Happy Together: The Enduring Legacy of The Turtles and 60s Music
No matter how they tossed the dice
It had to be
The only one for me is you
And you for me
So happy together
Fifty-six years ago, “Happy Together” went to number one on the pop charts. BMI lists it as one of the most-performed songs of the 20th century. The three music trade magazines raved. Billboard called it a “groovy folk-oriented item.” A “happy-go-lucky melody-rocker” gushed Cashbox. Record World named it a “sleeper of the week.”
“It was a real simple song. If you go into it, it’s just a verse, a chorus, a verse, chorus, a verse, chorus, chorus, chorus. I mean, in terms of the song itself, it was quite simplistic,” says Mark Volman, the only original member of The Turtles, the group that recorded “Happy Together.” They play the Palace in Albany on Tuesday, August 1, headliners in The Happy Together tour also featuring Little Anthony, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, The Vogues, The Classic IV, and The Cowsills,
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation. Looking into it today, I find that particular song interesting compared to our other hits, “She’d Rather Be with Me,” “You Know What I Mean,” or “She’s My Girl” (all written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon.) “
When I was stationed in Vietnam in 1969, “Happy Together” was in regular rotation on AFVN, the Armed Forces Vietnam Network of “Good Morning Vietnam” film fame. I was recently married to my first wife and stuck half a world away in a war I didn’t believe in. There was only that one radio station, and they played that song over and over and over.
I can't see me lovin' nobody but you for all my life
When you're with me, baby, the skies will be blue for all my life
Me and you, and you and me
No matter how they tossed the dice
It had to be
“I think “Happy Together” from the beginning to the end was a relief to the American public,” says Volman. “There was a lot going on overseas with Vietnam with the people being stricken. “Happy Together” kinda intercepted that vibe and put a known vibe on everything. It just overshot everything else.”
For this reporter, the song was Chinese water torture. 1969 was the year of Woodstock. The counter-culture was flooding FM stations with “underground” rock by acts like Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead, but AFVN only played those acts between midnight and 5 a.m. Sunday night.
I was writing about those acts in my column Sounds from The World in The Army Reporter, a weekly propaganda newspaper that went to “grunts” in the field. I felt like the wolf in a chicken coop offering a weekly summary of the counterculture to those of us stuck in hell while our friends back home were getting fired up by the music that inspired a generation of young people protesting the war. Eventually, underground rock became the rallying cry that convinced a whole society that Vietnam was a lost cause. “Happy Together” was confection in a music world that was becoming a rallying cry against a world in turmoil.
It would be unfair to call “Happy Together” an anomaly. The group did have three other top 20 hits written by the same songwriting team of Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, specifically “She’d Rather Be with Me” (which eclipsed even “Happy Together” in terms of international success), plus “You Know What I Mean” and “She’s My Girl.” That said, the group originally spelled their name T-Y-R-T-L-E-S, the Y being in honor of The Byrds, who were hardly pop confections. Plus. Volman and his partner and fellow Turtle Howard Kaylan went on to perform with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, whose repertoire was the yin to the Turtles’ yang.
“There were a lot of critics that thought it was the worst music Frank had ever made,” admits Volman, “and then there was a whole side of Frank that people love that came due in part to our being there. Frank didn’t really worry that much about what people thought of him. He was always a little bit ahead of everybody with what he was doing. I think 200 Motels, like it or not, still maintains a strong creative pull to Zappa fans. That’s going to continue to grow and manifest itself as Frank kind of slips out and people discover more and more of the stuff that we were able to do with him.
“There were songs that Frank was writing based on what we brought to him. We were definitely trying to expand our sounds, our variety. The producers we were using were extremely talented guys. The Ray Davies albums kind of stand out as favorites for a lot of the fans.”
Ray Davies of The British Invasion band, The Kinks, produced Turtle Soup with The Turtles in 1969.” Two singles from the album, “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain” and “Love in the City,” both failed to reach the Top 40.
“He didn’t participate like we had hoped he would. I think there’s a nice blend to the album in terms of it having a kind of Ray Davies feel to some of the songs, but there was no participation from him. I would say that it wasn’t that fulfilling in terms of what we ended up getting. We can probably look at what was going on at that particular time, problems with the record company, problems with the producer. There were just a lot of things that kind of knocked down the creative atmosphere around that album.”
Needless to say, the efforts with Zappa and Davies produced nothing that comes close to the influence “Happy Together” has had on Volman’s career. I asked him what he gets out of performing that song all these many decades later.
“The important thing with this show is it’s like theater. It’s like Broadway. Every night we have a performance. It’s like two and a half hours long. It showcases the best songs that we put together for this show. This is the 12th year in a row we’ve taken the tour out, and it still has a fan base that is very strong. They love the music of the ’60s, and we’re happy to do it. Everybody is having a good time. How much longer? You can’t really say. It could have a life of its own. The promoters don’t want to stop it. They want to keep the show going because they get money.”