For a band as important as they are, and one that (unlike almost all of their contemporaries) owns all their own masters, the Turtles have been rather shoddily dealt with in terms of reissues of their catalogue. While they were pioneers in doing decent reissues in the 1980s (Rhino Records, which for many years was the market leader in archival releases, got started with the Turtles’ back catalogue), many of their albums had fallen out of print in recent years, and the few CDs that remained available were fairly shoddy affairs when compared to, for example, the reissues put out by Now Sounds of the Association’s catalogue.
This has now changed, with the release of The Complete Original Albums Collection and its counterpart All The Singles, which between them cover everything the band released (apart from some early recordings under the name The Crossfires, from before they became The Turtles, which have occasionally been stuck out on compilations under the later name).
These sets have had the involvement of Andrew Sandoval, who I’ve often praised here previously for his work on reissues from pretty much every important 60s band who weren’t the Beatles, and while I can’t speak to sound quality or liner notes, having bought the album set as MP3s (the physical set isn’t out in the UK for another couple of weeks, and frankly both physical sets are currently ludicrously overpriced on Amazon UK — their prices in every other country are much more reasonable) I can be sure that those are superlative, as they have been in every other reissue project Sandoval has had a hand in.
One disappointment is that there are a handful of things on the singles set that aren’t on the albums set (luckily, I had all of them anyway, because that’s the kind of person I am). I understand all the myriad reasons why that will be the case (it’s much cheaper from a licensing perspective to include multiple versions of the same song than include multiple different songs, for example), and these things are always a balance between artistic and commercial goals, but it’s a shame that there’s not something you can point to and say “that has *everything*”.
However, the album set does come tantalisingly close to just that. Most of the tracks missing are insubstantial things like the record-company-mandated country single “Who Would Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret?”, but two tracks, “Lady-O” and “You Know What I Mean”, are among their very finest work and are absolutely required listening for anyone who even has a passing interest in the band.
I would imagine, though, that anyone wanting to buy a six-CD set of the Turtles’ work probably already has a singles compilation. If you don’t, the new 2-CD compilation is probably a better starting place than this set, and you should buy that. But for those who already have the hits, what does this set have to offer?
Disc One is the Turtles’ first album, It Ain’t Me, Babe, in both mono and stereo mixes, and is by far the weakest of the set. At this stage, the Turtles were a one-hit wonder, their version of the title track having reached number eight on the charts, and so they had to crank out an album of generic folk-rock semi-protest at short notice. There’s really little of value here — while the title track is pretty good, at this stage they only had one idea, which was for Howard Kaylan, the band’s lead vocalist, to try to sound a bit like Colin Blunstone, and to get loud in the chorus and quiet in the verses. Using this idea, they blast through some other Dylan covers for which this technique doesn’t work, a handful of P.F. Sloan songs (including “Eve Of Destruction”, which they relegated to an album filler but which would later become a massive hit for Barry McGuire), a couple of unoriginal originals, and a bizarre baroque-pop cover version of “It Was A Very Good Year”, which would have been odd even were it not being sung by someone so young his parents had to countersign his record contract.
This first album is nice to have, of course, but not something one is likely to return to for many repeat listens. It gives very little hint that the band recording it would go on to (at least occasional) greatness or importance. It’s possibly slightly better as a folk-rock cash-in than, say, Folk City by Jan & Dean, but it’s not a classic of the genre.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, of disc two, containing mono and stereo versions of their second album, You Baby. You can tell how much care was put into these early albums by the fact that it contains one song, “Let Me Be”, which had appeared on the previous LP. It’s a collection of generic folk-pop based around two hit singles (“Let Me Be” and the title track, a great little Sloan/Barri pop song, one of the best pop records of the simple three-chord jangle-pop beat style ever made) with much of the rest being filler (a typical example is a song called “In Suburbia”, written by Bob Lind of “Elusive Butterfly” fame, which is the most perfectly condensed example of 60s sneering at middle-class people I know of).
But then, during the recording of disc three, which contains mono and stereo versions of their third album, Happy Together, everything went wrong for the Turtles, and they got good. They had a string of flop singles, and their rhythm section left, for various reasons (most notably rhythm guitarist Jim Tucker was so disillusioned after meeting a drunk, abusive, John Lennon — his inspiration and reason for taking up the guitar — in London during a UK tour that he got on a plane back to California, gave up music and never spoke to the rest of the band again).
Lead vocalist Howard Kaylan, backing vocalist Mark Volman, and lead guitarist Al Nichol were all that was left of the band, and they regrouped and changed direction. They took on a new drummer, John Barbata, and more importantly added bass player Chip Douglas, recently a member of the Modern Folk Quartet.
The new line-up had four excellent singers, and they decided that rather than folk-rock, they were going to play music that was like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “good-time music”, but with an extra emphasis on their vocal harmonies. They got hold of a rejected demo by songwriters Alan Gordon and Gary Bonner, who were signed to the same publishers as the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Chip Douglas came up with a great arrangement for it, combining the best elements of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beach Boys, and the Turtles’ own signature quiet/loud dynamics into what was one of the great pop records of all time, “Happy Together”.
Douglas left soon after that single, being poached by Mike Nesmith to be the Monkees’ producer on the strength of his arrangements for the Turtles, and he was replaced by Jim Pons, himself a superb bass player and singer, for much of the rest of the album. But he’d done his job. The Turtles were now a harmony band, with an understanding of arrangement and dynamics, creating perfect sunshine pop.
Happy Together is as mixed as the earlier records, songwriting-wise — although it contains another great Bonner/Gordon single, “She’d Rather Be With Me”, an early effort by Warren Zevon, and some very good original material by the band members, including the extraordinarily strange psych-pop song “Rugs of Woods and Flowers” it also contains pap such as “Guide For The Married Man”, a title song for a dire farce. But even the worst tracks have a confidence in the performances, arrangements, and production that was totally missing from the first two albums. Not everything on it is great, but quite a lot of it is, and it’s a solidly *good* album.
disc four presents their first *great* album, and their first one only to be released in stereo, The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands. Chip Douglas returned for this one, as producer rather than bass player, and brought with him two songwriters from the Monkees’ circle — Harry Nilsson, who co-wrote the title track with Douglas; and Bill Martin, who wrote the environmental ballad “Earth Anthem” which closes the album.
Other than a cover version of the Byrds’ “You Showed Me”, everything else on the album is original. Each track is done in a different style, and credited to a different fictional band, (“The Atomic Enchilada”, “The Fabulous Dawgs”, “Chief Kamanawanalea and his Royal Macadamia Nuts”, “Nature’s Children”), and for the first time the Turtles show on record the sense of humour that had always characterised their live performances.
Many of the songs contain stupid puns and jokes (for example “Kamanawanalea” is pronounced “come on, I wanna lay ya”), but most of the joking is musical, and it’s fascinating to hear them do such spot-on musical pastiches that yet work as non-ironic examples of the genres.
The ultimate example of this is “Elenore”, which is credited to “Howie, Mark, Johny, Jim & Al”, because it’s a pastiche of the Turtles themselves. Specifically, it’s a parody of “Happy Together” written by Kaylan, with deliberately bad lyrics like “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera”. It manages to be absolutely hilarious, but also to be a genuinely great pop single.
The disc is rounded out by a variety of non-album singles and alternate mixes, including “She’s My Girl”, the last (and arguably the best) of the Turtles’ Bonner/Gordon singles, which is one of the first records I ever truly obsessed over. I remember sitting and playing my 45 copy of that over and over as a tiny child, just wondering how they managed to get that sound. As an adult I can see exactly how they did it, but it’s still marvellous. There’s also “The Story Of Rock & Roll”, a flop single written by Harry Nilsson, who had originally given it to the Monkees (who had recorded a backing track but never finished it).
Towards the end of Battle Of The Bands, John Barbata quit the band, being replaced by John Seiter, for what would be their final album, Turtle Soup, which makes up most of disc five.
While the band themselves aren’t apparently fond of this, I think it’s honestly their masterpiece. It’s produced by Ray Davies, who they brought in to work on it after falling in love with The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and it’s an album that in my opinion should be ranked with that one or Odessey and Oracle in the lists of great pastoral psych-pop.
People always point to “Love In The City” as the great track from this album, but to me the standouts are “You Don’t Have To Walk In the Rain” (a beautiful reworking of the Elenore/Happy Together formula, with great lines like “I look at your face/I love you anyway”) and the gentle ballad “Dance This Dance With Me”, which shows that they’d internalised the Kinks’ music so well they could write a better Ray Davies song than Ray Davies himself could for much of the rest of his career.
The CD is filled out with demos of songs from the album, and with full-band recordings of songs that the Turtles wouldn’t release while they were still together, but which Volman and Kaylan (and Pons) would rerecord a few years later for the first few Flo & Eddie albums — songs like “Goodbye Surprise”, “There You Sit Lonely”, “Marmendy Mill”, and “If We Only Had The Time” which will be very familiar to fans of their post-Zappa work.
The final CD, disc six, collects songs which had previously been bonus tracks on earlier CD releases, mostly from the releases of the first two albums. This is as mixed a bag as you would expect (things like a version of “We’ll Meet Again”), but some of it’s great — “She’ll Come Back”, a song that only appeared on a film soundtrack at the time, shows their Zombies influence to the point where it could easily have been from the first Zombies album (and would have been better than much that’s on it), while their version of the Goffin/King song “So Goes Love” is far, far superior to the Monkees’ later version, and “Grim Reaper of Love” is a mess, but a wonderful mess. Whatever made them think that the best way to follow up their top twenty hit “You Baby” (“From the time I go to sleep til the morning comes I dream about you baby, nobody but you”) was to do a song with verses in 5/4, choruses in waltz time, an electric sitar, and lyrics about “killing the living and living to kill”, it was a magnificently brave decision.
All in all, this is finally the set the Turtles deserve. It’s not the place to start with them — you want to get any hits compilation with “Happy Together”, “Elenore”, “She’s My Girl”, “You Know What I Mean” and “Lady-O” on it if you want an easy introduction to their music. But if, after hearing those, you want more, it would be hard to imagine a better collection.
This post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
Whatever made them think that the best way to follow up their top twenty hit “You Baby” […] was to do a song with verses in 5/4, choruses in waltz time, an electric sitar, and lyrics about “killing the living and living to kill”, it was a magnificently brave decision.
This made me think about Radiohead, who perversely followed up their megahit album “OK Computer” with the completely different and deliberately difficult “Kid A”. I found that album hard to get into, but ended up absolutely loving it. I wonder if you’re familiar with it, and what you make of it? (If you’re not familiar with it, the song How to Disappear Completely is a good jumping-off point.)
I’m afraid Radiohead are one of those bands I’ve never been able to get into — they just grate on me, unfortunately.
Ah well — we can’t all appreciate everything! I just found the deliberately-difficult resonance interesting.