Mark Volman — founding member of The Turtles, the Flo half of Flo and Eddie, Frank Zappa cohort, Belmont professor and indisputable music business legend — is on the phone with the Scene from Spokane, Wash., where The Turtles' Happy Together Tour has a date. The excitement in his voice is clear.
"We're at a real high for this tour right now, and we're already thinking about 2015."
It's a familiar excitement, one that this author usually hears in artists who are doing their first interview, releasing their first record or embarking on their first tour. This is not the level of excitement one typically hears from an artist with five decades of experience, five decades of the ups and downs in the temperamental and unforgiving music industry.
Volman's excitement isn't just because Spokane is a sellout and the other shows on this 60-date run have been doing well — it's due to the entire show itself. To hear him talk about his Happy Together tourmates — Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner, Three Dog Night's Chuck Negron — is to hear a fan wax eloquent about artists he loves. And while there is plenty of business jargon sprinkled through the conversation, and he occasionally takes on an academic tone — the guy is a music business professor, after all — the exchange really perks up when the topic turns to local radio.
"Having Hippie Radio, community oldies, is very helpful," says Volman. "It's hard to find community oldies radio out there — most cities are kind of putting it on the back burner. We're very fortunate in Nashville to have a radio station that really covers that era.
"The reason radio was so fantastic, even going back to the '60s, was the fact that it worked really closely with the city and concerts," he continues. "And when you have a station like Hippie Radio come on and do tie-ins and give-away contests, they kind of bring the spirit of '60s radio back — that's a fantastic opportunity for us to partner up with a whole kind of philosophy in popular music."
Radio has always been good to The Turtles. Their initial run in the '60s saw them hit the Billboard Hot 100 a dozen-and-a-half times. Their biggest hits — like "Happy Together," "She'd Rather Be With Me," "You Baby" and "Elenore" — are indisputable staples of the American soundscape, popping up in film, television and radio with unflagging frequency. And then of course there's The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, a masterpiece and the most criminally underappreciated concept record of the '60s, wherein Volman & Co. decided to play, oh, every style of music you could hear during that golden age of pop.
From the lush and bizarre psychedelia of "Last Thing I Remember" to the tongue-in-cheek party percussion of "I'm Chief Kamanawanalea (We're The Royal Macadamia Nuts)" to the proto-country rock of "Chicken Little Was Right," on The Battle of the Bands, The Turtles exhibited a mastery of all musical forms. But more importantly, they captured the spirit and the energy of a musical landscape in transition, a moment between the twilight of AM and the dawn of FM.
"It really was, sociologically, if you think about it, an era where radio really dominated, and it really worked hand in hand with the success of groups like The Beatles and the Stones," says Volman. "We've seen a really interesting dynamic. Most recently, the unfortunate death of Casey Kasem again points out that the stars of popular music weren't just the artists making records, but were the Wolfman Jacks, the Huggy Boys, all those great disc jockeys that came out of the 1960s.
"Almost every place around the United States where groups were coming from — groups out of Boston, groups coming out of Chicago, groups coming out of San Francisco — you had a real wide array of musical styles, and radio had a real wide array of disc jockey stars that were part of the music of that time. It's kind of crazy that we don't have that anymore."
It's a valid point and one often ignored — there are very few music personalities who aren't actually making music. Even Casey Kasem's successor Ryan Seacrest is commonly viewed as a television personality rather than a part of the music scene.
But even if we don't still have those powerful presences in the world of music, at least The Turtles are here to let us revel in the glories of a bygone era.