The Turtles’ Howard Kaylan Interview: Album By Album

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The Turtles in an early promo photo (from Howard Kaylan's Facebook page)

The Turtles in an early promo photo (from Howard Kaylan’s Facebook page)

As lead singer of The Turtles, Howard Kaylan has enjoyed a front row seat to the history of rock ’n’ roll for over 50 years as his group, co-piloted by his longtime creative partner Mark Volman, enjoyed a streak of top 10 singles between 1965-69: “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “Happy Together” (which reached #1 in 1967), “Elenore” and “You Showed Me.” They were the bridge connecting the twin towers of Los Angeles pop by pairing the folk-rock of the Byrds with the impeccable melodies of the Beach Boys while delivering it with a humor and grace entirely their own.

The Turtles are indeed largely known as a singles group, but their impact stretches far beyond their greatest hits collections. Any music fan who has ever explored their catalog outside the lines of the obvious material will no doubt attest to the band’s long-players.

Best Classic Bands had the opportunity to speak at length with Kaylan – who was born on June 22, 1947 – about his favorite moments from each album, sharing revealing and enjoyable anecdotes on these six treasures. It Ain’t Me Babe, You Baby, Happy Together, The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands, Turtle Soup and Wooden Head are all crucial building blocks in the construction of California sunshine pop. Now more than ever, it’s time for the Turtles to be recognized for their collective genius.

It Ain’t Me Babe (1965) Turtles It Aint Me babe
“The music we were playing in high school led us to the Byrds. Our main influences, at least for Mark and me, were Bud and Travis, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and Tom Rush. It was all folk, and the songs that I was writing, like ‘Wandering Kind’ and ‘Let the Cold Winds Blow,’ and shit I did in high school, we wound up recording as the Turtles, because they were folk. And all of a sudden folk-rock—thanks to the Byrds—became a genre unto itself. We were not the first to do it, but we certainly were the second to do it. We went as a group to see the Byrds play for the first time. They introduced their version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and our jaws hit the ground. [Guitarist] Al Nichol couldn’t afford a Rickenbacker but he could afford a Danelectro 12-string, and the next morning he bought that. It was a great-sounding instrument. It’s deeper and more recognizable, especially on our records.”

You Baby (1966) r-3883255-1347988713-3052-jpeg
“The Dwight Tunji Trio was a name the owners of the [White Whale] record company—Lee Laseff and Ted Feigin—gave to themselves so they could be a part of the sessions, whether it was singing or doing claps or other background things. They took two of our favorite names at the time—[African drummer] Babatunde Olatunji and Dwight Frye, from the Dracula movies—and combined them into Dwight Tunji. There were so many inside jokes and the record company wanted to be a part of it to show their hipness. And every time they tried something like that it was totally unhip.”

Happy Together (1967) turtles_happy_together
“That [title track] was one of the first actual rock videos ever made and shown in America. My muttonchops were pretty outrageous. I wanted a beard, but I just couldn’t grow a full beard. It wasn’t the right image. So I went full Wolverine. It was outrageous, even for the time. By the time ‘Happy Together’ had hit, we had our own plane. We were working out of Chicago in the Astor Tower hotel, where we had two floors of rooms and two 24-hour drivers waiting for us to go wherever we wanted. We thought we were the shit. We were spending so much money; it was certainly more than we were making. But we wanted to live the good life, and we could afford to do it at the time.”

Watch them perform “Happy Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967

The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands (1968) turtles-battle-cover
“[The hip-hop group] De La Soul sampled ‘You Showed Me’ and we just said, ‘Wait a minute, this can’t be right.’ And everybody was saying, ‘No, no, this is the new music and that’s what they do. They sample you and put it out again and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ And we called bullshit and said, ‘Wait, just one goddamn minute. They didn’t pay for those strings, we paid for those strings. This is crap.’ So we went up against the entire hip-hop community and we sued De La Soul, and we won and they paid us.

And they still pay us. We still get statements from [their album] 3 Feet High and Rising, as well as every other hip-hop record that sampled us. I get statements from BMI for songs I’ve never heard of in my life, but I know that there are samples from this, that or the other thing and it will tell us on the statement. The way these guys have sampled either ‘You Showed Me’ or ‘Buzzsaw’ have been pretty freaking cool, but only when they pay us.”

Watch a live performance of “Elenore” (featured on The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands)

Related: What else was in the top 40 in June 1967?

Turtle Soup (1969) 
turtle-soup“The Turtles, in our final incarnation, were huge Kinks fans, as most likely the whole world must have been at that point. They had just released The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and it was the best album any of us had ever heard in our lives. So when we had the money and we had the time and we had the chance to start calling the shots with our record company—we were the only thing they ever had—we got a little bit cocky about it. We decided we were going to pick our own producers and we were going to make an album that we could be proud of, so we got Ray Davies, because we loved that album so much; we wanted him to be our George Martin. We were more anxious about pleasing Ray with our material than we were the audience.

Working with Ray Davies was such a holy experience—watching him in the studio—we didn’t care what the outcome was. We didn’t care if the album sold. We just wanted to make a record with Ray Davies, and we did. The funny thing is after we recorded it, we left it in Ray’s hands. So when we came back and listened to the mix we absolutely hated it. Ray had made this, for some reason, an orchestral record; he was so pleased with the orchestration. The band wasn’t even there. You couldn’t hear the drums, you couldn’t hear the guitar. It was all strings and horns and voices. It was anti-Kinks.

He couldn’t believe that we hated it, but we told him, ‘Ray, you gotta go back and put us back in the mix and make us sound like a group.’ So he put it all back up again, lowered the orchestra so it was barely audible and we remixed Turtle Soup that way. The version of Turtle Soup that is out now is a sort of halfway measure. Mark and I went back in a few years ago and lifted the orchestra back up. Not to the level that Ray had it, but the level where you can hear the parts equally. And I feel a lot better about it now than I did when it was released. It was meant to be an orchestral album in Ray’s mind. And I knew he’s kind of held that against us.”

Wooden Head (1970) turtles-woodenhead
“It was bits and pieces, the stuff that hadn’t made it onto earlier albums that we thought deserved to be heard. It was really the last thing that we had any say about album-wise as we left the label. Once we left, they started releasing everything they could willy-nilly, and put out singles that we had recorded back in high school. They released ‘Eve of Destruction’ six years after it was recorded. Weird things like that. And it actually charted in 1970. We were like, ‘What? Why?’ It didn’t even sound like us anymore; they just wanted singles and they knew we were their only band. So they sued us and we sued them, and then we joined the Mothers of Invention.”

The Turtles’ recordings are available here.

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Ron Hart

7 Comments so far

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  1. Jonny Tee
    #1 Jonny Tee 13 February, 2017, 09:46

    Excellent stuff!

    Reply this comment
  2. Ratbone
    #2 Ratbone 23 June, 2018, 12:27

    Billy was a mountain!

    Reply this comment
  3. Ray
    #3 Ray 5 August, 2018, 13:41

    Howard’s book is a must-read. Fun times I missed whilst being across the pond.

    Reply this comment
    • Neilbeatle
      Neilbeatle 24 June, 2023, 10:35

      Going by their name conceived by Frank Zappa flo and eddie I saw them live a few and it was like a comedy satire during paradies of Springsteen songs and performing their own material

      Reply this comment
  4. Sleepwalkr
    #4 Sleepwalkr 23 June, 2021, 10:03

    All is forgotten Howard. Time will tell.

    Reply this comment
  5. v2787
    #5 v2787 22 June, 2022, 12:22

    When I was in high school (back in the sixties), our local youth center won a contest or something and the prize was a live show by a national artist. Lo and behold, we later learned that the national artist would be The Turtles. They were fantastic. It was inspiring to see them live, and they blew me away. That will always be one of my great memories from high school.

    Reply this comment

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