POP MUSIC : Iron Butterfly’s Turbulent Flight

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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 . --From “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida,” Iron Butterfly’s 1968 hit

Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” stands today as one of the classic pieces of late-’60s kitsch, evoking images of patchouli oil, love beads and liquid light shows.

But in 1968 the song--all 17-plus minutes, including the renowned drum solo--was nothing short of a pop monument. With its air of mystery and its ominous riff, it was the song of the moment, catching the attention of the counter-culture “underground” market.

Success, however, was hardly limited to the underground.

Thanks to a three-minute version edited by a Detroit disc jockey, the song became a Top 40 radio hit as well. That exposure helped the “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” album--which spent 2 1/2 years on the national sales chart--surpass LPs by such groups as Cream and Sonny & Cher to become the top seller for Atlantic Records up to that time.


Worldwide album sales by Iron Butterfly: approximately 20 million.

“It seemed that every college student had a copy of this record in his room,” Atlantic founder and chairman Ahmet Ertegun recalled in a recent telephone interview. “It became a youth anthem, a phenomenon, which happens from time to time in our business.”

Though the song is seen by many today as a caricature of ‘60s psychedelia, it has remained strong in the pop consciousness for 20 years.

In recent years it has turned up in the climactic scene of the movie thriller “Manhunter” and in many new versions, including a speed-metal interpretation by Slayer from the “Less Than Zero” movie score.

There’s even an Orange County-based fan club that publishes a quarterly fanzine called Unconscious Power, named for one of the group’s early songs.

But what about the group that created this icon?

The real original members of Iron Butterfly have reunited and have played a few dates, testing the memories of their longtime fans and trying to make new ones.

In its heyday, Iron Butterfly was at the top of the pop pile. The band was a massive concert draw, headlining such key rock venues as the Hollywood Bowl and New York’s famed Fillmore East (where Led Zeppelin was its opening act).


But Iron Butterfly’s flight was a short one. What happened?

“Who knows?” said Ertegun. “I think they were a very talented group. . . . I guess the general taste moved away from that sort of music.”

As early as 1969, a cycle of lineup changes and abortive comeback attempts clipped the wings of Iron Butterfly. By the late ‘70s, the only market open to the band was the nostalgia circuit.

Then an East Coast concert promoter “licensed” the name and recruited other musicians. He put as many as five different Iron Butterflys--none with an original member--on the road at one time.

It was the nadir of the process through which the band’s name was devalued to near-joke status, and something from which the band’s legitimate members have yet to recover.

Still, there’s not just talk of what-ifs but high hopes that it can once again take a place in the rock pantheon.

“Nobody gave us a chance in hell of making it (in the ‘60s),” said guitarist Erik Braunn, 37. “But we did reach superstardom status as an underground band. Nobody did that back then. If we had racked up six or seven albums of that same success, maybe it would have been another story. If we had been treated like we were capable of it by management and the record companies, maybe we could have.”


Braunn, who grew up in Los Angeles, was just 16 when he joined Iron Butterfly in 1967. The band, which originated in San Diego before emerging on the burgeoning Sunset Strip scene, had recorded an album called “Heavy” for Atlantic but had broken up shortly after. With that album’s unexpected success, the group found itself with contract offers, and founding keyboardist/singer Doug Ingle and drummer Ron Bushy recruited a new version of the group with Braunn (then going by the name of Brann) and bassist Lee Dorman.

Braunn, a violin prodigy, had worked as a teen-ager with producer Lenny Waronker (now the president of Warner Bros. Records). But Iron Butterfly was his first real professional rock band experience, and he was not prepared for the pace.

“We were working 365 days a year,” recalled the still youthful-looking guitarist during a break in a recent rehearsal at a San Fernando Valley studio. “My first vacation I bought a car--a Jaguar--and parked it outside the hospital where I spent two weeks for ulcers and gastroenteritis.”

But it wasn’t just Braunn who suffered exhaustion. Bushy, 46, said, “I remember after we recorded ‘Ball’ (the 1969 follow-up to “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”), I went to Miami and checked into a hotel and didn’t leave my room for a week.”

“We were like walking and talking mannequins,” added Ingle, 42.

And while Iron Butterfly found itself increasingly trapped in its own manic pace, it seemed the rest of the world soon was passing it by.

“When Led Zeppelin opened for us at the Fillmore and in Toronto the next night, it was the first time I’d seen anyone doing us in with our own game,” Braunn said. “It really shocked me. Here I am, 17 or 18 years old, and you’ve got that young pride.”


So Braunn, burned out and uncomfortable with what he saw as the band’s move away from its trademark heavy sound, left to pursue his own projects.

The rest of the band carried on, signing up singer/guitarist Mike Pinera, formerly of the band Blues Image (“Ride Captain Ride,” a No. 4 hit in 1970) and guitarist Larry (Rhino) Reinhardt, an old friend of Dorman’s and a veteran of several Florida bands, including one with the Allman brothers. That lineup recorded a new album, “Metamorphosis,” and went on tour but found itself already caught between progress and nostalgia.

“I remember the first time we went out in concert,” said Reinhardt, who now manages a recording studio in Van Nuys. “It was the first of the year in 1970 at the Philadelphia Spectrum. It was sold out and we were on a revolving stage, and every time the thing would turn around it would be, ‘Where’s Erik?’

Though Iron Butterfly continued to have some moments of glory--particularly in Europe, where the name remained strong through the ‘70s--its time had clearly passed.

In 1972 Dorman and Reinhardt left to form Captain Beyond, which recorded three albums for Capricorn Records and scored something of an FM hit with the song “Sufficiently Breathless.” Braunn and Bushy, who live in the San Fernando Valley, put together a new version of Iron Butterfly in 1974, recording two albums for MCA without commercial success.

Bushy went on to run a rehearsal studio and work as a representative for a couple of power tool companies, Braunn delved into studies of music and philosophy. Dorman, a Laguna Beach resident, led boat cruises off Southern California and took a job as a bar manager.


Just a few years after glory, Iron Butterfly was relegated to “one-hit wonder” and the “where are they now?” files.

Then in 1978 it became clear just how far the band’s reputation had fallen.

“Ron called me from Lancaster one day,” recalled the San Diego-based Ingle. “He said that he’d seen a poster saying that the original Iron Butterfly was going to be performing. Well, we went out there--we’d never had the opportunity to see the original group.

“So we went out to the club in the afternoon and Ron went in an asked to meet the drummer,” he continued. “And the guy comes out and Ron says, ‘What’s your name?’ And the guy says, ‘Ron.’ ‘What’s your last name?’ ‘Bushy.’ And Ron goes, ‘What a coincidence. I’ve got the same name.’ ”

According to the real Butterfly members, a licensing agreement they had with promoter Steve Green allowed him to book shows for the band as long as at least one original member was in the lineup. But Green had several groups--each billed as the “original” Iron Butterfly--working around the country, said several members of the band.

Tony Grafasi, who is now Iron Butterfly’s New York-based agent, described Green’s set-up as a “boiler-room-type” operation.

“I worked for Green’s office for about six weeks,” he said. “I booked a tour for Sam & Dave and then found out that Green had every other agent in the office booking tours for Sam & Dave.”


In 1982 Green and two associates were convicted of wire fraud for phony bookings relating to the false use of those and other names. Green was sentenced by a federal judge in South Carolina to three years in prison. (Attempts by The Times to locate Green were unsuccessful.)

But by the time Green was put out of operation, heavy damage had been inflicted on the real Iron Butterfly members.

The one positive thing the Green incident did for Iron Butterfly was give it a mission: to clear its name.

Several attempts to revive the act in the first half of this decade failed to generate much interest.

Spurred by the invitation to participate in Atlantic’s 40th anniversary festivities this weekend in New York, the four original members decided to test the waters last December. West contacted clubs around the country and found that there was a healthy market for the real original Iron Butterfly.

After a few warm-up shows, the band hit the road for several short tours, including a show here at the John Anson Ford Theatre in April. At these the band found a surprisingly varied audience that responded to their selection of material from the first three Butterfly albums.

But what about today’s music? Both Braunn and Ingle have new material they are anxious to try out, either with the group or on their own.


For now, Iron Butterfly wants to make sure people remember the old songs and share some of the lessons of life learned over 20 tempestuous years.

“The important thing I’d really like to stress,” said Braunn, “is that having come through the other end of the tunnel, I’ve learned that I am responsible for my own life and what I do with it. The tendency over the years has been to blame others for the circumstances of my life. Disraeli said men are not the creation of circumstances, circumstances are the creation of men.”