Friday, August 8, 2014

CD Review: Iron Butterfly Live 1967 & 1971

Iron Butterfly's Live At The Galaxy 1967
Iron Butterfly is both one of the most notorious and yet one of the most obscure of 1960s-era psychedelic acid-rock bands. Their name will live on in infamy merely on the reputation of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” the title track of the band’s second album. Released in 1968, shortly after the first wave of psychedelic influence had washed across the U.S. garage rock scene, the seventeen-minute mostly-instrumental jam anchors the band’s best-selling album and is so integrated into American pop culture that it even became a joke on The Simpsons.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida


It was immensely successful, though, the album eventually selling some 30 million copies worldwide, the song ubiquitous on classic rock radio. To drive my point home, however, what is the name of any one of the other five songs on the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida album? Yeah, I thought so…unless you’re a stone cold Butterfly fan (or maybe just stoned), that’s the only song you’ll ever know. The band was about more than just its most famous tune…not much more, but more than they’re often given credit for…and Iron Butterfly is often overlooked by classic rock fans and hardcore collectors of psychedelic music in favor of more obscure, less notorious bands from the era. Worse yet, they’re often dismissed as a one trick pony, and it’s quite an absurd trick at that. Thanks to the good folks at Purple Pyramid, the psychedelic-leaning imprint of Cleopatra Records, we now have three live albums with which to reconsider the Butterfly legacy.

Iron Butterfly was formed by singer, songwriter, and keyboard player Doug Ingle in 1966 in San Diego, the original band line-up also including guitarist Danny Weiss and a couple of guys that were replaced when the band moved a few hours north to Los Angeles. After running through a number of members, the “Summer of Love” line-up of Iron Butterfly solidified with Ingle, singer Darryl DeLoach, guitarist Weiss, bassist Jerry Penrod, and Ron Bushy on drums. It’s this version of the band that gigged steadily around L.A. and would record the band’s 1968 debut, Heavy.

Iron Butterfly's Live At The Galaxy 1967


Iron Butterfly’s Live At The Galaxy 1967 is a curious memento of the short-lived line-up that recorded the band’s debut album. Capturing a July 4th, 1967 performance at the notorious L.A. club, the track list features half-a-dozen songs that would be recorded later for Heavy, three that wouldn’t be waxed until two years later for their 1969 album Ball, and a handful that would never be heard from again. The sound quality of Live At The Galaxy 1967 is par for an audience bootleg; befitting the (relatively) primitive recording gear at the time, the performances are hollow and cavernous, rife with distortion, and often seemingly out of sync. Still, for this rare a performance, it’s tolerable overall, and even with the sonic drawbacks, what is striking is how “heavy” the songs actually are.

After roaring through the strident, instrumentally-busy “Real Fright,” which would re-surface on Ball, “Possession” is the first of the Heavy tracks. Opening with Ingle’s chiming organ and Bushy’s martial rhythms, Weiss embroiders his guitar on top of the almost-chanted vocal harmonies. It’s a gothic-sounding performance, with plenty of hallucinogenic overtones, dense and yet you can still pick out and admire the individual instrumental contributions amidst the swirls of sound. Of the other Heavy tracks, only “Iron Butterfly Theme” and “You Can’t Win” stand out; the former is a cacophonic instrumental that was definitely acid-inspired and noisy, pre-dating a similar chaotic art-rock trend by a decade. The latter is a riff-heavy rocker with some nice guitar playing and Ingle’s ever-present keyboards.

Some of the other tracks on Live At The Galaxy 1967 are much more interesting. “Lonely Boy,” which would be recorded later on Ball, suffers from probably the worse sound on the album, but it’s an affecting ballad with the slightest of melodies, featuring instrumentation that is more subtle than anything else on the album. Another Ball track, “Filled With Fear,” offers appropriately muted vocals, squawks of terrifying sound, scraps of wiry guitar, and Bushy’s deliberate, marching drumbeats. Of the “lost” tracks, “Evil Temptation” shows the most life, with livewire guitar licks that sound like broken shards of glass, up-tempo organ riffs, bombshell percussion, and an overall punkish intensity that rivals the Stooges.

Iron Butterfly's Live In Sweden 1971


Iron Butterfly's Live In Sweden 1971
After the recording of Heavy, the band fractured when three members left, leaving only Ingle and Bushy holding the bag. When informed by Atlantic Records that their debut album wouldn’t be released if there was no band to tour behind it, the pair recruited bassist Lee Dorman and guitarist Eric Brann, a 17-year-old musical prodigy. It was this line-up that recorded the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and Ball albums, representing the band’s commercial apex, the former LP selling millions of copies, the later certified Gold™ for a half-million in sales. When Brann left the band in 1969, he was replaced by a pair of talented guitarists – Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt and Mike Pinera, previously of one-hit-wonders Blues Image (“Ride Captain Ride”); this is the line-up that would record the band’s 1970 album Metamorphosis.  

Live In Sweden 1971 offers better sound quality than Live At The Galaxy 1967, not only because of the passage of four years and improved sound technology, but also because it was taped for a live radio broadcast rather than from the middle of the audience. The album consists, primarily, of two lengthy live tracks – the first, “Butterfly Bleu,” was drawn from Metamorphosis. While the song clocks in at slightly more than fourteen minutes on vinyl, on stage the band would extend that running time considerably with acid-drenched instrumentation; here on Live In Sweden 1971, the song runs better than twenty-three minutes. It’s everything you might expect from a psychedelic-rock band at the dawn of the 1970s – lengthy passages of squalid sound, raging guitars, steady drumbeats, and Ingle’s trademark keyboards buried in the mix. Although it’s an exhilarating ride the first time you take it, two or three listens later it just becomes tedious.

Which leaves us with “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The song was a consistent crowd-pleaser among stoned audiences worldwide; it’s performed here at half-again its original studio running time, beginning with Ingle’s throaty vocals and sepulchre organ riffs before dancing into a free-form jam. The addition of guitarists Pinera and Reinhardt, neither of whom played on the original studio recording, brings a new texture and sound to the song that had been missing before. Although Lee Dorman’s familiar and notorious walking bass line still holds down the bottom end, the two guitarists weave various interesting patterns throughout the song. Their skills add a dimension previously lacking to the song, one that holds up better after a few listens than does “Butterfly Bleu.”

Live In Sweden 1971 is topped off by a trio of rare 7” singles, including “Possession,” which was originally the B-side of “Don’t Look Down On Me,” and later released in 1970 as a single on its own. The song is more effective in this shorter, punchier studio version than the drawn-out live performance on Live At The Galaxy 1967. “Evil Temptation,” which was so killer on the aforementioned live disc, does not disappoint on the studio-derived 45 version, with stunning fretwork that veers into the exotic at times, crashing drumbeats, and a locomotive tempo that should have made the song a big hit; it’s a shame it wasn’t included on any later Butterfly albums, and rumors abound that this single version wasn’t even recorded by the band, but by studio musicians, although Butterfly would perform the song live. “Don’t Look Down On Me,” the band’s first single circa 1967, is a pre-Atlantic indie release by the Heavy line-up, the song itself displaying a subtle psych-pop touch, an engaging melody, and fine (if unspectacular) vocals by DeLoach.

Iron Butterfly's Live In Copenhagen 1971


Iron Butterfly's Live In Copenhagen 1971
Recorded on the final night of the band’s 1971 European tour, Live In Copenhagen 1971 is another hollow-sounding, bootleg-quality tape albeit with slightly more presence than its predecessor. Unrestricted by the demands of a radio broadcast like on the previous night in Sweden, the band rips and snorts through a lengthy set list that draws five of its seven songs from Metamorphosis. Although Pinera and Reinhardt were considered hired guns in the studio, by this time they had been fully integrated into the band, and their addition not only upped the quality of the musicianship, but also the band’s potential.

Sadly, that potential wasn’t always fulfilled, as shown by “Best Years of Our Life.” The bluesy number relies too heavily on Pinera’s vocals and ample six-string diddling and never evolves far beyond its mundane bar band construction. “Soldier In Our Town” is much more intriguing, a mid-tempo dirge that nevertheless offers more depth to the band’s individual performances; the song’s dark ambience is supported by a subtle percussive rhythm and jolts of electrifying guitar. Pinera takes front and center again on “Stone Believer,” a funky lil’ romp built on Ingle’s riffing organ and Bushy’s steady drumrolls. The band’s lone single from Metamorphosis was “Easy Rider (Let The Wind Pay The Way,” a turbo-charged rocker that benefits from the band’s increasingly harder rock sound. Aside from an infectious Asian-tinged riff, the song’s odd time changes and fractured fretwork show more imagination than most of the tracks from Metamorphosis.

The dreaded “Butterfly Bleu” is revisited once again, at virtually the same excruciating length as before, and while it may have been a highlight of the band’s live performances, it doesn’t translate well to disc. This version has slightly more depth to it than the previous night’s performance, albeit with worse sound. It wouldn’t be Iron Butterfly without “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” performed here with a raucous intro that shows the band shaking its collective groove thang to a vaguely Latin rhythm before roaring into the familiar church organ kicks in. This reading of the song seems a bit more energetic, the guitars more crushing, the banging of cymbals more frenetic, Ingle’s vocals deeper, spookier, and somber…sort of like late-night horror movie host Sir Cecil Creape singing an operatic aria.

The rarity factor of Live In Copenhagen 1971 is increased by the inclusion of “Goodbye Jam,” an almost eleven-minute jam with Tony Kaye and Bill Bruford of Yes. The then up-and-coming prog-rock legends were on the tour as the second opening band (the Top Ten chart successes of Butterfly’s previous two albums putting them in headlining position), and several members of Yes became friendly with their tourmates. The result is an invigorating, if cacophonous extended miasma of instrumentation that, while short on melody or even recognizable song structure, is nevertheless a heck of a lot of fun, featuring a lot of screaming guitars and screamed vocals, fluid rhythmic play, and explosive percussion.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line


Truth is, Iron Butterfly wasn’t a great band even on its best of days, and its earliest incarnations tended to be too seeped in psychedelia to make much of an impression. Doug Ingle was a monochrome vocalist at best, and an often unimaginative keyboardist in light of talents like Keith Emerson, Ken Hensley, and Jon Lord. Lyrics were an afterthought for most of the songs, which relied instead on riffs and amplification. Still, the band managed to put together a strange sort of magic on a handful of songs on which their reputation rests, an influential combination of psychedelic sounds, heavy instrumentation, and heavier ambiance that is both dated and alien at once. 

Live At The Galaxy 1967 (Grade: C+) is worthwhile mostly for its rarity and its avid reflection of the psychedelic culture of the era. Dave Thompson throws in some informative liner notes, and with packaging artwork that mimics the psychedelic era, it’s an album that Iron Butterfly’s small but loyal fan base will want to add to their collections. Live In Sweden 1971 (Grade: C) is, honestly, a bit of a chore. Although it features my favorite Iron Butterfly line-up, twenty-something minutes of “Butterfly Bleu” is more than any soul should have to bear. The addition of the rare 7” singles boosts the grade slightly. By contrast, Live In Copenhagen 1971 (Grade: B-) offers a much more fleshed out set of songs that take better advantage of the band’s talents, while the inclusion of the “Goodbye Jam” with Yes offers a rarity factor unshared by the other two albums. Both of the 1971 albums also include liner notes by Thompson with plenty of quotes from Ron Bushy.      

The first incarnation of Iron Butterfly would break up months after the shows represented by the two 1971 discs here. Pinera formed the short-lived Ramatam with former Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell before joining the equally ill-fated New Cactus Band before spending several years as part of Alice Cooper’s touring band. Reinhardt and Dorman would form psyche-prog outfit Captain Beyond before later re-joining a re-formed Iron Butterfly in 1977. Bushy originally put together a new Butterfly together in 1975 with guitarist Erik Brann, recording two final albums – Scorching Beauty and Sun and Steel – before hitting the nostalgia circuit, where they’d perform with a revolving door of past members and other musicians, including Doug Ingle, well into the new millennium. Regardless, the band’s legacy was sealed by “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida;” everything else was just icing on the cake…

Buy the albums from Amazon.com:

Iron Butterfly's Live At The Galaxy 1967
 
Iron Butterfly's Live In Sweden 1971
 
Iron Butterfly's Live in Copenhagen 1971

 

 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the informative CD reviews. I always enjoyed the "Metamorphosis" version of "Butterfly Bleu," but I'm not sure that I'd withstand an extra several minutes! The 1967 show would be an interesting historical document, despite the poor sound quality, but that's to be expected for that early of a recording. Interesting!

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