California Dreaming: Lady-O

White Whale were unhappy with the Turtles, and the feeling was mutual.

The Turtles were White Whale records’ only successful act, but their most recent album, Turtle Soup, had been a massive flop. The band had brought in Ray Davies of the Kinks and recorded an album that was equal parts the LA sunshine pop that had made the band’s name and the thoughtful, orchestral, pastoral music that Davies had recently been using on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Turtle Soup was the first Turtles album to consist entirely of the band’s own songs, and they were justly proud of it, but the singles didn’t do well, and the album completely flopped.

This led to a divergence of opinion between the Turtles and White Whale. White Whale wanted the band to work with country-soul producer Chips Moman, who was then spearheading Elvis Presley’s comeback. Or, rather, they wanted Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman to work with Moman — the idea was that Moman would record backing tracks for the two vocalists to sing over, and that those tracks would be released under the Turtles’ name.

Given that the Turtles had always prided themselves on being one of the few LA bands to play their own instruments on all their hits, this suggestion did not go down well, and the band instead started working on their next album, to be called Shell Shock. This album, produced by Jerry Yester (who had helped with the band’s orchestral arrangements as far back as Happy Together) was a very mixed bag, with Kaylan’s anti-war song We Ain’t Gonna Party No More sitting uneasily next to a cover of the pre-Jan & Dean Jan Berry song Gas Money, but it was the album the band wanted to make, and they thought it had the potential to be their best.

White Whale disagreed. They didn’t hear a hit, and so they insisted that the band record a dreadful country song, Who Would Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret?, easily the worst thing the band had ever been involved in. It was released as a single with We Ain’t Gonna Party No More on the B-side, and flopped, as the band knew it would. After the single’s failure, the band returned to the studio to finish the album, only to find the studio padlocked, with their equipment still inside.

Relations between the band and White Whale had never been good, but now they’d finally reached breaking point. They eventually got White Whale to agree to let them record one final single, as a proper way to end the band’s career. And for their last single, they had the perfect song.

Judee Sill was a woman of deep contradictions. She’d been in and out of reform school and later prison, and was a heroin addict who had supported her and her husband’s addictions with sex work, forgery, and gas station robberies. But she was also a devoutly religious, deeply musical person, who wrote some of the most beautiful songs ever written by a human being. Even at her dullest and most conventional, Sill was a writer the equal of Carole King. At her best, though, she was something far, far more than anyone else writing at the time, with a sense of melody only comparable to Bach.

She had been discovered by Jim Pons, the latest bass player in the band, when in his previous band the Leaves, who had covered a song she wrote in prison. When she got out of prison she had been homeless and living in a car, and the Turtles had signed her to their publishing company, Blimp Music, to write songs at a salary of $35 a week. One of those songs, Lady-O, was the obvious choice for the band’s last single.

Sill was bisexual, and a very religious Christian, and the best of her songs often almost seem to be hymns to a feminine aspect of God, while also being addressed to real people (her most well-known song, Jesus Was A Crossmaker, combines Jesus with the singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, with whom she was briefly romantically involved). The ambiguity in Sill’s rendition of the song (available on her first, eponymous, album), and certainly the non-heteronormativity, is absent in Howard Kaylan’s performance, but Kaylan still gives his most sensitive performance ever.

The song itself bears out a statement that Sill once made, that her only influences ever had been Ray Charles, Bach, and Pythagoras. It’s a perfectly structured piece of mathematically pure beauty, and bears a passing resemblance to some of Ray Davies’ songs for the Kinks in the way it combines baroque music with vernacular English, but where most “baroque pop” shows little more understanding of baroque music than “let’s stick a harpsichord on it”, Lady-O has a melody to rival Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and hearing Kaylan sing “I’ll see you in my holiest dreams, Lady-O” over Sill’s guitar and a restrained string backing is as close as one can get to musical heaven. (Volman and Al Nichol, the only two other Turtles to appear on the track, do so only at the end, providing wordless interlaced backing vocals reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows).

Lady-O was released by White Whale, but by then the band had discovered that they were owed at least two million dollars in unpaid royalties, and were suing the label, so without promotion it only limped to number seventy-eight in the charts. It was an ignominious fate for what is, by a long way, the best thing the Turtles ever did.

Yet the worst was still to come — White Whale countersued the Turtles, and they discovered that because of the contract they’d signed, not only could they not continue to perform as the Turtles without White Whale’s permission, Volman and Kaylan were not even allowed to use their own names. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were property of White Whale. And so the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie were born…

Lady-O

Composer: Judee Sill

Line-up: Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, and Al Nichol (vocals), Judee Sill (guitar), unknown strings

Original release:
Lady-O/Somewhere Friday Night, The Turtles, White Whale WW 334

Currently available on:
Turtle Soup Flo & Eddie, Inc CD

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