Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.
Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.
The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.
The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.
It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.
– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles
Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).
On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).
But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.
Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.
One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.
In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.
And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!
Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’
– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star
Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.
But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!
Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.
Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.
In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”
We were happy together, and it was a very good year.