For his work on the early Kinks and Who records alone, producer Shel Talmy was an important figure in the British Invasion, cutting sessions that had a harder and more distorted guitar sound than anything else that had been heard before the mid-’60s. Talmy’s other credits with ’60s acts are extensive, ranging from cult band the Creation and early singles by David Bowie to folk-rock with the Pentangle and pop with the Bachelors and Chad & Jeremy. After the 1960s he was only sporadically active in the studio, although he was still doing projects here and there into the ’90s.
Born in Chicago, Talmy cut his teeth in the record business as an engineer in L.A. in the early ’60s. In 1962, he turned a European vacation into a job in Britain when he played acetates of Beach Boys and Lou Rawls songs to Dick Rowe of Decca Records, claiming them as his own productions (although they weren’t). Rowe hired him for Decca and double-checked Talmy’s credentials with friends of his who were in high places and only too happy to confirm that Talmy had done everything he’d claimed he had. By the time it became apparent Talmy was bluffing, he had already started to have hits for Decca, who were content to keep him on.
Talmy started out working with pop singers in the U.K., including the Bachelors. Very soon after he arrived in Britain, however, the British Invasion started to take off. Talmy was soon working primarily as an independent producer rather than as a label employee, and was keen to get in on the “Beat Boom,” as it was called in Britain, with guitar-oriented groups. Perhaps because of his American background, Talmy was more inclined to keep a raw edge on the performances and record distorted guitars at high volumes than more established producers of the time would have.
Talmy has recalled that he unsuccessfully tried to interest Decca in Manfred Mann and Georgie Fame, but got his first notable success with R&B-influenced rock with the Kinks. Talmy produced most of their records between 1964 and 1967, including the discs that did so much to popularize the slashing power chords and fuzzy textures that soon become a big part of guitar rock, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” especially. It should be noted that Talmy was also there for the sessions that saw Kinks songwriter Ray Davies’ more sophisticated and music hall-influenced side flower, like “Sunday Afternoon” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.”
Talmy’s other big success story in the mid-’60s was The Who. He produced their first three singles, “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “My Generation,” as well as their debut The Who Sing My Generation album — everything, in short, that they did in 1965. These were records that brought an unprecedented fury to rock on disc, particularly in Pete Townshend’s feedback-ridden guitar flights and Keith Moon’s hurricane-force drumming. It’s even been reported that Decca Records’ American branch initially declined to press “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” believing that the feedback on the guitar solo was the result of a mastering defect. Talmy did not produce any Who records after 1965, in spite of his fairly spectacular initial track record with the band, owing to a dispute between him and the group’s managers that was eventually settled with an agreement that gave him a percentage of the Who’s record royalties for years to come.
As he was doing the Who’s 1965 sessions as an independent producer, Talmy retained control of the master tapes. This is a reason why The Who Sing My Generation, as well as songs that appeared on their 1965 singles, have yet to appear on compact discs that have been remastered from the best possible original source tapes.
Talmy also recorded other notable guitar-heavy discs with groups of lesser renown in the 1960s. Certainly with the Creation, the cult group featuring guitarist Eddie Phillips, he explored the kind of the inventive guitar textures he had mapped out with the Kinks and the Who, particularly feedback and the distorted sounds produced by playing the strings with a violin bow. To this day Talmy extols the talents of the Creation, believing that they would have been a phenomenally successful group had they had better luck and been able to stay together longer.
Although his tenure with Australian stars the Easybeats was brief in 1966-1967, it did include their biggest international hit, “Friday on My Mind.” He was at the helm of some flop singles with David Bowie (then known as David Jones) in 1964-1965, which sometimes employed a backing reminiscent of the early Who. He also made some fine, raucous singles with obscure groups like the First Gear, the Untamed, the Rockin’ Vicars, and the Zephyrs, which would not reach an international audience (and then a very small, specialized one) until these sides were included on various collector-oriented reissues of obscure British Invasion music in the ’80s and ’90s.
Talmy briefly founded his own label, Planet, whose most notable artists were the Creation, but the company folded after a deal with Phonogram for distribution did not work out according to his wishes.
Talmy did not just do hard guitar rock in the ’60s. He also produced, at various points in their careers, Chad & Jeremy, the Nashville Teens, the Fortunes, Amen Corner (Andy Fairweather-Low’s first group), obscure American psychedelic band the Mandrake Memorial, and the post-Paul Jones Manfred Mann.
It is not well-known that Talmy was also an extremely capable folk producer who enjoyed working with acoustic guitars as well as electric ones. His most notable achievement in this regard is his production of early Pentangle albums, as well as material by Roy Harper and Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch.
It’s undeniable that Talmy produced some of the best and most innovative work of the Who, the Kinks, the Easybeats, and others, results which are unlikely to have been achieved by sheer chance. Talmy became less active in the studio in the 1970s, although he produced albums by little-known acts such as Fumble and Rumpelstiltskin. At the end of the ’70s he returned to the United States, and has occasionally dabbled in production for low-profile acts since, such as Jon & the Nightriders, the Sorrows (not the mid-’60s British Invasion group of that name), and Nancy Boy.
Watch the video below to hear my interview with Shel Talmy!