Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, AKA Flo & Eddie, are two of the most unlikely pop stars on the planet. Neither one was ever what you’d call a “dreamboat” and Volman was unashamedly fat and took great pains to point out that fact. They were also funny at a time when rock musicians took themselves way too seriously.
That could never be said of Flo & Eddie.
They started, of course, as the magic voices of The Turtles, to my mind one of the greatest 60s groups, even if they don’t really get their due today. “Happy Together,” “Elenore”, “Lady-O”—The Turtles were simply an amazing band.
Check out this clip of their hit, “She’d Rather Be With Me”—pure pop perfection. The harmonies, the melody, these guys were tight.
The Turtles’ gorgeous rendition of Judee Sill’s “Lady O”:
When the Turtles broke up, Volman and Kaylan discovered that they were legally not allowed to perform under their own names, hence they became “The Phlorescent Leech [“Flo” for short] & Eddie.” They performed with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention for a memorable stint, including the 200 Motels film where they played themselves. Zappa appreciated the anarchy of Volman and Kaylan’s humor and gave them a pretty wide berth to do, apparently, whatever they wanted, with his blessing.
Kaylan recalled (via the Zappa Wiki Jawaka):
“When the Turtles were just getting started, I remember bringing home Freak Out and Absolutely Free and playing them really loud in the house, and my father coming into the room and saying ‘what the hell are you listening to?’ So, I showed him the album covers and he started laughing so hard – he turned red and tears came out of his eyes and he said ‘this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! The guy’s face is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen! And I can’t believe this guy’s name. Who the hell would call himself Frank Zappa and put out trash like this and look like that.’ And I said ‘Dad, this is the best stuff you’ve ever heard’; ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah.’
“Years later, the Turtles had broken up, and my mom and pop were just in just horrible frames of mind – they thought it was all over for me. ‘Great, the bum is a bum again, he never went to school, there’s no education left ... ’ And then I told them I’d joined Frank and they went nuts. My father, particularly, said ‘oh man, that’s it, it’s all over.’ He started making calls – he even called my cousin Ruby who ran Budget Rent-a-Car in LA, and tried to score me a job at the rental car office. It really was all over as far as he was concerned.”
It’s fairly easy to understand why his father felt this way, of course…
Volman picked up the narrative:
“With Howard and I up there, Frank had two Punch and Judy dolls who could personify all the ugliness that the Mothers was – the comedy, the satire, the vast pudgy rock stars, the drugs. And Frank could stand on stage and whip out his guitar solos; he could put his cigarettes on the end of the guitar, look disdainfully at the audience and play a seven minute guitar solo that would make everyone cheer – and then put his hand out to us, and say ‘take it away, you fat dopey clowns.’ When you think of it in that context, it was perfect because it took a lot of the pressure off him on a night to night basis because, musically, he had such a strong band that it really became this whole wild concept, this goofiness and this rock thing up against this really strong musical group.”
Kaylan agrees. “It’s almost too innocent and stupid to be filthy. I think Frank was wise, using us to do that, because we were lovable buffoons – we weren’t those street creeps to be feared that he had worked with before. We’re just pussycats up there, so to hear us do some of those things, it’s obviously a joke. It took some of the harshness away from it, and it made even Zappa’s caustic humour appear palatable not only to those people who knew us in the audience but to those who didn’t, to those of the audience who had no idea from whence we came. We were still non threatening.” Indeed, when Kaylan’s parents caught a show on that early summer tour, “they just didn’t get it. My mother said, ‘I know it’s supposed to be filthy, but I don’t see how.’ She really didn’t understand a lot of the verbiage that was being thrown around, or the allusions that were being made.”
The idea of these guys performing this stuff in front of their parents is quite amusing, I think you’ll agree.
For a long long time, most of The Turtles catalog and pretty much all of Flo & Eddie’s solo records were fairly difficult to come by (Turtle Soup, their 1969 album produced by The Kinks’ Ray Davies was a holy grail for me for several years). You could find low-fi needle drops of their albums on music blogs and specialist torrent trackers, but never proper-sounding versions until Kaylan and Volman self-released their 70s albums on CD in 2008.
There’s one in particular that just floored me, The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie from 1972, recorded right after the twin mishaps of the fire at the Montreux Casino that claimed Zappa and the Mothers’ equipment (immortalized in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”) and seeing Zappa pushed off a stage in London into an orchestra pit by an enraged fan. Zappa was sidelined, in a wheelchair for the better part of the year and the band, i.e. the Mothers, became, for one album, Flo & Eddie’s back-up group. Dig the line-up: Jim Pons (of The Turtles and The Leaves) on bass. Don Preston on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums and Gary Rowles who had played in one incarnation of Arthur Lee’s Love on lead guitar. Seriously, this album is the tits!
I’m embarrassed to report that only 13 people have listened to this since it was posted on YouTube. That’s fucking ridiculous!
The songs were very much in the style of The Turtles. In fact, they wanted the album to have come out under The Turtles moniker, but legal reasons prevented it. I know I say this a lot, but it’s truly one of the great lost “classic rock” albums of the early 70s. Each song is nearly perfect in its execution and taken as a whole, the album is simply a stunner. All killer, no filler, it was probably my most listened to CD for all of 2009.
I was excited to find footage of them performing one of the album’s standout tracks, “Feel Older Now” on Germany’s Beat-Club television program:
Lending out their voices as session men for hire, Volman and Kaylan’s distinctive harmonies can be heard on “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” by T. Rex, “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs, Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”. It’s nearly impossible to imagine any of those classics without their soaring vocals. They also contributed to Blondie’s Autoamerican album and tons of other stuff, recording with The Ramones, John Lennon, David Cassidy, former Virgin Prune Gavin Friday, Duran Duran and many others.
Throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, they remained active in television, talk radio and live performance. You usually saw them on The Midnight Special and Night Flight interviewing people like Lou Reed (who once joined them onstage) and David Bowie Their annual December stint at the Bottom Line in New York was a Yuletide tradition for many years. In the mid-80s, they gained the rights to the Turtles name back, and all of the group’s master tapes. “Happy Together” in particular has been used in movies and TV commercials… frequently. Mark Volman went back to college, earning several advanced degrees and offering his expertise in the managerial side of the music business via his Ask Professor Flo website. He’s married to his college sweetheart and, so happy together, they are active in their church. Howard Kaylan wrote a charming autobiography that I wholeheartedly recommend: Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc. The book is nearly 300 pages and if it were four times as long, I’m sure I’d like it four times as much. It’s one of the best rock autobiographies I’ve ever read. There is a nine-hour long audiobook version—read by Howard—available through Audible. They still perform as The Turtles all the time on their “Happy Together” oldies package tour. If you can catch their show in your city, it’s BIG FUN and their golden voices have held up remarkably well.
And finally, here’s a neat treat for all of you Turtles and Flo & Eddie fans out there, a complete concert shot at Passaic, NJ’s Capitol Theatre nearly 40 years ago to the day, October 29, 1975. They were the opening act on Stephen Stills’ tour that year and this catches their live act in fine form, showcasing the incredibly dexterous wit and musical skills they were known for, as they lampoon the rock stars and pop culture of the day.