The Turtles

The Turtles photo 1

The Turtles c1969 (l-r): Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan,
Al Nichol, John Seiter, Jim Pons

 

 

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Turtles playlist

 

Contributor: Philip Downer

I don’t know which particular musical memories 1985 holds for you – Live Aid, Madonna, Dead Or Alive, A-ha – but for me it was all about The Turtles. Rhino had licensed their whole 1965-70 catalogue and reissued every album, on heavy vinyl slabs in covers of industrial cardboard. I bought the greatest hits on spec, and like you and everybody else I knew, loved Happy Together and Elenore. I then devoured the rest of their output, transferring everything to TDK D90s with titles like “What the Turtles Taught Us”, to play in my dung-coloured Our Price Records Ford Escort as I rattled around England’s southern counties.

Almost forty years on, the Turtles are still one of my very favourite pop groups, and they’re never far from the turntable. Their music is engaging, idealistic, stuffed with fine tunes and soaring harmonies, and is also a lot of fun. Which you can’t say about all of your favourites …

At the heart of the Turtles were (and are) Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, LA high-school friends, multi-instrumentalists and purveyors of those rich harmonies. Guitarist Al Nichol was also in for the long haul, while other members came and went; but the Turtles were a proper band, who gigged, wrote songs, worked with Chip Douglas, did movies, appeared on Ed Sullivan, hung out with the beautiful creatures in the Canyon, and signed to a shonky indie label in a deal that fleeced them out of millions of dollars.

They were also (whisper it) never hugely cool. Although they wrote some of their hits (including Elenore), they relied on songwriters like Bonner/Gordon and Barri/Sloan for many of their most memorable songs. Which doesn’t matter at all! But in the authenticity-is-all environment of late 60s/early 70s rock, they were filed next to the Monkees as Not Quite The Real Deal. Other West Coast alumni went on to become country rockers, poets (or at least earnest singer-songwriters), space cowboys or acid casualties; Volman and Kaylan metamorphosed into The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie and hung out Zappa, Lennon and Bolan (however, that’s another Toppermost).

But stuff the critics – what excellent music the band created, and whether it was written by Howard Kaylan, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon or Leslie Bricusse, it was soaked in the golden sunshine of Turtleness. Time to listen to some songs …

 

TrackAlbum / Single
I Get Out of BreathWooden Head
You BabySingle (1966); You Baby
Can I Get To Know You BetterSingle (1966); every Hits album
Me About YouHappy Together
Too Young To Be OneHappy Together
Like the SeasonsHappy Together
You Know What I MeanSingle (1967); most Hits albums
Earth AnthemBattle Of The Bands
Love In The CityTurtle Soup
Is It Any Wonder?Single (1970); Wooden Head 2CD

 

I’ve left out Happy Together and Elenore; I love them to bits, but there is so much more to explore, Turtlewise. (I’ve omitted a couple of dozen other favourites too, but we must press on.)

The band released six albums on White Whale between 1965 and 1970; after the Whale went bust in the 70s, Kaylan & Volman, aka Flo & Eddie, bought back the rights to their material, so they get to curate their own legacy. All their albums are available on streaming services. Let’s go.

The band started as a surf outfit, the Crossfires, and then caught the folk music wave, with a cover of Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe as a first big smash hit. Albums one and two were knocked out at high speed, and show the Turtles testing different corners of the folk rock bandwagon for size. They’re worth a listen, but they’re patchy. A fine representative track from that era (which wasn’t released until their odds’n’sods Wooden Head compilation) is I Get Out Of Breath, which combines Barry McGuire-ish lyrics with a Duane Eddy guitar homage.

True Turtleness appeared on You Baby, which dropped the snotty suburban discontent of Let Me Be in favour of a rush of adolescent luv (L-U-V). The set-up became a familiar Turtle trope: establish a simple premise in the verse, then supercharge the chorus with sweet harmonies and an insistent beat.

The formula was honed on Can I Get To Know You Better, which has a driving urgency reminiscent of the Mamas & Papas’ I Saw Her Again. The chorus soars as the record thunders forward like a train.

Happy Together was a monster hit in early 1967, and its namesake album is the band’s most consistent (ie the one to buy now). Amidst the pounding hit material are more reflective songs like the sublime Me About You, which could soundtrack the closing moments of the greatest romantic movie ever made – once the brass middle eight comes in, the credits roll, and life is as good as it can get.

Gentler yet is the conversational Too Young To Be One, a break-up song that lapses into a 6/8 break and then unleashes sweet circular harmonies in the fade-out, like a Levittown God Only Knows. Like The Seasons is also soft, but has more of a hippy vibe. Its harpsichord backing is very 1967, and the sense of regret is palpable.

The apogee of peak Turtles, the toppermost of the Turtlemost, is You Know What I Mean. This is just a perfect record – everything fits, and in the space of two minutes flat one of the greatest glories of baroque pop is unleashed. It’s produced by Jack Nitzsche, which gives the proceedings a bit more oomph, the lyrics have a tongue-in-cheek desperation, and the climax is spectacular. It’s one of the best tracks ever made, and it’s all over in two minutes flat. You know what I mean.

By 1968, the world was changing. White Whale wanted more of the same, the Turtles wanted something different, and the result was a Concept Album, no less. A comedy concept album. With dressing up. Battle Of The Bands is always worth a listen, it’s great to have around, but by its very nature (the Turtles masquerade as twelve different bands, including the Atomic Enchilada, the Fabulous Dawgs, and Chief Kamanawanalea & His Royal Macadamia Nuts), it’s not something to relax to. I can see why you might love this, but for me it’s Beach Boys Party vs Pet Sounds. I want lushness from my Turtles.

The final track on BOTB is the Whole Earth Catalog distilled into song: Earth Anthem was recorded at 3am by candlelight. You could see it as a love-and-peace precursor to Sparks’ Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth; it’s very soft and heartfelt, and the message, of course, is timeless.

By 1969, the Turtles were looking like leftovers from another era. Ray Davies (the Ray Davies) produced their final official album, Turtle Soup, and it’s an intriguing package, peering forward to the seventies while still holding on to those essential Turtle qualities. It’s the only album that’s all (near as dammit) self-penned, so there’s an honesty to the music, albeit one that’s trying to identify a future while the band folds, the record label whines, and the singles flop.

Our penultimate selection – from Turtle Soup – is Love In The City. It combines Turtle harmonies and brass with a look forward to glam rock. It seems an appropriate point to close …

… but we have to go out with one more pocket masterpiece, Is It Any Wonder?. There’s an elegiac quality to the horn motif, and to the massed vocals, which suggest that we can, just possibly, live happily together, ever after. And that’s what the Turtles taught us.

 

 

4 US Top Ten Singles from The Turtles (1967/1968)

 

 

 

 

 

The Turtles poster 1

 

The Turtles photo 2

 

The Turtles official website

Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa
Howard Kaylan, Backbeat Books (2013)

Mark Volman Instagram site

The Turtles Discography (Wikipedia)

The Turtles biography (AllMusic)

Philip Downer is a retired shopkeeper who sold records, books and gifts in shops from Lowestoft to Chicago. He enjoys foraging in cities and villages for architectural details, unlikely history and the quieter corners of galleries and museums. He posts recondite ephemera on Twitter @frontofstore, and Instagram @philip.downer.

TopperPost #1,011

6 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Feb 24, 2022

    Flo and Eddie. Amazing singers. And I know Happy Together. But not much else pre-Zappa. So I’m looking forward to digging deeper.

    • Philip Downer
      Feb 26, 2022

      Hi Dave, good to hear from you. Hope you enjoy the Turtles – there’s plenty to choose from.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Feb 26, 2022

    Great article. Thanks for posting.

    • Philip Downer
      Feb 26, 2022

      Cheers Alex, much appreciated.

  3. Glenn Smith
    Mar 2, 2022

    Philip, interesting overview of a really interesting band. Is their uncoolness about the incongruity of a couple of normal sized blokes in an era of stick insects?
    As you say they are worth a trawl The Turtles, they were a dab hand at covering Dylan and their take on It Ain’t Me Babe is really good as is PF Sloan’s Let Me Be from that same album. She’ll Come Back from Wooden Head is another great track, though as you say with a sound that was starting to sound a little outdated in 1970, holds up well though.
    Final footnote to this great band; apparently Flo and Eddie kept the mastertapes of their stuff, which no doubt is quite a nice earner for them with Happy Together and Elenore still being played to death deep in to the 21st century. Nice one Philip.

    • Philip Downer
      Mar 2, 2022

      Hi Glenn, thanks for your comments. Yes, It Ain’t Me Babe is a cracker. Whittling output down to ten tracks is very challenging.
      White Whale, the Turtles label, treated them abominably, despite the fact that the label didn’t have a whole lot of other hitmakers. Once the Turtles split up, White Whale folded somewhat pronto, which gave Flo and Eddie the chance to buy their rights back from the receiver (or whatever they call them in the US). There’s some justice in the world…

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