The classic, unjustly neglected Turtle Soup was the last completed album by '60s rockers The Turtles; the group abandoned their next album project, Shell Shock, when they broke up. However, during the final flailings of their label, White Whale, two more official album releases followed Soup. A few years after White Whale finally foundered, a great compilation featuring unreleased tracks appeared for a short time on the Sire label. And, thanks to the good folks at Rhino Records, another pair of releases emerged in the mid-1980s to organize the band's last couple years in a more fitting fashion. (For clarity's sake, today I'm going to pretend the various Rhythm Butchers releases don't exist.)
Among these albums, though, only the two hits compilations are relatively easy to find on vinyl today. What's a dedicated Turtles fan to do? Here's an unraveling of what the various releases contain, to hopefully aid in deciding what to search for first.
More Golden Hits is a disc that I saw around a couple times before really paying much attention to it, assuming it was just another retread of material I already owned elsewhere. I finally woke up and checked it out, to discover that it includes quite a few songs that weren't otherwise available on LP in the '60s, including post-Soup singles such as "Lady-O" and "We Ain't Gonna Party No More," the otherwise unreleased "Cat in the Window" and some of their other later non-LP singles (including a stereo mix of "She's My Girl"). For a comp, this is an essential pickup, and remains the easiest way to get some of these songs on vinyl. (White Whale, WW-7127, 1970)
The Turtles final White Whale LP was Wooden Head, with its notoriously strange cover embodying the seemingly random album title. The album itself embodies the disarray of White Whale at the time. It was hastily thrown together after a single of "Eve of Destruction," pulled from their debut album, scraped into the Billboard Top 100, but it somehow didn't manage to include that single. Rather than using the most recent tracks recorded by the band and abandoned after their breakup, the label compiled a bunch of other already vintage songs from various sources, most of which were previously unreleased. Wooden Head came and went quickly and the label soon went under.
Fans of band's initial folk-rock sound will want to start with Wooden Head first, as judging by the songs that's likely when this material was recorded. Quite a few songs are band originals, which presumably got bumped from their earlier albums by all those hits written by Sloan-Barri, Bonner-Gordon, Dylan, etc. Completists should note that the '80s Rhino reissue of Wooden Head features a different track lineup, removing the previously released "Wanderin' Kind" and adding another Sloan-Barri song, "Is It Any Wonder." (White Whale WW-7133, 1970; Rhino RNLP 154, 1984)
The double LP Happy Together Again commenced the ongoing mission of singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman to reclaim the Turtles' legacy from a legal limbo caused by managerial and label issues. Flo & Eddie compiled the A-sides of nearly all the group's singles, big hits and small (how was "Can I Get to Know You Better" not a smash?), as well as a few album tracks, and a side's worth of previously unreleased material, including the first appearance of four tracks recorded for Shell Shock and the relatively demented "Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer."
All these years later, Happy Together Again is still the most definitive Turtles hits compilation available on LP, with track-by-track liner notes as well as an essay on the band's history. It's a smartly-mastered set to boot, using stereo mixes when a good one was available and mono when not; for the tracks from their first album, proper stereo mixes were even created rather than using the vocals on one side, instruments on the other mixes from White Whale LPs. (An exception is on the Turtle Soup tracks, which sound as if an attempt at more remixing fell somewhat flat.) As with More Golden Hits, it's not exactly common these days but is easier to find than the other discs described here, and worth picking up if you encounter one. (Sire SASH-3703-2, 1974)
Jumping ahead to 1987, Rhino finished off their series of Turtles reissues with a pair of "new" discs. The first, Chalon Road, is an attempt to create a sort of album-that-never-was from the group's various 1967-68 singles sides and some contemporary unreleased material. Considering these singles included some of their best ("She's My Girl," "Chicken Little Was Right") and weirdest material ("Umbassa and the Dragon," "Can't You Hear the Cows"), the album as compiled is a bit scattershot. That being said, the previously unreleased material here is interesting, including an alternate version of the Battle of the Bands track "The Last Thing I Remember" and a pair of other psych influenced efforts. And beyond awesome is the stereo mix of the original single version of "Chicken Little Was Right" (since some of the other singles sides here are presented in mono, it's somewhat surprising they found or created a stereo mix for that one). This is probably the album that's the most aimed at hardcore fans -- but those listeners definitely need it. (Rhino RNLP 70155, 1987)
Rhino's final offering is perhaps the most essential release of the posthumous LPs featuring new material: Shell Shock is an attempt to finally put together a coherent album from the band's abandoned last sessions and post-Turtle Soup singles. It makes for a worthy follow up to that album, despite the fact that the group was essentially falling apart at the time under heavy fire from their management and label. Since White Whale was angling for more hit singles a chunk of this is by outside writers, including a trio of Bonner-Gordon tunes and Judee Sill's "Lady-O." The Turtles' originals are even better, including the epic "We Ain't Gonna Party No More," "There You Sit Lonely" (which would turn up on the first Flo & Eddie album) and "You Want to Be a Woman." The disc is filled out by a demo version of the Soup track "Dance This Dance" with lead vocals by Howard Kaylan, and a couple previously released oldies covers recorded at the time. Unfortunately, this LP is hard to find these days, so if you see it, grab it! In the meantime, all of these tracks but three are spread across the two hits comps described above, so those are a good place to start. (Rhino RNLP 70158, 1987)
It's also worth noting that after years of trying, Kaylan and Volman regained control of The Turtles' masters a couple years back. Starting with the aptly-titled greatest hits CD Save the Turtles, they've since reissued that collection on vinyl and are continuing to work on getting the group's music back in print in an orderly fashion. Most of the music has been available as downloads at Amazon for awhile; in January CD-on-demand releases of their first two original albums appeared, joining previous on-demand CD issues of the Happy Together and Battle of the Bands albums. It will be interesting to monitor their progress and see what else becomes available!