Graded on a Curve:
Iron Butterfly,
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida

Remembering Ron Bushy.Ed.

For the past week or so I’ve been walking around singing “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a resonant voice, pretty much nonstop. I don’t sing all 19 minutes of it, mind you. You can’t sing a drum solo. Still, my significant other is threatening divorce, and we’re not even married.

A monolithic monument of molten metal sung by a guy with enunciation problems, Iron Butterfly’s 1968 “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (on the LP of the same title) hit the charts at the dawning of the progressive rock era, when 19-minute song cycles with titles like “Crystals Medusa” or “King Arthur’s Gelatinous Sceptre” were beginning to blight the musical landscape. There is nothing “progressive” about the 19 minutes of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”–the song’s a regressive return to the primitive simplicity of “Louie Louie” and anybody–even me–could play it, for hours if mood struck.

“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is all primal force, an implacable juggernaut that grinds exceedingly fine–you don’t listen to it as much as get out of its way. Forget the Age of Aquarius–to quote Blue Öyster Cult, “This ain’t the garden of Eden… and this ain’t the summer of love.”

No, it’s the most ominous song about Adam and Eve’s playground ever–guitarist Erik Braun’s repeated fuzz-guitar riff, keyboard player/vocalist Doug Ingle’s ominous church organ, and Lee Dorman’s speaker-shuddering bass are all menace, and the only problem I have with the song–and it’s a serious one–is the way its forward motion is interrupted by a couple of lengthy solos–the first (unconscionably) by Ron Bushy on drums and the second by Ingle on organ. I’d have preferred a impregnable wall of heavy metal noise with no exits, no interruptions, no let up—the West Coast’s retort to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.”

The songs on the a-side of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida stand as historical artifacts—only hardcore Iron Butterfly fans listen to them, but they’re worth checking out. “Most Anything You Want” is chipper Flower Power pop with faint echoes of the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun. “Flowers and Beads” is Tom Jones standing at the intersection of Haight-Ashbury, singing his psychedelic heart out.

“My Mirage” is second rate Doors complete with baroque organ and lots of cymbal crash. “Termination” is more Doors reek and has something to do with losing your job, or maybe not. “Are You Happy” is a ferocious scuzz-fuzz guitar jam and worthy addition to the great American garage rock tradition.

Speaking of historical artifacts, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is itself one. It stands as one of the best known, least played songs of the classic rock era. You know it from its first note, Ingle’s lyrics have been driven into the collective unconscious, but you don’t play it and I don’t play it and I don’t know a solitary soul who does play it—it’s just out there, a quaint curiosity and outdated product of its time, like love beads and Nehru jackets.

As for my significant other, she’s also started singing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” around the house, and boy is she pissed. I keep telling her to do what I do when I get a song stuck in my head, namely replace it with Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park.” This she refuses to do, pointing out, quite justifiably, that in certain cases the cure is worse than the disease.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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