‘I was snorting coke on Abraham Lincoln’s desk in the White House. Yes, that Abraham Lincoln and that White House.’
So begins Howard Kaylan’s autobiography, Shell Shocked: My Life with The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc … (Backbeat Books, 2013). As entertaining a sex-and-drugs-and-rock’n’roll memoir as you will find, and highly recommended.
Anyway, it was 1965, and they were The Crossfires, doing surfing songs and covers, until DJ and friend Reb Foster told them: “Your new name is … The Turtles!” Kaylan recalls: “We laughed at him … ‘You have got to be kidding,’ we chided. ‘Turtles are fat and ugly and cold and stupid. Why the hell would we want to be called that?’ And Reb explained: ‘The name has an l-e-s ending, just like The Beatles, and it’s an animal name too. The public is going to think that you guys come from England, and England is really hot!’ Well, we couldn’t argue with that logic.”
So The Turtles it was, after a brief flirtation with the “Byrds Y” spelling (Tyrtles), followed by a dabble in folk-rock that yielded their first hit, a serviceable version of Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. But if there is one song they will be remembered for, it is their 1967 US No 1, Happy Together, a sublime slice of California sunshine pop, superbly sung by Kaylan, that has enjoyed more than 5 million radio plays (including, almost certainly, several more somewhere in the world today).
Never ones to take themselves too seriously, for their fourth LP in 1968 The Turtles released this concept album, produced by their former bass player Chip Douglas (he’s the Chip at the start of The Monkees’ Daydream Believer, of whom Davy Jones asks: “What number is this, Chip?”), in which they perform as various fictional groups and in a pastiche of various styles, ranging from pop and rock to country, bluegrass, and psychedelia.
The full line-up of bands, with their songs, is:
The US Teens featuring Raoul The Battle of the Bands (written specially for the project by Harry Nilsson)
The Atomic Enchilada The Last Thing I Remember
Howie, Mark, Johny, Jim and Al Elenore
Quad City Ramblers Too Much Heartsick Feeling
The LA Bust ’66 Oh, Daddy!
The Fabulous Dawgs Buzzsaw
The Cross Fires Surfer Dan
Chief Kamanawanalea and His Royal Macadamia Nuts I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)
Nature’s Children You Showed Me
The Bigg Brothers Food
Fats Mallard and The Bluegrass Fireball Chicken Little Was Right
All the bands are credited with the superb closing number, Bill Martin’s song Earth Anthem, recorded at 3am, by candlelight, to give it the right atmosphere. It’s one of three standout tracks (a ratio that compares favourably with most other concept albums of the period). The other two are Elenore, written by Kaylan as a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the label’s demands for another Happy Together, and a trippy version of You Showed Me, written by Byrds Jim McGuinn and Gene Clark (you can hear the intro sampled by De La Soul on their first album; The Turtles sued, and won).
Both songs were released as singles and reached No 6 in the US charts, but the album stalled at No 128, disappointing the band who thought it was “our Sgt Pepper”. Kaylan recalled: “It still bugs me, all these years later, that it was under-appreciated by the music critics … I was happy with it then, and I still think it’s the strongest standalone album that the band ever recorded.”
Whatever the critics thought, it remains an enjoyable record, especially if you can get hold of the original American gatefold sleeve which features The Turtles actually masquerading as their fictitious alter egos. No one could accuse them of not entering into the spirit of the thing. You can download the album, but it’s not the same without the sleeve and the band names.
John Barbata, The Turtles’ brilliant drummer, left soon afterwards to join Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and his remaining bandmates, after one more album – the equally intriguing Turtle Soup, produced by Kink Ray Davies in 1969 – called it a day.
Kaylan and fellow vocalist Mark Volman went on to perform as The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (later Flo & Eddie) with The Mothers of Invention – or as a big fan, magician Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller), describes it: “Those turtlefucking Mothers with those motherfucking Turtles.”
They also sing backing vocals on, among many other hits, T Rex’s Hot Love and Get It On (Bang a Gong), Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart, and Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs. More recently, they’ve been touring as part of the Happy Together 60s tour in the United States.
Last modified: Nov 16, 2016