Mark Volman of The Turtles: The Full (And Lengthy) Link Interview

A couple of weeks ago, I related the frustrating story surrounding my interview with David Cassidy. Last week, I interviewed Mark Volman from The Turtles, and the experience was close to the exact opposite.

Volman and his Turtles partner, Howard Kaylan, have played together for almost fifty years. They started as a surf band, The Crossfires, and then had a number of hits as The Turtles, including the classic chart-topper, “Happy Together”. When that band broke up, they joined Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, released a handful of albums under the name Flo and Eddie, and became THE go-to pair for studio harmonies.

In other words, Howard has lived quite the life, and has at some point become friends or acquaintances with almost every major star of the rock era. With that in mind, I had plenty of questions for our interview.

I really didn’t need them. Howard is a GREAT talker. He can take a question and riff on it for ten, fifteen minutes. I only asked Howard five or six questions, but those questions led to almost a full hour of conversation from him. I didn’t get a chance to ask about meeting people like Dylan, Hendrix, Ray Davies, or The Ramones, among others. I got in a Zappa question, but didn’t get the followup about the tragic fire that inspired Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water”.

Honestly, I could have talked to Volman all night long…and he actually seemed willing to do just that. It was a pleasure to talk to him, but it was honestly a bit of a nightmare to transcribe and turn into a Link feature.

Here’s the majority of what he had to say that afternoon.

Q: The big music news of the year so far is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Care to comment on the anniversary or the festivities?

A: No, I haven’t watched any of the festivities. I don’t know what you could say. The Beatles, obviously, were an important part of American music history, and things were just right for them at the time. I don’t really think that much about it, quite honestly.

Q: Sure. You lived it.

A: I think that it was one of those parts of history. It wasn’t them inventing music. It was really a re-education for people in the 60’s. 1964 was only about nine or ten years after Elvis Presley pretty much exploded onto the scene, and even The Beatles gave Presley tremendous credit for their part of music. Without Elvis, there would have been no Beatles. Without The Beatles, there would not have been a lot of groups that spun out of their particular success, including The Turtles. But we had pretty much grown up on the music that they had. Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly. The shows that we were playing was pretty much the same music of the 1964 Beatles - “Twist and Shout”, “Money”. Those spinoffs. The regurgitation of American rhythm and blues brought to the white man through pop radio. The scary thing is that for the next five years we can find some way to celebrate The Beatles. The release of Hard Day’s NIght, the movie. The release of Rubber Soul. The release of Sgt. Pepper. It’s going to be sort of an overdone situation.

Q: And you know the media will do that.

A: As long as there is nothing else to write about, musically, which right now there isn’t. If the best you can come up with right now is Miley Cyrus and Daft Punk, we’re all in for serious (problems). It’s the devolution of pop music. The same thing that Daft Punk is doing is reinventing 1980 disco. Something we hated fifteen years ago is now winning a Grammy for best record and best song of the year. It’s kind of weird how we made fun of Kraftwerk and all of those German bands, and yet now it moves over to France and they’re doing the same kind of beats. It’s crazy.

Q: Three years later, “Happy Together” knocked off the number one spot of “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, arguably their greatest single. Where were you when you found out about this, and what was your reaction?

A: We were excited to have a number one record. I’m not exactly sure where we were. Obviously, that period of time was kind of a whirlwind for us. I’d have to guess that we were touring when we heard, because it seemed to happen in the middle of the year and we were on the road all the time in ‘67. That was kind of the byproduct of our first three records. We were a really good live band, so touring for us was a way we could make an immediate financial connection to our success. We never really celebrated financially from our record royalties. Anytime a group has a number one record, though, it’s exciting. I think “Happy Together” was an exciting time for us. We were excited not just for the fact that it was number one, but there were a lot of extenuating circumstances that went into “Happy Together”. Our individual contributions to the success of the band in terms of production, arrangement, and the organization of that particular record that was proof of the pudding, so to speak, to our record company of what we had aspired to do, which was to make records and play them…to perform on our records, sing on our records. I don’t know many groups from that era who played on their hits. I go back to Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Beach Boys, groups that were attaining success on these major record labels. CBS had The Byrds and Paul Revere. Capitol Records had The Beach Boys and The Beatles. We were on a very small independent label known as White Whale Records. I think we felt that there was a lot against us. To have a number one record was really a tremendous result of a lot of work. We never really got to enjoy the fruits of our labor successfully because being on a small record company there was this continual need to come up with another record. To perpetuate the success of a small label, they depended on our having hit records. They weren’t really interested in the cultivation of our credibility or if we were being artistic. They weren’t really interested in us becoming artistic. They just wanted to have hit records, so we were never offered the room to grow the way other groups were. That’s the bad thing about being on a small label. The good thing was that we had so much power that we didn’t use. Session men, for example. The Beach Boys were proud of saying that they didn’t play on any of their music. As a high school band, one of the things we were great at doing was playing, and we carried that through from the beginning of the band until the end of the band. We played on all of our hits. (Drummer) Hal Blaine played on one song out of the 150 or so songs that we recorded. We were really caught up in the fact that it was very important to us to be a part of not just the songwriting, production, planning, and arrangements but the performances as well. The same people that played on the records played the shows. We weren’t trying to be better than we could. I think a lot of bands were great because they had all of those great session men playing on those records. Those were great players, but we couldn’t afford to use them. Our record company was such a splash in the pan independant record company. That was the bad part, but the good part was that we were able to use our power to make sure we had complete control of the music we were recording and picking out. That was probably one of the brightest parts of our success.

Q: Was there a target audience you were trying to impress?

A: Everybody wanted to be respected by the writers and the hip kind of counterculture people that were out there. You wanted those rewards that were even more important than the financial rewards. There were many artists who were kind of trapped in that period where nobody was hearing them. They were screaming so loud at the show. There was nothing artistic about The Beatles live show at Shea Stadium. It sounded horrible. The crowd was not listening to what they were doing, and they played the first album that was fifty percent cover songs. It took their leaving (live) music to get to Sgt. Pepper, where they said this is how we’ll build our credibility. They weren’t going to remain trapped in that. They wanted respect, and they were able to make the room to do it and not have to tour. We couldn’t do that. None of the bands that I grew up with were afforded that opportunity. We didn’t make enough money to say we weren’t going to tour anymore, and that we were just going to sit home and make records. The Beatles were allowed to do that because they had such a tremendous success in those first four or five albums, and their movies. Things just changed. They were able to commandeer the ship. They basically hijacked the plan, and created a new plan. That new plan was afforded to them though Apple Records. Capitol didn’t want to lose them, so they said they’d just take it whatever way they can. They didn’t make any money off their tours anyway. The records were all the label cared about anyway, so if they were still going to sell multi-million dollars of records they were happy. The other labels couldn’t afford to do that, and there also wasn’t the tangible hit-writing machines in the other groups. The Beach Boys also tried it, and that didn’t really work out very well. When Brian left the band, there was a lot of animosity towards him, and I don’t think he’s ever been the performer he was. I don’t think he’s ever come back from that dangerous tightrope he walked in terms of his drug use, and the mental effect it had on him is still obvious. He has learned to function in the confines of society, but he certainly functions on a few less cylinders than most cars run on. Everybody seems to be ok with that. It’s better to have him than not have him.

Q: Frank Zappa always had a bit of a humorless persona, but this can’t be the case given that you worked with him. What was he really like?

A: I think all of those things you say is true, but I think that Frank showcased in all of his music a satirical overview of the music business and politics. Even going back to Reuben and the Jets, his salute to the music of the‘50’s, there was stuff on all of those albums that was satirical and tongue in cheek look at things. I think when we came along we were allowed as performers to heighten that onstage persona. He was stuck with a guitar, and we became more directable. We’d do some crazy stuff here, and then here was the music. The more he kind of passed on the crazy, torch stuff as part of The Mothers, it gave us the room to represent the crazy side of The Mothers of Invention. He maintained the kind of straight, music side. All of the stuff that was the more straightforward music presentation became more palatable because of the kind of comedy stuff we were asked to do as part of the live show. His live concerts were always full of crazy, zany, wacky people. He had a wack pack, sort of like Howard Stern does in radio. He had his wack pack right on stage. He had the musicianship with guys like George Duke, Ian Underwood and Aynsley Dunbar, and then he had the kind of great singing that Howard and I brought to what he wanted to bring musically. What Frank was really good at was taking elements of the more serious side of music - the jazz and classical - and combining that with the wack pack of the live show. Those ideas began to get much more visual. He started seeing things with the possibility of opening the door to motion pictures with things like 200 Motels. Or animation and video, with things like Billy the Mountain. Ultimately, even when we left the band he continued to explore visual aspects a lot more. I felt like the combination of us being there and him was not as far out as I think people always thought it was. I think people thought of it as crazy, new stuff, but having the voices that we had helped Frank move into places musically that he couldn’t do before us. Like harmonies and vocal groups, and be able to take the rock band persona and make fun of it by having in his mind rock stars like The Turtles making fun of themselves. Frank thought it was fantastic that he could write that stuff and have us make fun of ourselves. It had so many layers to us, but one of the things I don’t think is that it was out of control. It was totally within a structure, and we were allowed to be out of control within the structure. That’s important, because even the classical writers that Frank really liked had a controlled environment of the craziest things. They would take the most outrageous beats, time signatures, and elements and contain them into a form that could be reproduced every night. It can’t just be improvisation. It has to be improvisation with a purpose that could be done time and time again, because without that there is no structure. Frank was very keen on structure. Everything had its minute in the sun. I think that was something we all enjoyed doing. There was this feeling that it was going to completely spin out of control, and that was what made it fun. As a performer, we’d go out every night with a goal to make Frank laugh. We wanted to get Frank to break through that austere live front of an audience. I think that overall it got the fans of The Turtles and the fans of Frank to get a different view of us. Frank opened the door for us to go places vocally that we never thought we could get to. It was a great period of our lives for becoming better singers and becoming a bit more outrageous as a stage show. I have to blame a lot of what we are today as a cultivation of being a pop band with hit songs, being with Frank, and our own sort of year to year growing older. Our show today is a combination of all of those elements that worked for us. Why are some bands from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s able to commandeer a summer of concerts and sell out 80 shows, and why are some acts not able to do that? Other than the Beach Boys, I can’t think of anybody from the 60’s that have been able to take the time we were given as a recording act and play live night to night as a very viable touring business out of a five year recording career. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the fans that pay for the experience get to be a part of the history of the evening. We take the time to talk about how we pick the songs when we do them. We play some stuff from our years with Frank. We play some stuff from our years as Flo and Eddie. We tell the audience where we were at that point in our lives, and how the songs fit into the whole picture. I think people really enjoy that, as it becomes a little bit like a live television show. We don’t just stand there and play our songs. We turn it into a show, and the show has always been bigger than the individual hits in the show.  

Q: After Zappa, the two of you became the renowned for providing harmonies to a number of projects, including Bruce Springsteen’s first top ten hit, “Hungry Heart”. How did that session come about?

A: He was a great guy. You can’t say enough about the group and the guys. It was kind of an interesting thing. It was Steve Van Zandt’s idea to bring us in to sing on a tune. We had worked with Steve on a Southside Johnny record, and also a record he did with Darlene Love. So we were friends with Steve, so the session really came from him. They were looking at doing a Beach Boys-type thing without getting the Beach Boys. They wanted Beach Boys harmonies, and Steve recommended us. Jon Landau also knew us, and he liked the idea. We went in and it took the better part of the day. Bruce is not the most comfortable guy in the world when it comes to being around people. He’s not a superstar at all. He’s more street savvy than intelligent. I’m not saying he’s not intelligent, but he makes judgments very loosely based on people being good people. Whether they’re smart or rich doesn’t’ matter to him. I think that for the first few hours he was kind of uncomfortable. He didn’t know us, so he wasn’t very comfortable with us being in the studio with him. It’s a pretty intimate place, and we hadn’t really known him, so it could have been a disaster. The problems that began to kind of connect was blend. Finding the right blend between Steve, Bruce, me, and Howard in the chorus sections and the verses that would create that Beach Boys “oohs and ahhs” of “Don’t Worry, Baby”, but in the long run it ended up being successful. That record earmarked a new place for him, and I was glad to be a part of that. I think that particular record did what it was supposed to do, which was to connect to the radio. I think our voices were used exactly as they wanted it to work. We had been kind of known for our hits, and being on the radio wasn’t that new for us. I think that is what they wanted to do - blend that kind of radio-friendly musical styles with that kind of rock ‘n’ roll edge. The great thing was that after it became such a big record he asked us to go on tour with thim. We did eighteen shows. Six shows on the West Coast, six shows in Jersey and New York, and then did Europe. He recorded all of that, and some of them ended up on that live box set a few years later. Somewhere in the archives are recordings of us doing songs with Ronnie Spector, who had done that “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” record with Steve. We sang on that, so she was on tour singing that and the Ronettes records. Those all got recorded, and they’ve shown up on different bootlegs and things like that. We also got to be really good friends with the band, and we’d hang around with Danny and Clarence. You don’t think about how life takes us. It was a tremendous experience making those connections with Roy and Max, and I see Gary all the time. He lives in Nashville, where I live. So Gary and I go out to lunch and dinner, and we’re also part of a group of guys that collect vinyl. There’s also a band here in Nashville that goes by the name The Long Players, and Gary plays bass. I have in the past sang a bunch of shows with them. The other night, we did a tribute to The Beatles’ first album, and Tom Peterson of Cheap Trick showed up. Gary couldn’t make this one, as he was overseas in South Africa on Bruce’s tour. But I see him a lot around town. He moved to Montana or Wyoming for a few years, but he just moved back to Nashville.