California Dreaming: Happy Together

1967 saw the Turtles as practically a new band, with a new sound, and in search of a new song.

In early 1966, the band had seen the Lovin’ Spoonful play live, and had immediately found the missing piece of their style. The Lovin’ Spoonful were one of the most influential bands of the time, and one who hang like a ghost over much of the story we’re looking at in this book, as while they were not an LA band themselves they were, like the Beatles or the Stones, a band that all the LA musicians were aware of.

In the case of the Turtles, what they took from the Lovin’ Spoonful was their attitude. The Lovin’ Spoonful were a fun band, making what they called “good-time music”, and the Turtles decided that they were going to have nothing more to do with folk-rock, they were going to be a good-time music band too. The Lovin’ Spoonful were now as important to the Turtles as Louis Prima and Keely Smith or the Zombies.

This decision was accepted happily by their record label, White Whale, who instead of passing them P.F. Sloan folk-rock songs to perform started passing them P.F. Sloan Lovin’ Spoonful pastiches like You Baby. At first, this brought the band a certain amount of commercial success, but the band’s singles were charting lower in the top forty with each release.

To make matters worse, they had lost their rhythm section. Don Murray had (according to Howard Kaylan’s autobiography) grown paranoid and stormed off in the middle of a show, never to return, while Chuck Portz had decided that the band was clearly past its peak, and so he quit and became a fisherman.

The remaining foursome auditioned numerous drummers before settling on John Barbata, a jazz drummer who was one of the few people who could take part in drum-offs with Buddy Rich and not come out the clear loser, but for their new bass player they chose Chip Douglas, late of the Modern Folk Quartet.

This new, improved, Turtles spent the next eight months touring before going into the studio to record their new single, a song they had been trying out on the road for much of that time.

The new song actually came from Koppelman/Rubin Associates, the publishing, production, and management conglomerate whose major act was the Lovin’ Spoonful, and by all accounts the demo had been around almost every major band in the country and been turned down before the Turtles heard it.

The song, Happy Together, was by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, who had previously been members of The Magicians, whose only single An Invitation To Cry had been a flop but is now considered a minor classic. This new song, however, was anything but a flop. It had a big, bouncy, major-key chorus in the Spoonful style, but it had a soft minor-key verse, which meant that Howard Kaylan could once again do his imitation of Colin Blunstone on She’s Not There, going from a soft, almost whispered, verse into a much stronger chorus. And best of all, it didn’t take itself too seriously — lines like “if I should call you up, invest a dime” were clearly funny, and the Turtles were nothing if not a funny band.

Chip Douglas created a carefully-worked out arrangement, starting with very light instrumental backing by the band with Kaylan’s voice front and centre, then in the second verse bringing in light backing vocals and a single piano embellishment under the line “invest a dime”. For the big chorus, he then has strings and horns come in, along with full-voiced backing vocals, and then in the rest of the song there’s a sense of tension and release as the song keeps dropping back to the quieter verses, but each time there’ll a change in the arrangement, with backing vocals anticipating the main vocal line in the third verse (a trick probably inspired by the Beatles’ Help!), Volman harmonising with Kaylan on the fourth verse while an oboe plays a countermelody (probably inspired by Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe), and then repeating the fourth verse but without Volman or the oboe.

And then of course there are the wonderful, cascading, Beach Boys-inspired “bah bah bah” parts, straight out of God Only Knows but here repurposed to create pure exuberant joy rather than the fragile delicacy of the Beach Boys’ song.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful, track that’s derivative as hell, but derivative of all the best people. Douglas had learned his lessons well, and the track pulls together the Zombies, Phil Spector, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys into one perfect two-minute-and-fifty-four-second masterclass in pop music.

But the thing that tips the track clearly over into perfection is Kaylan’s vocal. The version used on the single is the first take, which he had believed was only a warm-up. As a result, he mocks the song slightly, over-emoting (could anyone really sound that sad while saying they’re “so happy together”?) and including a jokey line that Alan Gordon had sung on the demo — “how is the weather?” — that had never been intended to be part of the song. The band, Joe Wissert (the track’s producer), and engineer Bruce Botnick all persuaded him that his warm-up had been the take, and the result was the band’s only number one, and a track that is one of the fifty records with the most radio plays in history.

Chip Douglas had taken a demo with only an acoustic guitar and slapped knees for percussion, and turned it into a classic of sunshine pop. Clearly he could do great things with the Turtles. But he had other plans…

Happy Together

Composer: Gary Bonner & Alan Gordon

Line-up: Mark Volman (vocals), Howard Kaylan (vocals), Al Nichol (guitar, vocals), Jim Tucker (guitar, vocals), Chip Douglas (bass, vocals), John Barbata (drums), unknown piano, horns, and strings

Original release: Happy Together/Like The Seasons, The Turtles, White Whale WW-244

Currently available on: Save The Turtles: The Turtles Greatest Hits, Manifesto CD and innumerable compilations

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One Response to California Dreaming: Happy Together

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    I do agree — this is fundamentally a good song (you could imagine singing it with just an acoustic guitar at a folk club), but what really makes it fly is the arrangement — a masterpiece of taste, restraint, and exuberance. The song’s good, but the record is better.

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