Monday, April 9, 2012

Insects n’wax waffles……or how the Beatles and Iron Butterfly pushed the boundaries of the vinyl LP.

In my last post here, I eulogized “the album” as an entertainment object. Oh, those plastic platters can still be found if you know where to look. But the “glory days” of mass-consumption are pretty much kaput when it comes to the 33 & 1/3 Long Playing vinyl album. When you think about it, there was a pretty small window where LP records ruled the marketplace. Though in existence from 1948 or so, most people didn’t really bother with them until about 1964 when the Beatles first Capitol album “Meet the Beatles” redefined the potential of the format.

Prior to “Meet the Beatles”, teenagers mainly bought singles – 45 RPM discs. Hit on one side, filler on the B-side. LP records prior to “Meet the Beatles” were usually laden with filler with a few of the hits sprinkled in to generate interest. Not that “Meet the Beatles” was all hits, but the publicity machine that cranked up the Beatlemania hysteria made it seem like EVERY song was a hit. Beatlemania was a marketing device – the image was the real driving force behind the campaign, the music was merely the background noise to the fad of long hair and English accents. Trouble was, the Beatles took their music seriously. The fans also started taking the music seriously and kept buying the records as the fad slowly turned into a revolution. All of this activity pushed sales of LP records into hitherto-unknown regions as baby boomers with disposable income cranked up the demand for long-haired singing groups.

“Meet the Beatles” came along at a time in the industry when sales units of 500,000 would certify a record for “Gold” status. This was the pinnacle of bragging rights I suppose. In reality, “Meet the Beatles” and other LPs did in fact sell beyond that number, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the status ceiling was raised to “Platinum” status – one million units sold. Now, supposedly the first record to qualify for this new status was this one:

That’s right – Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-gadda-da-Vida” was apparently the first record to be awarded for “Platinum” sales. Now, who knows if this distinction is as accurate as it claims to be? After all, I seem to remember how Slim Whitman sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles COMBINED, but hey……why should the Beatles run away with all the accomplishments? As far as I’m concerned I think it’s mighty cool that Iron Butterfly gets the nod for “first Platinum-selling act”. I’m especially pleased that, absurd as it sounds, I was able to see this edition of Iron Butterfly play live in a small club. Now, I’m not fortunate enough to be able to say “I officially don’t remember the sixties for all the cool reasons not to remember them.” Fact was, I wasn’t yet on the planet to experience the sixties. How did I get to see the “In-a-gadda-da-Vida”-era Iron Butterfly then? 1988. This year marked the 40th anniversary of Atlantic Records. A big blowout bash of a concert was planned to happen at Madison Square Garden that year and all the important acts that helped put the company on the map were invited to perform – including IRON BUTTERFLY! Well, they did sell over one million units, right?

Sad reality was – although different versions of Iron Butterfly came and went over time, the most famous version of the band hadn’t worked as a unit in nearly 20 years! To get in shape, those members got together and played some “warm up” gigs. I got to witness one of these at The Chance in Poughkeepsie. And, sad to say, the audience turnout was pitifully small, but brother did these guys ROCK! And they seemed so happy to be playing together again. Before the show proper, guitarist Erik Braunn came onstage alone and played a new song solo – I think he called it “Albatross”, I could be wrong. But he introduced the song as a comment about how old friendships can be healed and renewed over time…….y’know, that kind of thing. It sure was a heartfelt performance that remains with me today. An especially treasured memory since Erik Braunn passed away far too young back in the early 2000s.

Anyway, Iron Butterfly took the stage and blasted their way through “Are You Happy” – Doug Ingle looked utterly bemused at the small but enthusiastic group of neo-hippies jumping up and down in the pit area in front of the stage! I’ll also never forget the smell of the incense sticks the band stuck into the cracks of their gear onstage – it smelled like spicy peanut butter! I’ve never smelled anything like it before or since. Wild! The tunes came from the first three albums (my good friend Carl kept yelling for them to do “Shady Lady” from the Metamorphosis album, but they avoided stuff from that record – Erik Braunn wasn’t on it anyway…..oh well!). The “Iron Butterfly Theme” was a standout along with a full-length version of the seminal classic “In-a-gadda-da-Vida”.

As it happens, I never got to see them again. I never even saw footage of their performance at the Madison Square Garden show. Nor anything else of that reunion tour save for this brief clip I dug up on youtube. This is exactly what they looked like at the show I saw:
I can’t decide if having a 17-minute song as your band’s biggest hit is a blessing or a curse. Well, thank God they never stooped to doing a “disco” version, eh? But it’s pretty sad that the band never got even close to that kind of peak again despite some really solid records (although Erik Braunn left before the “Metamorphosis” album – that is one really ROCKIN’ record, man - well worth tracking down if you’re up for some deep-cut freedom rock vibage!). And, for the record – I really think Doug Ingle’s voice is sadly under-appreciated in rock history. Not even the big hit was his best vocal moment – the guy could really sing! And the band did push the boundaries of what a hit song could be. Maybe “Ina-gadda-da-Vida” became kind of a cliché, but I’d be proud to have made an extended piece of music into a runaway smash hit! That’s about as unlikely as the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s hit song “Take Five” being one of the most recognizable jazz compositions in spite of the fact that the song’s in an odd time-signature (5/4). Though I reckon having to replicate a 17-minute opus night after night could get, well, kinda tiresome to say the least.

“In-a-gadda-da-Vida” somehow resonated with the public in its time and has had the good fortune to be one of those “evergreen” songs that will always conjure up the emotions and sentiments of the era it came from. Even if the lyrics hadn’t been slurred – the real, non-inebriated lyrics were supposedly “In the garden of Eden….” – it would have qualified as a hippie classic. For the casual fan I’d also recommend the “Best Of” LP from 1971 as a teaser for some (but not all) of the better cuts off their main four Atlantic / Atco LPs. This thing, along with the “In-a-gadda-da-Vida” album, was kept in print well into the 1980s and shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Other groups, like YES, would come along and put long songs on a single LP side of a record, but none would reach the commercial peak that Iron Butterfly did in the summer of 1968. If The Beatles helped to push more LP records out to consumers in 1964, Iron Butterfly helped to push the boundaries of what a hit song could be – even something impossible to contain except on a whole side of a 33 and 1/3 LP record!

If you’re vinyl-ready and don’t yet have this classic album – I’d bet there are plenty of used copies floating around out in the shops for RECORD STORE DAY. In the meantime, here's a neat clip of Iron Butterfly from back in the day - enjoy!

1 comment: