Gee, I Think You’re Swell (The Turtles)

Friends would indulge my penchant for 60s American pop bands but only so far. The Lovin’ Spoonful, that’s fine…the Mamas and the Papas, sweet…but Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Box Tops , they just were not having it. So, that double LP, “The Turtles Greatest Hits”, they thought it both comical and unlikely that the group who sang “Happy Together” would have such a thing. These Britcentric musos, who could name the hits of the Kinks and the Who in chronological order, would not want to hear the the Box Tops collection was a double too.

The Turtles first hit by way of 1965’s easiest route into the charts, a folk-rock cover of a Bob Dylan song. “It Ain’t Me Babe” was no “Mr Tambourine Man” but got a young band noticed. A rushed debut LP had 3 more Dylan songs & just one more minor hit. The band, though were an amiable bunch and stuck with that sunny, folky sound that the young crowd were digging.

The Turtles had two singers in the band. Lead, Howard Kaylan, looked and dressed older than the teenager he was. Harmony, Mark Volman, was a big-boned guy who played the clown. The pair were hardly pop heart-throbs, the music bright but not ground-breaking but the group were memorable and seemed to be a fixture on the US pop TV shows. They had a sharp producer in Bones Howe, a specialist in “sunshine pop” (The Association, Fifth Dimension”) who chose songs from the best young writers in California. “You Baby” is co-written by P.F. Sloan who deserved better than the “poor man’s Bob Dylan” tag he was given. Another single “Outside Chance” is an early composition by the great Warren Zevon.

In 1967, with a new producer, Joe Wissert, and new members (rhythm guitar, Jim Tucker, a Beatles fan left the music business when he was insulted by John Lennon while in England) the Turtles struck a new consistency and had a string of hits after “Happy Together” hit ¬†#1. The songs of Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon helped a lot. The band always had an eye on whatever sounds were happening and ¬†able to incorporate these into their commercial music.

“You Know What I Mean” is a short and sweet slab of harmony pop. Here the band gets to run around with a bunch of corn-fed Californian surfer girls…nice. As the Beach Boys headed for the sandbox and the Mamas & the Papas to the Summer of Love it was left to the Turtles and the Association to continue this strand of American music. The Turtles were by no means setting trends but they were able to make hit records when other bands had a couple of hits and were gone. It is fitting that bass player and arranger Chip Douglas was head-hunted by the Monkees. That manufactured band were similar pop butterflies eager to add polish and imagination to their records.

Of course the times were a’changing and the Turtles went with the flow. 1968’s LP had a clumsy concept and a lengthy title. “The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands” , a range of styles each by a different, fictitious band (Chief Kamanawalea and the Royal Macadamia Nuts…please !). It is, of course, a mess but produced a couple of hits including the wonderful “Elenore” which contained the lines “I really think you’re groovy. Let’s go out to a movie” possibly my favourite pop lyric ever. The band were able to nod and wink at the new psychedelic music but their public (and their label) wanted catchy, happy songs from them, not recipes for hash brownies on songs called “Food”.

The “experimental” “Can You Hear The Cows” is not on Y-tube so I’ll go with another fine 45 “She’s My Girl”. Howie resembles Gomez from “The Addams Family” and Mark is still hamming it up. In 1969 the band played a party at the White House for the President’s daughter, Tricia Nixon. For all the stories of a drunk Volman hitting on LBJ’s daughter or smoking pot in the Lincoln Bedroom the fact is that they were the favourite group of a President’s kid and they played the gig. Any self-respectng hippy would have either refused the offer or have, at least, behaved memorably badly.

With pressure from label White Whale for hits and lawsuits when the band did not play ball the Turtles ran out of steam. Drummer, Johnny Barbata, joined CSN & Y and then Jefferson Airplane. Volman & Kaylan morphed into Flo (The Flourescent Leech) & Eddie a couple of tie-dyed backing singer/clowns. They worked with a lot of people and their contribution to the Mothers Of Invention’s live “Fillmore East” record is the best they did. I saw that band in 1970, the pair were really good. I make no claims for greatness for the Turtles but they made plenty of entertaining even classy singles which add up to a double “best of” which still sounds crisp and fresh…I like crisp and fresh !