THE GODFATHER OF FUZZ: SHEL TALMY INTERVIEW
FIRST PUBLISHED: Cut, 1989
On the long and winding road of rock’n’roll there have been few producers who have had such an immediate impact on a period. Fewer still have created such an instantly recognisable sound and helped to shape the future of pop. For five years in the mid Sixties, one man was responsible for producing the most awesome catalogue of hit records. As arguably Britain’s first independent producer, he contributed significantly to some of the greatest records of the period and was instrumental in securing recording deals for bands such as The Kinks, The Creation and The Who.
His experiments with recording techniques lent The Kinks their sound, which in turn was lent to The Who (spot the differences between ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’), and to The Creation, and to The Mannish Boys (an early vehicle for David Bowie). Talmy’s catalogue of hits include The Who’s first album and all their early style-creating singles, all releases by The Kinks until ‘Waterloo Sunset’, the Easybeats circa ‘Friday On My Mind’, and Manfred Mann’s post Paul Jones pop period that included ‘Semi Detached Suburban Mr James’ and ‘Mighty Quinn’.
The Shel Talmy who sits in front of me now is, to all intents and purposes, totally blind. But despite this conclusion to the hereditary condition that has hampered him for most of his adult life, Talmy is enthusiastic and on the verge of coming back from what was, largely, a self imposed production exile. Tempted out of retirement by The Fuzztones and pencilled-in to work with the Hypnotics, Talmy is back in circulation, talking eagerly about his career and openly touting for a big name production catch.
Born in Chicago in the late Thirties, Talmy grew up with an overwhelming interest in films. He spent several of his early teen years appearing in a TV show called ‘The Quiz Kids’ before moving to California, graduating college, and working for three years in television. With the perfect grounding for a career in a visual medium, it was the rapid deterioration of his eyesight that made sure that this avenue was closed to him. Partially sighted film directors are few and far between, and after all, “being a record producer was the next best thing to being a film producer”.
Talmy spent a year working as an engineer at Conway Recorders, a small independent LA studio, working on such early surf hits as The Markets’ ‘Surfer’s Stomp’ and Billy Joe and the Checkmates’ ‘Percolator Twist’. Then came the major life change – he headed straight for Europe, arriving in London in 1962.
“When I first came to England I lived on the Kings Road,” says Talmy, reminiscing about a London that was just about to swing. “I discovered that there was about 400 people who knew each other and who stayed up till the early morning talking about things they were going to do – it was a wonderful experience. And when the Kings Road and Swinging Sixties thing exploded, all those people went and did all those things they talked about – they were photographers and filmmakers and models. Everyone really made it.”
Talmy hadn’t come to England unarmed. As a safeguard he had borrowed a selection of acetates from a friend at Capitol Records – Beach Boys producer, Nik Venet – and promptly persuaded Decca Records that he had, in fact, been the producer of a string of US hits, playing the acetates as proof. “Of the two things I choose to play, one was Lou Rawls and one was the Beach Boys,” he laughs. “By the time they found out it was all bullshit, I’d already had my first hit. Not to put to finer point on it, I talked my way into it.”
Working initially for Decca as a freelancer (at a time when all producers were on staff), Talmy was given a selection of MOR product, but after a surprise debut hit with the Bachelors and ‘Charmaine’ he went in search of a little bit of rock’n’roll. Talmy saw his role as a freelance producer/A&R man, seeking undiscovered talent and helping mould it. Disillusioned with Decca’s A&R policy (he took them the unsigned Manfred Mann and Georgie Fame, only to receive rejection), he took his next rock’n’roll discovery to Pye. When he was made aware of The Kinks, they were still called the Ravens but after two par for the course warm ups to please Pye, The Kinks went into top gear with the recording of ‘You Really Got Me’, an immediate and raw sound that owed much to Talmy’s production.
‘You Really Got Me’ helped open the doors. At a time when rock’n’roll had really meant a choice between The Shadows and Merseybeat, this hard, sparse, distorted record helped to change the future direction of both rock and pop. The Who were only the earliest and the best known of the bands that found their inspiration here. ‘You Really Got Me’ put the balls into the recording business, but why, when pop was so nice and polite and inoffensive, did these records start incorporating distortion and feedback? Putting it into context, Talmy came to England at the birth of rock’n’roll: recording studios had not long moved towards multi-tracking (be it only three and four-track), stereo was all but unheard of, and recording techniques belonged to what was fast becoming an obsolete age.
“For maybe the last 40 years, the idea was to stick up the mic and get what you could,” Talmy explains. “Nobody had really pushed it.”
Shel Talmy was determined to push it himself. He loved rock’n’roll and saw it as new ground to build on. “There were no rules so we started making them. I was absolutely crazy about how to do various things and how I could do them better. I got real involved very early on. I was trying new things all the time as far as the feedback was concerned. When I did ‘Anyhow, Anyway, Anywhere’, which I think is the first record that captured feedback, nobody had done that, nobody had been able to do it – I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been done, but I thought about it at that point and we did it.
“It was the time for new techniques, there were no rules, there was nothing to learn from the past, this was a totally new kind of music, nobody had ever played that loud in the studio before. When I sent ‘Anyhow, Anyway, Anywhere’ to Decca in America, I got a wire back from them saying ‘Think you have send us an out-take because it’s got all kinds of strange noises on it’. It was all new and exciting and we’d try anything.
“It never occurred to me that 25 years on, people were going to say ‘Those are great records’ and want to talk to me about them. It never crossed my mind. We figured, ‘Hey, if it lasts for five or six years, we’ll be real happy’.”
The effect of ‘You Really Got Me’ can never be understated. Some have it as the day that heavy metal was born, others see it as the first stage in the long development of punk. Even in its day the record was powerful enough to have influenced Pete Townshend, of the as yet unsigned Who, to write ‘I Can’t Explain’ as conscious attempt to interest Talmy in the band. “I’ve heard that story,” admits Talmy, “and you know, I’ve never asked Pete if that’s true or not. I’m sure if you asked him, he’d deny it.” He laughs broadly at the thought of this. “All I can say is when I got ‘I Can’t Explain’ it was about a minute and 20 seconds… so I definitely had to re-arrange it a touch to make it the acceptable length. I was impressed with it. I was impressed with them when I first saw them. They were an amazing rock’n’roll band. Certainly one of the very best I’d heard in this country at that point.”
Talmy’s career with The Who was short-lived. It had only been due to his name that they secured a record deal, but despite his significant contribution to the development of what became the established sound of The Who, without regard to his success rate (he had produced only hits for them), and despite the fact that he (and not the record label) had them under contract and had financed all of their recordings, his inability to get on with Who manager Kit Lambert always caused problems. The band walked out on their producer and the case of Talmy versus The Who soon approached the High Court.
“I had Lord Hailsham as my QC,” recalls Talmy. “He was a little larger than life and the whole case for me was won at the preliminary hearing when he said to the judge: ‘M’lud, this is the case of Mr Shel Talmy versus The Who’, and the judge said ‘The Who?’… and he said ‘Yes, the Who, as in World Health Organization’. I figured anybody who could come up with something that quick, there’s no way I’m losing this sucker. In fact, it never came to court, they decided to settle a half hour before we went into the actual court case.”
The out-of-court settlement left Talmy smiling at the prospect of a share of the royalties from all Who recordings for the next six years (a period that included ‘Tommy’), but the partnership was severed, something that Talmy still regrets. “I would have loved to have done ‘Tommy’ and I honestly think I could have contributed a lot that it doesn’t have. You know, a lot of what The Who are on record is my sound. The last record before I did them was the High Numbers – listen to that, and listen to the next record that I did. You see I did contribute something.”
Talmy not only lost The Who, but after what was one of the most successful musical relationships of the Sixties, Talmy also lost The Kinks. Together they had recorded ten major hits – including three chart toppers, but Ray Davies was looking to produce the band himself. The split was very amicable (“My contract had run out”) and the relationship was terminated in style – with ‘Waterloo Sunset’. “It was a great song, and it was probably a nice way to have left. There was very little we could have done after that that would have been better.”
Talmy’s career with his two most successful discoveries may have ended early but his respect for both bands, and the strengths of their songwriters, remains undiminished. “I think that Ray Davies is one of the great writers that this country has seen. I think history will prove that eventually. Some of the songs that he wrote and I recorded were absolutely fucking brilliant… I was incredibly lucky to find two such great writers who were the leaders of two bands like that.”
And conversely, they were incredibly lucky to find a producer, at that time, who was sympathetic to what they wanted to do?
“There are two category of producer. One produces an artist the way they want to hear to them, without a whole lot of regard to what the artist is really like. I’d like to think that I’m in the other category. I liked the artists that I produced – a lot, or else I wouldn’t produce them, and what I wanted to do was enhance what they do already. I just wanted to make it better, more polished, put the best frame around it I could.”
Talmy produced other hits in the Sixties, but the furthering of his bold experiments with sound continued, to less commercial success, with The Creation. Still a highly influential band on the strength of their three-year career, despite massive success on the continent The Creation only ever achieved two minor hits in this country and never reached the heights for which they were tipped. Talmy signed them to his own record label, Planet, helping them to capture their wild violin bowed guitar style. A hit for The Creation at home (they were popular in Germany) possibly could have saved Talmy’s label, but as ‘Painter Man’ failed to enter the top 30, the plug was pulled on Planet.
As the Swinging Sixties turned into the stagnant Seventies, Talmy “started getting bored”. Had the magic touch ran out?
“No, I don’t think so. What happened was more than anything running out, I started losing interest in what was happening in music. I was having fun; I was indulging myself in lots of other interests and at that time probably didn’t see myself as staying in the music business.”
As the Seventies began to show a little excitement with the kicking and spitting birth of punk, Talmy could have found a new career. His approach to powerful production and love of bollock-kicking guitars might have seemed to fit the bill, but surprisingly, as many have regarded The Who and The Creation as prototype punks, Talmy doesn’t remember the spirit of ’76 with any degree of affection.
“We – they and I – have been called the fathers of punk and it’s not a mantle I particularly take up or acknowledge,” explains Talmy. “The stuff that we did was melodic and was in tune and people could play their instruments, all of which punk does not do, or did not do, certainly not when it first started out.”
This attitude is even more surprising when considering that Talmy’s brief flirtation with punk included producing the most sought after collectors item in the Damned’s back-catalogue. His work on their Stiff Records freebie single ‘Sick Of Being Sick’/’Stretcher Case Baby’ so impressed The Damned that they “would have loved to have worked with him again”, Captain Sensible going as far as to add that Talmy had produced “the best sound that the Damned ever had for guitars”.
Instead of following this course and hampered by his near blindness, Talmy carved a successful career for himself as a novelist. Of his three published works, he has recently sold the film rights for ‘Whadda We Do Now Butch?’ (“It’s about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where they died at the end of the film – I did a lot of research and that never really happened”). In the late Seventies he returned to California after 17 years in England, and started his own successful computer technology business. But now he’s back and working with The Fuzztones. What on earth coaxed him out of his nice house in the Hollywood hills and put him back behind the mixing desk – for a man on a royalty of all those hits, it can’t have been money!
“I sold my computer company and sat around for a year and got incredibly bored. The Fuzztones contacted me and I liked what they did and felt that I could contribute. I started thinking maybe this is what I should be back doing and that’s what I AM doing – and I’m not bored anymore!”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007