In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: the improbable story of a 17-minute one-hit-wonder

Iron Butterfly circa 1970
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives)

If you're going to be a one-hit-wonder, then why not milk that one hit for a full seventeen minutes and five seconds? As indulgent as Iron Butterfly's psychedelic anthem may be, it turns out the length was more a matter of accumulation than intention.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was written as a slow country ballad, about one-and-a-half minutes long,” the band's drummer Ron Bushy told Psychedelic Baby in 2020.

At the time, in 1967, the band was living together in a house in Laurel Canyon, gigging around L.A. and opening shows for Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. One night, Bushy came home to find his bandmate Doug Ingle drinking Red Mountain wine and plunking out the tune on his Vox keyboard. “I asked him what he had done, while he was playing a slow ballad. It was hard to understand him because he was so drunk. So I wrote it down on a napkin exactly how it sounded phonetically to me - ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.' It was supposed to be 'In the Garden of Eden.'”

The band tossed the new song into their set list, and like a mutant seed, it began to expand and grow. 

“It got longer and longer, taking on a life of its own,” Bushy said. The song part of it is really only two verses, with a basic “come with me” love lyric (title aside, there is no real reference to Adam and Eve). But it became surrounded by a proto-metal bass riff, organ arpeggios that nodded to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a funereal chord interlude inspired by a Congolese Latin Mass, avant-garde scrapes and squeals, and a four-minute drum solo.

As the group's bassist Lee Dorman told music writer Craig Morrison, “We would take it a certain way and then we would have to rearrange it because we had all these solos. 'Well, let’s put this over here and over there.' And then finally, at seventeen minutes, we had to say, 'Let’s get out of this.'”

Despite the band's input, Ingle took sole credit for the composition. Dorman said, “The music should have been split four ways. In all reality, the band wrote that song, but in our naiveté, we just shined it on [Ingle] and so he gets all the loot. But everybody knows the truth, except him.”

Recorded live in one take with minimal overdubs at Ultrasonic Studio in New York with producer Jim Hilton, the song took up an entire side of the band's 1968 album, also called In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida. Incredibly, they managed to make a single edit for 45 rpm that trimmed it down to under three minutes, and that made it to #30 on the US chart.

Meanwhile, the newly launched FM radio format embraced the full-length version.

And one undeniable outgrowth of the song's vinyl-side length is that it paved the way for the next generation of prog bands like ELP, Pink Floyd and Yes to stretch out across the grooves.

In 1973, a group of L.A. session cats who called themselves The Incredible Bongo Band did a hi-fi brassy cover of the song. That record would have an unexpected future as a favourite of hip-hop artists to sample and rap over. Nas sampled it twice, on Thief's Theme and Hip-Hop Is Dead. Other covers were done by The Residents, Boney M and Slayer (whose version was on the soundtrack of the 1987 movie Less Than Zero). Even Tuvan throat-singing act Yat Kha had a go.

But more than the covers, it was a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, where Bart sneaks the song into a church hymnal, that introduced it to a whole new generation. Its appearance in a cartoon made sense, as In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida has always walked a line between hippy satire and overblown - if slightly menacing - rock. It's also appeared in other TV shows and movies such as The Wonder Years, Quantum Leap, American Horror Story and Ocean's Twelve.

And what of Iron Butterfly? They've been a band with a revolving door cast of players, to say the least. According to Wikipedia, there are over sixty former members, some with colourful names like Guy Babylon, Jimmy Rock and Starz Vanderlocket. They've broken up and reformed several times over the decades. 

Ingle has been out of the line-up since the '90s, but is presumably still living comfortably off the royalties of the song. Bushy stayed in the group right up until his death in 2021. So these days, Iron Butterfly is basically a no-original-member tribute band that keeps In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida alive at state fairs and nostalgia shows.

Asked about the song's longevity, Bushy told Melody Maker, “We came out with the right sound at the right time and a lot of people could relate to it. It was a kind of musical experience of life to us.”

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.