The Turtles illustrated the dilemma facing most rock acts at a time when commercial viability was tied to maintaining an ongoing string of hit singles. Despite a strong melodic sense and two of the finest pop singers of that era, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (born Kaplan), the band felt compelled to continually shift stylistic gears in order to retain an audience. The pressures generated by such compromises appears to have played as much of a role as the widely known legal disputes with the White Whale label over finances in the group’s demise.
The nucleus of the Turtles—Volman, Kaylan, Al Nichol, and Chuck Portz—began performing together while still attending high school in southern Los Angeles. While attending local colleges, they added drummer Don Murray to the lineup. Known as the Crossfires in 1964-1965, the band’s sound was modeled after their idols, the Beatles. A series of weekend engagements with Manhattan Beach’s Rebellaire Club resulted in owner Reb Foster’s offer to manage them. One of his first moves was to secure a recording contract with the newly formed White Whale. The debut album, It Ain’t Me Babe (White Whale 7111; 1965), had a pronounced folk-rock feel, with two protest numbers—"It Ain’t Me Babe" (White Whale 222; 1965; #8) and "Let Me Be" (White Whale 224; 1965; #29)—doing well on the singles charts.
As folk-rock faded, the Turtles turned increasingly to pop-rock featuring non-controversial lyrics. Hit songs included one of the most perfectly constructed rock recordings ever, "Happy Together" (White Whale 244; 1967; #1), "She’s Rather Be With Me" (White Whale 249; 1967; #3), "You Know What I Mean" (White Whale 254; 1967; #12), "She’s My Girl" (White Whale 260; 1967; #14), "Elenore" (White Whale 276; 1968; #6), and "You Showed Me" (White Whale 292; 1969). "Eleanore" represented the high point of the band’s aesthetic disillusionment. Written from a sarcastic point-of-view, with overly sentimental, stilted Tin Pan Alley-styled verses, its commercial success confounded group members. Their albums—most notably, Happy Together (White Whale 7114; 1967), The Turtles! Golden Hits (White Whale 7115; 1967), The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (White Whale 7118; 1968), Turtle Soup (White Whale 7124; 1969), The Trutle! More Golden Hits (White Whale 7127; 1970)—also sold well throughout the latter half of the 1960s.
Unhappy with the direction their music had taken and hopelessly entangled in litigation over financial issues with White Whale, the group disbanded in 1970. Interested in exploring a more satirical bent, Volman and Kaylan joined Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Their vocals rendered Zappa’s work more musically accessible than any other phase of his career. They then formed Phlorescent Leech and Eddie (later Flo and Eddie), releasing a long string of albums that expanded the boundaries of humor within a progressive rock format. The duo’s creative energies spanned a wide range of activities, including live performing, journalism, and radio work. They also took an increased interest in the Turtles’ legacy, working with Rhino Records to release anthologies of both classic tracks and rare materials—The Turtles – 1968 (Rhino 901; 1978), 20 Greatest Hits (Rhino 5160; 1984), Chalon Road (Rhino 70155; 1987), Shell Shock (Rhino 70158; 1987), and Turtle Wax; The Best of the Turtles, Volume 2 (Rhino 70159; 1988)—as well as the original LPs. The company also produced video documentary of the band’s career, Happy Together (#976000; 2000), in the DVD format.
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