By Ken Sharp
From 1967 to 1970, pop-rock practitioners The Turtles racked up a heady list of hit records that traversed a number of styles and creative sensibilities. “The Turtles 45 RPM Vinyl Singles Collection” box set culls eight 7-inch singles sporting the group’s biggest hits, like “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be with Me,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “You Baby,” “Let Me Be,” “Elenore” and “You Showed Me,” alongside lesser known but equally inventive material including “Outside Chance,” written by fledgling singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, “Story of Rock and Roll” by Harry Nilsson and the soaring pop opus “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain.” Turtles lead vocalist Howard Kaylan gave Goldmine the scoop on the project.
GOLDMINE: What was the idea behind the new Turtles vinyl 45 box set?
HOWARD KAYLAN: Vinyl is always gonna be cool and it’s always gonna be what you wanna hear new songs on. I appreciate the way Dave Grohl can go in an analog studio and record new product and get it released and it works. Back in the day with vinyl there was so much air on records. Things sounded like you were in the room with the band. You can’t duplicate air; you can’t make a digital recording of air. The reason studios like Gold Star and Sunset Sound and United Western in L.A. got to be famous is they had a distinct sound. You can’t hear that sound on a CD. You’ve gotta listen to it on a vinyl record like Phil Spector intended to really understand the sound of that room and how important that was to the music. Well, now everybody has neared vinyl once again and the younger generation thinks it’s hip. We have re-released our greatest hits so many times in so many different forms, and literally the only thing we haven’t done is put these things out the way they were originally intended to be listened to at 45 RPM with the pops and scratches you put there yourself with your own needle on your own record player. They have custom sleeves with the FloEdCo logo on them with the Turtles logo on surprisingly White Whale-looking 45 records. The label is the same color; we matched it entirely. We put our eight biggest hits on the A sides and our eight smaller hits on the B-sides. We didn’t want to do the original B-sides; we wanted to put on the records that charted and except for a legal hassle that disallowed the use of “Lady-O”, everything great we ever released as a single is on those records. We even included a little spindle inside which says, “The Turtles on vinyl” just because there are people who have turntables but don’t have 45 spindles and we’re trying to cover all the bases here. So here are all the records, major and minor. They sound as close to the originals as possible.
GM: Are you a big vinyl collector?
HK: My God, yes. I was a big vinyl collector, that is, up until four-and-a-half years ago, when I sold off everything. The problem was I just didn’t have room anymore. I couldn’t house my vinyl anymore, so my albums went; it was all part of a giant auction.
GM: Did you save anything?
HK: I kept everything that was cool. If it was an album by the Millennium that was hard to find, I kept it. I kept the stuff that was important to me, and I kept the all the stuff that we had recorded on vinyl. But the other stuff, as my wife put it, is either available on iTunes or you won’t ever listen to it. I mean, what are the odds you’re gonna play Bloodrock? We got rid of 40 giant boxes of LPs, but I kept every single 45 I ever bought, and I have thousands of 45s. I feel much more of a kinship to those than I do with albums.
GM: Share the back story behind some of The Turtles’ songs featured on the new vinyl box set starting with the band’s No. 1 smash, “Happy Together.”
HK: We thought (songwriting team) (Garry) Bonner and (Alan) Gordon’s demo sucked, but we heard something magical in the chords and in the lyrics. We were looking for the magic when we left Bones Howe as a producer and consciously made the effort — despite the screaming and kicking of our label — to just stay put and do what we knew how to do.
We had gone to see the Lovin’ Spoonful, an unknown band, perform at this New York club, The Night Owl, and we were so impressed by the fun those guys were having onstage and the fun those guys were able to deliver in the music. It was far more than we had ever received with the success of “You Baby.” It was what we wanted to do. We wanted to take the audience now and make them just smile. Forget about all the folk-rock stuff and just churn out good, happy, pop music. Nobody on the West Coast was doing it, but the Lovin’ Spoonful were.
So we went to our label and said “You hear those guys?“ “Yeah, we like those guys.” “Well, we want to be the West Coast version of those guys, and to that end we want you to hire Koppelman-Rubin, the production company in New York, who owned those guys, to produce our records, too. Kicking and screaming, they reluctantly agreed, because we were their only act. So they agreed to entertain the idea of hiring an actual big production company to come in and oversee the career of The Turtles.
We were thinking we were gonna receive Eric Jacobsen, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s producer, as part of the deal, and we were really looking forward to it and thinking in those terms and writing songs in that vein. And then we were assigned Joe Wissert, this kid who we had never really heard of, but they guaranteed us that he was a pro in the field. He had produced — without getting credit — many of the hit records from Philadelphia on the Cameo/Parkway label, some of the great Orlons and Chubby Checker songs. He was uncredited for this boy genius success.
So they brought him into the studio with us — after we had already chosen “Happy Together” and after we had already signed a deal with Koppelman-Rubin Associates — they bring in this green guy, Joe Wissert, to sit down and listen to what we’d been putting together for eight months with “Happy Together,” which had also come from Koppelman-Rubin.
We wanted to do the whole thing under their auspices. We received the demo of “Happy Together” through them, and it had been turned down by every band in the world. Nobody heard the magic that we heard. Gary Lewis turned it down; the Vogues turned it down. There wasn’t a pop group in the world that didn’t listen to the scratchy demo and go, “No, that’s terrible. There’s nothing there; we don’t hear it,” and yet we heard something. We heard something that was a little outside of the box, but it was so mystical in its own way to us on a boy-girl level.
It didn’t have to be mystical on a finding enlightenment level to be a Beatle-y thing for us. We heard something that was a level deeper than that, and nobody else heard it. When we did the arrangement of the song for them, then they got it. What they perceived even more than hearing it on a surface level was, “Oh, listen, they’re doing a very soft vocal chorus that kind of sounds like Colin Blunstone,” breaking into “I can’t see me loving nobody but you” in a major key with a 4/4 drum beat, and it’s exactly the same formula that “It Ain’t Me Babe” followed.
And that’s how we were able to take their demo and adapt it to our style. So we went into the studio, and it was the only time we ever knew that we had recorded a No. 1 record before the horns were on and before anything was mixed. Even while the track was being cut, we just looked at each other and knew. There was just so much air in the room that day; the arrangement was just so well thought out, and Chip Douglas, for the most part, did that. The production was so sparse in places and so “Wall of Sound” in other places that you could tell the Phil Spector influences on Joe Wissert.
Recording that song was a pleasure. We listened to it, and we just grinned from ear to ear. We didn’t even have to release the thing; we could have left the country and come back knowing that we had already had a No. 1. in our absence; pay me.
GM: The Turtles’ next single, “You Baby,” moved from folk rock to a poppier sound. Speak about the band’s evolution into what you’ve described as being the “West Coast Ambassadors of Good-Time Music.”
HK: It was a conscious move. We knew just like when we had turned down “Eve of Destruction” as a single that whoever jumped aboard the folk-rock train was guaranteed they were gonna go down with the folk-rock train. Since we had already expressed our displeasure of recording songs that were inappropriate for us, we started looking for the next big record.
Our label, White Whale, had no idea about what to have us put out. They had no idea of a direction for this band, and since they couldn’t afford session people at all, we always had to use just the people in our own band. It was really a matter of recording things on the tightest budget imaginable. So when “Let Me Be” was a hit, they started scrambling for a follow-up, and the follow-up that we chose, fortunately — even though it was so far afield from the first two records — was a record also written by Sloan and Barri called “You Baby.” With that knowledge, and knowing those guys had written hits for The Grass Roots and hits for other people as well as us, they let us record “You Baby.” We had no knowledge if anybody else was given these songs.
We didn’t know that Lou Adler was already sitting on a Mamas & Papas version that was gonna go on their record. It didn’t really matter at the time, because they weren’t gonna release it as a single, and we didn’t hear it exactly the way they heard it anyway. We heard it as a much poppier song. That little drum intro thing was something that also became a trademark with us. “You Baby” was a conscious attempt to break out of doing folk-rock music and do something that was slightly happier.
Based on having three hit records, we finally left Los Angeles, not just to tour with Dick Clark, but to go into a nightclub or a week or two at a time and headline the same way we had headlined at the Whisky-A-Go-Go in L.A., with The Doors as our opening act. Now it was time to take it East. We took the whole dog-and-pony show to New York and wound up playing a club called The Phone Booth. It was infamous in that it had a house band, too, that had a hit record recently and had gone on the move nationally, and that was The Young Rascals. So the Young Rascals went to the Whisky to be their house band for two weeks, and we went to New York City to be the house band at The Phone Booth for a couple of weeks.
GM: “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain” was a song you penned for “Turtle Soup,” an album produced by The Kinks’ Ray Davies.
HK: With that song, I tried to get the irony in there, too. (Recites lyrics) “I look at your face and I love you anyway.” Lines that like that I was writing, with me harkening back to the kind of lyrics I wrote for “Elenore,” (recites lyrics) “You’re my pride and joy etcetera.” I was trying to show that I didn’t mean this song, just like I didn’t mean “Elenore.” It doesn’t mean that I had contempt for the art form; I just had a respect for the art form that I thought I helped create.
I wanted to keep The Turtles still a little tongue-in-cheek; I didn’t want to turn us into a straight pop band again, because the times, they were a changing, and AM radio was going away and FM radio was coming in. Working with Ray Davies was a major coup for us, but it couldn’t give us an FM hit. It couldn’t provide us with a crossover means into this new genre, and without that we were dead. We knew it.
We were fighting amongst ourselves and went into the studio one more time with Jerry Yester to do one final album. When we started fighting with our record label, they locked us out of the studio, and they locked our gear inside the studio, and they wouldn’t let us in. The lawsuits ensued, and The Turtles broke up. And even after we broke up and they started releasing records on us posthumously, they went back and released “Eve of Destruction” from 1965 and it made the damn Billboard Top 100. I could not believe it.
GM: How about The Turtles’ second-biggest hit, “She’d Rather Be With Me,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart?
HK: It resonates with me because it’s a hit record, but I didn’t hear it in the studio as being anything special. It was one of those songs just like later on in our career when we sang on “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen, I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear it in the studio, and I couldn’t hear it even when it got played on the radio that it was a hit. I just thought to myself that this is a turkey. This is not going to live up the success formerly held in that case by Bruce, and, in this case, us.
We had achieved such magic with “Happy Together” that even Lulu’s review in a U.K. column “Blind Date” was how disappointed she was with this coming from The Turtles and how she had expected so much more. Well, I think we did, too, but knowing we had cast our lot with Koppelman-Rubin, and these guys were the ones picking our singles for us and here was yet another Bonner and Gordon song and yet another Joe Wissert production.
And while “She’d Rather Be With Me” didn’t continue the mystique of “Happy Together,” as far as I’m concerned, it did have a lot of razzmatazz. I think that’s what the label was looking for, and it did broaden our spectrum a little bit. It was much bigger in Europe than “Happy Together” was, and it also broke us out of that soft-loud-soft-loud thing. It was a different kind of a song; it was a vaudeville song.
So all of a sudden, we were doing big television shows, like Ed Sullivan or the Smothers Brothers, that would never even have booked us. It broadened our audience greatly, because it made them understand we weren’t a one-trick pony and that we were around for the long haul, that we were really doing show-biz kind of stuff.
GM: The Turtles’ last big hit was “You Showed Me,” which was written by Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds.
HK: Our producer, Chip Douglas, hated the idea of slowing it down. He thought it was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard of in his life. He wanted us to do it the way it was originally done by The Byrds. It was recorded as a very Merseybeat kind of song. It had a really Beatles feel and had a fast tempo. That’s the song that Chip wanted to play for us at his house.
When we got to his house, he had loaned out his piano to a studio for a Monkees session, and the only thing he had to play the song for us was this pump organ. And the organ was a beautiful-sounding instrument, but it only had one of two bellows working, so he couldn’t perform the song fast enough. So he kept saying, “It’s not like this; it’s faster.” So he played us the song at this slow speed, and Mark and I did not have to say a word to each other. We looked at each other and knew instantly what we were thinking.
We said, “Chip, you’re wrong. This is not a fast song; this is a gorgeous ballad. Listen to that melody. Think about it with strings at that tempo.” And he went nuts. We imported that very pump organ, broken as it was, and brought it to the studio, and that’s the very organ on the song “You Showed Me.” GM