They Showed Us: ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’ at 40
By the beginning of 1968, the concept album was very much in vogue; the form was in its ascendancy, with high-profile releases like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (released May 1966), the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released May 1967), The Who Sell Out (December ‘67) and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (November ‘67). Even considerably lesser-known artists like Van Dyke Parks (Song Cycle, March 1968) had begun to explore the ambitious idea of a thematically-linked collection of songs on an album. The sea-change was remarkable; only a few short years earlier, the 45 r.p.m. single was the undisputed coin of the the pop music realm.
And in fact it would be The Turtles – an American group then known primarily as a singles act – who would in 1968 produce one of the most unusual and enduring conceptually-themed albums of the rock era. But in keeping with the band’s go-it-their-own-way ethos, the record they made was no ordinary concept album. Suffused with biting humor, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands took the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper concept a step further.
With Pepper, Paul McCartney had hatched the idea of creating a sort of fictional band through which the Beatles could deliver a clutch of songs that explored musical styles that “The Beatles” couldn’t. Songs like “She’s Leaving Home” may have had some sonic connection with earlier string arrangement-based tunes like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” but it was pretty far afield from the Beatles’ usual (if already quite adventurous) fare.
As 1967 gave way to ‘68, the Turtles were working on what would be their fourth studio album. While the band’s previous records had been nothing short of eclectic – how else to describe tunes like “You Maw Said You Cried” and the utterly bizarre “Grim Reaper of Love” – the approach that the Los Angeles quintet would take with Battle of the Bands was nearly unprecedented.
And with Battle of the Bands, the Turtles aimed to go one better than Sgt. Pepper – ten better, actually – by serving up a clutch of songs in which the band took on a unique persona for each. Applying both the group’s instrumental prowess – they were one of the few L.A.-based rock bands that could cut their own basic tracks without session players – with acerbic wit, they created a clever and catchy masterpiece in The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.
Appropriately enough, the record opens with a theme song, one co-written by Harry Nilsson and producer Chip Douglas. The uptempo tune sounds like a theme song, with a memorable riff, energetic horn section and lyrics that are not dissimilar to the Byrds’ 1967 single “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Even though the band is playing it relatively straight, the song includes a “mistake” in which Howard Kaylan starts to sing the chorus, only to stop a syllable or two in; this may be a subtle poke at the Mamas and the Papas, whose “I Saw Her Again” features a similar fumble by Denny Doherty, one that was left uncorrected. The LP’s gatefold inner sleeve shows the Turtles in a variety of getups; for “The Battle of the Bands” they’re recast as The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul, a group that looks like the Four Freshmen fronted by a whip-wielding escapee from one of L.A.’s Chicano bands.
The Atomic Enchilada is the Turtles’ nom de rock for “The Last thing I Remember,” a midtempo popsike tune written by the band. Dressed up to look like the Strawberry Alarm Clock (and with Mark Volman cradling an Indian sarangi), the Turtles add an extra wrinkle by giving the tune an odd meter that renders it virtually unsingalongable. Of course this wouldn’t be the first time the Turtles dabbled in odd time signatures: parts of “Grim Reaper of Love” are in quintuple meter (3/2).
The story of how “Elenore” came to be is an oft-told tale worthy of repeating. Tasked by White Whale Records management to come up with another hit along the lines of 1967’s “Happy Together” (written by composers outside the band), Howard Kaylan decided instead to write a parody of a pop song, one with the stupidest, most inane lyrics he could muster. The fake-band photo accompanying the song plays into that idea: the group calling itself Howie, Mark, Johny, Jim & Al waves happily while each member is wearing a t-shirt bearing his first name. For their trouble – despite writing words dismissive of loving sentiments (“You’re my pride and joy et cetera”) – the Turtles ended up with a classic single that top-tenned in seven countries.
As country act the Quad City Ramblers, the band does a convincing job with the self-penned “Too Much Heartsick Feeling.” The song features a down-home baritone lead vocal by bassist Jim Pons. For the garage rocker “Oh Daddy,” the band calls itself The LA. Bust ‘66 and costumes itself in striped prison togs. And for the instrumental riff-rocker “Buzzsaw,” the Turtles reach back to their instrumental days (when they were known as the Crossfires) for a nice little distorted guitar number. They christen themselves the Fabulous Dawgs for the song, and appear in the gatefold dressed in gold-lamé-festooned matching suits. As the song fades, Howard Kaylan yammers on about something or other. At this point, listeners who bought the 1968 vinyl LP had to get up and flip the record over.
Side Two of The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands launches off in style, with the goofy “Surfer Dan.” The band photo is labeled “The Cross Fires,” and features the shirtless musicians in swimming trunks, with smiling, sun-kissed blond guitarist Al Nichol out front wielding his trusty sunburst-finish Fender Stratocaster. The song’s lyrics feature any number of sly phrases, substituting the customary “Moving so fast you can’t see him go by” for the more pointed “He’s so ripped he can’t see you go by,” and the memorable phrase “super stock / super jock / down to his knees.” Funny stuff, all delivered with peppy panache.
Things get downright nutty as the band takes on the guise of Hawaiian group Chief Kamanawanalea and the Royal Macadamia Nuts, for the immortal – and punningly immoral – “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts.)” Bird calls and the kind of exotica one would be more likely to find on a Martin Denny LP are joined by a faux-tribal beat courtesy of drummer Johny Barbata.
One of only three Battle songs penned by outside writers, “You Showed Me” is a cover of a relatively obscure early Byrds tune. In the Turtles’ capable hands, the song is slowed down and rendered almost unrecognizable from the original version (which would eventually appear on the Byrds’ 1969 archival release Preflyte). The recording’s memorable string lick would be sampled and used on the Lightning Seeds’ 1997 trip-hop flavored cover, included on the soundtrack to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. At least two other modern-day acts – De La Soul and U2 – would lift the same snippet without authorization from the Battle of the Bands track. The Turtles eventually sued and prevailed with an out-of-court settlement against De La Soul. (In the LP gatefold photo, the Turtles appear nude with giant fig leaves, calling themselves Natures Children.)
Dressing themselves up as portly 1920s-style gentlemen, the Turtles appear as The Bigg Brothers for a silly tune called “Food.” With some delightful Beach Boys-styled a cappella vocals and an arrangement that crosses Spanky and Our Gang with future associate Frank Zappa, the tune provides a hint of one of the directions Kaylan and Volman would explore as Flo & Eddie.
“Chicken Little Was Right” is another silly number, a sort of Los Angeles take on country and western, Beverly Hillbillies style. As the barefooted, overalls- and straw hat-wearing Fat Mallard and the Bluegrass Fireball, the Turtles deliver a credible bluegrass rocker. A dreamy midsection shows that even in the context of faux country, the band employed some musical ambition.
The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands concludes with a track credited to All (the photo is an image of the planet Earth) and features an expansive, dreamy arrangement with forlorn French horn, gently strummed acoustic guitars and a breathy dual lead vocal that’s clearly designed to take the piss right out of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. “Earth Anthem” arguably beats S&G at their own game, with aural grandeur leavened only by the fact the tune is a parody.
Despite its ambitious nature and near flawless execution, The Battle of the Bands was not well received on its release. The Turtles would largely forsake the satirical approach for their final two albums, Turtle Soup (1969) and the 1970 odds-and-sods collection Wooden Head. Despite the success of its singles (“Elenore” and “You Showed Me”), Battle didn’t chart well, and Rolling Stone reviewed it unfavorably. Fans of the Turtles’ early pop singles were doubtless mystified by the band’s approach.
But in the context of pop music – and certainly in light of the post-Turtles Zappa and Flo & Eddie catalog – The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands makes much more sense. History has been quite kind to the record; while parts of it sound dated, the project can now be viewed as an artistic success, one that pays dividends on modern-day listens.