The Turtles – Turtle Talk with Mark Volman
by Ken Sharp
“Happy Together”… ”She’d Rather Be with Me”… ”Elenore”… ”Kicks”… ”Good Time”… ”Indian Reservation”… ”Just Like Me”… ”Hungry”… ”This Diamond Ring”… ”Everybody’s a Clown”… ”Young Girl”… ”Lady Willpower… ”One”… “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)”… “Joy to the World.” These are among the classic ‘60s hits fans can expect to hear on this summer’s “Happy Together” Tour headed to a city near you. featuring The Turtles, Mark Lindsay (of Paul Revere & the Raiders), Gary Lewis (of the Playboys), Gary Puckett (of the Union Gap) and Chuck Negron (of Three Dog Night).
We sat down with Turtles co-ringleader, Mark Volman for a look back at his life in the rock and roll circus as well as his new second career as a college professor.
You’re embarking on a “Happy Together” tour this summer, what can fans expect?
We made a commitment when we began considering doing the “Happy Together” tour and knew what we wanted to deliver to the fans. They weren’t getting wasted minutes. The show was designed to perpetuate the memories and the music of the ‘60s. We wanted to assure the promoters and the fans coming out to the show that you’re only going to hear our hit records. What we’re trying to do is give people the most bang for their buck. We’re bringing an assurance that for one night they’re going to get two and half hours of top ten records with the best songs from Gary Puckett, Gary Lewis, Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders and Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night plus what we’re going them with The Turtles.
You’ve been musical partners with Howard Kaylan both in The Crossfires, The Turtles and Flo & Eddie for 50 years. What’s the bond that makes the partnership work?
Our relationship has always been built on the fact that we wanted to do something back when we were in high school. We weren’t really sure what we were good at. As every year unfolded all of the elements of our career have allowed us to experiment in a lot of different forms. Our relationship is strong because we listen to each other. And we have a very succinct philosophy about things when it comes to delivering the different changes of our career. When we wanted to go experimental we were able to go off and do our Flo & Eddie music and make records that were not quite what people expected. It’s just like us going off to work with Frank Zappa. People just didn’t know what to expect. We came up with the first “Happy Together” tour in 1984 and it was a very successful venture. We went off the track by not doing those tours for 25 or so years but have realized that we have a lot of firepower with the five artists on the bill.
One of the really great things that Howard and I really like is when we choose the artists we want to bring onboard. These are all people we’re fans of. That makes it fun. We’ve known everyone on the bill for many years; we did one of our first major national tours with Paul Revere & the Raiders on a bus with Mark (Lindsay). We knew Chuck (Negron) since Three Dog Night got together. We were managed by the same management company. This is not just a bunch of guys getting together. There’s a lot of camaraderie. We all have relationships between each other that go back a long time and that makes it really fun to be out on the road. Plus we get to play the greatest theaters, eighteen hundred seats to seven thousand and up. The mechanics of the show are really like Broadway. There are a lot of visuals that go along with the acts, so people have something to watch and relive their memories of growing up with these songs. We also have a fantastic house band that plays the records exactly as they sounded. There’s a lot of firepower in the musicians we’ve brought out as the house band. I think this summer is going to be a remarkable summer for everyone.
What was your role in The Turtles at the beginning and how did that change over time?
The Turtles were an extension of our high school band, The Crossfires. The Crossfires was a certain type of band that grew around some of our players that were more musical like Al (Nichol) and Don Murray. We had great musicianship in that band. When I came into the group I think I brought a sense of fun and humor and a comedy element. I wasn’t really playing anything in the Crossfires. But as The Turtles changed, I became more and more a part of the sound. By 1965, I was getting a little bit stronger musically, in terms of beginning to write material on guitar or piano. That kept growing all the way through our Turtle Soup album. We were all co-writing and adding our own embellishments to the mix.
Even beyond that, when Howard and I went to work with Zappa, we took on a whole different role. Then as we moved into the Flo & Eddie era I was pretty much writing 98% of the music. Howard and I would work on the lyrics but Howard and I didn’t really play so I was relegated to come up with the musical part of our Flo & Edie sound. Going back to the first album, Howard and I always were co-writers but I was always given the job of getting everything started. That’s because I was writing more of the guitar/keyboard stuff. You take a song like “Moving Targets.” I wrote that on guitar and then Howard and I would want to sing about what moving targets we’d want to write about. “Keep It Warm” was a song I wrote on piano. We liked what was coming from the music and then we had to figure out where we wanted to go philosophically with the lyrics. Howard’s a great lyricist.
Howard recently told me that one of the band’s biggest records, “She’d Rather Be with Me,” was a track lacking a real sense of magic yet it became one of your biggest hits in both America and England.
Whether it’s magic or not, it’s a great radio record. It’s a kind of interesting record in that it doesn’t have the dynamics like some of the other records we made. Like “Happy Together,” which has the obvious dynamics with the soft verses and the sing-along choruses. “She’d Rather Be With Me” starts out at 110% and it just goes and never really plays off any dynamics at all. Simply put, it’s just a ball-out record and a lot of that is because of our drummer Johnny (Barbata). That record is probably one of the most drum driven ‘60s hits I’ve ever heard.
I haven’t heard Turtles music in a long time but when I do it always amazes me a record like “You Know What I Mean,” which is probably one of the most incredible records we’ve made, was probably the least well known. When you get right down to it, it’s probably one of the most sensitive and beautiful pop songs we’ve ever made.
“She’s My Girl” is also a picture perfect Turtles record.
Yeah, that’s a good one. Another song of ours that gets overlooked all of the time is “The Story of Rock & Roll”, which was written by Harry Nilsson. The Turtles version of that song is one of the most spectacularly produced records. This coming form the same band who recorded “Eleanor.” Sadly, “The Story of Rock & Roll” is often overlooked. Also, a song from our Happy Together album, one of the most incredible Turtle records is a song called “Me About You” written by (Gary) Bonner and (Alan) Gordon who also wrote “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be with Me” and “She’s My Girl.”