Saturday, December 27, 2008

They Showed You

by Scott Schinder

What with the Jews running Hollywood and all, it's somehow appropriate that the most subversive act of the '60s Southern California pop explosion would by fronted by a pair of pudgy Jewish misfits whose heavenly harmonies were balanced by a knack for absurdist satire and a playful experimental sensibility that would become increasingly prominent as their band's career progressed.

Between 1965 and 1969, the Turtles scored a series of sunny, harmony-laden hits—"It Ain't Me Babe," "Happy Together," "She'd Rather Be with Me," "She's My Girl," "Elenore," "You Showed Me"—that remain beloved staples of oldies radio and nostalgic movie soundtracks. But their persistent image as fluffy, upbeat popsters belies the richness and depth of the band's body of work. As transcendent as their familiar classics are, the Turtles' recorded oeuvre—six albums, 24 singles and various posthumously released collections incorporating rare and unreleased material—is bursting with underappreciated gems.

The Turtles evolved from the Crossfires, a teen instrumental surf outfit that was a popular attraction on its home turf, the L.A. suburb of Westchester. Howard Kaylan (nee Kaplan) and Mark Volman initially joined the Crossfires as sax players, but the popularity of the Beatles inspired the band to update its style and push Howard (who sang most of the leads) and Mark—who had performed alongside fellow Crossfires Al Nichol and Chuck Portz in the Westchester High School A Cappella Choir—to the front of the stage, where their prodigious vocal and comedic talents soon became apparent.

After signing with the fledgling White Whale label, the Crossfires were rechristened the Turtles and unveiled a retooled folk-rock sound on their debut single, an insistent reworking of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" that became a Top 10 smash in late 1965. Despite subsequent memorable readings of the P.F. Sloan numbers "Let Me Be" and "I Get Out of Breath," the Turtles didn't stay on the folk-rock bandwagon for long. Instead, they embraced a more expansive pop approach that would yield the group's biggest commercial successes.

Their hits made the Turtles a familiar presence on teen-oriented television pop shows and prime-time variety hours, where band's happy-go-lucky attitude and clean-cut image presumably made them an attractive booking. As a child receiving my earliest exposure to rock 'n' roll via the family TV, I couldn't resist the infectious tunes. But I was equally attracted by how much these guys seemed to enjoy their jobs, and by their obvious grasp of the fundamental absurdity of the situation in which they'd found themselves.

The Turtles' hits were transcendent slices of AM bliss, with Kaylan emerging as one of the era's great pop voices. But the band's commercial misfires were equally thrilling, e.g. the gloriously bubblegummy "Can I Get to Know You Better," the bizarro goth-pop "Grim Reaper of Love" and the garage-punky Warren Zevon composition "Outside Chance."

As times changed and many of their contemporaries self-consciously struggled to stay fashionable, the Turtles effortlessly embraced the challenges of art-pop and psychedelia, blossoming as songwriters and making some of their most inventive and emotionally resonant music. Their classic 1968 concept LP The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (on which they adopted the personae of a dozen fictional combos) and 1969's exquisite Ray Davies-produced Turtle Soup were all the more impressive in light of the group's increasingly adversarial relationship with their label, as well as a tortuously tangled management situation that kept soul-sapping litigation hanging constantly over the band's head for most of its career.

The Turtles continued to make first-rate music—like the Judee Sill-penned single "Lady-O" and the long-unreleased Shell Shock LP—up until the time they disbanded in 1970, amidst a hail of lawsuits with White Whale and various ex-managers. In the wake of the band's breakup, Kaylan and Volman found an appropriate outlet for their anarchic humor and residual frustrations when they (along with Turtles bassist Jim Pons) joined Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. With ongoing litigation preventing them from performing under their real names, they adopted the aliases of the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, which was shortened to Flo and Eddie when they released a series of duo efforts that offered a deft blend of pop-culture satire and sterling songcraft. They also built a parallel career as a studio backup singers for the likes of T. Rex, the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen, hosted a fondly-remembered syndicated radio show, and did extended stints as DJs at album-rock stations in L.A. and New York.

In the '80s, Kaylan and Volman won back the rights to the Turtles name and ownership of the band's recordings. In the years since, the pair has thrived on the live oldies circuit, delivering the crowd-pleasing hits while maintaining the humorous theatrical elements that they perfected in the '70s. In 2006, Kaylan released his first-ever solo effort Dust Bunnies, a home-recorded labor of love on which he lends his iconic voice to a quirky selection of cover tunes.

The largely wonderful Dust Bunnies is available at But, as of this writing, the Turtles' magnificent album catalogue is in an unfortunate state of disrepair. In the '90s, Sundazed Records (in the U.S.) and Repertoire (in Europe) both did a nice job with expanded CD editions of the original albums, and Rhino (which had extensively reissued the band's work in the vinyl era) released the excellent two-CD comp Solid Zinc in 2002. All of those discs are out of print as of this writing, leaving CD consumers to make do with a variety of skimpy greatest-hits collections. Fortunately, all six original Turtles albums (in expanded versions that correspond with the Sundazed reissues) are available on iTunes.

Since the Turtles were a frequent presence on TV in their heyday, many of their vintage performances are viewable on Youtube. But you might want to start with this hilarious and terrifying clip from the documentary Happy Together, in which Kaylan and Volman outline some of the band's convoluted business woes:


"I Get Out of Breath" mp3
by The Turtles, 1966.
available on Wooden Head

"Outside Chance" mp3
by The Turtles, 1966.
available on You Baby/Let Me Be

"Can I Get to Know You Better" mp3
by The Turtles, 1966.
available on You Baby/Let Me Be

"Sound Asleep" mp3
by The Turtles, 1968.
available on The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

"Somewhere Friday Night" mp3
by The Turtles, 1969.
available on Turtle Soup

"Love in the City" mp3
by The Turtles, 1969.
available on Turtle Soup

"We Ain't Gonna Party No More"
by The Turtles, 1969.
available on Wooden Head


alzo said...

This clip should be essential viewing to anyone embarking on a 'career' in the biz, along with Steve Albini's and Simon Napier-Bell's cautionary dissections. God save the Turtles!

Jim said...

Great post. I absolutely love the Turtles.

One of the interesting Turtle connections is the one with Harry Nilsson. The Turtles recorded one of Harry's earliest compositions ("The Story of Rock and Roll"), and Harry co-wrote the title song to "Battle of the Bands" with Chip Douglas. (Harry had some history with Chip, going back to Phil Spector and the Modern Folk Quartet.)

One of Flo and Eddie's best radio shows was the one where Harry dropped by.

rap said...

Years ago, I assembled a cassette of "Shell Shock," or at least my approximation of it, from vinyl sources.

Never saw it on CD though apparently Rhino put it out THEIR version of it in 1987, as I just discovered...

jonderneathica said...

Emusic just added Dust Bunnies. Flo and Eddie also worked as producers; I don't know if they produced anyone other than the band DMZ.

Friday Street said...

Makes you think they could have been a great stand up double act if they weren't the finest vocalists of their generation!

rachelgampel said...

What a wonderful article. I agree, Howard Kaylan had one of the best voices in music history. As much as people love The Turtles' big hits, I think it's a shame that he doesn't get more recognition for how really amazing he was. If more people listened to the full catalog of Turtles music, they'd be stunned by his beautiful voice.

Anonymous said...

so name names-who are those two managers?