Are You Happy?
The Dark Side of Iron Butterfly
by Barry Stoller
Star Trek's under-esteemed third season features an episode, "The Way to Eden," in which a group of space hippies follow a Timothy Leary-styled guru in hot pursuit of a primitive utopian paradise. The scruffy youngsters' anti-establishment shenanigans lead the plot line to a highly illogical jam session with Mr. Spock (playing Vulcan harp), and several outtasight songs ensue - including one with the words:
Looking for the good land
Oh I can't have honey and I can't have cream
Gonna live, not die
Gonna live, not die
I'll stand in the middle of it all one day,
I'll look at it shining all around me and say
In the good land
In the new land
Not surprisingly, it was about as outtasight as Bob Hope wearing a Beatle wig. Too bad Gene Roddenberry didn't cough up the cash to get a better outtasight song - such as:
Don't you know that I love you?
Don't you know that I'll always be true?
Oh, won't you come with me
and take my hand?
Oh, won't you come with me
and walk this land?
Much better! - and the suggestion isn't really all that implausible. The monster hit ruled the FM and AM airwaves and Billboard charts as the Star Trek episode was filmed, the summer prior to its February 1969 airing. Both the Captain and his Science Officer, in their off-hours, displayed an affinity for singing hippie ditties (immortalized on the ultra-camp Golden Throats compilation). Too bad neither had the audacity to take on the ultimate bell-bottomed anthem.
Now, if you think this is leading to yet another of the countless (admittedly clever) put-downs of Iron Butterfly, you're wrong. This is a cool band, with a catalog full of superlative tunes, prominently placed in rock's most myth-making era. They headlined over everyone - King Crimson, Yes, Led Zeppelin (and, for one assuredly twisted evening, the Velvet Underground). When they sang, in their first single ("Unconscious Power," 1968), 'the unbelievable is going to happen,' they were right on.
But: I'm going to be honest in my appraisal of them. Kitsch - an essential component of the creative amalgamation that is rock n' roll - was applied a bit more liberally by Iron Butterfly than many of their presumed peers. Certainly Iron Butterfly employed it more homogeneously. Consider The Beatles: they were as addicted to kitsch as any popular band of the age, yet they developed a clever formula for its use, a unity of opposites; first "Yellow Submarine," then "Tomorrow Never Knows" - and so on. Iron Butterfly, on the other hand, considered it better strategy to include some kitsch with every tune; thus their masterpiece, "Soul Experience" (from Ball), references the echoplex abandon of Syd Barrett, the volume pedal mastery of Steve Howe and... the 'with it' belting of Tom Jones.
Superficially, Iron Butterfly is remembered as the first (often faltering) heavy metal band, or, more specifically, the heavy metal band for uninitiated teenyboppers. This presumes Iron Butterfly was - or intended to be - a heavy metal band, which is bad history. Iron Butterfly never played the blues, the original building block of metal; nor did they use Gibson guitars and Marshall amps, the timeless technology of metal. They preceded metal. Iron Butterfly was more of a psychedelicized garage band with a graduate degree in surf and pop; their equipment, Mosrite guitars (trademark of the Surfaris) and Vox Super Beatle amps (however distorted), were true to that aim (what is "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" but the "Wipeout" for the Age of Aquarius?).
As vocalist, organist and all-around main dude Doug Ingle put it (when interviewed for Rhino's re-issue series in the 1990's):
We were tagged with a number of handles as time went on: psychedelic, then acid rock, then heavy metal. But for me personally, the emphasis was on melodic consciousness. Blue Cheer would be more of a vexation than an inspiration to me.
There's a difference between heavy metal and heavy.
Here, Jimmy McDonough (author of the Neil Young biography Shakey) picks up the narrative:
[Charlie] Green and [Brian] Stone, Charlie will tell you, were the greatest fucking managers that ever roamed the earth. Greene and Stone gave the world Buffalo Springfield, Iron Butterfly and Sonny & Cher. Greene and Stone were the first to smoke bananas. Listen to Charlie's rap on how he brought 'heavy' into the lexicon of hippie lingo: 'The Butterfly has this new album called Heavy. So I take it to our deejay at KRLA, the "Real" Don Steel, and I say, "Look - after you play a Beatles record, just say HEAVY. When you play anything that is really happening, say HEAVY." "Why?" "Do me a favor - just do it." And all of a sudden, "heavy" became something other than a measure of weight. I invented heavy.'
Which brings us to history's unkind assessment of Iron Butterfly as purveyors of head music for squares. Certainly any association with banana peels and Sonny & Cher spells credibility problems. The eye-numbing paisley outfits worn in their publicity shots are distinctly suspect. Appearances on TV cheese-a-thons such as The Dating Game and Playboy After Dark might fail to sway the skeptical. And the radio jingle they composed and performed for Ban deodorant is positively damning. But let us concentrate on their music, not the imperatives of their managers.
Recall Charlie Greene's conception of heavy: The Beatles. Iron Butterfly easily blows "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," with its tinkling cymbals, rambling bass runs and tweedy lead guitar tone, right out of the water. (Dig Ringo's little tom-tom and bass drum solo on 'The End': it's merely a compressed version of Iron Butterfly drummer Ron Bushy's self-actualized performance on 1968's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida").
No doubt, Iron Butterfly isn't as crushing - or as emotionally resonant - as the 'heavy' groups that (purportedly) followed them: Zeppelin, Bloodrock, Sabbath, Deep Purple. This owes to their historical placement.
Iron Butterfly, with their flower-power poetry and psychedelic cheap effects, do compare favorably with their historical peers, especially bands eschewing blues roots for pop forms: Vanilla Fudge, The Doors (remember Soft Parade), (the Balin-Kanter-Slick axis of) Jefferson Airplane, and Steppenwolf. They came up through the same Sunset Strip scene like all the other hip West Coast bands, eventually conquering the Whisky A Go Go until the majors noticed. "Iron Butterfly Theme" (from Heavy), "Are You Happy" (from the Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida album), "To Be Alone" (1969) and "Easy Rider (Let the Wind Pay the Way)" (1971), to name four of Iron Butterfly's harder rockin' numbers, are crazy amazing contributions to the exalted soundtrack of the Sixties.
What is their sound?
It's electric mercury and meteor showers. The overall canvas is organized sound: four distinct instruments and a lead vocal always busy with a tuneful riff - and with each riff, sonic textures shift like a kaleidoscope. The guitar unleashes an unceasing torrent of fuzzed-out, radiant square waves - at turns melodic and fluid, then pushing the curve, sculpting songs from noise. Bass and drums, ever economical, ever responsive - skipping and bubbling, loose yet perfect ... groovy! The keyboard, usually a Vox Continental, propels Baroque, Gothic, even Arabian rhapsodies across the riffs, often re-emerging with the theremin wail of an Outer Limits freakout. And the vocals sound like Elvis Presley, stoned on hash brownies, broadcast from another solar system.
Ingle onstage, 1969
What about the songs?
Of course, there's the monster hit - the greatest guitar riff of the 20th century - but it's a mistake to assess Iron Butterfly on the merit, or weakness, of the 17-minute LP version (the super-edited Top 40 version is actually a better introduction to the band). Unlike all of their other recordings, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was an uncharacteristically sloppy performance. As reported by Russell H. Tice in a May 1998 Mix magazine article, the group was just warming up:
The band members, including Ingle, recollect that they were barely, if at all, aware they were being recorded. According to Bushy, 'the engineer just ran the tape and said, "Why don't you run through something and we'll get the balance here on the stuff. Run it through one time." I didn't want to think about it. When those red lights are on, a lot of times it will screw me up. I couldn't see them from where I was.' As the band stormed through the song, Ingle started wondering what was going on: 'We were like, 'Is this guy dense? How much time does he need?' So after we finished, he said 'come on in guys, I'd like you to hear this.' [The engineer] Don Casale... had captured the song on the first take. They immediately overdubbed the vocal and the guitar solo, and the song was complete.
The track has mistakes galore and the band, fresh from building up the expanded passages on the road, is tentative upon returning to the main riff from the solo sections. The vacillating volume levels, especially at the start, lend the track a soundcheck-from-hell quality. Certainly, it's guitarist Erik Brann's weakest performance - which is a real shame, because he was a brilliant soloist with a keen ear for innovative tone. According to Dominick L Dell 'Erba, Jr. (online in 1999), Bushy told him the band 'never liked the take.'
(The 1970 live album features an aggressive version in which the arrangement is perfected and all solos are up to the hallucinogenic high standards of the riff and lyrics. The audience response, in return, is euphoric.)
The mega-selling song quickly overwhelmed the band's reputation - and future. Iron Butterfly is cursed by history as a 'one-hit wonder' (as if the same couldn't be said, with the same statistical accuracy, of the MC5). Yet their previous LP Heavy (recorded 1967, released 1968) had secured a respectable placement on the Billboard album charts before "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" had even been written; Atlantic/Atco Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun claimed in a April 26, 2001 Rolling Stone interview that the first record sold up to 150,000 units before the band began sessions for the second.
In the same interview, Ertegun describes events leading up to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida:
They ran through the songs, and I said, 'This is terrible, I mean the new guitarist.' And Doug said to me, 'Well, of course, he's only been playing three months.' I said, 'You mean he's been with the band for three months?' He said, 'No, he's only been playing the guitar for three months.' And I thought, 'Jesus!'... But I tell you, this record came out, and, man, it seemed like every college student, like the whole country went out and bought it. It became the biggest record that we'd ever had up to that time - with a band that was just learning their instruments.
Lee Pickens, lead guitarist legend, told me (in conversation, May 13 2004) that Bloodrock performed the epic song back in their formative days:
We had the drum solo down totally perfect according to the record. Every heavy rock band did that. That was a must. We didn't think that song would ever go away. And, it still hasn't. I was a big fan of The Iron Butterfly. I still have two or three of their albums.
With hooks galore, clever counterpoint melodies and inventive arrangements, the band possessed a unique identity. Many of their studio experiments prefigured major trends of the '70's. Their entire LP Ball codified psychedelic chaos years ahead of Pink Floyd's breakthrough with Meddle. Specifically, Brann's solo on "To Be Alone" introduced Brian May's legendary guitar tone years before Queen existed, while his solo on "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" demonstrated elephant trumpeting long before Adrian Belew claimed it as a trademark.
As Ingle (quoted in 1969 Atco promotional materials) put it: 'We didn't copy, nor were we influenced by anyone. We had an idea about a sound and how it should be expressed.'
And... some of their stuff is subversively dark. Whoever started the rumor Iron Butterfly were exclusive purveyors of hippie Hallmark greetings suitable only for Spencer Gifts' black-light posters forgot to mention the band's weird commingling of humanist universalism with paranoid nihilism. This band provided the soundtrack for that singular era in which sexual liberation collided with the dread of the draft.
"You Can't Win" (from Heavy), with its distorted melodiousness and martial tempo, is a ball-bustin' take on draft dodging: 'What the man says is always right / He'll cut your hair so you can fight / There is no way of getting around it / He'll lock you up and in your head he'll pound it.' That's far from the insouciant peace and flowers vibes usually associated with Iron Butterfly. On their live LP the song is dedicated 'to a lot of people who cannot be with us this evening.'
Other songs, more intuitive than explicit, also express Vietnam-era dread. "Termination" (from the Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida album) features the lines: 'As lower life shows me in to my doom / Spirit will striken, the end will come soon.' An assortment of bright riffs yields to an eerie, beguiling coda which musically describes passing through the light. Spooky.
A malignant vibe occurs throughout "In The Time of Our Lives," which asks in an otherworldly baritone, 'How you doing people that passed on yesterday? / Did you meet with justice on your judgment day?' The backing vocals invoke the cries of the damned as the band pushes a lumbering wall of feedback to the brink. Perfect for train wrecks and strobe-lit seances.
"Real Fright" (on Ball) is creepy, too. Set upon a cramped, schizophrenic riff, the narrator intones a gripping bummer:
Real fright's the story of a maddening darkness,
It leaves your hands and your face real tight,
Your mind starts to wander while your body starts shaking,
Your mouth feels dry as your bones start aching.
"Filled With Fear" (also on Ball), with skin-crawling sound effects stapled to mocking, unremitting riffs, is even more nightmarish. The lyrics are stark: 'I know that the end of my mind is so near / My mind is just churning and burning with fear / Why did I in-a-vite it here? / God, why did I in-a-vite it here?' The organ references the famous Dracula line from Bach's "Toccata in D Minor." Ghoulish ululation, thick with sci-fi reverberation, adds to the atmosphere of perdition. Fantastic!
The brooding "Belda-Beast" (also on Ball) offers a melody dipped in opium loveliness. The lyrics are ominous, yet the vocal is ethereal: 'Threatening destruction in a way that we know too well / Sitting on the limb of love with my friends / Sitting here all alone / Life without malice can you call this bluff / And say without knowing it's hard enough / Bye, bye.' Fans of mid-period Pink Floyd should take note.
Finally, the quietly intense "Soldier In Our Town" (on Metamorphosis), addresses the hypocrisy of war heroism with the lines: 'There's a statue in the square / But the things they're hiding, it ain't fair / ...'Cause beneath the stone / The greatest man is all alone' - a potent shift from the image of the monument to the gravestone. With its soul wrenching vocal (Ingle's best ever performance) and a rare use of earthy acoustic guitar, Iron Butterfly delivers one of the most heart-felt antiwar statements of the early '70's. In the 1993 liner notes to the Rhino compilation Light and Heavy, Ingle said the composition concerns 'war in general and our culture's inbred thought that people have to fight. And it's about the few elite at the top that control the masses.'
This particular recording (essentially an Ingle solo session) exemplifies the internal dissension that befell Iron Butterfly after scoring their mega-success. Erik Brann, stressed out from the endless touring, departed the year prior. In an 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he recalled the grueling tours with Iron Butterfly, saying 'My first vacation I bought a car, a Jaguar, and parked it outside the hospital where I spent two weeks for ulcers and gastroenteritis.'
Brann on tour, 1968
It required two guitarists to fill his shoes. These new members (Mike Pinera, of "Ride Captain Ride" fame, and Larry 'Rhino' Reinhardt) quickly asserted themselves and, refusing to follow Ingle in search of a mellow (yet idiosyncratic) muse for the band, shifted the sound towards mainstream rock (along with bassist Lee Dorman, they refused to perform on "Soldier In Our Town"). After another tour, Ingle quit the band. Presaging this development, the LP cover for what would be the last (authentic) Iron Butterfly album, Metamorphosis (1971), prominently displays a coffin on a barren mountaintop (who, save Donovan, could have kept the Butterfly alive?).
Ingle describes the demise of the band (in the Rhino liner notes interview, and Goldmine, September 13 1996):
What started out as a blessing, a platform for creative expression, had suddenly become a burden... I was required to write and record new material while doing four-and-a-half years of one-nighters... I told [the band], 'I just don't want to be here anymore'... We were touring so extensively, all I was taking in was repetition - soundchecks, shows, interviews, flights, the whole nine yards - and if that's what you're taking in, what are you gonna reflect on?
Although Iron Butterfly owed Atlantic Records another album, Ingle walked away from the band, the label - and his career in professional music in 1971. He told Goldmine:
When I walked out, it wasn't accepted real well by Ahmet. He had to hold a stockholders' meeting twice a year, and they'd say, 'How is it a big man like you, who hangs out with Henry Kissinger on weekends - how can you let these snotnosed punks walk away with millions?'
Ron Bushy (quoted in Goldmine) saw the inevitable end of the line as the key songwriter split:
Oh, yeah, I was freaked. The last thing I wanted to do was stop playing. My whole world gave way and disappeared.
Brann's final assessment of the band, documented in the same Goldmine issue, was far less sentimental:
Truthfully, I don't think the albums stand up today. There were a lot of artists who made great-sounding records [in the Sixties], but Iron Butterfly wasn't one of them.
(Brann died, age 52, in 2003)
Publicizing one of Iron Butterfly's many low-profile comebacks over the decades (almost invariably without Ingle who, presumably, coasts on composer royalties from "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"), Dorman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (June 27 1996):
It was pressure, pressure, pressure and we were just burned out. We lost a lot of money. In the early to mid-'60s music law was just being written. There was no path to follow. We lost a lot.
Despite selling a reported 25 million copies of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, by 2001 what remained of Iron Butterfly appealed to fans to help Dorman pay for a heart transplant. There was a short reunion of the Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida/Ball lineup for the big deal Atlantic Records' 40th year celebration televised concert at Madison Square Garden in 1988. At the time, IB flirted with the press about recording a new LP at the time but nothing ever came of this. Ingle has remained totally retired since then, granting almost no interviews. The 'band' has technically never broken up since Bushy, the original drummer, owns the IB name; he has toured, with various nobodies, under the IB moniker for eons.
If corporate rock was born on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY, in 1969 (an assessment Abbie Hoffman certainly would support), then it's somehow fitting the intended headliners, Iron Butterfly, got stuck at the airport and couldn't make it to the gig. It's also fitting that, earlier that year, Led Zeppelin (whose "Stairway to Heaven" epitomizes corporate rock) famously upstaged Iron Butterfly at a Fillmore concert. Eternally consigned to the low-wage dustbin of the nostalgia circuit and altogether shunned by the Stalinists controlling the 'classic rock' airwaves, Iron Butterfly is yet another example of a pioneering rock band, steeped in the antiwar ideology of the day, vaporized from the sanitary corridors of American pop culture (this trend was initiated as early as 1968 when Rolling Stone imposed a 100% blackout on the band).
Which brings this narrative back to "The Way to Eden." As it turns out, the space hippies, upon hijacking the USS Enterprise, finally find their primitive utopian paradise... unfit for habitation. The planet, verdant in appearance, is composed of a toxic acid which melts human flesh. What a downer. In the end, the establishment (personified by William Shatner) once again shows youth the folly of its rebellious ways, and respect for order and authority is restored. As the US imperialist nightmare of Iraq increasingly resembles Vietnam, I can only surmise the space hippies should have pressed their search further. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, indeed.
* * * * *
Barry Stoller is Bloodrock's biographer.
He has previously published work in Monthly Review, Scram and Perfect Sound Forever.
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