Few California bands of any critical or commercial worth remained as devoted to pop tradition through the latter half of the 1960s as The Turtles.
Sure, psychedelia and hippie-dom abounded at the time. A certain degree even filtered into The Turtles' music, from the golden lyricism of Eleonore, She's My Girl, You Baby and You Showed Me to the transformation of Bob Dylan's folkish kiss-off anthem It Ain't Me Babe into a blast of radio-friendly rock 'n' roll that introduced the world to The Turtles in 1965.
But at the heart of it all was an expertly crafted pop sound that crested — in terms of performance, arrangement and composition — on the 1967 hit Happy Together, a song that continues to define the journey of The Turtles today.
"I think you're making it sound like we knew what we were doing," says Mark Volman, who with fellow co-founding Turtle Howard Kaylan, utilize Happy Together as the namesake tune for a tour that unites a pack of like-minded '60s and '70s acts into an annual summer concert tour. One of the trek's stops every August is the Kentucky State Fair. This year's visit on Aug. 21 will include Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, Gary US Bonds, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
Reflecting on The Turtles' heyday, Volman says, "We really had no idea we were creating a kind of iconic sound and groove. We really were flying by the seat of our pants. There was so much luck involved in the fact that we were experimenting on almost every record we made. We didn't really set out to be music stars because there really wasn't any music business when we started out. We were just happy to be able to meet girls in high school with our band."
While the Happy Together Tour focuses strictly on the duo's music with The Turtles, the rock 'n' roll careers of Volman and Kaylan developed remarkable reach. For two storied years following the Turtles' 1970 breakup, the singers joined what is perhaps the most outrageous lineup of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
Where The Turtles were like wholesome family fun, the Mothers were a progressive-minded rock enterprise disguised as an out-of-bounds frat party. Adopting the stage names of Phlorescent Leech (Flo) and Eddie that they still use today, Volman and Kaylan fronted a Zappa lineup responsible for the notorious Fillmore East June 1971 album and the experimental film project 200 Motels.
"I've noticed after Frank's death that this was considered either one of the fans' favorite times of the Mothers or one of the worst," Volman says. "I've seen reviews that just hated the period we were with him. They said it was sophomoric, that there was too much improvisation onstage, that there was just not a wealth of great instrumental music, that it was just a bunch of stupid humor and jokes — kind of like being on the radio with Howard Stern.
"Frank didn't stop to consider if people were going to like it. That was always Frank's thing. It was, 'If you don't like this, who cares? We're going to do another project six months from now or six weeks from now.' He didn't read reviews. We would make records and then move on to the next project and just continue working and creating."
In the post-Zappa years, the duo now known as Flo and Eddie would sing on records by John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Blondie, The Ramones, Duran Duran and many other sessions, including some that yielded two landmark rock hits — T. Rex's Bang a Gong (Get It On) and Bruce Springsteen's Hungry Heart.
But when summer rolls around, the clock turns back, and Flo and Eddie become The Turtles again, bringing an era of seeming pop innocence to the present day.
"If there was one thing we learned with Frank, it was to continue doing what we do," Volman says. "People who are going to like it will like it. That's why this tour is fun. It's really simple — just hit songs. There are no deep tracks, no B-sides and no stress."