This will shock you: I’ve managed to post something on a significant anniversary! Fifty years ago today, on 1 November 1968, The Turtles released their magnum opus, The Turtles Present The Battle Of The Bands, in the US. I don’t know when it came out in the UK, though since its lead single (more of which anon) was riding high in the hit parade at the time, I imagine it wasn’t greatly delayed.
The Turtles suffered a lot of ups and downs to get to this point. To begin with, there was The Crossfires, an instrumental group playing surf music. By 1965, that style was falling out of fashion, and the group was ready for a new direction and a new name. They signed with the recently-formed independent label White Whale Records, took the name The Turtles, and aligned themselves with the folk-rock trend then being spearheaded by Bob Dylan and The Byrds. They had a top ten hit first time out with a version of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”, but successive singles charted lower and lower, and the tide was not turned by experiments like the self-penned proto-psychedelia of “Grim Reaper Of Love” and a breezy, cheesy rendition of the British wartime standard “We’ll Meet Again”, posted here a few months ago. They also started shedding members, losing both drummer Don Murray and bassist Chuck Portz.
But then, as if by magic, everything started coming together. A demo acetate by songwriters Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon yielded the song “Happy Together”, and new bassist Chip Douglas devised a suitably radio-friendly arrangement, which duly went to number one in the States and was also a hit elsewhere (including the UK, where it was their first chart entry). Gordon and Bonner proved to be an excellent match for The Turtles, providing a string of further singles including their biggest British hit “She’d Rather Be With Me”.
You’d think that White Whale would be delighted with The Turtles’ newfound success, and indeed they were. But their plan to keep the hits coming was to reduce The Turtles to a duo of singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, fronting records played by session musicians. This proposal did not go down well. In fact, so keen were Kaylan and Volman to avoid such a fate, that they deliberately went in the opposite direction, all but abandoning the use of outside songwriters, and henceforth listing their original material as group compositions, the credit and profit split five ways. And with this new policy in place, The Turtles delivered their fourth album, Battle of the Bands, parodying various popular music styles, from surf to psychedelia, from country to… themselves.
And so we get to that hit single. Take the floor, Howard Kaylan…
It was never intended to be a straight-forward song. It was meant as an anti-love letter to White Whale, who were constantly on our backs to bring them another “Happy Together.” So I gave them a very skewed version. Not only with the chords changed, but with all these bizarre words. It was my feeling that they would listen to how strange and stupid the song was and leave us alone. But they didn’t get the joke. They thought it sounded good. Truthfully, though, the production on “Elenore” WAS so damn good. Lyrically or not, the sound of the thing was so positive that it worked.
There are some who insist that “Elenore” needs to be heard in its mono single mix, but to be honest I think the stereo separation of the album version adds an extra layer to the parody, and I love the moment the drums come crashing in…
Interestingly, “Elenore” was in the UK top 20 at the very same time as both “Eloise” by Barry Ryan and “Jessamine” by The Casuals. And “Lily the Pink” by the Scaffold, for that matter. I’m guessing there may be an unusually high number of women with those names celebrating their fiftieth birthdays right about now.
There’s at least one other well-known song on Battle of the Bands. Before joining the Turtles, Chip Douglas had toured as a member of Gene Clark‘s backing group, and one of the numbers they played was “You Showed Me”, an unreleased song Clark and Roger McGuinn had written for The Byrds. Douglas tried playing it for The Turtles on a harmonium with a broken bellows, and had to slow the tempo right down, thereby accidentally creating the basis for The Turtles’ arrangement, which became the first available recording of the song (and I suppose likely prompted the 1969 release of The Byrds’ early demos, including “You Showed Me”, as the album Preflyte).
A less famous but ultimately quite profitable track is this one-and-a-half minute throwaway:
And yes, the title is “Chief” even though the lyric says “King”. This one had to wait for the sampling revolution before it came into its own, but since the mid-80s its drums have been sampled on a lot of records… such as these:
Shall we have one more? This is The Turtles’ bluegrass parody. The song first appeared as the B-side to the 1967 single “She’s My Girl” (top twenty in the States, but did nothing in the UK), before being heavily reworked and twanged-up for Battle of the Bands:
Spoiler if you haven’t seen the end of Dr Strangelove: everybody dies. Well, presumably they do, since the film ends with the outbreak of nuclear war. Soundtracked, naturally, with Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again”.
I haven’t found a definitive answer as to which recording the film used, but it seems to be the same arrangement done by Roland Shaw for Lynn’s 1953 remake version. An A/B comparison quickly reveals it’s not the same performance though (for one thing, on the film version the backing vocals are noticeably out of time), so my best guess is that it’s an alternative take from the 1953 session. Speculation: could Kubrick’s people have been supplied with an out-take by mistake? In any case, it’s certainly neither the original 1939 version (on which Lynn was accompanied by a Novachord, a pioneering if temperamental and ultimately not very successful analogue synthesiser), nor the better-known orchestral recording from 1943. Nor even the dashed-off remake from Lynn’s 1962 Hits of the Blitz LP. I can tell you this, I really didn’t expect to be delving quite so deeply into Vera Lynn scholarship. Which, incidentally, doesn’t appear to exist, as you’d think somebody in the last 50-odd years would have attempted to identify the Dr Strangelove take already… but apparently not.
I wasn’t intending to post any Vera Lynn today… or ever… but the fact that the original version used a synthesiser, in 1939, is actually rather interesting, so here is that version:
However, what I’m really here for is the fallout (pardon the pun) from Kubrick’s use of the song. “We’ll Meet Again” wasn’t entirely unknown in the States before then: Benny Goodman laid down a really rather fun swing version in 1942, with a young Peggy Lee on vocals; and Frank Sinatra cut a slow and boring version on his 1962 album Songs From Great Britain. But after Dr Strangelove‘s concluding mushroom cloud montage, the song suddenly became hip in the US counterculture as well. First to the punch were The Byrds, who used the song to close their 1965 debut album Mr Tambourine Man. That the song was considered quintessentially British is reflected in the performance, which is marred by some terrible mock-English accents…
Also playing up the Englishness is this recording by The Turtles, an unsuccessful US single which British audiences got to hear when it was issued as the B-side to the UK pressing of “Happy Together”. This is my favourite version, an upbeat celebratory arrangement with a pub-style piano.
There were other versions as well, and they didn’t always go for the Anglophile angle. For example, this attempt at a Beach Boys-style rendition by The Cryan’ Shames:
The song was well established as a peacetime, as well as wartime, standard by the time P. J. Proby gave it the lounge treatment in 1972 (stick with it, it starts slow but it goes full Vegas by the end):
Proby’s version demonstrates a perennial problem for interpreters of this song: there’s not a lot to it. You basically have to do the entire song twice to stretch it out to a reasonable length. It doesn’t help that none of the later versions (even Lynn’s own) bother with the opening verse present on the 1939 Novachord original. Proby’s partial answer to the problem, a spoken-word section, is also used by Johnny Cash on American IV, his last album released during his lifetime. This was the same album which included his acclaimed version of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt”. “We’ll Meet Again” is the closing song (of course), and it’s a rather sweet acoustic version. Special mention has to go to Terry Harrington for his understated clarinet solo.
I was going to leave it there, but it occurred to me that we haven’t heard a female performance since, well, the original. So to take us full circle (kinda), here’s the version from She & Him‘s 2014 covers album, Classics. It’s actually quite strange to hear the song done straight again…
And we’ll meet again… in a few days. It may even still be sunny.