The Turtles were an American ‘60s pop band full of talent, ambition, and pretensions. Like many acts who found success during the Beatles’ heyday, the Turtles struggled to remain exciting and relevant during a period when changes in music and tastes seemed to dramatically shift almost every day. Like other acts from that time, such as the Association and the Cowsills, the Turtles began their career by making conventional songs aimed at the Top 10 and then became more concerned with being relevant by creating experimental compositions with meta-lyrical content. Who could blame them? If the Beatles could go from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Strawberry Fields Forever” in four short years, why couldn’t they?
Well, there were several reasons why, but artists should be encouraged to reach for the stars. The 48 musical tracks on this double-disc compilation includes all of the Turtles’ singles, including those that were never released, recorded between June 1965 and October 1970. While no one would compare the songs here to those of the Fab Four, the Turtles were commercially successful and had a number one record in 1967 with “Happy Together” (overtaking the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”) as well as several other big hits. The act’s’ leaders, vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, understood the importance of harmony and hooks, and they delivered their material with wit and charm.
Howard Kaylan wrote or co-wrote much of the Turtles’ material, but the band’s biggest hits tended to be written by other songwriters. In fact, their first success was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in the summer of 1965. The Turtles also were among the first to record songs by Warren Zevon and charted with material by Harry Nilsson and Roger McGuinn/Gene Clark. At their grandest, the Turtles could perform dreamy confections that suggested the innocence of true love and the joyous feeling it brings. The fact that the Turtles tried to do more reveals the limitations of the pop genre. How many love songs can one sing? Paul McCartney was wrong—the world doesn’t need any more silly love songs. Really, Paul. You should have stopped when you were ahead. The Turtles tried to go beyond simple pop songs about love, and many of their more serious songs have their moments, but there was a good reason why the hits stopped coming. The early songs were better.
Like the Beatles, the Turtles broke up in 1970. Their best sides include “You Baby”, “She’s My Girl”, “She’d Rather Be With Me” and “You Showed Me”, which still hold up today and find their way regularly on oldies radio stations and films depicting the ‘60s. The songs are sweet without being cloying. And even when the Turtles defied convention and made fun of such material, as on “Elenore” with the deliciously throwaway lyrics: “Elenore gee I think you’re swell / And you really do me well / You’re my pride and joy et cetera,” Kaylan and Volman can’t help but make the words simultaneously irreverent and heartfelt. The song became a hit despite itself.
Casual listeners don’t need all the tracks here. This collection is for the completest (the two discs also contain two bonus tracks, commercials the band made for Pepsi Cola and the Chevrolet Camaro) or the historian. After the end of the Turtles, Kaylan and Volman became Flo and Eddie. Their escapades with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention became the stuff of legend (check out the Mothers’ Fillmore East – June 1971 for proof and because it is an awesome disc). All The Singles reveals the Turtles at their best and their worst. The good stuff makes it worthwhile listening.
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