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Article Archive › Interview with Shel Talmy (1996)

Interview with Shel Talmy

Guitar World - October 1996

By Alan di Perna

Modern, guitar-driven, "power chord" rock was born in the mid-sixties in the form of two hard-hitting singles: "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks and Can't Explain" by the Who.

Both records were produced by an American named Shel Talmy. These days, Talmy lives up in the Hollywood hills. He recently produced the self-titled US. debut album from Nancy Boy (Elektra), a half American, half British band whose members include Donovan Leitch, son of Scottish folk legend Donovan, and Jason Nesmith, whose dad Mike played guitar for the Monkees. Historically speaking, Shel was the ideal producer for the transatlantic group of second generation pop stars. Back in the mid-Sixties Talmy was the man who turbo-charged the British Invasion by introducing a tough American sound to the polite world of mid-Sixties English recording. His credits also include classics like "Friday on My Mind" by the Easybeats, early sides by David Bowie and historic recordings by Manfred Mann, Creation and Pentangle.

He was also the first producer to make extensive musical use of a then-unknown young session guitarist named Jimmy Page.

But most of all, Shel Talmy deserves to be remembered as the first man to crank up the guitar in record mixes. Earlier British Invasion recordings by groups like the Beatles, the Hollies, the Dave Clark Five and even the Rolling Stones were essentially vocal records with instrumental backing. Talmy made the guitar co-equal with the vocals on his ground-breaking tracks with the Kinks and the Who. What enabled him to do 50 was a portfolio of techniques he'd developed while working as a session engineer in Hollywood, prior to his move to England in 1962.

"I was working with a guy named Phil Yend who owned the original Conway studios," Talmy recalls. "We experimented a lot with close-miking and isolating instruments using baffles, which nobody was really doing at the time. Back then, bleed-through from everything to everything was the order of the day. Phil and I hated that. Then when I got to England, I discovered they were even more primitive in their miking techniques. They'd just have some room mikes suspended way up high on booms. There was virtually no such thing as close-miking."

Talmy's Hollywood-born engineering techniques came together with British talent to make rock history on "You Really Got Me." The Kinks' first huge hit Later covered by Van Halen) was cut in the summer of 1963 in Studio 2 at IBC, a converted 18th century London townhouse. Talmy's close-miking captured the barre chord belligerence emanating from Dave Davies' little green 5-watt (some accounts say 8-watt) El Pedo amp with brutal efficiency. The producer, incidentally, confirms the oft-told story of how Davies slashed the amp's speaker cone (with either a razor blade or knitting needs, depending on whose account you read) in frustration at the amp's tinny sound. 'Dave would do anything to get a dirtier sound. He'd kick the amp every now and then-so would others-as they walked by.

As long as he was after that sound' it was dead easy to record. Dave Davies is probably not given enough credit for being one of the first people to get a really solid fuzz, sound out of an amp by mistreating it."

This was, of course, long before the advent of fuzztones, distortion pedals, or any guitar effects for that matter. The prevailing recording technology at the time was three track-Ampex machines in the case of Talmy's work with the Kinks and the Who. Using primarily custom consoles (this was also before the age of Neves and SSLs), engineers essentially mixed and recorded the band live-to-tape and then overdubbed vocals.

"I'd spread the band over two tracks and use the third for the vocal," Talmy explains. "If we needed extra tracks for overdubs, we could bounce what we had down to a second three-track machine. But usually we didn't have to. It was a drag to lose sound quality by going to a second generation of tape. The tape was not nearly as good then as it is now."

Which is why it was such an accomplishment to get the guitar really loud. The older tape stocks couldn't take the level.

Talmy found an ingenious way around the problem using a compressor/limiter.

"I 'd split the feed from a guitar mike and bring it up on two channels of the board. I'd heavily compress one but not the other and balance the two so that there was no phase cancellation. The predominant sound would be the uncompressed channel. But the heavily compressed channel would be beneath it ail the time, constantly pushing up the level. So you got that kind of pounding guitar sound, but with clarity from the uncompressed channel."

Talmy's adventurous ideas about recording were perfectly suited to another young London group that was becoming notorious on the local club scene for pushing guitar sounds far beyond all previously recognized limits. They'd just changed their name from the High Numbers back to an earlier name they'd used - the Who. Talmy first entered the studio with them in late 1964 to record their first single as the Who, " I Can't Explain." The song's four-square chordal riff was patterned after "You Really Got Me" and the Kinks' follow up hit "All Day and All of the Night." In all three cases, the guitar riffs is the focal point of the track. The vocals follow the guitar, which is a significant departure from the Lennon/McCartney school of songcraft, where inventive harmonic chord changes are fitted beneath a catchy vocal melody.

The "I Can 't Explain" session went down at Pye studios in London. Though the liner notes for the Who box set, Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (MCA, 1994), say it was IBC, Talmy feels very certain that it was Pye. This was a basement studio in a modern London building that housed Pye Electronics at the time. 'I used that room a lot," says Talmy. 'I did a lot of the Kinks stuff there. It was a good room acoustically, about 20 x 30'. A very comfortable room, with good equipment for the time."

The single is the first record to capture PeteTownshend's chunky Rickenbacker 12-string style, which was itself a significant departure from George Harrison's use of the same instrument with the Beatles. To the best of Townshend's own recollection, he recorded "I Can 't Explain" using a Fender Pro with the internal speaker disconnected and instead plugged into a 4x 12 cabinet, or possibly a Fender Bassman. Talmy remembers that the amp was isolated in one corner of the studio with ~ microphones on the cabinet: "I had the amp off in a corner. I had both amp s, guitar and bas s, with rugs and baffles around them."

Unfortunately, the producer's memory doesn't extend to the exact microphones he was using - " Probably Neumanns," he ventures. "I got a hunch they were (Neumann U) 47's. And Telefunkens of different ilks." Also on the "I Can't Explain" date, doubling the rhythm guitar part, was Talmy's session guitar ace Jimmy Page. "It was my first session with the Who, so I was hedging my bets," Talmy shrugs. "Jimmy was there in case Pete couldn't cut it. But Pete was just fine." Talmy also refutes the persistent myth that it was Page who played the guitar solo on the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." "It was definitely Dave Davies," Talmy asserts. "Although Page did play rhythm on the first Kinks album, because Ray Davies didn't want to." The Kinks' leader, just 20 at the time, opted to concentrate on his singing on the group's first album, which was hastily recorded after "You Really Got Me" became a huge hit.

Another technique Talmy used in the mid-Sixties, though not on "I Can't Explain," was to place a microphone near the guitar strings to capture the click of the plectrum. This is most likely a factor in the crisp clarity of Townshend's 12-string tone on tracks like "A Legal Matter." And it was at IBC in April of 1965 that Talmy captured the first extended use of feedback (far exceeding the Beatles' earlier feedback intro to "I Feel Fine") on the Who's mod anthem, "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere."

"Everybody said, 'This shouldn't be part of a record, and it's impossible to pick up anyway,' " Talmy remembers. "But I used three different microphones at different points in the room to capture all the overtones of the feedback. It was a very different setup than 'I Can't Explain.' I had Pete really cranking it to the max. The combination of those three microphones was the only way to get that sound."

Asked if he recreated any of his classic sounds or techniques on the new Nancy Boy album, Talmy responds: "Hell no, I don't live in the past."

The sessions took place at Cherokee in L.A. "We used Vox AC3Os, Marshalls, Fenders and RFI amps," says N.B. guitarist Jason Nesmith. "Plus a lot of guitars. We wanted to experiment, but also to find a signature guitar sound. Shel had good ideas, and was great about letting our ideas come out. Rather than coming in and taking over our sound, he let us find our own sound and nurtured that.

"That's one thing that hasn't changed," Talmy adds. "The producer is supposed to work with the artist and place what the artist does in the best possible frame. From my point of view, that means working on the material and arrangement and helping choose what's to be recorded. Then, obviously, doing the best sound job you possibly can. So, from the large perspective, the producer's role in the Nineties is much the same as it was in the Sixties."

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