In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
God bless the mercenaries. All the Turtles ever cared about was making money while making music. They didn’t care how they did it. They’d try anything. The Los Angeles teenagers Howard Kaylan and Mark Vollman formed a surf-rock band called the Crossfires in 1965. When they learned that surf music wasn’t really popping off anymore, they tried folk-rock out. Initially, they called themselves the Tyrtles, following the lead of the Beatles and the Byrds. Even in 1965, though, that turned out to be too obvious. So they became the Turtles instead.
Like the Byrds, the Turtles had their first hit when they covered a Bob Dylan song in 1965. (For the Turtles, it was “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and they took it to #8.) The Turtles spent the next two years chasing hits, recording the songs that the Byrds had turned down. They were thirsty. And that’s fine. Because without that thirst, we don’t get “Happy Together.”
“Happy Together” had come from Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, two songwriters who were in a Boston band called the Magicians. They had tried, again and again, to sell “Happy Together” to somebody, anybody. Legend has it that they wore their demo acetate of “Happy Together” down, just by playing it for people in the hopes that they’d record it. But the 1967 version of the Turtles, starving for a hit, were in the process of making themselves over as a happy band. When they found a song called “Happy Together,” it all fit.
“Happy Together” is a song so simple that it could be a nursery rhyme. You could hear it as a straight love song, or you could hear it as a song written from the point of view of a man pining for a woman, knowing they’ll never get together. Either way, the Turtles took that simple song, piled lush orchestration all over it, and turned it into an absolutely monstrous pop record.
Bassist Chip Douglas, who had only just joined the Turtles, arranged “Happy Together,” and he went all the way in with it. “Happy Together” has exultant regal horn-bursts and euphorically dazed backing vocals and tootling woodwinds and martial drum-cracks and a sly little guitar riff. The verses are the tension, and the chorus is an insane and ridiculous charge of relief. It’s the sound of the sun bursting through the clouds. It’s colossal.
The funny thing about “Happy Together” is that it came out in the midst of this psychedelic awakening in pop music. The Beatles and the Beach Boys were getting into using the studio as an instrument, challenging the very idea of pop music by experimenting and pushing at the accepted boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll. The Turtles weren’t doing any of that. They weren’t obsessive creators like Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, or John Lennon. Instead, they were using those guys’ innovations and putting them in service of the sort of silly no-stakes love songs that the Beatles or the Beach Boys might’ve recorded a few years earlier in their career. The Turtles rode the wave expertly. Kaylan and Vollman might not have had any real ideas of their own, but they knew what to take.
Soon after “Happy Together” hit, the Monkees Michael Nesmith went to a Turtles show and talked to Chip Douglas. He was so impressed with Douglas’ “Happy Together” arrangement that he asked Douglas to become the Monkees’ new producer. Douglas agreed, and he left the Turtles right away.
The Turtles never got back to #1. They lingered for a few years and finally broke up in 1970. Shortly afterward, Kaylan and Vollman joined Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention. After that, calling themselves Flo & Eddie, they started up a syndicated comedy radio show that ran for years. At the same time, they became prolific studio musicians. Well into the ’80s, they were playing on hit records.
In 1989, De La Soul sampled a Turtles song called “You Showed Me” on “Transmitting Live From Mars,” an instrumental skit from their landmark 1989 debut 3 Feet High & Rising. Kaylan and Vollman sued, and they got a bunch of money in a settlement. Before that, there weren’t really any sampling laws in rap — or, at least, none that were enforced. People could and did pull from everywhere, without worrying about getting caught. That lawsuit, and a few others like it, reshaped the landscape completely. That Wild West sampling era ended, and rap groups had to drastically rethink the way they made music.
From a certain perspective, then, Kaylan and Vollman are pop-music villains — the guys who ended the party. But Kaylan and Vollman didn’t hate sampling. They didn’t sue De La because they hated hearing their music refashioned into something else. They sued because it was another way to get paid. They were, after all, mercenaries.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1987’s Ernest Goes To Camp where Ernest P. Worrell and some at-risk teenagers launch box-turtle paratroopers at evil miners while a version of “Happy Together” plays on the soundtrack:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the classic 1999 Super Smash Bros. commercial set to “Happy Together”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Spike Jonze’s 2002 movie Adaptation where Nicolas Cage sings “Happy Together” to Nicolas Cage: