Fellow Californians The Turtles and The Byrds both emerged about the same time in the folk rock explosion of 1965. But as the decade wore on, The Byrds became lionized while The Turtles appear to have been mostly ignored by "serious" rock fans and the emerging cadre of critics, likely due to their string of bouncy pop hits written by others. The fact that the group had a clear thread of humor running through their work probably didn't help them be taken more seriously, either.
Over the ensuing years, though, those hits have continued to be played on the radio, and their albums have won new fans during the rare periods of time when they have been in print. The Turtles now occupy the unusual niche of being both hitmakers that anyone with a passing acquaintance with oldies radio has heard ("Happy Together," "She'd Rather Be With Me," "It Ain't Me Babe," etc.), and simultaneously an underground cult band with seriously devoted fans. Those fans usually start by playing the group's last two proper albums for anyone who will listen.
Those albums came about as The Turtles gained more control of their musical direction following the massive success of "Happy Together," a No. 1 hit for three weeks in early 1967. After releasing a string of mostly excellent non-LP singles to varying chart success, the band came storming back into the Top 10 with "Elenore," a self-written sideways parody of "Happy Together" masquerading as a squishy love song. It was part of the concept album The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, with the group pretending to be 11 separate combos musically and visually on the gatefold cover.
The album can be disorienting on initial listens; as an example, one stretch of songs goes from a drum-accompanied chant into the perfect pop of "You Showed Me" -- another Top 10 hit and a cover of a Byrds demo -- followed by a goofy track containing a list of favorite foods and a recipe for pot brownies, followed in turn by a country song. That it works as an album rather than just a stunt is a testament to The Turtles' uniquely skewed musical vision. Despite including a pair of big hits, the album languished outside the Top 100. Coincidentally, Battle was produced by one-time Turtles bassist Chip Douglas, a.k.a. "Douglas Farthing Hatelid," who had also helmed The Monkees' first attempt at making their (mostly) own music, Headquarters.
The Turtles final complete album, Turtle Soup, didn't do much better commercially despite being another step forward artistically. Written entirely by the group, it also found them experimenting with sharing the lead vocals rather than all being handled by Howard Kaylan or Mark Volman. The Turtles also formed their own production company, Blimp, to co-release the album with White Whale. More intriguingly, Ray Davies of The Kinks handled the production chores. Turtle Soup is still the only outside album production he's handled to this day.
Considering that Kaylan was the band's best lead vocalist, letting everyone else sing was not encouraged by the label, and a bit of a group controversy as well; the band's online biography calls it a "detriment." But what could have been a potential problem worked out just fine to my ears, and helps them achieve their goal of sounding like a unified band rather than a lead singer and backing musicians. Interestingly, another sticking point arose in mixing the album; according to the liner notes of Rhino's '80s reissue, the band was hoping for a Kinks-sounding mix, and Davies rather went to work with some of The Turtles previously more orchestrated-sounding songs in mind!
This disparity in thinking has led to two very distinct versions of the album being available over the years. On original release, the band reportedly convinced Davies to tone down some of the orchestration and up the guitar and drum textures, resulting in a very punchy, rocking album, with a "dry" (i.e., not much reverb) English sound. Rhino's reissue presented a completely remixed and resequenced version (by Kaylan and Harold Bronson) with the stated goal of meeting Davies' original more orchestral pop version.
What, nobody had bothered to save Davies' mixes? Bumping Ray Pohlman's orchestral arrangements up in the mix does make sense for the stately pop of "Love in the City," but for much of the rest of the album it could be heard well enough the first time around. More unfortunately, the Rhino version also dispenses with the carefully crafted stereo mix of the original version, turns down the guitar, drums and some percussion, and adds a lot of mushy reverb. It's the version of the album I learned to love when it came out in the '80s -- and the sequencing does make more sense -- but after listening to the original many times since, I much prefer the original version. In classic White Whale fashion, even the originals have sound variations; if searching for a copy, hold out for the version with the solid dark blue labels.
One thing that can't be disputed for any version of the album is the songs. Wow. There's not a dud on the album -- no bald attempts at following contemporary trends, no boogie-rock, no extended jams, no psychedelic freak-outs, no roots music. It's just a distillation of their perfect sense of rock and pop hooks, and sounds much fresher today for it. Turtle Soup also doesn't desert their sense of humor, it's just in a slightly more subtle manner than at times in their past catalog.
It's a shame that The Turtles unleashed such a great record and so few people noticed. The album's commercial disappearance led to more tension, as the label tried to push Kaylan and Volman into the "singers fronting a backup band" situation the group had been trying to avoid. According to the group's online bio, they splintered shortly after amidst lawsuits involving both the label and former managers, abandoning the tracks recorded for a follow up. Kaylan and Volman were even enjoined from using their own names on musical projects! As "Flo & Eddie," the singers and bassist Jim Pons joined up with Frank Zappa in a reconfigured Mothers of Invention. Kaylan and Volman finally managed to reclaim the band name in the mid-'80s after years of litigation, and still tour occasionally.
While neither single released from Turtle Soup became much of a hit, part of the blame for the album's marginal commercial success is likely due to the financial situation of the White Whale label, which was essentially limping towards dissolution by the time the album was released in late 1969. The label would only be around for another year or so, and The Turtles' albums would remain out of print until being reissued by Rhino in the mid-'80s. The last time they were available domestically was via a series of CD reissues on Sundazed in the '90s, though it does appear most of their albums are available as downloads currently from Amazon.com. From what I can tell from searching for info online, it appears Kaylan and Volman have gained control of the band's master tapes, so perhaps a new reissue series will emerge to follow up a hits collection released in 2009, as a benefit for sea turtles, natch. (White Whale, 1969/Rhino, 1986)