One of the reasons I began collecting records, as with most of my hobbies, is to connect with history, especially the history of my youth. When I was in the 8th grade, that’s age 13 for those who may not be able to make the correlation with American grade levels, one of the most-played songs was Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” At over 17 minutes long, we would find simple adolescent joy if we could find a girl silly enough to dance through the entire title track with us. Ah, the pleasures of youth.
I will be 60 years old in six short weeks, and I take great pride that as I’ve gotten older my musicals tastes have expanded not shrunk. I am able to embrace all kinds of music I would have rejected even fifteen years ago. Funk and soul, country and western are all genres I dismissed and now I am really interested in listening-as long as I don’t have to pay a lot of money for the privilege.
I’ve gone the other direction with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Though Allmusic.com considers it the epitome of 60’s acid rock, I consider it, along with various excursions into organ craziness by Keith Emerson, the nadir of wretched excess. In all of its 17 minutes of acid-soaked rambling and rumbling there isn’t one minute of interest.
Listen to the song. This is a very pedestrian sounding band. Lyrically, the song is pretty banal. It goes along with the five songs on Side A. For a cutting edge band from 1968, these guys don’t have much interesting to say.
Musically there’s not much happening either. It’s got a nice fuzz-tone, drone-y sounding hook that stands out, especially for 1968 AM radio. Everybody solos. For a long time. The length of many songs–say two and a half minutes–is the length of these solos.
In the movie Bull Durham, catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) tells phenom pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) not to try to strike everybody out:
Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls-it’s more democratic
The grandiose rock and roll solo is the fascist counterpart of Nuke’s strikeout. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for a great solo, but the older I get the less patient I am with extended jams that seem to have not purpose and don’t further the song. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there isn’t any place for jams or solos, but aside from organist Doug Ingle’s church-soaked interludes, these guys don’t have anything interesting to say. The guitar is kind of bombastic and noisy. The drum solo keeps time, but beyond that . . . really? For two and half minutes? Gah!
I mean, get real here. What do we take away from this record? Why is it so damn popular–even among my students who were born 30+ years after its release, what is its attraction? It made the world safe for longer compositions? Like the Allman Brothers “Mountain Jam,” which is real improvisation light-years better in quality? It is the father of heavy metal music? I guess we all have ugly ancestors. If I were in Black Sabbath and looked back at Iron Butterfly as a relative I’d cringe.
The In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida single was only 2:52 and climbed into the Billboard Top 30. Seems about right as an artifact of pretty garage-y, pedestrian music. The In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida album with all 17 minutes of fun (the entire album side B,) whipped cream, nuts, and cherry sold four million copies, in its first year and nearly thirty million copies to date. It is one of the best selling albums of all time.
On Monday I stopped at the South Hill Goodwill that never has anything. They had interesting vinyl! Two Moody Blues records, an early REO Speedwagon album and, wait for it, a copy of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. I took it home, cleaned it up and lo and behold, it played through with a minimum of noise, added it to my Discogs collection Sigh. Artifacts are artifacts.