On July 20, 1968, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” became the first heavy metal song to chart. The weirdly ominous, organ-drenched tune debuted at No. 117. But that would only be the beginning. The song stayed on the charts for one year, and reached as high as No. 4.
Almost 50 years later, rock fans could busy themselves parsing what makes the song so likeable. There are a number of aspects of the song that make it groundbreaking. Further, the cultural context in general, and evolutions in hard rock made the development of heavy metal a natural phenomenon. And, for most people, it is just a really good song.
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly
In retrospect, it is natural to have questions about this song. It breaks all the rules. It is long – -at its full length, it is 17 minutes and two or three seconds long. That is several times over the standard rock ‘n’ roll formula of three and a half minutes.
The title is not “catchy.” People don’t remember the song because it is fun to say, or that it rolls off the tongue. People’s tongues tumble over the title. But because it is worth talking about, they find reason to say it, anyway.
The song is from the album of the same name. It took up all of one side in its original album form.
About that title: It’s not Latin. It is rumored to be drunken American English. Tbo.com, and others relate a story about an intoxicated Doug Ingle (then-Iron Butterfly’s lead singer) attempting to say “In the Garden of Eden.” The result was written down like the now-famous title of the song, and rock ‘n’ roll history was made.
Note: Google translate detects the title as English.
Iron Butterfly and late 1960s musical context
In 1968, a number of cultural shifts were taking place. There was the Vietnam War, protests, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the rock musical, “Hair.”
It was as though the struggles of the age called for heavier music. All of a sudden, heavy metal was unleashed on a (mostly) unsuspecting audience. What people probably weren’t expecting was that a song that would come to be known as the first heavy metal song to chart would feature an organ, and be performed by a band with “butterfly” in its title.
One listen to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” proves that the song is heavy metal. For people who understand that heavy metal is a sound, not just a look, Iron Butterfly’s grinding organ, thumping drums and intricate but heavy bass and guitar work, carve a path for the genre as audiences know it.
Iron Butterfly ignores the standards of time
What can’t be ignored is the length of this song. To create an analogy with literature, if popular songs are supposed to be the length of “The Old Man and the Sea,” then, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is roughly “War and Peace.”
Yes, there are longer songs (“2112 Overture,” for example), but there are not many songs that as a single song, are longer. At least not ones that have, or currently receive regular airplay.
To make the song more radio-friendly, it was cut down to about two minutes and 52 seconds. Which, when a person goes to the black-and-white video version, that does not seem a normal place to stop. The organ part is just winding up for something bigger.
Once, a radio station in Fort Wayne, Indiana actually played nine or so minutes of the song. Still, audiences are missing out if they do not hear the whole thing. There is a shift around the 12-minute mark that features a menacing groove played with just bass and drums. It isn’t to be missed.
Iron Butterfly: after “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” sold 30 million copies. Even today, the black-and-white video of the song’s performance has garnered 150,000 positive votes, and 23 million views.
Unfortunately, Iron Butterfly like a lot of bands, suffered a number of personnel changes just before and after the release of their most famous song. Two members have passed away, but as late as 2014, there was still talk of the band in one form or another, getting back together. Iron Butterfly has not recorded new music since 1975.