Monday, May 23, 2011

Iron Butterfly's Swan Song

I have a true confession for you today.

When I was a teenager, I used to enjoy listening to comedy albums. (Still do, actually, although I'm more exclusive about it today.)

Hold on. That isn't the confession. Here it is.

I really enjoyed listening to Cheech & Chong, whose humor was (shall we say?) often high on drug culture gags.

Anyway, one of their routines had them watching a game show on TV, and the show's emcee was announcing the winner of a trivia contest. Participants had been asked to name the three most–played songs in the history of the English language, and the correct answers were:
  • "Happy Birthday to You,"

  • "Auld Lang Syne" and

  • "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida"
(First prize in the contest, as I recall, was a "blind date with Stevie Wonder.")

I thought that was hilarious because, well, I had no idea what "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" was. And it sure as heck didn't sound like English to me.

I found out what it was later.

It was one of the first truly psychedelic recordings, and it was the biggest thing ever to come from a group called Iron Butterfly. It was popular when it was released — but that was really before I started listening to the radio.

(In its original studio version, which was recorded on May 27, 1968, the song had extensive instrumental solos and interludes. I liked walking while listening to a recording of it because it had about a five–minute section that was primarily a steady drumbeat. You could really get into a rhythm when you were listening to it.)

Originally, the song was supposed to be called "In the Garden of Eden." Accounts of how it became "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" vary — one holds that keyboardist/vocalist Doug Ingle was intoxicated and slurred the words while rehearsing or recording, creating the mondegreen by which it became known, and another holds that Ingle slurred the words when telling a bandmate the title.

(Still a third version suggests the bandmate had been wearing headphones when he asked for the title of the song and did not hear it clearly, after which he repeated what he had heard to someone else or wrote it down as the title.)

The point is that somewhere — to borrow a line from a popular movie of the time — there was a failure to communicate.

That wasn't the only thing the song had going against it.

The original studio track was nearly 18 minutes long and occupied the entire second side of the album. Nevertheless, it reached #30 on the Billboard chart — and it made it financially viable for other groups to record songs that were longer — in some cases much longer — than the standard two or three minutes.

It's held up well. Two years ago, Vh1 ranked it #24 on its Top 100 Hard Rock Songs of All Time list — more than 40 years after it was recorded.

Iron Butterfly didn't hold up quite as well. The original group disbanded 40 years ago today after playing a show. It went through various incarnations in the years after that but never enjoyed much success.

One of the original members is dead now, and Iron Butterfly is rapidly receding from view.

The Butterfly may exist again in another incarnation, but it will never again enjoy the heights it reached in the late 1960s.

It has become a relic from another time, and "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" is a souvenir from that time ...

... a time that was full of contradictions ...

... a time that seemed to have more than its share of sad moments ...

... but also had its silly moments ...

... a time when "In the Garden of Eden" could be mislabeled "In–A–Gadda–Da–Vida" and be a bigger success than it might otherwise have been.