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Music

The Story Behind The Song: How The Turtles created 'Happy Together'

In terms of 1960s anthems, you don’t get much better than the uplifting hit by The Turtles, ‘Happy Together’. Featuring that uplifting chorus, it’s one of those rare songs that continues to be loved by generations born years after it was released, in the same vein as Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’. 

Given that the song is so iconic, it comes with a back story to boot, and it turns out, for a time, it seemed as if the song would never see the light of day and would literally be consigned to the dustbin of history. 

Like many hits of the day, ‘Happy Together’ was not written by the band who released it. It was the brainchild of an obscure New York-based musician and his bandmate. 

Alan Gordon was the drummer of ’60s New York band The Magicians and penned a number of the band’s songs, most notably ‘An Invitation to Cry’. The initial idea for the song came to Gordon at a candy shop in Brooklyn, and he toyed with it for a while before the song’s chorus came to him at the Park Street Diner in Ayer, Massachusetts, when visiting his father. Interestingly, Gordon based the melody on the constant tuning of Magicians guitarist Allan ‘Jake’ Jacobs during the band’s live shows. 

After failing to convince Jacobs to write the song with him, Gordon finished it with Magicians vocalist Garry Bonner. In 1965, the pair secured work with publishers Koppelman/Rubin Associates, writing for artists. The duo cut a demo of ‘Happy Together’ and offered it to various acts of the day, including The Happenings, The Vogues and The Tokens, but it was rejected by all.

At this point, in California, The Turtles weren’t having much look either. They had enjoyed three top 40 hits between 1965 and 1966, including the cover of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ by Bob Dylan and ‘You Baby’, but were now struggling with personal and financial problems as their next five singles had flopped. In addition to this, two original members had quit and were replaced by bassist Chip Douglas and drummer John Barbata, but due to the lack of chart success, the band were seriously considering calling it a day. 

More of a traditional pop band, The Turtles never wrote the majority of their A-sides, so vocalist Howard Kaylan claims to have found ‘Happy Together’ after listening to demos submitted by publishing companies. However, guitarist Mark Volman remembers things differently. He claimed that Bonner and Gordon asked the band if they needed material between shows in Manhattan and subsequently sent a collection of demos that included ‘Happy Together’. 

What is clear though, is that by this point, the demo had been circulated for so long that the acetate was worn out, making the song nearly unlistenable. Kaylan remembered the record feeling “scratchy and sticky”. Upon first listen, Kaylan thought the song was “terrible” and immediately understood why the other artists rejected it due to the quality of the performance. 

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Kaylan recalled: “One guy (Gary Bonner) strumming an acoustic guitar while the other (Alan Gordon) sings in a bizarre falsetto to get a semblance of rhythm going. Their voices were abysmal”. Volman echoed this damning critique of the duo, labelling the demo “amateurish, lacking any kind of professional performance”.

Clearly, everyone has slightly contradictory accounts of the song. Ralph Casale, the session guitarist for Brill Building, said in an interview, that he actually played on the demo, alongside a host of other session musicians. He remembered that the performance was in the style of Lovin’ Spoonful, and praised the recording, calling it a “finished product”.

In 2017, Volman explained that the song was only chosen because the band had run out of hits: “It (the demo) 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?”.

Supporting Volman’s assertion, drummer John Barbata told Uncut in 2019: “It was pretty basic, but you could tell by the melody line it was gonna be strong”.

Wanting to lay down their own version of the song, the band had Gordon and Bonner travel from New York to California and perform for them at the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel. Kaylan, who clearly thought a lot of Gordon and Bonner’s talent, recalled: “They sounded even worse than the demo, but it didn’t matter. We wanted this song, and they and their publishers (Koppelman-Rubin) certainly wanted us to have it.”

The Turtles then rehearsed the track in the live setting for eight months, and after it received a positive reaction from fans, the band chose to head into the studio in January 1967. Kaylan, Volman, guitarists Al Nichol and Jim Tucker alongside Douglas and Barbata played on ‘Happy Together’.

Surprisingly, the recording of the track was unremarkable. One engineer, Bruce Botnick, said that the session was short, saying that the instruments only took three hours, “maybe another three hours to do vocals, and it was basically done”. Kaylan even claims that he recorded his vocals in one take. 

A classic song with a tale to boot, it’s a surprise just greatly the fortunes of ‘Happy Together’ changed.

Listen to the song below.