If Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, then “Happy Together” is the happiest song on Earth. It isn't enough that the lyrics start out with, “Imagine me and you/I do/I think about you day and night/it's only right/to think about the girl you love and hold her tight/so happy together.” When you listen to its infectious melody over the steady drum cadence, you can't help but smile.
And smile The Turtles did when the song rescued them from a bleak period of two bombs in a row. In 1965, the L.A. band, led by high school friends Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (who would later be known and loved as Flo & Eddie), first hit the airwaves with the Bob Dylan-penned “It Ain't Me Babe” from their first album on the independent White Whale label. Beginning to blend folk with rock, their sound was still undefined with such covers as “Eve of Destruction” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” but with “You Baby” and “Let Me Be” they got closer to the good-time sound with which they would become associated, and both tracks made it to the Top 30. Then their next two singles — “Outside Chance” by a then-unknown songwriter named Warren Zevon and “Can I Get to Know You Better” — failed to hit the mark, and two bandmembers announced their departure. They needed a hit, and in 1967 they got it.
“We met the writers of ‘Happy Together,’ Gary [Bonner] and Alan [Gordon], at a gig that they opened for us in Long Island. They were called The Magicians and they asked if we were looking for material,” Volman recalls. “The Turtles were always looking for great songs and going through boxes that were sent to the record company all the time. They sent us the song. The demo was amateurish, lacking any kind of professional performance. [Laughs] It only included a singer and a guitar, but we could hear the melody and chorus. We were very careful because we had had those records that had been done poorly and we needed something to be great. It could have easily been our last recording. After all, how many failures were we going to be given by a small, independent record label?”
Having built a sizable live audience, the band worked up an arrangement and performed the song in concert. The response was very strong so they took it into Sunset Sound, Studio 1, with Joe Wissert producing and Bruce Botnick engineering. As Botnick recalls, “I loved the song the minute I heard it. I knew immediately it would be a great radio song and I was inspired. We tried to get as punchy of a sound as possible.”
Botnick recalls using the tube console built by Alan Emig, who had originally built the studio. “A lot of music went through that console. I used the same one for The Doors, Brasil '66, Tijuana Brass, the Beach Boys, Love; it was a great-sounding console. The rhythm section — drums, bass and guitars — were all recorded live to the first three tracks. We recorded on an 8-track 3M recorder at 15 ips with no noise reduction, and the track placement probably looked like this: track 1, guitars; track 2, drums [overhead, snare, kick]; track 3, bass [DI with some amp]; track 4, lead vocal; track 5, second vocal and lead double; track 6, background vocals; and track 7, brass/sax overdub. The mics I used were a Sony C-37 for the overhead, another C-37 under the snare and an Altec salt shaker microphone on the kick — no more, no less. On the guitars and vocals, I used Telefunken U47s.
“On almost 100 percent of that song, I used the Sunset Sound acoustic echo chamber, which was, and still is, one of the greatest echo chambers ever built,” Botnick continues. “I had EMT plates, which we did use, but I don't remember using it for this, at least not for the mix. The 3M 8-track was the first one built; the second one was The Beatles'. For monitoring, we used Altec Lansing 604E, which was standard in the industry.”
“When we brought it into the studio, we performed the song pretty much the way we had done it live,” Volman says. “There were some very key instruments that were part of that record — horns and oboe in the second verse. One of the key things about the horn arrangement was that it didn't get in the way of what we did as a group. The arrangement on the record is really a support arrangement to what we had created as a group that could be played as a musical performance.”
According to Volman, the song didn't take long to record. The group rarely fussed over things in the studio and, at the time, the process and outcome were fairly unremarkable. “All of this is significant now, looking back at the song, but it wasn't at the time,” Volman says. “We were never afforded the luxury to really enjoy the recording studio that much. In fact, it was probably ‘Happy Together’ that gave us the opportunity to have a little more luxury in the studio.”
Botnick comments that part of the record's charm is in the simplicity of the recording. “In those days, we used to record everything pretty much live. Since there weren't very many tracks, we had to make decisions, so we would print our echo on the drums. If we got an effect live, we printed it and it was locked in forever more. That was a good thing. Today, everything is on a separate track so you can make a decision later. There's something about making a decision right then when you feel it.
“When I teach at USC, I like to tell interested people to open up all the mics and get a balance, and listen to the whole thing,” Botnick continues. “You can print it separately, but stay in that room and don't focus on just the snare drum all the time. We didn't have the time to do that. I bet you anything that when the guys in The Turtles came in, I was all set up, I already had my EQ up and I listened to [drummer] Johnny Barbata a little and had him play a couple of things, and said, ‘Let's go,’ and that was it. I would be surprised if we took more than three hours to cut the track without the horns. Maybe another three hours to do vocals, and it was basically done.”
After mixing the record, Botnick took an acetate down to the Whisky a Go Go where The Turtles were performing and played it over the P.A. system during the break. “I remember I was horrified because it didn't seem as punchy as it had in the studio,” Botnick remembers. “But once it hit the radio, it was perfect.”
Perfect it was. It rose to Number One, stayed there three weeks and became The Turtles' signature song, putting them on the map in a big way. Volman and Kaylan still handle the licensing for the song. “In the last decade alone, the record has been significant as a multimillion-dollar business for the publishers and songwriters,” says Volman, who, along with his singing partner, still performs around 60 shows a year, as well as teaches at Nashville's Belmont music college. “It has sold product for everything from Coldwell Banker homes to Heineken Beer, and is used any time there is the bringing together of two different images, even for the sale of steak and shrimp as a team on a plate.”
Volman says he is gratified by the fact that the musicians in the group actually played on the track instead of L.A. studio players such as the Wrecking Crew, who recorded the lion's share of great pop records in the mid-'60s. “I'm proud of all the records we made, but I'm most proud that the band really played the music, even as far back as ‘It Ain't Me Babe.’ When you hear ‘You Showed Me’ or a beautiful song and record like ‘Elenore’ [another hit for the band] explode out of the 5-inch speaker in your car…that is what I am most proud of. I remember making every part of those records and how every member of the band was just a kid expressing himself. That, to me, is what made The Turtles such a great experience. We didn't get caught up and overwhelmed by the need to be successful. We became successful by making our music in a very honest way.”
By the end of the '60s, after a string of hits and more misses, the group disbanded and Kaylan and Volman made a bizarre career turn: They joined Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention for two years, billing themselves (for legal reasons) as the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, as well as appearing on a number of cool sides by English band T. Rex. They would later cut a number of albums as Flo & Eddie, but once legal matters over the use of The Turtles name (and their own!) were sorted out, they began to appear occasionally as The Turtles again, and to this day, they have been known to haunt rock revival stages, leading ebullient crowds through sing-alongs of “Happy Together” and other hits.