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Turtle Talk with Howard Kaylan (Interview)

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RCM: Jim Tucker, a member of The Turtles, was a particularly big Beatle fan and that night his opinion changed dramatically.
HK: He came in with this brown suit and an awful, awful haircut. We were making friends with the other guys in the band and Paul (McCartney) was singing Justine with me when I mentioned we used to play that song by Don & Dewey in our early R&B days. Ringo was playing drums on the table. It was fun and we were having a great time and then John decided that he was bored.
He got this look on his face, “Now it’s play time, now Johnny can come out.”  He zeroed in on all of us at first calling us lightweight. He knew Happy Together. I’m not sure if he thought it was a novelty tune like “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” or a whether he thought it was an actual song. He didn’t really make fun of the record very much, he just made fun of the fact that here we were, they’re Beat-les and we’re Turt-les. Jim in particular had this very Mod, Carnaby Street fake J.C. Penney’s look that was really sad and ill-fitting. His haircut was too short in the front and too long in the back and uneven. It looked like he cut his hair himself.

Jim Tucker

Jim Tucker

Lennon sort of went nuts on him and busted him for his haircut, “What did you ask for? A Beatle cut? You should get your money back, the guy really screwed you!” Saying stuff like “Look at your clothes, you give rhythm players a bad name! They shouldn’t allow you out in public!”
And it was amazing, Tucker stood there and he was tearing up a little bit but he took it.

Then he finally cracked and just went, “I can’t believe what a dick you are! Wow, I thought you were John Lennon, I thought you were The Beatles. I thought you were all enlightened and shit and I find that you’re nothing. You’re phony, you’re bullshit and I’m sorry I met you!”

Lennon spent particular time savoring the words after Tucker said, “I’m sorry I met you”, and he said (menacingly), “You never met me, son.”
It was like Anthony Hopkins, just dramatic. Tucker split and we had shows to do and he was obligated to do them. He had five or six gigs to do with us and it was real uncomfortable. We returned to the Speakeasy and actually played a show there. The Beatles were there, Hendrix was there, the Moody Blues were there, Brian Jones was there and Tucker played. It was an epic ending. Tucker was miserable. He got violently ill and we had to cancel some gigs. He also didn’t show up for one or two TV shows either.
RCM: You wrote Elenore, which was became one of The Turtles biggest hits almost by default. What’s the back story behind that one?
HK: I didn’t use an instrument to write that, I just sort of juxtaposed the chords in my head and knew exactly what I was doing with them. It’s an easy song. When you sing the melody to any musicians they knew the chords instantly; it has a very neopolitan chord change. Elenore was a total joke, I had such ambivalent feelings when the label said they liked it. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. If they liked it that means they didn’t get the joke and that they wanted us to record this teenage song with words like “Gee I think you’re swell” and “you’re my pride and joy etcetera”, which really was baffling to me because I thought they would just throw it out the window and go, “All right wise guy, we see, we’ll find some real material for you, don’t worry about it.”

But they never got the joke and America really never got the joke and most of the world never did it either. But I’m thrilled because it was a big hit. If it goes over your head and it says “pride and joy etcetera”, then I’m thrilled to death.

You can never underestimate the naïveté of the American public.

RCM: In writing that song, you analyzed chord changes in Happy Together and did the opposite?
HK: That’s true. I did Happy Together through a funny mirror. I just tried to show the label how stupid they were. If they were buying these idiot chords going down, my idiot chords would go up. They would certainly see that I was making fun of the genre that I was in and leave us alone because nothing is more ignoring then “clean up your room!” or “write us another Happy Together”.
RCM: In many ways, Elenore was a Flo & Eddie song way ahead of its time.
HK: Well, it was. Our whole Battle of the Bands album with that song had a sense of humor to it. The Turtles always had a sense of humor to them. You can listen to our earliest songs, even the B-side of our first record, that’s Kinks riff, Almost There.  It was kind of a joke.

If you really took it seriously then you didn’t know what our band was all about.

We were imitating The Kinks and just trying to do something so obvious that it wasn’t going to be revolutionary in any way, it was just gonna be tongue in cheek.
RCM: The Turtles recorded a peppy Beatle-esque rocker called Outside Chance written by and as yet unknown Warren Zevon.
HK: We all loved the guy and fell in love with him from the get go when our label, White Whale signed him. Outside Chance is a great song. He wrote the B-side of Happy Together, a song called Like the Seasons.
RCM: The Turtles straddled the lines between being “hip” and “square”. How did that work for and against the band in terms of overall success and acceptance on radio?
HK: That non-threatening thing worked for us. We didn’t have a good looking guy like Mark Lindsay (lead singer of Paul Revere & the Raiders) in the band so we were sort of faceless. But it gave us the ability play different kinds of music, from folk to good-time to produced records and come out the other side and be semi-comedic when we needed to and also be experimental.
We never sounded like the album just before it; we were willing to take the chance because we figured everything we did was a chance.
When we finally got the shot to do it ourselves, we were the guys that picked Ray Davies to produce our Turtle Soup album. We knew what we wanted much to the chagrin of the record label who’d never heard of this Ray Davies guy before.

howard kaylan henry diltz fb

Kaylan and Henry Diltz

RCM: Why did you elect to bring in Ray to produce that album?
HK: We really liked The Kinks records; we were totally into their album Village Green Preservation Society. We heard a family thing and we heard an old fashioned thing. We heard a vaudeville thing that we really liked. But what Ray had to go on about The Turtles was our album Battle of the Bands. So he had a vaudeville thing in mind that was also very produced and yielded hits. That’s kind of what he knew us about us along with Happy Together and that was it.
RCM: From Turtle Soup, what’s the most artistically fulfilling track for you?
HK: For me, Love in the City. It’s not my song, it’s a song by Al (Nichol) and I think it’s the strongest song he ever wrote. Ray captured a little city out of it. In his own way he really went through it and the arrangement was really empathetic too. I thought it was strong. Ray really got that song. Together with the arranger he really got it.

That album was mixed twice. The first time we heard it it was very symphonic and we freaked out because we couldn’t hear ourselves. For our new drummer, John Seiter, being the rhythm guy in the band, it was particularly crucial for him after breaking up Spanky & Our Gang, that he deliver something that he felt was important. This was his shot to do it. The strings and the horns that Ray envisioned and the whole symphonic piece that he put together that was Turtle Soup was sort of offensive to John in particular and took away from the group ethic as a whole. We were struggling to stay together as it was; I’d already left the band once and returned with the knowledge that I wouldn’t be singing anything but the songs I wrote myself. It was a struggle for me to get Al to agree to let me sing Love in the City because he would have wound up singing it.
RCM: Did he have a good voice?
HK: Listen to Bachelor Mother, that’s him on lead vocals. He had a good voice in the same way that Dave Davies has a good voice. I personally love it but I know people who turn the channel when they hear it.
RCM: On May 20, 1969 you performed at the White House. How did that happen?  
HK: We got a phone call from our then managers, Jeff Wald and Ron DeBlasio, two slick Hollywood agent types. They called us into the office and said, “We want to show you something” and they pulled out all these separate colored envelopes tied with ribbons. We each got one with our name on it. We opened up the envelopes in the office and inside were engraved invitations to appear at the White House. We looked at him and went, “What is this? Is this some kind of a joke?” And they said, “No, this is for real.
The Turtles on a television program.

The Turtles on a television program.

They called and asked if The Turtles would be interested in playing at the White House and they followed through with the invites.” Our managers told us that Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, really loved our single You Showed Me and was a big fan of our album The Battle of the Bands and she wanted us to come. We were thinking A, she has no idea how wrecked we were when we made that album and B, what? The Nixon White House?!”

We hated Nixon. He was, in Hunter Thompson’s words, “the devil incarnate.” We did not suffer him gladly so this invitation was a slap in the face.

We told our managers in no uncertain terms, “No way in fucking hell are we ever going to do this moron gig!” We told them we had no love for Nixon so “Fuck them and fuck you and fuck the establishment!” Things starting getting very weird right at that moment because they convinced us that it was not just a corporate thing—this wasn’t playing for Pepsi or Alcoa—this was like a command performance and it wasn’t political, you just fuckin’ did it! Well, I don’t believe that to be true.
I think it’s a load of crap. I would appear for the Obama administration but the Nixon administration…I don’t really get it. If I had the chance to do it all over again I would not do it.
RCM: That night you snorted coke off of Abraham Lincoln’s desk?
HK: One or two of the guys had talked to me about rehearsal earlier in the day when they had snuck away with one of the security guards to the roof of the White House to this obscure back corner where he pulled out a joint and they all smoked together and just laughed and had a great old time; they thought he was a great guy and perhaps he was but I did not partake in that. They gave us the Lincoln library to use as our dressing room. Although we were smart enough to not light anything up, our road manager was clever enough to somehow sneak something in.
It was unusual because the band was coming in and out of the room checking the amps, making sure the cords worked, making sure the drums were all set up. It was just a hodgepodge back and forth of people. I had nothing to do, didn’t have any equipment to check. So I was left behind along with this road manager. Just before we went out he said, “A little one on one” and I said “What? Are you kidding me? Are you nuts?!” He said, “What if I lay it out here?” and he put the coke on what turned out to be Abraham Lincoln’s desk. I said, “Listen, this is wrong…Do it, do it fast!” I didn’t need prodding, it was great. I did it and went out, no biggie. But it struck me years later how stupid I was because there were a lot subtler ways to have done that and even then cameras had to be everywhere. I don’t know what I was thinking and I don’t know why I wasn’t reprimanded.
It’s a dubious distinction at best to say I snorted coke off of Abraham Lincoln’s desk but I’m just fortunate that the statute of limitations has probably run out.
RCM: And Mark was hitting on the daughter of Lyndon Baines Johnson?
HK: Yeah, he was making a right fool of himself. He didn’t succeed but her husband, Pat Nugent almost punched his lights out. Oh my God, he was freaked! For anybody to think he was hitting on that thing was as outrageous as it is. Everybody parted like the Red Sea. It was like a scene was gonna go down like the “Sharks” and “Jets” from West Side Story.
RCM: From a lead vocal standpoint, is there a Turtles song that you can proudly point to and say, “on that song I nailed it!”
HK: I’d say Lady-O, which was the last song that we delivered to White Whale posthumously, was the best vocal I ever did on a Turtles record. The late Judee Sill wrote it. I loved her and I loved the song, it was very melancholy. Lady-O was a gorgeous song and should have been a hit record.

RCM: Speaking of Lady-O, that’s one of the most beautiful and underrated songs in the Turtles catalog, what’s the story behind that song?
HK: Judee’s was a very sad story. Her music was beyond angelic. She was one of the strangest figures I’ve ever met in the Hollywood scene. She was such a stoned-out junkie angel. When we first heard about her she was still in jail. Our bass player Jim Pons and his former guitar player with The Leaves, John Beck had a friend by the name of Bob Harris, a keyboard player who married Judee while she was in jail.
She was an incredible writer and they thought it would be wise of us having a young new production company (Blimp) to sign her. We had never signed another artist, had checked out a few guys and paid them for demos. We wanted to be Apple and we were not succeeding but we found her and she had this incredible catalog of music. Not only was she a brilliant and talented artist but her songs were transcendent.
When she played her own songs on acoustic guitar I’d never hear anything like it. To be in the room with her was like being the room with Joni (Mitchell). That’s Judee playing acoustic guitar on Lady-O. That’s the very same track that appears on her album as is on ours. That’s the only song on her first Asylum album that Graham (Nash) didn’t produce. Lady-O was a gorgeous song. We owned it and she needed the money very badly.

Flo & Eddie - and Stills, and Young.

Flo & Eddie – and Stills, and Young.

We already parted ways with White Whale; they had started releasing posthumous singles after we refused to finish Who Would Ever Think That I Would Marry Margaret?, one of the worst piece of shit songs I’ve ever heard in my life. They forced it down our throat and we refused to do it.
They locked us out of the studio and kept us away from our equipment and didn’t let us finish an album we were going to call Shell Shocked, which we were halfway through with Jerry Yester. It had almost cost them a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and they just shut the door.
They said, “Nope”. Locked us out.
They had guards surrounding the place so we couldn’t even pull up and get our shit at night. It was really awkward. At that point we sued them and they sued us. The album never got finished and we were in court for years, knowing that they were gonna put out songs form 1965, which they did. They released Eve of Destruction from our first record as a single. It actually hit the Hot 100. It shouldn’t have come out with as this was now 1970. It was terrible what they were doing. We didn’t want The Turtles to go out like that. So on our own dime we went in and cut Lady-O as part of Judee’s package with Asylum Records.  I went in with her and just did the vocals and that was it. Me and her and the string quartet. Later, Al (Nichol) and Mark went in and added some background vocals to the end of the song.

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