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An Interview With Howard Kaylan Of The Turtles

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One warm summers day last year I was on a road trip with my dad. As usual I was put in charge of the music to make the hours pass more easily.

One of the CDs I chose was one I had recently picked up titled The Turtles Present The Battle Of The Bands. I was blown away and knew that one of those egg laying, chelonian, testudinines was going to have to make their way onto our pages no matter how fast or slowly their webbed feet could get them here. We lucked out when Howard Kaylan graciously agreed to our request.

Beginning with surf-rock group The Crossfires, Howard and high school band mate, Mark Volman have done it all. As founding member of the 60's folk rock/pop group The Turtles, they had multiple hits with songs like "Happy Together," "Elenore," and "You Showed Me".

When the band started to grow apart musically Howard and Mark were asked by Frank Zappa to join his Mothers of Invention and they readily agreed under the pseudonym Flo & Eddie. After a successful run they struck out on their own under the same noms de plume and released a number of records, and performed backup vocals for numerous artists like Springsteen, John Lennon, T Rex, The Ramones and many others. 

As if that wasn't enough to keep them busy, they have also recorded many children's movie soundtracks and have hosted their own radio show in LA and NYC. These days Howard is performing with Mark as The Turtles once again to enthusiastic audiences and you can see them this spring and summer as part of HIPPIEFEST at a venue near you. 

It is rare that an artist will bring so much of his time and talents to an interview, but Howard was generous with both.

You were the Crossfires before you changed your name to the Turtles. Why the name change and did the line-up remain the same from the Crossfires to the Turtles?

The Crossfires was the name of our band when we were in high school…we were a surfing band playing the music of Dick Dale, the Ventures, the Challengers and others of that ilk. We only did minimal vocals–I played tenor sax and I taught Mark how to play alto sax. We would honk away on the surf instrumentals and only "sing" when the band did "What I Say" or "Money" — those traditional R&B bar songs that every band played.

When the British Invasion hit in 1964, we put the saxes away, learned every English vocal that we could and began to copy the vocal groups from the U.K. Our manager thought that the name Crossfires really didn't fit our new direction, so he suggested The Turtles. At first, we all laughed and rolled on the floor. Then we got mad. Turtles were slow and stupid — not cute like beetles at all —  but then our manager reminded us that a)Turtles was an "animal" name and all English bands had animal names, b) that it ended it "tles" just like the Beatles did and c) that our record company White Whale was new and tiny and would probably be perceived as an import since the Beatles had records released on Swan, VJ, and Tollie as well as Capitol when they hit the scene.

The ruse actually worked…for the first 6 months or so of our career, the posters across the country read "Live…from England…the Turtles." The line up remained the same…only the name was changed to protect the innocent.

The Crossfires played mostly surf instrumentals. How did your music evolve from surf to brilliant pop songs?

Everything changed when we signed our record deal and were forced to come up with original material. Luckily, I had written quite a few songs in the folk mode during my high school years. I was a huge fan of the Kingston Trio as a kid. As well as Bud and Travis, The Brothers Four and the Limelighters. During the same period of time as the Crossfires were playing teen dances locally, we also organized the Crosswind Singers…it was me, Mark, Al Nichol and a girl from A cappella choir called Betty McCartney.

We opened for folk duo Joe and Eddie (!) when they played a concert at our high school. I had written several folkie songs for that group and now that we were actually making folk rock records, I busted out the old chestnuts. Our first Turtles' session, we recorded Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe," which I had discovered on an old LP and turned into a Zombies-style rocker, as well as two of my own songs, "The Wanderin' Kind," and "Let The Cold Winds Blow." Also I wrote a B-side called "Almost There," which was an obvious Kinks influence. Songwriting was never the Turtles' strongest suit, which is why most of our successful recordings were written by outside, professional songwriters.

You and Mark Volman shared very similar musical paths, eventually becoming fast friends in high school. Did you both share the same musical influences as well, and who we're they?

Actually, as high school kids, we did share a lot of musical influences that you probably wouldn't suspect from our subsequent writings. Independently, we had each discovered Louis Prima and Keely Smith — a Vegas lounge staple that became the model for Flo and Eddie, and both shared an affinity for the comedy music of Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Plus, Mark's dad had an incredible Dixieland collection, and I was playing clarinet in a local dixieland combo at the time.
Mark's brother Phil, who is eight years older, had a large stash of doo wop records from the early sixties that he had left at home when he went off to Alaska with the Navy and we learned them all.

We both grew up listening to our parents' music as well, and mine were into the classics…Mel Torme, Perry Como, etc., but also fortunately for me, they were also into the recorded comedy of Bob and Ray, Stan Freberg and later, Shelly Berman and Bob Newhart. I soaked it up like a sponge.

It seems like you were recording and had chart success soon after your name change? Was it really that easy for the band, or was it more involved then that?

It did happen very fast. I had been out of high school about 6 months and attending UCLA on a full scholarship. We were still playing at the same teen club in Redondo Beach that we had worked for two years…only now we had changed our names and were wearing green velour shirts with mod little hats — the look totally sucked.
We were drinking beer in the parking lot of the club waiting to go on when the DJ on KHJ radio in LA announced that one record charted even higher than Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone"…and it was US! We danced around like jerks. Two weeks later, we were on our first national tour, Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, and we never went back.

Your classic song "Happy Together" was written by two members of the New York band The Magicians. How did you guys end up with the song and it is true that you played it regularly in concerts long before you recorded it?

After a few folk-rock hit records, the band figured out that we actually had nothing to protest at all. We weren't poor and we weren't being discriminated against. On a trip into NYC, we stopped in at a nightclub in Greenwich Village called the Night Owl. There, we saw for the first time, The Lovin' Spoonful. We saw the great fun they were having onstage and envied it greatly. Hell, we could do that!

So when we returned to LA, we told our label that we were no longer a folk-rock band…now we would be playing Good Time Music…they, of course, had no idea what the hell we meant.

From P.F. Sloan, who had given us "Let Me Be" as well as "Eve of Destruction," we got a song called "You Baby," which was our first hit that wasn't folkie at all. It was happy.

And from that point on, we would only listen to songwriting demos of happy songs.

Another group that had played at the Night Owl was called the Magicians and contained members Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon. They submitted the demo for "Happy Together," a song that had been around for over a year and turned down by everyone who had ever heard it. Hell, we got it after the Vogues passed! But it had something magical that we loved. We took the song "on the road" with us for 8 months, working out the harmonies and horn parts and when we ready, we came back to LA and recorded the song at the now defunct Gold Star Studios, where Phil Spector had recorded all of his hits, and knew, from our very first listen, that we finally had a number one record.

In 1968 you reunited with Chip Douglas and released the brilliant concept album The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. Pretending to be 11 different bands and varying genres as diverse as psychedelic, blue grass, surf, and hard rock, the album yielded two top ten hits "Elenore" and "You Showed Me," and is considered to be a cult classic among many.. What was the genesis of the album and were you personally happy with the finished product?

Battle of the Bands was our Sergeant Pepper. It was actually a wonderful idea and it still bugs me, all these years later, that it was under-appreciated by the music critics upon it's release, despite yielding 2 top 10 records. We performed in the styles of all these different bands and took costumed photographs of each group — quite the concept, but some people, like Rolling Stone at the time, thought that we were trying to rip off the Mothers of Invention for some reason. Baffling. I was happy with it then, and I still think it's the strongest stand-alone album that the band ever recorded.

What do you attribute the bands ultimate breakup to?

Simply, we had grown apart. Mark and I were doing one kind of music, while Al and Jim were trying to take the group into a country place that I couldn't get behind. The songs that Mark and I wrote, which were never recorded by the Turtles, wound up on our first Flo and Eddie album on Reprise.

After the Turtles broke up in the end of 1970, you and Mark Volman, joined The Mothers of Invention under the pseudonym "Flo and Eddie." What was it like working with Frank Zappa and how did two choir boys from Westchester Cali end up with the radical voice of Freak Out?

We had both known Frank for many years, both in LA and subsequently when Frank took the Mothers into NYC for a year at the Garrack Theater in the Village. We hung out with them there. I actually did some voices late one night in an LA studio that wound up on the Freak Out album where Frank quotes a noted LA disc jockey as saying,"Let me clean you boys up a bit and make you as big as the Turtles."

When the Turtles broke up, we went to see Zappa performing at UCLA with the LA Philharmonic. Backstage, Frank told us that he knew our band had broken apart and asked if we were interested in becoming Mothers of Invention. Since our only other option was to join the LA cast of Hair as Claude and Wolf (honest!), we opted for the Mothers. Our record company lawsuit forbade us from using our real names or the name Turtles, so we invented the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie (after 2 ex-Turtle roadies), Frank loved it and we kept it.

As Flo and Eddie you also did backing vocals for artists like T. Rex, Ray Manzarek, The Ramones, Bruce Springsteen etc. Any moments with these legendary musicians that stand out?

All of them stand out. It has been an honor to sing on over 100 different recordings made by artists that I truly respect and love. The Marc Bolan/T.Rex stuff stands out because that was our entry into the world of background singing. I sang on "Ride a White Swan" and then Mark and I both did "Hot Love" with Bolan before the monster hit, "Bang A Gong (Get it On)." Bolan was wonderful–I loved that guy–and we shared weeks and weeks of rock adventures with him in England and in the states too.

When Springsteen called, we were ready to do, having worked with him onstage in Cleveland, singing backups for Ronnie Spector. "Hungry Heart" didn't sound like normal Bruce stuff, so we added those Beach Boy harmonies that you hear in the background. Hey, it worked. And we went all over the world with Bruce, recording "live" versions for that album as well.

The Ramones called us up while we were on the air, doing our daily radio show following Howard Stern on NYC's K-Rock. An incredible memory working with Joey, and so close to the end of his short life. Duran Duran also found us the same way. Manzarek had known us since his days with Rick and the Ravens at the Revelaire Club where we had started out, and the Doors opened for us when we were the house band at the Whisky A Go Go.
There's quite a list of artists in our discography (look it up on the Turtles website) and each one of them is a story.

You and Mark continued creating music together under the name Flo and Eddie. Which incarnation did you find more rewarding, Flo and Eddie or The Turtles?

It's apples and oranges. The Turtles perform hits…they played the White House.
Flo and Eddie are those other guys…they're sort of X-rated and industry-savvy.
They take no crap and are willing to help struggling musicians get ahead on the their long, bumpy road. They are artistes. The Turtles are the band they happen to be in.

In the mid 90s you turned your attention to collecting and writing of dark fantasy and science fiction. Were you always into the genre or was that a recent discovery? How do similar is the writing process to music?

I always read horror and sci-fi growing up and gravitated towards that genre in my movie tastes as well. But I really got serious about, at first, collecting books in 1981 as a substitute for the drugs I had been purchasing that were shortening my attention span and my life. So instead, I started buying books…Stephen King, at first, Then, all of the heavyweights. Koontz, Joe Lansdale, Tim Powers, Nancy Collins, John Shirley and the new breed, Clive Barker and the splatter punk movement, for example. Once I began attending the World Fantasy Conventions, my first in Providence, RI, I was hooked for good and wanted badly to be a part of that community.

So I started writing, just to see if I could do it. And it worked.

True, I haven't exactly been prolific about it, but I did write a full-length feature film that was shot by Rhino in 2003, did extremely well on the Festival Circuit (winning both Best Film and Best Screenplay at large industry gatherings), opened theatrically in Canada last year and is due out on June 6th from Shout Factory Home Video in the USA. It's called My Dinner With Jimi. And that's what it's about. Writing music is NOTHING like writing prose.

Now that you are performing as the Turtles again, do you still enjoy touring and how do you keep the music relevant and fresh.

I really DO love touring these days. Largely because I don't really need to do a whole lot of it to keep myself living in the style to which I've grown accustomed. We do great. So performing fifty or sixty shows in a year is a psychological drop in the bucket compared with the 300 shows that we used to do in the Turtles' heyday. I'm old, damn it!

We keep it all fresh by simply not rehearsing at all!

Hell man, if you don't know your show after 43 years, you're never going to know it.
And by not rehearsing, we keep ourselves fresh and on our toes–anything could happen at any time–and that's far preferable to being an on-stage jukebox and mindlessly plugging through the hits.

You'll never get that kind of a concert from us.

You and Mark have both had such varied careers including; radio,children's soundtrack music, solo and backup work, not to mention being founding members of one of the most memorable bands of the sixties. Anything you still would like to accomplish?

I really want to do more writing–I'm finishing an autobiography this year that has been on the back burner for about 3. The publisher, Caelum Press, has been really lenient about deadlines, but some days, I really feel like a slacker for not putting more time into the project. It's weird–you can go to their website to pre-order the thing, but you and I both know it ain't done yet. I'll finish it, don't worry. And when I do, boy will you guys be surprised!

Quick one word answers
1. CDs or MP3s?
Vinyl is the best, but if I have to, I'll listen to CDs
2. Coffee or tea?
coffee, please…kona and sweetened
3. Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper?
Both…back to back
4. Acoustic or electric Neil Young?
I'm all about Crazy Horse
5. Favorite curse word?
motherfucker

For more information about Howard Kaylan and the Turtles, check out The Turtles website, as well as Howard Kaylan's homepage.

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About Cody Conard

  • http://thismeaneveryone.blogspot.com James A. Gardner

    Nice interview, Cody. While Kaylan is almost always an interesting subject, you obviously did your homework and asked questions that yielded entertaining responses.
    “Battle of the Bands” is truly an under-appreciated classic rock and roll album, right up there with “Face to Face,” “Forever Changes,” and “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.” Love his replies about MP3s and “Pet Sounds” or “Sgt. Pepper.”
    “My Dinner With Jimi,” the film Kaylan wrote, is one of the most enjoyable movies I have seen all year, and one of the great rock and roll movies ever. He may not be a prolific writer, but he struck gold with this effort.

  • wayne

    are there any gay members in the band

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