In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1969: Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
In a way, 1969 is an appropriate ending to the 1960s. A year full of various events that captured the hopes and fears brought on by this transformative decade. America landed on the moon giving the nation something to be proud of during a tumultuous era of high tensions over the Vietnam War and civil rights. Meanwhile, thousands of hippies gathered in Upstate New York for the three day Woodstock music festival serving as the definitive moment of the ‘60s counterculture all while Charles Manson and his cult went on a murder spree that quickly darkened the counterculture not helped by the disastrous and deadly Altamont festival in California.
The music of the era reflected this shift. Just listening to popular music from the beginning of the ‘60s to the end of the ‘60s is like listening to two different civilizations. In terms of this column, I went from reviewing Broadway and movie musicals to reviewing The Monkees and Jimi Hendrix. That’s a huge shift in just a decade time. I can’t imagine how exciting it must have been to listen to music in the ‘60s and have your fundamental understanding of popular music change forever with the new sounds and styles that came about.
In rock, bands and artists were utilizing the latest technology to create a heavier psychedelic sound providing the basis for hard rock and even heavy metal along with more mature lyrical themes that turned rock music into a high art form. Adding to this was the emphasis on albums instead of singles. Albums were beginning to be seen as a major form of artistic expression wanting the public to hear them for their whole work instead of a few singles. And with the growth of FM radio, bands didn’t have to worry about creating short songs to get radio play. Rock artists could now sell millions of albums all while not making much of an impact on the Billboard Hot 100 which would affect much of rock music on the charts.
That’s where Iron Butterfly fit in. A California based psychedelic rock band with a revolving door of members who managed to have the best-selling album of 1969 outselling the Hair soundtrack and Blood, Sweat & Tears with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, an album that’s mainly known now for its epic 17-minute title track that’s become an early basis of heavy metal. Too bad that’s the only worthwhile thing on this album.
Iron Butterfly formed in 1966 in their hometown of San Diego with frontman and keyboardist Doug Ingle, drummer Jack Pinney, bassist Greg Willis, and guitarist Danny Weis. The band soon moved to Los Angeles playing in clubs on the Sunset Strip opening for more famous acts like Jefferson Airplane and the Doors but not before Willis and Pinney left the band being replaced by Jerry Penrod and Ron Bushy respectively. The performing soon got the band a record deal with Atco Records leading to the release of their debut album Heavy in January 1968. The album was hardly a success peaking at #78 on the album charts and eventually going gold. All while band members continued coming and going.
This turmoil didn’t distract the band from quickly releasing their second album, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, in June 1968. The album was a bigger success peaking at #4 in August 1969 selling over eight million copies in its first year and was the first album certified as platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Clearly, this album hit a zeitgeist and it led off with a heavy epic whose title came from a drunken misinterpretation.
Ingle wrote “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” while drunk on wine one night initially as “In The Garden Of Eden.” He soon played it for Bushy when he came over but thanks to his slurred singing Bushy wrote the title as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and they apparently thought it sounded better. The original plan for the song was for it to be a short ballad but the band soon used it as an opportunity to create a long-form extended jam showing off their musicality. That’s the version that got onto the record. While vamping in the studio one day for a soundcheck, the engineer recorded the band before the producer came in playing the song. Upon listening to it, the producer liked the song the way it was and that’s what eventually got released.
Taking up the entire second side of the album, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was released as a single in a heavily edited 2:52 minute version taking out the entire soloing for radio play. While In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the album, was a best-seller, the song even in its edited form was a relatively modest hit peaking on the Hot 100 at #30 in October 1968. They wouldn’t make the Top 40 again often making Iron Butterfly known as a one-hit-wonder today as shown by Todd in the Shadows’ review of the song in his One Hit Wonderland series. But they’re a one-hit-wonder who created one of the most memorable rock songs ever.
It’s hard to deny “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’s” impact on rock music. It fits in with a lot of the heavily indulgent psychedelic heavy rock of its era with its memorable fuzz guitar riff that carries the song, churchy sounding organ, and of course, LONG solos starting with the guitar playing with both fuzz and wah pedals before dropping to a drum solo then to an organ solo then to a bass solo before the band builds up going back to the main riff and singing until it ends. The solos go on for about 13-minutes of the 17-minute song. That means there are only 4-minutes for Ingle’s singing and it’s not really much. There are only two verses with Ingle expressing his love for a girl wanting her to come with him and as he puts it, “walk this land.”
But the lyrics don’t matter much. The song is really meant to showcase the music which is what has made it so iconic in rock music. Anytime people discuss the first heavy metal song, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is usually talked about among other late ’60s possibilities. It’s not hard to see why cause it is definitely a heavy song. The song has a very scary and menacing tone through Ingle’s singing, fuzz guitar, and haunting organ. It fits perfectly with the dark and heavy psychedelic tones taking shape at the time feeling emblematic of the turmoils of the era. This is certainly the type of music to imagine listening to while on some acid trip.
Now just because the song is iconic doesn’t mean I think the song is good. It’s certainly a cool sounding song and there’s a lot of talent being shown but one little problem, it’s 17-MINUTES LONG! Now as someone who grew up listening to a lot of classic rock, I don’t mind hearing songs that are longer than the average radio length will allow but that doesn’t mean they’re all going to work. If you’re going to make a super long song than you better make it interesting enough to keep me engaged and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” just loses me. Normally when a rock act like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or Rush make a super long track, they fill it out with complex lyrics, virtuoso musicianship, and differing musical sections in order to make the songs interesting.
Iron Butterfly isn’t a talented enough group to pull this off. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” sounds like what it is, a band jamming in the studio. The lyrics are a standard love song. There are no lines about Ayn Rand or Lord of the Rings or some ancient philosophy. Even for a rock jam, it’s not that interesting to sustain 17-minutes. The band doesn’t do any tempo or musical changes that makes you want to pay attention throughout. Listening to the full version for this review, I’ve just gotten bored after a while with all the indulgence on display without much to suck you in. The live versions of the song tended to run much longer so I can’t imagine what it must have been being in the crowd. If I was at one of those shows I would be wanting them to finish the damn song already.
If there’s a good thing I can say about “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is that it’s at least memorable. The rest of the songs on the album doesn’t live up to it. It’s the easiest album I’ve listened to so far for this column considering there are only five other songs on the album which are all standard length songs that are also perfectly forgettable. As Todd in the Shadows put it best about Iron Butterfly, “For an album act, they wrote a lot of filler.” The rest of the album comes across as very generic psychedelic rock. If there was ever a pop sellout version this would be it. Musically and lyrically, Iron Butterfly just doesn’t measure up to the great psychedelic acts of their era. I could talk about the other songs and what I found interesting but how could I care when they’re not memorable. If I had to guess why this album sold a lot in 1969, it would be people wanting to hear the full version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Despite In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida being their most remembered album, it wasn’t their most successful Billboard wise. While that album was continuing its success into 1969, Iron Butterfly released their third album Ball in January 1969 and bested In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by peaking at #3 on the album charts that April. But singles-wise, they wouldn’t get anywhere as big as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The band continued performing heavily in the years ahead while releasing a few more albums into the ‘70s. For instance, they were supposed to perform at Woodstock but missed out due to a flight delay and a helicopter that never showed up. Band members continued to come and go including Doug Ingle who left the band in 1971. The band continued to tour on the oldies circuit all while going through constant lineup changes that have never stopped. Seriously, look at Iron Butterfly’s Wikipedia page and every year it seems like there’s a new lineup.
Half of the members on In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida are no longer with us. Guitarist Erik Brann died in 2003 at age 52 and bassist Lee Dorman died in 2012 at age 70. Bushy is the only member on the album who’s still in the band today. As for Ingle, can’t find much recent information on him other than joining some small groups after leaving Iron Butterfly. But their main legacy will be one 17-minute piece of rock indulgence that managed to leave a big impact on music.
Honorable mention: 1969 was generally a pretty solid year for the Top 10 albums. I could pick 1969’s #8 best-seller, The Beatles’ White Album, their stylistic all over the place indulgent double album which signaled the beginning of tensions that ultimately broke up the band. But instead, let’s go with 1969’s #5 best-seller of Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album. In just nine tracks, it manages to introduce us to every element of the band from their heavy take on blues and folk music all while pushing hard rock and heavy metal forward more than Iron Butterfly ever could.
Next time: We start the ‘70s with one of the biggest acts of the ‘60s bidding farewell with Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water
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