by Gary Pig Gold
Take a look at the cover of the Turtles’ stunning 1968 album Battle Of The Bands: therein stand not one, not two, but twelve different mock-"Turtles" (one for each song), each posed in an absolutely flawless visual parody of—or was it a tribute to?—one dozen different musical sub-genres and styles.
While this delightful ruse may have provided a hearty premise for—gulp—another Concept Album (albeit one which, in my less-than-humble opinion, far out-surpassed the Beatles’ comparatively meek Pepper-grinding), beneath all the dress-up fun and games lay a more than telling element of ironic, bitter truth. For the real Turtles indeed spent their entire career struggling to establish a single, all-encompassing identity in the eyes of not only their audiences the world over, but with their long-suffering bosses at White Whale Records, radio programmers everywhere, and perhaps even the actual band members themselves.
In fact, the band’s very origins seem mucho-schizo to say the least: springing to life in Los Angeles circa 1961 as a rough ‘n’ ready instrumental combo (the Nightriders), they soon transformed themselves into a real-life surf band (the Crossfires), later tried their hand at folk music (as the Crosswind Singers, would you believe), were also known to show up at local bowling alleys pretending to be Gerry & the Pacemakers, then finally settled on the hallowed Turtles moniker (though almost the Tyrtles) upon signing with White Whale in 1965. Their first hit, a Top 40-friendly cover of Dylan’s "It Ain’t Me Babe," was quickly followed by a P.F. Sloan sound-alike ("Let Me Be") and then the incredible, edible "You Baby."
The latter, also from the pedantic pen of Sloan, was an absolute, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-ears candy-rock delight, and its cheery combination of one-handed keyboard licks atop "Hang On Sloopy" thump-and-strum was soon heard reverberating throughout all the biggest and best hits of the Ohio Express, Fruitgum Co., et al et al. But by this time (1967-68), the Turtles had already turned to New York writers Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon for their next two mega-smashes, "Happy Together" and "She’d Rather Be With Me."
It was right about now that the Turtles—always a super-slick and hard-hitting live act—began defiantly expressing more of their road-tested (and quite often far-out-there) chops on vinyl as well. Despite the fact that their producer Joe Wissert was reportedly spending an inordinate amount of time reciting poetry and eating gingerbread bats when he should’ve been knob-twiddling, "She’s My Girl," "Sound Asleep" and even the infamous "Umbassa And The Dragon" were worthy enough to earn the respect of such highly-coveted peers as Frank Zappa (who later employed several post-Turtles in his most popular incarnation of the Mothers of Invention) and Ray Davies (who accepted a rare non-Kink production assignment when offered the chance to record the Turtles’ final album).
Yet White Whale, a small label solely dependent upon the Turtles for their financial bread and butter, just wanted lots more "She’d Rather Be Happy"-sounding smashes. Oh yeah? Well! So group leaders Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, butts against the wall (but with tongues very firmly in cheek) simply responded one night by writing the million-selling, wholly-bubble-worthy "Elenore": a hit so insidiously innocuous that it landed the band a chance soon afterwards to perform at the Nixon White House!
This being the late sixties however, gigs at Tricia Nixon’s prom were not the kind of events any well-respecting band wore on their denim-tattered sleeves. So as the Turtles’ hair and beards—to say nothing of their songs themselves—grew ever longer and less manageable, and while hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties due from White Whale still seemed lost in the ether, our boys finally tired of bucking the system and bitterly disbanded in 1970. It was a dark day indeed for not only bubblegum, but for mankind in general.
Able to toss off cheerful Top 10 hits at the drop of a Nehru hat, then reply with such intricate, multi-layered gems as "Grim Reaper Of Love," the Turtles certainly could, without a doubt, be considered true purveyors of bubblegum at its ultimate, cleverly-crafted stickiness. These many different faces—and facets—of the Turtles also provide a textbook overview of how, and most importantly why, "image" has forever remained at the very core of any band’s acceptance and ultimate success. Many of bubblegum’s greatest, from the Monkees and Partridges to even the Spice Girls and beyond, have obviously learned important lessons from the Turtles’ hard-wrought lessons.