"Happy Together" / The Turtles
I wasn't particularly a Turtles fan, but when this song came out in 1967 you couldn't escape it -- and who'd want to? I remember making out to it at a party with a junior-high boyfriend named Mike (in classic junior-high fashion, I secretly liked his best friend Mark better -- that's how happy together Mike and I were). Come to think of it, listening to this song was probably the best thing about that party.
I calculate that 98 percent of all music fans old enough to know this song love it, right from the opening bars -- and it's got one of those openings you recognize instantly, a hypnotically soft guitar riff underlaid with an ominous march-like drumbeat. I'm guessing it was sheer luck on the Turtles' part, but for two minutes and 55 seconds, everything seems to come together just right. For one thing, you'd never expect a song titled "Happy Together" to be in a minor key, and yet it works -- maybe because when you're a teenager, happiness is totally complicated.
The earnest tremble in the lead vocal (was it Howard Kaylan or Mark Volman?) ups the emotional ante too; the guy may think he's happy, but he's also obsessive ("Imagine me and you / I do / I think about you day and night"), not to mention insecure ("If I should call you up / Invest a dime / And you say you belong to me / And ease my mind"). Anyone who's ever been a teenager can sympathize.
I've always gotten tangled up in the pronouns in the third verse: "Me and you / And you and me / No matter how they toss the dice / It had to be / The only one for me is you / And you for me / So happy together." Normally I'd say this was sloppy songwriting, but in this case it's brilliant. It's not because the two lovers are so attuned to each other that they've become one -- no, not at all. It's because adolescents constantly get confused about where their ego ends and someone else's begins; the effect is intensified by the back-up singers, schizophrenically echoing everything he says. And that haunting oboe slithering around beneath the vocals -- you can't be at all sure how those dice are gonna fall.
And yet just listen to how the singer dives hellbent into that grand chorus, with its roller-coaster melodic line: "I can't see me / Loving nobody but you / For all my life." The drummer pounds everything in his set, a horn section blazes in, the back-up singers chime in with the lead vocal, and even though the key is still minor, the mood is ecstatic. Who cares if he really IS going to love her for the rest of his life -- he feels that way NOW, which is all that matters. In the middle eight, the singers get so elated, they burst into a wordless stretch of ba-ba-ba-ba's (those close harmonies, so 1967, borrowed straight from the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas). The coda builds over a repeated "So happy together" (add in heavier drums, horns, more back-up singers), pushing it higher and higher until it sounds almost feverish. Then suddenly it resolves on a major chord -- and cut. Genius.
Folk-rock was generally too serious for me -- I was too young in the mid-60s to care about the politics, I guess -- so I was glad when the Turtles, and the Lovin' Spoonful, and the Monkees came along to brighten things up. Sure, in the end this catchy pop sound would degenerate into bubblegum (Tommy James and the Shondells were already paving the way; the Archies were waiting in the wings), but there's a lot to be said for the perfectly-produced sub-three-minute pop song with seductive hooks and an unforgettable refrain. Forty years later, I have no idea where Mike OR Mark is . . . but I can still sing every line of this song.
Have a listen: http://www.mp3.com/albums/16558/summary.html?from=4925&tag=albums;title;1&om_act=convert&om_clk=artalb