Graded on a Curve:
The Turtles,
It Ain’t Me Babe

Celebrating Mark Volman in advance of his 76th birthday tomorrow.Ed.

On the subject of The Turtles, the first thing to cross many people’s minds will be “Happy Together,” their huge hit from 1967. They scored other hit singles, some bigger than others, but they also had some LPs, and the initial four all portray a distinct point in the group’s development. Their 1965 debut It Ain’t Me Babe features a young band striving to find an individual voice while attempting to capitalize on their first hit. It’s a situation that often spells disaster, but in this case it results in a record that while small of scale and not without faults, nonetheless remains a highly pleasurable listen.

I’m unsure if there’s ever been any real consensus over which of The Turtles’ string of original, non-comp albums is their greatest. Indeed, the group doesn’t really get discussed all that often in LP terms, at least in my experience. Instead, they seem to remain in the cultural discourse mainly as an exponent of the mid-‘60s folk-rock boom, one that was able to break free of the substantial Dylan-isms of their early work to score a handful of pop hits that successfully straddled the fence betwixt the youth market and the era’s more “adult” record-buying audience.

Underscoring this is the fact that the only Turtles LP to enter the top twenty of the Billboard Album Chart was a compilation, 1967’s Golden Hits. But release full-length records they did, and the personal favorite of this writer is probably 1968’s ambitious yet refreshingly level-headed concept offering The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. That album found them dishing out 12 songs in a diverse range of musical genres and all of it under the guise of different fictitious and humorously-named groups.

But that disc was also a substantial change from what they’d been doing up to that point, in some ways more indicative, mostly in terms of wit, of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman’s post-Turtles work as Flo & Eddie, a run that began with 1972’s Mothers of Invention-aided and still pretty hep sounding Warner-Reprise-issued The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. But they didn’t totally break from their past on Battle of the Bands, for it did include two of their biggest hit singles in “Elenore” and “You Showed Me,” both making it to the #6 spot.

Many others have articulated a preference for ‘67’s Happy Together, and it’s surely a very fine LP. Not only does it hold four top twenty hits including the #1 smash that gave the album its title and its #3 follow-up “She’d Rather Be with Me,” but the record was something of a stylistic stabilizer for a group that had been struggling with their label White Whale’s desire to repeat the success of their debut 45.

It’s been said that Happy Together combines The Turtles’ earlier folk-rock inclination with the pop smarts of The Zombies and a little of the good-time feel of The Lovin’ Spoonful tossed in for seasoning, and that description gets no argument from me. The LP is largely an enduring success, though it does find them burdened with “Guide for the Married Man,” a piece of highly-dated material that served as the title song for the Gene Kelly-directed film of the same name.

That movie was basically just one more nail in the coffin of the rapidly declining Hollywood Studio System, and that The Turtles almost halfway manage to transcend the situation is credit to their talent. And their collective skill had been evolving since they first sprang onto the scene in ’65, but many folks persist in deriding their first couple albums as somehow subpar. I can’t say that I agree. Some have even suggested that their sixth LP, 1970’s posthumous odds-and-ends release Wooden Head, is superior to their first two albums. I’ve read it in print and I’ve even heard it spoken out loud.

And I absolutely don’t fall in line with that assessment. Wooden Head is a very cool collection of stuff that helps greatly in deepening the focus of the early Turtles, but after spending considerable time mulling over its contents the verdict is that it lacks the raw rookie spirit of the band’s debut LP, It Ain’t Me Babe.

Hastily recorded by a bunch of kids that were fresh out of high-school, it’s definitely an album of modest charms, but it also attains cohesiveness through (mostly) smart cover choices and additionally some moments of restlessness deriving from their occasional engagement with a sensibility that falls a little (and in one case, a lot) outside of the norms of folk-rock. The result is surely not a masterpiece, but the record does go a long way in detailing the sound of The Turtles before they became White Whale’s cash cow.

But it’s not totally accurate to describe The Turtles circa It Ain’t Me Babe as being completely wet behind the ears. They were initially a surf-rock group called The Crossfires that managed to squeeze out a couple singles and leave enough unissued material in the vaults to see it eventually compiled, first by Rhino in ’81 on a 13-track LP, and later by Sundazed in a slightly expanded 16-cut compact disc, both of them sporting the title Out of Control.

The Crossfires stuff supplies an okay but far from earth-shattering listen, and all but surf-rock maniacs and budding Turtles-obsessives can probably live without hearing it. But it is on Spotify, so anyone with a jones to hang ten in their deluxe listening den should by all means investigate. Just beware of some flashes of humor, specifically “Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer,” that have settled into the realms of corn.

Out of Control’s main value stems from the insight it gives into how the freshly-renamed and folk-rocking Turtles came up with such a fully-formed and confident sounding debut single. Indeed, “It Ain’t Me Babe” remains the strongest track of the 12 featured on their initial long-playing effort, surviving decades of oldies-station heavy rotation.

Borrowed from the early songbook of Bob Dylan, it was a maneuver they’d return to twice more on It Ain’t Me Babe, though the album opens with a Kaylan composition “Wanderin’ Kind.” And it’s a solid and very likeable tune, the delivery not far from the early thrust of their folk-rock cohorts The Byrds. It’s also brief enough to largely sidestep the urge for comparative judgments on the part of the listener.

From there they continue to explore the same general impulse, combining contemplative strum with the trappings of post-Beatles/pre-Summer of Love rock on “It Was a Very Good Year,” though they do provide it with enough edge to potentially satisfy the needs of ‘60s-garage fans. And the occasional tendency of the early Turtles to lean toward the sturdy structures of vehicular upkeep lends a distinguishing undercurrent to their later, more sophisticated pop phase.

The best example of this aspect of The Turtles is the ’66 single “Outside Chance,” a total gem of a tune sourced from Warren Zevon, but it never made it onto LP until Rhino stuck it on the ’87 compilation Chalon Road. However, It Ain’t Me Babe does contain a decidedly non-folk-rocking swipe at Kenny Dino’s nifty ’61 single “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” here abbreviated as “Your Maw Said You Cried” and transformed into a rather bold rip from the pages of The Dave Clark Five. It is very remindful of “Bits and Pieces,” a substantial hit for the Brit Invasion combo. And perhaps it’ll be too reminiscent for the liking of some folks.

But the expected folkishness quickly reasserts itself with a cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction.” The story on this song is that it was initially offered to The Byrds, who smartly turned it down, though The Turtles obviously didn’t. Their version slightly pre-dates the highly overrated one that hit big for Barry McGuire, but since it was simply an album track, it missed out on the massive sales and cultural hubbub.

And a good thing too, for who knows where The Turtles would’ve ended up if they’d been saddled with this bawling baby as their calling card. The take included here, eventually issued as a single in 1970 where it climbed no higher than spot #100, is preferable to the gruff-voiced play for Dylan-esque authenticity that is McGuire’s, though the lyrics, which once certainly captured the feelings of the large portion of the US population, but at this late date can’t help but just sound alarmist (something the best folk-protest stuff of the period has largely avoided), do nag a bit. Actually, they nag a lot.

However, the chiming urgency of the Mann-Weil Brill Building composition “Glitter and Gold” doesn’t nag at all; rather, it moves along quite agreeably, heading right into a stronger P.F. Sloan tune “Let Me Be,” the group successfully recapturing some of the magic of their first single (and as a 45 it also sold pretty well, hitting #29 as the follow-up to “It Ain’t Me Babe.”)

Side two also begins with a Kaylan original. “Let the Cold Winds Blow” holds lyrics spring-loaded with the topical bluntness of the era, and while it’s far from the best cut this album has to offer, the playing of the band succeeds in making it a pretty easy pill to swallow. The title-track comes next, bringing with it a large upsurge in quality, and it leads into two more Kaylan tunes, the uptempo shimmer of “A Walk in the Sun” and the love-themed harpsichord-laden “Last Laugh,” both stronger than the side’s opener.

From there It Ain’t Me Babe rides a Dylan-derived combo punch to completion. Their interpretation of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is much more than merely competent, already utilizing the vocal harmonies that would come to partially define them as pop hit-makers, but the better of the bunch is the closer, which finds The Turtles tackling that warhorse to be “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Sanding off the rough edges and reigning in the lovely sprawl of the original to nearly half the length might seem like a disastrous move, but it actually works, indicating that underneath the intensely-discussed and seemingly infinite layers of Dylan’s artistry was a kernel of a pop tunesmith. Huh. Yes, Hendrix’s live Monterey version is secure as the heavyweight champion of “Like a Rolling Stone” covers, but this little nugget does a superb job of rounding out an LP that seems wrongfully underrated, especially since it’s the product of a bunch of freaking teenagers.

The monetarily-focused guidance of White Whale is frequently obvious while listening to the brevity that is It Ain’t Me Babe, but it still connects as freer from the claws of commerce than the still very useful ’66 sophomore effort You Baby. But that album’s without a doubt the favorite of more than a few folks. And I bet there’s even some that love their fifth LP, ‘69’s Turtle Soup, the most.

As stated above, it appears we’re pretty far from consensus over which is the finest of The Turtles’ first six albums. I guess that means they’re all more than worthy of owning. So it makes perfect sense to start right here.


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