DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. In pop music the term one hit wonder is a mild put down, suggesting that a performer made only one good tune. Music critic Milo Miles believes that in the case of the 1960s psychedelic rockers Iron Butterfly, their big hit "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was not a typical song of theirs, yet it's come to obscure everything else about the group.
Milo says a previously unreleased vintage concert recording should help Iron Butterfly leave a clearer legacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU HAPPY")
IRON BUTTERFLY: (Singing) I met a pretty girl on a date last night. And let me tell you, god, she was groovy. Oh, and I kissed the pretty girl and I held her tight. Let me tell you now she was groovy. And now no matter what I try to do, my mind's drifting back to you. Are you happy?
MILO MILES: Before Led Zeppelin, there was Iron Butterfly, these days a very misremembered band from Los Angeles. Maybe it was the movie industry all around, but '60s garage rock in L.A. had an expansive, almost cinematic streak. Iron Butterfly were not the most inventive band on that scene, but they became the most famous because of a single, durable, out-of-nowhere hit, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
The song was 17 minutes long, and the proper thing to do on underground radio stations was to play the whole thing. You've probably heard it bump and rumble in the background sometime, even if you didn't know the name of the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA")
BUTTERFLY: (Singing) All right now. In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey. Don't you know that I love you? In-a-gadda-da-vida, baby, don't you know that I'll always be true? Oh, won't you come with me? And take my hand. Oh, won't you come with me and walk this land? Please take my hand.
MILES: "In-A-Gadda-Da Vida" is both Iron Butterfly's monument and its prison. But a new release called "Fillmore East 1968" covers two shows from April of that year and provides the best chance in decades for a fresh look at the band. The album offers fascinating reminders of what the rock 'n' roll marketplace was like almost 45 years ago.
For one thing, every band - especially those just signed to a major label, like Iron Butterfly - were expected to come up with a snappy tune that might get played on Top 40 radio. "So-Lo" seems to be Iron Butterfly's not-wonderful attempt at a pop hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "SO LO")
BUTTERFLY: (Singing) Have you heard about the word that's going around? Have you heard about the girl who put me down? She became aware of the fact that I was running round, and consequently my behavior put me down.
MILES: Even if you make allowances for hippie-dazed lyrics, no one can deny that the serious snag with Iron Butterfly is the feeble vocals. Singer, songwriter and keyboardist Doug Ingle, with his thin tone and melodramatic warbles, can be very hard to take.
Another crippling problem was that Iron Butterfly were not a seasoned band. The original lineup fell apart after the debut album was recorded in 1967. The membership on "Fillmore East 1968" - Ingle, bassist Lee Dorman, guitarist Erik Brann and drummer Ron Bushy - did not last long after the second studio album, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," and the hit single. The group itself was gone by 1971.
Too bad, really. They had a knack for adventurous, experimental rock sounds. All the sets on "Fillmore East 1968" end with the instrumental "Iron Butterfly Theme," which is clearly an example of heavy rock done years before Black Sabbath.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IRON BUTTERFLY THEME")
MILES: Partly because "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is easy to satirize, it was blamed for popularizing very bad trends like overly long, rambling jams, tedious drum solos and grandiose rock in general. But the uncluttered, straightforward versions on "Fillmore East 1968" give the epic tune a worthy second hearing.
BUTTERFLY: If all the arty blowouts that came in its wake were as cleverly constructed as "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," it might be no more dated and as fondly remembered as, say, Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." And you know, I'm charmed that these performances confirm Doug Ingle was a romantic softie and not a macho growler more typical of the era.
MILES: Nostalgic fans should pick up the new live set and the curious should try to hear a sample. Iron Butterfly were not just a joke.
DAVIES: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Iron Butterfly "Fillmore East 1968" on the Rhino Handmade label. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.