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A Reunited Iron Butterfly Hopes to Fly High Again

January 12, 1988|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — Iron Butterfly's "low-browed, jutting-jawed sound conjured up visions of steamer trunks being dropped down several flights of stairs ."

--Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia

Time has not been kind to Iron Butterfly.

Nearly two decades after it began a brief flight to fame and fortune in the late 1960s as the Palace Pages, a San Diego nightclub band, Iron Butterfly is contemptuously discounted by critics as a laughable example of musical crudity and excess.

In particular, Iron Butterfly's bombastic chart-topping anthem, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," is looked back on as nothing more than a 20-minute musical joke whose punch line is that acid-rock and heavy metal simply don't mix.

So what is lead guitarist Erik Braunn doing, comparing Iron Butterfly to progressive-rock giant Pink Floyd and countering his band's infamy with a quote from Goethe: "Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward--they may be beaten, but they can start a winning game"?

It's all part of his attempt to justify the fact that the four peak-period members of Iron Butterfly--Braunn, singer-keyboardist Doug Ingle, drummer Ron Bushy and bassist Lee Dorman--are getting together for a reunion tour and perhaps an album or two.

"We've never gotten the respect, or the acknowledgment, that we deserve," Braunn said from his Encino home. "When we started, we were considered a heavy band that was artistically daring, that was doing things that had never been done before.

He claims that the band was the first rock group to use African rhythms, the first rock group to prominently feature feedback, and the first rock group to have an entire album side become a hit single.

"Our sound paved the way for all the heavy metal bands that are popular today," he said. One band, Slayer, is on the charts right now with a remake of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.'

"Yet our records rarely get played, and most people regard us as a joke. So to prevent us from being forgotten entirely, we decided to refresh some memories of what we were all about."

Braunn attributes Iron Butterfly's tarnished legacy to the fact that the band was too successful in too short a time.

After leaving San Diego in 1967 and moving to Los Angeles, the group released its first album, "Heavy," on Atco Records.

The record, filled with rambunctious instrumental assaults, soon became a favorite with progressive-rock listeners and a staple on underground FM radio stations.

A year later, however, Iron Butterfly's follow-up, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," unexpectedly catapulted into the national Top 10, stayed there for 81 weeks, and sold more than a million copies--among the first rock albums in history to do so.

Almost overnight, Braunn recalled, the group's status as progressive-rock champions was under fire amid charges that they had "sold out."

"Had we not become so successful so soon, we never would have been attacked," Braunn said. "Musically, we didn't change that much--we didn't copy anyone, and we continued to pride ourselves on our originality.

"But as soon as we had a hit, our reputation began to suffer. The same people who had loved our first album hated our second, even though there wasn't much of a difference."

Before long, Braunn said, Iron Butterfly had alienated everyone. The band's early chart success undermined its legitimacy in progressive-rock circles, while later albums were considered too "heavy" for commercial airplay.

Braunn left Iron Butterfly in 1969, two years before the band broke up. Since then, various members of Iron Butterfly have tried to resurrect the band on their own, with little success, but together, Braunn said, "there's at least a chance."

"The whole thing started with a letter from Atlantic Records (of which Atco Records, Iron Butterfly's old label, is a subsidiary), asking us to play at their 40th anniversary party next April," Braunn said.

"So I called a meeting and all four of us agreed to lay aside our past differences and, together, go on to something new. There was a real sense of alacrity, and before we knew it, we were rehearsing and writing new songs."

The reunited Iron Butterfly made its first concert appearance last month in Los Angeles, and plans are being laid for a nationwide tour. Negotiations are under way for a homecoming performance in San Diego in February or March at the Bacchanal.

Braunn said the next step is to get a new record deal "and artistically fit into the slot we created 20 years ago."

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