Like smoking pot in the White House before they performed at Tricia Nixon's debutante party, the Turtles career is full of contrary motion. Their mega-hit "Happy Together" is popularly misunderstood as a "happy couple" song, while even the most cursory listen to the verses reveals it to be a song of obsession. So it is probably no accident that the Turtles '1968 follow-up, the magnificent Battle of the Bands, would be their ultimate cultural Trojan horse: a conceptual pastiche lampooning popular music filled with actual, legitimate pop masterpieces.
At the risk of sounding older and grumpier than I actually am, reviewing this album to people who will not experience its actual cover, in all its gatefold glory, seems impossibly wrong. In a series of elaborately costumed photos, the Turtles recast themselves in the uniforms of the many musical subcultures of the day — along with a few it appears they just made up on the fly. Each song is attributed to a different band. The title track, credited to "The Atomic Enchilada," is a joyful amphetamine-soul stomp with what appears to be a fully muffed fake ending. The album's big hit "Eleanor" is credited to "The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul." While "Eleanor" is a complete stem-cell clone of "Happy Together," it's still a fantastic song in its own right. Turtles frontmen Flo and Eddie have repeatedly feigned emotional distance from "Eleanor," but it's hard to imagine they didn't immediately recognize its quality. Perhaps their shame is related to the comically low quality of the off-the-cuff lyrics: "I really think your groovy, let's go out to a movie" would fail utterly if not for the sonic power of the track and the authority of the vocals.
The album's other big hit, "You Showed Me," is ostensibly the Turtles take on the very middle-of-the-road vocal groups of the era — the Lettermen or the Association. Perhaps the Turtles couldn't give themselves permission to do something so straight without the "Battle" pretext, but judged entirely out of the album's context, "You Showed Me" actually has a mystery and a musicality that transcends the concept, and even the output of the bands it references.
Other tracks — "Last Thing I Remember," "Buzzsaw," "Surfer Dan" and "Earth Anthem" — are tight, energetic parodies of psychedelia, Memphis soul, surf and hippy/granola music respectfully, and when you consider that all these songs were recorded at a time when these genres were entirely current, it makes the band's cultural and musical focus seem remarkably sharp. Others, like the ridiculous "I'm Chief Kamaniwanalea (We're the Royal Macadamia Nuts)" and "Too Much Heartsick Feeling" — a regrettably broad "country" song — are a bit blush-making, but probably somebody's guilty pleasure.
Coming out from their very safe-and-clean teenybopper image, the Turtles 'conceptual turn on The Battle of the Bands must have been liberating. It sounds like they're having a pretty great time. In the song "Food" they pointedly sing an entire brownie recipe — save for one missing ingredient. While the Turtles 'full-blown commitment to the "Battle" concept is completely entertaining and surprisingly fresh-sounding, the scope of a lot of its musical pastiche was not entirely uncharted territory. A full year earlier the Mothers of Invention were aggressively incorporating many of the same ideas along with some other more experimental impulses that would be harder to categorize. What Battle of the Bands does exceptionally well is provide the very talented Turtles with the perfect vehicle to jump over some cultural borders and celebrate the pure pop they clearly loved.