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'Happy Together' Reflects Turtles' 30 Years of Survival : THE TURTLES: "30 Years of Rock 'n' Roll--Happy Together" Laserlight Digital (***)

May 31, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN

The story of Los Angeles rock might not have been very different without the Turtles, but it wouldn't have been as much fun.

The band--which still survives under the auspices of founders Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan--is rarely listed alongside such defining L.A. acts as the Byrds, the Doors and Buffalo Springfield, largely because it was more imitative than innovative. But the lack of clear direction allowed the Turtles to become a virtual microcosm of their turbulent era, reflecting the changes that swept the pop world at a dizzying pace between 1965 and 1970.

It also made for the amazingly uneven output that's captured in the 60 songs of this five-CD set, which the band released through the small, Santa Monica-based Laserlight label in order to ensure a low price ($34) and place it in bookshops as well as record stores.

The Turtles went from surf music to folk-rock to good-time bubble-gum, baroque pop to psychedelia. Along the way they racked up five Top 10 singles, with their signature song "Happy Together" enduring as a familiar standard.

Their best records were consummate radio songs, dynamic and catchy whatever the genre. Their worst were often driven by a spirit of contrariness and a Spinal Tap-like earnestness. This collection (which joins a Rhino greatest-hits CD and reissues of the band's original albums) offers an assortment of colorful pop ephemera, including early material by Warren Zevon and samples of one of Ray Davies' rare non-Kinks production jobs.

In the liner notes of the bare-bones package, writer Ken Barnes attributes the diversity to the band's fear of typecasting. But there were other factors. The Turtles were barely out of Westchester High School when they hit the Top 10 with "It Ain't Me Babe," and as you listen to their body of work you can almost feel them being overwhelmed by the pressures of the era.

By going beyond the hits and into album tracks, the set also hints at the humor and irreverence that would blossom in Volman and Kaylan's post-Turtles career, when they joined Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and then become the satirical duo Flo & Eddie. They'll cover all these oeuvres when they perform tonight at the House of Blues.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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