A few weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Howard Kaylan. For the second time, as it happens. The first was a few years ago in connection with the film My Dinner With Jimi, based on his experiences in The Turtles. This most recent conversation – soon to be a feature here on Musoscribe – was centered around his new book, Shell Shocked. It’s an engrossing and delightful autobiography that recounts the movie’s story, plus a lifetime and career than includes a whole lot more.
Point is, The Turtles have been on my mind a lot of late. So I was pleased nearly beyond description when I opened a package that had arrived on my doorstep. It contained new 180-gram vinyl pressings of the first and third Turtles albums, It Ain’t Me, Babe and Happy Together. So while I’m getting the interview feature done, right now seems like the ideal time to take a look back at these two records, originally released in 1965 and 1967.
As we now know, The Turtles were nearly unique among L.A.-based groups of their era in that right from the start they actually played on their own records. Save a string or brass part, what you heard on a Turtles record was created by Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman and their band mates. So that’s an important distinction to make between these guys (who were quite young at the time, with no journeyman musicians in the lot) and other groups who – at least some of the time – saw even their basic tracks laid down by studio pros.
The funny thing is (as Kaylan explains in the pages of Shell Shocked), the reason The Turtles played on their records was the same reason other acts sometimes did not: cost containment. Where a national act might find itself unavailable for cutting a side thanks to being on tour, it was often cheaper to have some crack Los Angeles session men drop by and cut the basics in a single take; the “name” artist could overdub their vocal when they were back in town. But with The Turtles, the thinking was, “You guys are right here, and we’ve got you under contract. We’re not gonna spend money on session players.”
In the end it was win-win. There’s an authenticity and freshness about Turtles sides that’s not always readily evident on the work of their contemporaries. (Hell, for a time, The Grass Roots weren’t even a real group!)
On It Ain’t Me, Babe, The Turtles were still finding their way to some degree. Their sound was a chiming folk rock not completely dissimilar to The Byrds, The Youngbloods or the aforementioned Grass Roots. Though Kaylan and Volman would establish themselves as facile songwriters in short order, on their debut they (and/or studio director “Bones” Howe) generally took a safer route, enlisting works from the catalogs of Bob Dylan (the title cut, “Love Minus Zero” and “Like a Rolling Stone”), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“Glitter and Gold”) and P.F. Sloan (“Eve of Destruction”). They even turn in a cover of “It Was a Very Good Year,” months before Frank Sinatra cut it (and scored The Chairman a #28 on the pop chart, a #1 on the Easy Listening chart, and no less than two Grammy Awards). But even Kaylan’s original numbers (three solo compositions and a co-write) sit nicely alongside the safer material. Even at this early stage, the band sounds assured – especially Al Nichol‘s electric guitar work – and the trademark vocal harmonies are evident.
Other than those vocals, The Turtles don’t sound a whole lot like they would on their more well-known material, but for a debut by a young bunch of kids (Kaylan and Volman were all of eighteen during the It Ain’t Me, Babe sessions), it’s a solid, often impressive debut. While they would soon abandon the folk-rock style (just in time, as it turned out), they acquit themselves well for a bunch of suburban youngsters singing earnest protest songs. The hidden gem (hidden as in not-often-played) on this monaural LP is Mann/Weil’s “Glitter and Gold,” which in retrospect points a subtle finger in the direction of the group’s future good-timin’ sunshine pop direction.
In my next blog entry, I’ll take a look at the 180-gram vinyl reissue of The Turtles third LP, 1967’s Happy Together.
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