Flo and Eddie and Marc, Frank and More
By Dave Thompson
They were the voice of the American 1960s, sainted providers of the angelic harmonies and grooved-out choruses that served up the most innocent psychedelia your mom and pop could hope to stone to, while delivering the knowing winks and sideways smirks to let the kids know that they were in on the joke as well. For five years of hits, and 30 more of memories, the legacy of the Turtles has grown stronger every time their name gets mentioned, until today, when their sound sells everything from a 90 minute DVD history to a 51 track anthology and on, though one frowns at the unsuitability of it all, to lobster dinners.
The story, too, is well-known. The website, tells the band's tale; so does the booklet included within the aforementioned anthology, the wryly titled Solid Zinc; so, of course, does the DVD. But pursue Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman out of the wreckage of the band they'd shared since the early 1960s, and the ensuing three decades have seen them play a major part in a catalog of songs that is just as impressive as the Turtles' own sequence of nuggets.
As Flo (the Phlorescent Leech) and Eddie, they accompanied Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention across four of their most inventive albums – a tale which will be told in a forthcoming issue of Goldmine. They spun off five albums in their own right – soon to be collected, Kaylan hopes, in a box set of their own. They were the musical brains behind such TV successes as Strawberry Shortcake and The Care Bears, and – in the guise of Jah Flo and King Edward I – they recorded one of the most enjoyable white reggae albums ever made.
They have also led a highly successful career as backing vocalists – so successful, in fact, that it's hard to even imagine some of those records without the duo's contributions raising the entire performance to a whole new level. From T Rex's Bang A Gong, to Bruce Springsteen's Hungry Heart; from David Cassidy's Darlin to the Psychedelic Furs Love My Way, what Mark Volman so accurately terms the Incredi-Voice has made good records great, and great records immortal.
"The concept of the Incredi-Voice is layering the vocals to create a wall," he explains. "Howard and I triple-tracking voice #1, then going out and doing voice #2 and triple tracking that, just building this incredible sound" – one which has become a veritable part of the rock landscape. The duo’s own efforts are merely the tip of the iceberg. Roy Thomas Baker, engineer at those earliest T Rex sessions, certainly remembered the Incredi-Voice while working with Queen (and, later, the Cars), while David Bowie and Lou Reed would fashion their own interpretation for Reed’s 1972 breakthrough album Transformer. Today, you still hear it soaring out of any number of past and present hits. The original, however, remains the best, with its first flowering itself responsible for some of the most effervescent records in pop history.
Volman and Kaylan had just started working with Zappa when they launched this aspect of their career, visiting the UK with the Mothers Of Invention and taking advantage of some downtime to look up Marc Bolan. They’d known him since the previous year, when Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex opened for the Turtles in New York – now they were walking down the street where he lived, calling his name. "We couldn’t remember the house number," Volman recalls. "But we knew he lived on Kensington Row, so we just started at one end of the road, calling out. Until finally, a window flew open and this little head popped out."
Bolan was at a crucial juncture in his career, preparing to translate the newly abbreviated T Rex from a whimsical psychedelic underground act into a balls-out commercial rock monster. Ride A White Swan, the song that would prove his UK chart breakthrough, was about to be recorded and, as he prepared for the session, Bolan knew he wanted Kaylan and Volman to play a part in it. Typically, however, he didn’t tell them that until the day of the actual session. Then, when he called the duo’s hotel, it was to discover Kaylan alone was in.
Kaylan: "Mark had gone out, he was off kicking around Kings Road or something, so I said ‘shit, I'll do it, and the worst that can happen is you'll put me on twice.’ So I went into the studio with Marc and Tony Visconti, did Ride A White Swan and we really didn't need more voices than that, it was just that simple little high ‘ooh and ah’ stuff and we double-tracked it." (Curiously, the duo’s last opportunity to work with Visconti two years ago, on the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ Soul Caddy album, saw the boot firmly on the other foot – this time it was Kaylan who was away, vacationing in Hawaii, so Volman alone appears on the suitably T Rex-y ‘Diamond Lights.’)
Ride A White Swan climbed to #2 in the UK; ‘Hot Love’, Bolan’s next single, featured both Kaylan and Volman and went to #1. It also blueprinted what would, over the next 18 months, become universally renowned as the T Rex sound, much imitated but never recreated. And the backgrounds were as much a part of the brew as any other ingredient. Kaylan explains, "there’s a certain intrinsic whining quality to that kind of backing vocal, that I believe came largely from our time with [Zappa]. We were singing those notes all our lives, but there was a certain nasal-ness, a whininess to it, that came from singing those parts with a little tongue in cheek-ness. ‘Hot Love,’ in particular, has a swaggering, fake sassy; it’s us pretending to be chicks, with every bit of the gris-gris-gumbo-ya-ya that we could muster. It’s almost mocking and it should be, because it’s guys. It sounds like two 300lb guys in tutus, daring you to lift their skirts."
Get It On (Bang A Gong), Jeepster, Telegram Sam, Metal Guru, Children Of The Revolution and Solid Gold Easy Action all followed, together with the Electric Warrior and Slider albums, a succession of magical releases indelibly drenched with the Flo and Eddie magic – a fact Kaylan and Volman constantly reminded him of. "It sounds terrible," Volman admits, "but every major hit single he had revolves around us. We said that to Marc, every day of the week. There never was a time when we didn't remind him that we had hit records before him and, if he hadn't brought us in, he'd never have had a hit of his own. We always brought that down on him, and it just made him laugh."
It maybe wasn’t so funny after Bolan and the pair stopped working together, and the hits began to slow. With wife-to-be Gloria Jones doing her level best to recreate the same backing sound from a more soulful base, but failing in every department, ‘20th Century Boy’ climbed no higher than #3 – its predecessors had all reached either #1 or #2. The follow-up, The Groover, perished at #4 and from thereon, Bolan’s chart career was in freefall, a descent that was arrested just once. In 1975, Kaylan and Volman rejoined him for the nonsensically joyful New York City, and promptly steered T Rex back into the Top 20 for the first time in over a year.
With their Zappa commitments over in early 1972, Kaylan and Volman spent much of the next two years inaugurating their own career as Flo and Eddie. Bolan notwithstanding, their only other session work during the early 1970s was on a little-remembered album by Navasota, a band fronted by Steely Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and drawing in an appearance, also, from Donald Fagen. As a fascinating aside, Kaylan had himself been invited to join Steely Dan, shortly after the Turtles broke up, turning it down in favor of the Zappa gig. Navasota’s Rootin’ offers our only opportunity to learn what that collaboration may have sounded like.
"A lot of the stuff we did was with people we knew, where we wanted to be a part of the record because we were fans," says Kaylan. "We weren't really session singers for hire, you couldn't just get us." That accounts for the sheer eccentricity of much of their sessionography – odd excursions with European singers Roger Youdouris and Louis Bertignac; forgotten gems with Michael Quatro and Tim (‘Rock’n’Roll Love Letter’) Moore; and one album cut with Hoyt Axton, 1974’s Life Machine, that reunited them with a performer they’d known since their teens. Kaylan recalls, "Hoyt opened shows for us all the way back to high school and later, on some of the Turtles’ dates with Steppenwolf and 3 Dog Night, Hoyt was on the show. So it was a natural thing, when he asked us to sing on his record, we said great."
Linda Ronstadt was also a part of the sessions, and Kaylan continues, "there was a certain amount of fun and excitement going on in the session because we'd known her forever. The three of us got to pal around and harmonize, that particular instance was literally a hootenanny. It comes to my mind as being one of the more organic of our dates, where they'd just throw us into the studio – Bolan did that as well – and say come up with something, we're just going to start the tapes, no instruction whatsoever."
More formal were a pair of albums cut in 1974, with another long-time friend, Ray Manzarek (his own recollections of his first brushes with the duo are included on the Turtles’ Happy Together DVD). The Golden Scarab and The Whole Thing Started With Rock & Roll, Now It's Out Of Control "were pretty much his solo insanity," laughs Kaylan. "The Egyptian stuff that he was doing, we looked at each other incredulously and said ‘alright man, you want us to chant 'Tutankhamun,' we'll chant it. But you're nuts.’ The Golden Scarab, for all its strangeness, I understood what he was trying to do. With The Whole Thing Started ..., though, I was a bit ... well maybe it did, but you had nothing to do with it! An interesting choice of direction for him to go in."
1975 brought one of the duo’s most fabulous performances ever, accompanying teen idol David Cassidy on his remarkable reworking of The Beach Boys' "Darlin". Volman enthuses, "David was really making some fine records considering... he didn't really have a strong image that allowed him to make anything other than formal records, and that could very well be what you could say about the Turtles. So, bringing us in may well have been the kiss of death. But that was a fun record to be a part of.
"It was one of those gems that never became the hit record it could have been, by the Beach Boys either. It was huge in England, but never in America, which was a shame because it was a really well made record, a great project to be a part of. The backing vocals we do on that record are pretty much the record; David realized the need to bring them upfront, whereas the Beach Boys kinda played them down. He really took the opportunity to feature the backings as a major part of it; you really hear we're having a lot of fun. It gives it a tongue-in-cheek spirit. A sense that he's not taking himself seriously."
The mid-1970s saw Kaylan and Volman add another string to their bow, when they made their debut as producers with Starry Eyed And Laughing, a group widely renowned as the British answer to the Byrds. It was an apposite pairing; over the last couple of years, the Incredi-Voice had soared on solo recordings by Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and Stephen Stills, and Kaylan recollects, "Starry Eyed had released two CBS albums that didn’t get anywhere; they were about to be dropped and they knew that if they were dropped, they'd not get another label deal.
"So they came to us and asked us to do three singles, which we did. The first was ‘Song On The Road’ and it was gorgeous, but the classic piece was ‘Saturday’ [released under the abbreviated Starry Eyed]. It was just amazing, you put it on today and go who the hell is this and why wasn't it a #1? It's operatic in its changes, it goes through three or four complete incarnations, it rocks hard and it’s got these incredible voices. These guys were great singers and we kept the Byrds influence all the way through. We just left the mikes open, told the engineer to keep the tapes rolling, then went in there and sang with them. Unfortunately, the records were completely overlooked. The group did lose their deal; they did break up. But anybody who can find those songs, they're excellent pop records."
Other Flo & Eddie productions included sets with Long Island veterans Good Rats ("a great album, they were incredible songwriters, really good singers," raves Kaylan) ands the Journey-esque Roadmaster. So far as Kaylan is concerned, however, the duo’s production crown, "the most unforgettable project I’ve ever been involved in," was a 1978 date with DMZ, a hard-hitting Boston punk band recently signed to Sire (distributors, at the time, of the Turtles’ Greatest Hits album).
"We got a call from Seymour Stein [head of Sire] saying he had these guys that were, in his words, so punk he couldn't find a producer for them. Well, it had to be pretty radical, because we weren’t really known for any affiliation to punk whatsoever.
"So, we went into the studio and we didn't know what they were talking about. They told us their influences were the Pacific Northwest, and that we should acquaint ourselves with the Sonics and the Wailers, else they didn't know how to approach us. So we familiarized ourselves with what they were saying, which was, basically, get in a room, put a microphone in there, turn everything up – and that was pretty much it. So that’s how it happened. Go into a studio, slam it once or twice into a microphone, then leave it. No overdubs, no extensive mix sessions. And, at the end of 27 minutes, the drummer smashed his hand into the side of his snare drum, during a take – you can hear it on the record. He couldn't do anything else, end of drummer meant end of album. But 27 minutes was enough. I listen to the record today, and it has so much energy that it had to self-destruct. It's 27 minutes, but it feels like an hour and a half."
A more lasting studio relationship was forged with Alice Cooper, Kaylan and Volman contributing to three of the old ghoul’s late 1970s/early 1980s albums, From The Inside, Flush The Fashion and Zipper Catches Skin. Flo & Eddie had supported Cooper on tour in the US in 1972 and, as Kaylan recalls, struck up a firm friendship. "At that time, he was trying to insulate himself from his own group and keep the name for himself after his manager, Shep Gordon, said ‘you're the band, you don't need the guys.’ He abandoned them more or less, and ended up taking us to his press conferences even though we were just the opening act. He liked having us around as confidantes and sidekicks."
Alice in 1978 was a somewhat different character – a lot less driven, a lot less secure and a lot less sober. In the studio, he would build himself a tent out of mike stands and baffle blankets, and stay inside while everything else was recorded. "Then," Kaylan continues, "when it came time for him to begrudgingly leave, step outside of it for the 2 or 3 minutes it would take for him to lay down the vocals, he wasn't very happy about it. So Shep and the people involved with the production, particularly Bob Ezrin, knew what we were capable of in the studio and how Alice liked us being around, and they called us in."
"First we'd do our background parts, then we'd sing leads along with Alice, to guide him along, help him get to notes he wouldn't have been able to otherwise. Then, they’d take us out of the final mix and leave Alice's voice in on its own. Of course, that meant we had to learn the entire song, but we didn't mind – this was Alice, he was our buddy and it made the record sound okay. Now he's back on the other side, I'm sure he looks back on those records in horror. For me, though, it was just like helping out a pal."
By this time, the duo had graduated to another arena, as co-hosts of a regular interview/music segment on one of Canadian television’s most popular late night shows. The list of guest artists is a virtual who’s who of period pop, while the best gauge of their popularity can be drawn from the fate of their 1978 David Bowie interview, picked up by NBC for Midnight Special. A Blondie interview in 1980, too, was deemed a major success, not least of all by Blondie themselves. A few weeks after the interview, Kaylan and Volman were invited into the studio to add backing vocals to ‘T-Birds’, one of the better songs on that band’s latest album, Auto-American.
Another high profile date that same year paired Kaylan and Volman with Bruce Springsteen, after they were invited to a show in Cleveland and, walking round the auditorium during soundcheck, were promptly invited up onto the stage.
There they discovered Ronnie Spector – herself working with Springsteen at that time – and the trio wound up singing together throughout that evening’s show. It was strictly a one-off adventure but, a few weeks after, Kaylan and Volman received a call asking them to appear on ‘Hungry Heart’, a song from Springsteen’s forthcoming new album The River. Later still, as Springsteen gathered material for his 1977–85 live box, they were recalled to appear at a handful of shows, to recreate their studio performance on stage.
Another era-defining hit that Volman and Kaylan’s presence immeasurably enlivens is the Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way, from 1982. Kaylan: "A guy we had always wanted to work with was Todd Rundgren, and we got the chance to do that with the Psychedelic Furs."
The British band was onto their third album, recording in Bearsville and, initially, furiously resisting producer Rundgren’s decision to recruit backing singers. "They didn’t want to know," Kaylan recalls. "They took Todd aside and said, ‘what is this, why would you bring guys in to sing on our record? We're a self-contained group.’ And Todd said ‘yeah, but you can barely sing your own vocals, let alone background vocals’."
The first session that same afternoon was strained. "But, that evening, we hung out with them at the house; we sat around and sang classic R&B songs together, and they got to know us a little bit. We stayed up most of the night and, by sun-up, we had them convinced that not only were we ‘the guys,’ but we knew the guys that knew the guys. We sat around and told stories, they wanted to know what it was like working with Lennon [on the Mothers’ Fillmore East project] and Bolan and Zappa and, when it was time to go back into the studio and record, there was a whole different atmosphere, it was way better. They were into us as singers and they were into us as an historical thing – ‘these guys have done this and this and this, and now they're going to do it with us'."
The result, says Kaylan, remains one of his all-time favorite albums, as the pair completely altered the timbre of the sessions. Songs that once seemed dry suddenly exploded into life, passages that might have sounded hollow were suddenly bursting with vitality. Volman remembers, "we ended up singing on about six or seven of the tracks. There was a lot of background singing."
The sessions were already over when Rundgren unveiled Love My Way. "We were literally just getting into the hired car back to New York," remembers Volman, "when Todd called us over and said, ‘before you go, do you want to hear the single?’ So he played it and we just looked at each other and said, ‘of all the songs on this record, of all the songs we’ve sung on, that is the one that we HAVE to be on’." On the spot, the pair came up with a backing vocal, then rushed to run it past the band members. Then it was back into the studio to add it to the song. "I think of all the backgrounds we've done," Volman reflects, "that was one that needed it more than any of the others, and showcases what backgrounds can do for a record. A lot of the backgrounds we've done have been support, whereas ‘Love My Way’ was very much the lead part. Todd used the backgrounds like a lead vocal – there's even a solo in the middle that we have!" The result, of course, was the Furs’ first major US hit and remains one of their most instantly recognizable numbers.
The following year saw Kaylan and Volman record an album with former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner, on his Planet Earth Rock & Roll Audience album. Kaylan recalls, "Paul really had an idea of every single note he wanted on the record. This was another Volunteers as far as he was concerned, a rallying call for the world to get off their asses, and he knew exactly where and when everything should be placed, who was going to sing the Gracie part and who was going to sing the Marty part and that's exactly how he referred to them. It's a good record, in its own revolutionary sense."
1983 also paired the duo with singer Ava Cherry – described by Kaylan as "one of those avant-garde projects that we did because either the artist was very exotic to us OR, we thought it'd reach a new audience OR, even better, no-one would hear it and we'd just get paid." Similar reasoning went into another project that year, the eponymous debut album by Espionage – and what an adventure that turned out to be. The band was signed on the strength of a demo tape – unfortunately, at some point between the tape leaving their hands and arriving in producer Roy Thomas Baker’s, it had sped up slightly, attaining a wholly new pitch which Baker, laying down the basic tracks, duly duplicated on his master tape. By the time the band’s vocalist came in to sing, the entire album had been recorded in what, for him, was an impossible key.
There was only one solution, as Volman explains. "Here is another record where, if you put it on, it’s pretty much Howard and I singing the record. What Roy did was, he put the singer in between us, then blended the three voices to give it a sound that was sort of homogenized into a single male voice – much like Tony Visconti did with the T Rex albums."
A more rewarding, if – as it transpired – somewhat tumultuous project, put the duo in the studio with former Duran Duran star Andy Taylor, recording his Thunder debut in 1987. Volman remembers, "Andy running amok in the studio with all these different musicians and producers – aside from Steve Jones on guitar, Howard and I were the only two who made it through all the different line ups on that record. He went through a bunch of drummers, a bunch of different studios and producers, we started that album and redid it three different times, so the version you have might not even be the best version.
"Listening to that particular album, it's really Andy and Flo and Eddie," muses Volman. "We’re such a huge part of that record, and even the tracks that didn't make it onto the record. We did a version of Neil Young's ‘Southern Man’ that never got heard, that is absolutely unbelievable, an incredible record, but Andy chose not to release it. Then there was Take It Easy (contributed to the American Anthem soundtrack), which is just a Marc Bolan record. That was Andy’s whole thing about bringing us into that project – he loved Marc and he wanted to make a Marc Bolan record. He was really excited, he was such a Marc Bolan fan and there just wasn't enough of us.
"But it cut both ways. Here you are talking to Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, two of the biggest music groupies in the world. We loved the Sex Pistols, we loved Duran, and to be in the studio with Steve Jones and Andy Taylor, we were in heaven!"
The nature of the recording industry was changing fast, however. Although Volman and Kaylan have continued active over the past 15 years, recording with artists as far afield as Gavin Friday and the reformed Jefferson Airplane, Darlene Love and the Ramones, Kaylan cannot help but view much of the period with mild disappointment.
"The ‘80s and ‘90s blur because, very often, the artists themselves weren't even in the studio, they had it done for them by their producers ... or, the artists had become so corporate minded that a lot of the personality had left the arena. It used to be, if you were gonna have somebody come in and sing your backgrounds with you, you want to know those people, you want to include them as part of your album, you’d have a little family going.
"But in these later days, it wasn't much different for us working on the Ramones record (1992’s Mondo Bizarro) as it was the Duran LP (1995’s Thank You), because in both cases there was only one or two representatives of the band and the producer in the studio, they all knew what they had to do and they just laid the stuff down. There wasn't any input from anywhere else – it might as well have been a Pepsi commercial. And if the personality is gone from the thing and the entertainment value of doing it is gone, then the only reason you have to do it is for the very small check you get from doing that sort of thing, or the satisfaction of saying I'm on that record.
"It used to be a thing about camaraderie. In the days with Marc Bolan, Tony Visconti would just roll tapes and he's got hours and hours of tapes of us just sitting in the studio as high as kites, going off on everything, singing Presley and showtunes. There's one night where the two of us, Marc [Bolan], Alice [Cooper] , Ringo [Starr] , Harry Nilsson and Klaus Voormann wound up together at Morgan Studios and stayed up all night and did nothing, just got bombed and sang anything that came to mind, and recorded it all. It's just incredible. You're holding your sides. Those were the days."