked in with a demo,” Talmy remembers. “I gave it a listen and thought half the songs were really good, the other half needed work. I went to go see the band, chatted to them and soon got them signed to Pye. I was tired of Decca, so it was a good change for me.”

The oft-told legend behind the guitar sound on You Really Got Me is that Dave Davies cut his speaker cone to create the crunch, but what really cranked it up was Talmy’s two-track guitar treatment. “I’d use two mics. One track I’d deliberately distort, the other I’d record at a normal level. The distorted one then sits underneath the normal one, so you get this huge sound.

“No one was trying to make things sound powerful back then – like I said, it was all so polite ­–but once we did it then everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Yes, there was resistance to this new sound from some people, but I think it helped that I was American. As far as everyone in England was concerned America was leading the way, so if I said it was good they were happy to go along with that.”

Soon bands were queuing up to get the Talmy tone, with Pete Townsend just one of the many trying to catch his ear. “Pete called me up and played a demo of Can’t Explain down the phone. It was about a minute long and I said ‘that’s a terrific song’. I went to watch The Who rehearse in a church, and it took me all of 10 seconds to decide yes, I’d like to record these guys.” Other acts he worked with during this time included The Easybeats, David Bowie (then known as David Jones) and Manfred Mann.

“I’m very hands on,” asserts Talmy when I ask him to describe his production approach. “I’m there from the inception. I chat with the band, see what songs they’ve got. I work with the songs, rearrange them, record them and go all the way through to the mastering. I do that to this day. I’m not a part-time producer – I don’t know how to be one.”

It’s about time I asked Talmy about that Creation record – how did it come about, and how did he get it sounding so bloody big? “The Creation should have been huge, but they broke up before it could happen,” says Talmy, a note of regret in his voice. “They’ve become a cult band, but they could have been as big as The Who. I’d been working with them for a while, and something just really came together. I’ve always tried to make loud records that pin the needle back, and Making Time is definitely one of the best. I made sure I mastered it as loud as I possibly could.”

Although Talmy continued to work with rock bands throughout the sixties – as well as folk acts like Pentangle and Roy Harper – by the early 70s he was losing interest.

“I got bored by the time the 70s came around,” says Talmy. “I had a book publishing company, I had an electronics company, I got interested in a whole bunch of other stuff and I kinda let the recording side slide. Looking back, I’m kinda sorry I did that.”

His last major contribution to music was The Damned’s 1977 single Stretcher Case Baby. “They were really nice guys, but I think they were as bemused as I was that we were working together,” laughs Talmy. “The music was not something I really loved, but I thought I should give punk a try before condemning it.”

After The Damned Talmy moved back to America and focussed on his business interests, only recently coming out of retirement to work with garage band Hidden Charms. What was it like coming back to producing after spending so long away from the mixing desk?

“It’s like riding a bike, it was easy. Nothing’s changed: people bitching about things, band dynamics and all that stuff. And I always kept up with the technology, so adjusting to that wasn’t a problem either.

“The difference now is there is no pressure – I’m basically entertaining myself. Because I’m a lot older the bands look up to me as a mentor, which makes it easier – they listen to what I say instead of trying to fight with me. And I’ve got plenty of hobbies outside of music like cooking. So If I produce a band now I’ll be doing it because it’s fun. I’ve got more than enough stuff to do to fill my day, no problem.”