Graham Reid | | 6 min read
It hasn't been uncommon for musicians or bands to hide behind another name. The Beatles briefly flirted with the idea for an album before they ran out of energy for it (“We're Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band . . .”) and in the early Seventies the late Leon Russell recorded a very credible country album as Hank Wilson.
And, although it was obviously Russell, Hank was voted the most promising country artist of the year by Rolling Stone.
These were pretty transparent ploys, but in the late Nineties Garth Brooks actually tried to hide behind the name and image of “Chris Gaines”, a country singer from Australia that Brooks was allegedly going to play in bio-pix.
He went as far as insisting his record company talk up Gaines as a real person.
The Turtles didn't try hard to hide when they released their '68 album – it appeared as The Turtles Presents the Battle of the Bands – but for the album they performed in different styles as various acts and appeared as such for the photos in the gatefold sleeve.
There was the hippie stoner psyche-pop The Last Thing I Remember (by the Atomic Enchilada), a maudlin baritone country singer on Too Much Heartsick Feeling (the Quad City Ramblers), bite-sized downer-funk rock on the two minute Buzzsaw, a Beach Boys/Hondells surf-rock band on Surfer Dan (as the Crossfires, the name of their first band), dreamy pop when they covered You Showed Me (written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark of the Byrds), silly bluegrass on Chicken Little Was Right and more.
So who won this Battle of the Bands?
Ironically, the Turtles when their self-parody Elenore became a hit.
Among their previous hits had been Happy Together and according to Howard Kaylan of the band their record company kept demanding another such upbeat pop hit. So what he did was write a melody which inverted the melodic patterns of Happy Together and added the dumbest lyrics he could. Hence the lines “You're my pride and joy etc . . .”
Despite it being a joke, their bassist Chip Douglas (later the Monkees' producer) loved it and so they polished it a little and their record company insisted they record it.
It was included in the Battle of the Bands which came with an anthemic intro Pepper-style written by Douglas and Harry Nilsson.
The Turtles were a smart band but a cynical one. They wanted big hits – they had five in the US top 10 in just three years from '65 – but they also saw how ridiculous the music business was. No surprise then that singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman later restyled themselves as a comedy duo Flo and Eddie, sang with Frank Zappa and also had steady work as session singers (they are on the T Rex hit Bang A Gong.
They had great voices and even though Kaylan didn't write much for the Turtles until the end of the band's career, they knew their way around a pop song. Witness how they turned Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon's songs Happy Together and She'd Rather Be With Me into buoyant chart botherers. And their She's My Girl which deserved to chart.
The Turtles remastered catalogue has just been issued as half a dozen discs (with more bonus tracks than songs on the original albums) and they come in tidy box with a small booklet. You can understand why the essay in the booklet is brief, because the Turtles' story was complex, full of side alleys and a few line-up changes around Kaylan and Volman.
Along the way names like Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, producer Bones Howe, Ray Davies (as their producer), the Beastie Boys (who sampled their Battle of the Bands' song I'm Chief Kamanawanalea) and others appear.
Across these albums there are Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe and others turned into pop hits, psyched-out nonsense (Umbassa the Dragon which must have endeared them to Zappa) and some really beautiful songs like their dreamy Earth Anthem.
Their '65 debut album as the Turtles – after appearing as the Crossfires two years previous – found them on the folk-rock trend covering Dylan (a truncated Like a Rolling Stone, Love Minus Zero and It Ain't Me Babe, the latter making the top 10 and being the title track) alongside PF Sloan's Eve of Destruction and urgently complaining Let Me Be. They also took on the standard It Was a Very Good Year, and Kaylan penned the Byrds-like Wanderin' Kind, Let the Cold Winds Blow and A Walk in the Sun which were all classy pop of their time.
There's also the garageband/doo-wop Your Maw Said You Cried.
Very much an album of its year, and in the box set it comes in both mono and stereo versions.
As does You Baby of the following year . . . which includes more PF Sloan (I Know That You'll Be There, Let Me Be again), Bob Lind (the generation gap pot-smoker whine of Down in Suburbia) and a few Kaylan-penned folk-rock pleasers including the delightfully named Pall Bearing Ball Bearing World. And if you listen to songs like House of Pain you can sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek as he mines cliches.
They could be a classy radio-pop band with sensitive songs, but the album sprung no classy radio-pop hit. It was being recorded as their debut came out, because pop in the Sixties was about cash-in quick.
The problem was resolved by the Happy Together album which included that chart smash, the hit She'd Rather Be With Me, Bonner and Gordon's sound album filler Me About You and their theme to the awful and instantly dated film Guide For The Married Man (about middle-class swingers).
The Kaylan-Volman team proved they could pen lightlydelic pop (the Brian Wilson-influenced Think I'll Run Away), some material veers towards the upbeat end of the Lovin' Spoonful's bright pop (Too Be Young To Be One) and there's also the young Warren Zevon's string coloured ballad Like the Seasons.
With this massively successful album they could afford to be frivolous, and they were with Battle of the Bands which followed it (the extra tracks including throwaways and studio clowning).
By the time of Turtle Soup in '69 – produced by Ray Davies – the band had taken control of the songwriting but, much like the Monkees when they did the same, the pop hits weren't there although the music was more interesting.
Some of the songs were more downbeat and pricked with social observations in the manner of Davies (House of the Hill, the country-twang and double entendre ofTorn Between Temptations, Bachelor Mother).
Byrdsian jangle drives She Always Me Laughing and How You Love Me. You Don't Have to Dance in the Rain is almost a return to their pop stylings of Elenore and Happy Together. The extra tracks, many of them worthy studio-complete songs, are as interesting as what was on the album.
During the sessions Kaylan briefly quit and there were plans for a follow-up album with producer Jerry Yester. But business politics and their failure to spring hits meant it came to nothing . . . and that was the end of the Turtles.
Except it wasn't.
Producer Bones Howe collected up a bunch of unreleased songs and b-sides from their mid-Sixties heyday and – wrapped in a cover designed by Dean Torrence – it appeared as Woodenhead. It's a pretty sound album of originals and covers (Peter and Gordon's Wrong From the Start among them).
Once again the extra tracks contains some gems (Is It Any Wonder is classic Turtles) and oddities (the psychedelic Grim Reaper of Love anyone?)
The final track is We'll Meet Again.
And we did.
There were the inevitable reunions, but at the end of '70 that really was it from a band whose chart career began just a few months after they were out of school.
They only ever wanted to be the Beatles (whose Penny Lane they knocked off the number one spot on US charts after just a week with Happy Together) but became almost a self-parody because they just couldn't take the game seriously.
But in their time they had classic Sixties hits and played clubs like the Whisky A Go Go, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and the same bills as Buffalo Springfield, the Lovin' Spoonful, Lou Christie and the Animals . . . and spawned Flo and Eddie.