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Turtle Talk with Howard Kaylan (Interview)
What do Frank Zappa, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper, T-Rex, Keith Moon, The Ramones, Duran Duran, Blondie, The Knack and The Psychedelic Furs have in common?
Answer: Howard Kaylan sang with all of them.
In his new book, Shell Shocked: My Life with The Turtles, Flo & Eddie, Frank Zappa etc. (co-written with noted music scribe Jeff Tamarkin) Kaylan takes the reader on a wild and no-holds barred journey from his days skirting the heights of fame as lead singer of popular ‘60s hit makers The Turtles to touring as a member of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, as well as his in-demand works as a session vocalist, excursions in radio, penning music for the children’s TV show Strawberry Shortcake and much more.
From hanging out with The Beatles in the Swinging Sixties to performing at The White House with The Turtles, encounters with a who’s who of show biz, their acclaimed work in the duo Flo & Eddie (which also featured longtime Turtles cohort Mark Volman), to laying down backing vocals on such classic records as T-Rex’s Get it On and Hungry Heart by Bruce Springsteen, Kaylan’s gift as a masterful storyteller makes Shell Shocked an exhilarating read.
Enjoy an exclusive RCM interview with Kaylan below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Why choose to do book yourself, not with your partner Mark Volman?
Howard Kaylan: It never crossed my mind, a dual auto-biography? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done before. We’re not attached at the hip like some might think. Mark lives in Nashville and I live in Seattle. We moved as geographically far away from each other as we possibly could and that’s what I think keeps us going as a duo. Had we lived in the same town for the last 20 years we’d have been a disappointment to each other and would probably be fighting and at each other’s throats, much like a married couple. You need separation and you need your own space.
RCM: It takes a special kind of person to be the lead singer of a band. Why are you that person?
HK: I figure it’s a nothing-to-lose proposition, I’ve always felt that. I wasn’t really an American Idol kind of kid but I was encouraged by my folks to sing at family gatherings and to join every possible vocal group and choir. I would have to say they were the cause or the influence. There was nothing professional about it. I remember my brother and I took tap dancing and that was frightening. That was sort of an entry to show business.
If you put on tap shoes you’re saying I’m either in for the count or I’m ready to come out and I was way too young to make that decision (laughs).
RCM: When did you realize The Turtles had broken through in America?
HK: Only Happy Together did that. Until that time we were constantly looking over our shoulders because we were hearing a lot of negative information from our record company and our manager was dubious. They kept us on edge purposefully. They had a thing going on between them—record company and management–and they felt we were always “the boys” no matter how old we were or what we were talking about business-wise.
We were “the boys” and I don’t think it’s changed to this day. The Foo Fighters are still “the boys”. Unfortunately for the record company Dave Grohl ain’t a boy so they’re up against it when they try to look at it that way.
As far as we were concerned, we still had the innocence. We were still really babies and we had no generation that preceded us to give us the information that we could follow. We were blind and sort of stumbling our way through it. We knew as soon as we signed with those clowns (White Whale) that it was a bad deal. But it was a deal. We were so desperate to get a deal.
Our parents having the right to take the deal away from us in court really pissed us off.
It was like, “Don’t do this Mom, this is my shot.” I know we’re getting ripped off but if we don’t sign this piece of paper we’ll never get this fucking chance so don’t deny me my future or I’m gonna go to UCLA and be miserable on your dime.
RCM: Once you achieved success, was it better than you imagined?
HK: It was pretty much as I imagined and that’s what made it different from our first three hits, even though they were hit records and they put us on the road and they put us on TV – Happy Together put us on The Ed Sullivan Show. So there’s a certain strata you get to. Knocking The Beatles’ Penny Lane out of the number one position on the singles charts was a big deal so all of a sudden there was a renewed respect for the band.
We could wear tuxedos and get away with it instead of being those scruffy idiots from the first album cover. I think it made a big difference. All of a sudden we were doing shows like the Mike Douglas Show or Merv Griffin and we were always doin’ the couch and getting interviewed by the hosts and that was rare. They liked us because we were funny and we were TV-friendly because we were not threatening to any female on the planet.
We were just sort of amorphous blobs and I think that’s what made us stick around for a long time.
No one’s threatened by any of us in the band physically so we were able to sneak in while they were not looking and screw their girlfriends, metaphorically speaking.
RCM: You first met Bob Dylan in the mid ’60s at The New York City club “The Phone Booth.” Of course, the band famously had a hit with Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe.
HK: By that time we’d had a couple of hits records besides It Ain’t Me Babe. We’d had hits with Let Me Be and You Baby as well. You Baby was our current hit and we tried to end our sets with that one. But this time it was obvious to us by the hubbub about that particular table and then our road manager coming up to us and saying, “He’s here, Dylan’s here.” So we thought we’d go out with his song It Ain’t Me Babe instead.
So we changed our set around and ended with that song. If Dylan wasn’t out of his mind stoned then he was doing the best imitation I’ve ever seen in my life because his face was in his food—I think it was an omelet, I’m not exactly sure. But I’m just glad for the world that it wasn’t soup. We met him after our set and he said (imitates drunken voice), “You guys, that song you did at the end, I think you could have a hit with that, you should record it!” and then he was right back in his food. I’d like to think that he knew what he was saying and was just riffing on us. Years and years later I saw him at a Bruce Springsteen concert. It was so many years later but he remembered the incident and apologized for it and that shows a lot of class.
RCM: In terms of The Turtles soaring and sophisticated vocal sound, Happy Together and She’s My Girl are two prime examples of the group’s vocal prowess. What inspired your approach toward harmonies?
HK: It came naturally. I don’t think it came out of us until Chip Douglas brought it out in our vocal arrangements. He dubbed them the “incredivoices.” He was right; there was a certain thing Mark (Volman) and I had in particular that was almost a brotherly, Everly Brothers kind of harmony thing. We had a very distinctive blend. You hear it on a record no matter what it is and go, “Oh, those guys!” They knew what they were getting. Fortunately, today Mark (Volman) and I can still hit those notes and get away with it.
RCM: You spent eight months perfecting Happy Together until you recorded it?
HK: Oh yeah, all in the grand old tradition of wood-shedding the tune. The demo we received was so damn awful and the actual live presentation of the song by the writers (Gary) Bonner and (Alan) Gordon at the Beverly Hills Hotel was equally awful. But we heard something in the song that all of those other bands didn’t hear. We didn’t play Happy Together live for a very long time but we had the demo with us and we just rehearsed it over and over. I gotta give credit where credit is due to Chip Douglas, who was our bass player at the time, for really getting it together vocally for and writing out horn parts, even though I think Jerry Yester wound up doing some of those. But Chip knew what he wanted to hear and he actually heard in his head the blend of horns and voices. He wanted to have the flutes echo the high voices and the horns be the middle voices.
He understood how to treat us vocally as The Four Freshmen instead of just singing typical “oohs” and ahhs”.
RCM: She’d Rather Be with Me is one of my favorite Turtles songs but in your book you recall not being so sure of its commercial prospects.
HK: Sometimes you know if a song’s a hit and sometime you don’t know. When we left the studio after recording Happy Together I absolutely knew it was a number one record. They can call it “The Hum Bugs”; they can release it on any label. None of that matters; this is a number one record. We came out of the studio after recording She’d Rather Be with Me and I said, “I don’t know man, this is a little vaudeville, razzmatazz thing. It’s not what I had in mind and not what Brian Wilson would do.
I felt it was a cop out departure but I felt exactly the same way coming out of the studio after Mark and I sang background on Hungry Heart by (Bruce) Springsteen. I felt it wasn’t going to work. We’d heard he songs that would comprise The River and didn’t think this song would fit at all. We just felt like he was wasting his time and thought it was a throwaway bullshit B-side. Then we kept hearing from Max (Weinberg) and Steve (Van Zant) that Hungry Heart was gonna make the album. “What?!” We were shocked. They said, “It’s the single!” and we were in disbelief.
We said, “What are you talking about?” Then when it came out we were like, “We killed him, we ruined his career, this is horrible.” I loved the guy and now he put out this piece of crap. It went to number one and I was shocked. She’d Rather Be with Me didn’t go to number one but it was damn close. It was bigger in Europe certainly than Happy Together. As a song, I can take it or leave it. I don’t think it left its footprints heavy on the planet.
RCM: You’ve cited The Turtles She’s My Girl as one of the band’s best and lesser appreciated songs.
HK: The recording of that song is magic. It was another of those factory-turned-out songs by Bonner and Gordon, the same writers of Happy Together. In the case of She’s My Girl it was just another one of those demos. We got it after we released the single, You Know What I Mean. If the order had been reversed and She’s My Girl was released before it, I think it would have been a bigger record. We were not only fighting the fact that it was a bit symphonic following You Know What I Mean, which was a tone poem and had no right to be a single at all. And yet it was beautiful in its own way and sounded really great on the radio. It was very forgettable because you couldn’t really sing along with it. It was just this very obtuse, lush haiku.
It was very strange and I still enjoy it to this day but I understand its limited pop success. With a song like She’s My Girl, it jumped right out. It was just, “Holy crap, this is really beautiful!” These guys captured something amazing. The arrangement was beautiful. (Joe) Wissert did a great job producing it. It was one of the last songs recorded in a great L.A. studio that I’m not sure even exists anymore.
Sometimes there’s magic and sometimes there isn’t.
The sparse use of highs on that record, there’s something very mystical about the mid-range and the effect that Joe put on the vocal and the background voices. We knew we had a very psychedelic record on our hands, not only lyrically and musically, but we had a statement to make in our Beatle-esque way. They were taking their drugs and taking their trips and this was as close as we got to a nice, subtle, mellow acid trip that wasn’t over the top like our song Sound Asleep. Mark and I went into the echo room in the studio and sat there working on the background vocal parts and they could hear us in their headphones singing all of these parts. We were making up words that were meaningful to us and singing things like “yogananda”. It sounded so weird and so good that they recorded just the echo, just Mark and I sitting inside the echo chamber instead of going out into the studio. So there’s a very weird sound to the background voices that I’m not sure we could have gotten in the studio.
RCM: One of the most fascinating stories in the book centers upon the band’s disheartening meeting with The Beatles at the Speakeasy club in London in 1967. Bring us back to that night.
HK: In a number of ways it was very sad but with hindsight being 20/20 there were times when being a Turtle brought along that kind of prick-dom too. The Beatles had their own table and we were led past them in procession style. We gathered around their table and they actually made room for us to sit down. It helped that Paul (McCartney) was having a fight with his girlfriend at the time, Jane Asher. She left the club in disgust because Paul and John (Lennon) were under the table; Paul with a Bic lighter lighting up the scene and John taking pictures under girls’ skirts.
They were loud and obnoxious and drunk but they were The Beatles.
They had sycophants and groupies around them and people at adjoining tables that just laughed and moved their chairs closer to be part of the scene. It was scary.
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April 20, 2021