In September 1975 I staged a concert of The Butterfly Ball at the Albert Hall, London, and as far as possible gathered together as many of the performers as I could from the recording of the original album, which was released the previous year. The event was recorded and filmed by Tony Klinger and British Lion Films and the resulting movie is what is now being re-released in DVD format by a company called MusicVideoDistributors.
Those are the facts. Loath as I am to delve into the world of opinions, I am about to do so. I love the Butterfly Ball; the book is superb, Alan Aldridge’s illustrations and William Plomer’s verse are works of pure class and when, late 1973, I was (amazingly) offered the commission to write and record an album of music based on the book for a projected animated movie, I was determined to rise to the occasion and deliver something that would, at the very least, enhance their brilliance. It was a challenging and a very special project for me as a writer and producer and when it was released in 1974 it was, to my relief, very well received in various countries around Europe. However, it failed to ignite a broad interest in the UK and so the idea for staging a concert at the Albert Hall came about as a means of getting some attention for it in my home country.
I worked hard to make the concert a memorable experience and from the start it was a difficult venture; I had little or no help, no secretary, no assistants, no roadies, and had no say whatsoever in how it was to be lit or filmed – I concentrated on the music and left those things to people who knew better, so I thought. Ronnie James Dio, who had memorably taken a major role in the studio recording, was not able to be there but fortunately Twiggy, Ian Gillan and John Lawton signed on to sing those songs, the late great Vincent Price agreed to read the poems and so rehearsals went ahead, albeit chaotically, for about a week before the show date. Apart from being the conduit through which a year or so before I was afforded the opportunity (for which I am truly grateful) to write the Butterfly Ball, my erstwhile managers seemed unable to offer much help in the preparations for the concert. Bruce Payne, who up until then I had known only as DP’s agent, answered my call for help and arranged for Bob Adcock, at the time a Rainbow road manager, to help out at the last minute.
The actual night of the concert was lovely, all the artists on the stage gave superlative performances and I felt, and still feel, indebted to every single one of them.
Some months later, in 1976, I was informed that there was to be a premiere of the resulting movie at the Odeon cinema in Chelsea, London. Since at the time I was in the studio producing Judas Priest I declined the offer initially but was eventually persuaded to attend, the Priest allowing me a night off, good lads that they were. A limousine picked me up at Wessex Studios and I was delivered to the Odeon, met on a red carpet by the manager of the cinema and various other dignitaries, and ushered in with a suitable degree of pomp. Most of the performers were there, along with most of their relatives (and mine) and after a glass of wine or two and some mingling we all settled down to watch the movie, my wife Judi and I being shown to especially plush and centrally located seats so that all would know that we were the guests of honour. The lights dimmed and the film commenced. I had no preconceptions about what it was going to be like but as it progressed I sat there cringing with embarrassment at the spectacle before me. The music was OK but the camera work, the lighting, the editing, and above all the inserts – either pseudo ballet dancers seemingly practicing their moves or people dressed as animals crawling or waddling around some desultory looking countryside – left me with a strong urge to run away and hide. About half way through, as I sank further down in my throne of a seat, I whispered to Judi that I was thinking about walking out, but I suppose I’m too nice a person to do something like that. Still, I wish I had. Afterwards, damned by faint praise, I endured the lukewarm congratulations of my presumably equally embarrassed friends with far too many comments like, “That was …er, interesting,” as people sloped off to salvage what was left of their Chelsea evening, leaving me to… well, cry angry tears on the long, silent journey back home.
That was then. Now it is 2006 and I watched the DVD today, shutting out the sunny Saturday afternoon, shutting out those memories, and attempting to be open minded. My first impression was not good; as I opened the box, I found the DVD plastered with a huge photograph of Glenn Hughes (who also features on the box’s spine). Huh? Ah, now I get it; some dolt in the art department (if there is such a department) was informed that this was the work of Deep Purple’s bass player. Now I have nothing against Glenn, he’s a fine bloke, but… this was not a good omen. There is also no information or booklet explaining or putting the contents into perspective.
For the next couple of hours I went through several emotions. The movie was every bit as bad as I remembered and worse; having watched it only twice before – the first time being at the aforementioned premiere and the second time some years later, surfing through a video which someone had thoughtfully donated – I was now noticing the shoddy synchronization between the soundtrack and the visuals, the awful camera work, the insufficient lighting, the ‘acting’ of the performers in the dreaded inserts, which I’m sure would have been rejected by even the worst silent movie director, it’s all so ridiculously ham.
What can I say that is positive? Maybe Tony Klinger was faced with a cheaply shot live movie and felt the need to liven it up with something extra? To be fair, all those people who took part in the cameo sequences probably tried their best with what they were given; not all the dancing was so inept. Maybe the inclusion of the war footage (Vietnam?) was seen as a bold move intended to inject some provocation into what could be seen as an overly happy event? Maybe someone who thought they were being avant-garde did the editing? Maybe the budget was prohibitive? Who knows? The sound is not bad for a live performance, a little muddy perhaps, but since I was probably in the studio when that was mixed, I can only blame myself (you can only work with what you’ve got!).
What I did see that made me smile were the performances of the musicians and singers, all of whom put their best into it and gave such life to the songs. In keeping with the musical climate of the time we stretched some of the songs almost to breaking point with extended jams. I was touched at the camaraderie, the nervous smiles, the spontaneity, and the genuine good vibes coming from the packed Albert Hall. Oh, but I was looking at an event that touched my heart over thirty years ago and here it was touched again today. I found myself with a tear in my eye for times past, when possible futures were yet to be, and dreams were fresh. One of dreams was surely that this event be documented in a far better way than this.
Finally the credits rolled (rather shakily) and I was amazed to see that not only was there no mention of my name (although, to be fair I do get one in the opening credits) but inexplicably the only musicians that do get their dues are Jon Lord and Eddie Jobson, along with “Fancy”. I mean, great as they undoubtedly are, why single them out and ignore the rest? For a live concert recording I would have thought that a full list of all the performers would have been mandatory. It was a revelation to see Jon Lord, Tony Ashton, David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Ian Gillan, John Gustafson, Eddie Jobson, John Lawton, Eddie Hardin and myself all on the same stage on the same night – quite a feat, even for those days. Making it all work was the impeccable professionalism and superb musicianship of Fancy – Mo Foster on bass, Ray Fenwick on guitar and Les Binks on drums – along with Chris Karan and Mark Nauseef on percussion. Mickey Lee Soule (looking impossibly young and handsome), Earl Jordan, Al Matthews, Neil Lancaster (whose performance of Harlequin Hare was sadly not used), Helen Chapelle, Liza Strike, Barry St.John and my then wife Judi Kuhl, all put in sterling performances. And last but by no means least, the really well known stars that saved the day, Vincent Price and Twiggy. Both were professional to the core and equally nice with it. The nameless members of the orchestra and choir, conducted by the unbelievably unflappable Del Newman, all deserve but don’t get a place above the caterers, drivers, etc. who do get a name check. (Talking of name checks, it would have been appropriate, since this project has no doubt been sanctioned by DP’s old management, to spell Jon Lord’s name correctly on the packaging!)
The movie thankfully never received a wide release and mercifully seemed to fade away. Well, it’s back! From time to time I have ventured my negative feelings about it to anyone who would listen and I’m sorry (or possibly relieved) to say that those feelings of disappointment and wasted opportunity have not changed. It’s possible, if not likely, that this DVD is merely a catalog item of little or no importance in the scheme of things and therefore no effort was put into it – and I shouldn’t be complaining. Should you feel the need to investigate further then do so, but don’t expect me to be happy about it. And have some alcohol handy.
The Butterfly Ball album is something that I am very proud of, and the concert was undoubtedly one of the best nights of my life, but the movie does it no justice. One day, and I hope I live long enough to see it; there will be a proper movie. I believe it has a future. I can imagine how one of the big digital animators would deliver it – the marvelous illustrations coming to mind-boggling life – the music updated and clear – and a more coherent storyline that could entrance all ages. It could also be a Broadway-type musical along the lines of The Lion King or Cats… all it would take is lots of money. So, if there’s anyone out there who has a large disposable fortune and a few thousand employees willing to work for a few years, then please get in touch. I would love that.
Connecticut, 11 March 2006
PS: Incidentally, I am not suggesting that anyone refrain from buying the DVD. This is only an opinion and people are free to reach their own conclusions.