Review: The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast

Roger Glover and Friends

The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (box set)

(Purple Records/Cherry Red)

Hindsight probably shivers at the audacity of it all, but there was a period, on either side of the mid-1970s, when everyone wanted to make a concept album. What the Pretty Things wrought and the Who then rendered; from the Kinks and Genesis to Fairport and  Bowie, the idea that a story could be set to song clung to rock’s rafters like whatever batty analogy you care to make.

Within this, however, there lurked a conceptual sub-genre that spread the joy even wider – the all-star aggregation which hauled the superstars of sessionman land into a spotlight which promised the world.  There might be a stageshow!  There could be a movie!!  And, if all that fails, there’s always witness protection.

Oh there were some horrors.

There was the folk rock opera, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which sadly was neither as kingly or elvish as it should have been.  

There was the sci-fi rock opera, Flash Fearless Versus The Zorg Women Parts 5 & 6, which roped the likes of Alice Cooper, Jim Dandy and Maggie Prior into its hopelessly ill-conceived clutches.  

There was the documentary rock opera, All This and World War Two, an all-star Beatles tribute album which marked Peter Gabriel’s first post-Genesis project (alongside a wealth of others, who also should have known better), and did spawn a celluloid sibling.  But even Bryan Ferry crooning “She’s Leaving Home,” and Rod Stewart’s hit version of “Get Back” couldn’t help it.

There was the classical prog rock opera, Peter and the Wolf, which recruited Eno, Gary Moore, Keith and Julie Tippett, Manfred Mann and Cozy Powell into its grisly noodle soup.

There was the classic novel rock opera, as Jeff Wayne adapted War of the Worlds for Justin Hayward, David Essex and Richard Burton – and that one did make it out of the dumper, with anniversary tours, a box set full of out-takes, and as we speak, a whole new incarnation is preparing to hit the road this fall.  It’s still ghastly, but at least it had legs.  And a really good booklet.

And there was this, Roger Glover and a host of friends and relatives, gathered to tell the tale of… well, the title rather gives it away, but in case you weren’t paying attention back there, it’s a musical adaptation of illustrator Alan Aldridge and poet William Plomer’s The Butterfly Ball & The Grasshopper’s Feast, a delightful tale that combined semi-psychedelic intent and art into one of the most enduring childrens’ books of the age.

Glover was still (but not for much longer) a member of Deep Purple when he was first offered the Butterfly Ball project – apparently, Pink Floyd had already turned it down, and one simply cannot imagine why.  

Glover, too, was was a little puzzled as to how he came to be chosen.  “Being the bass player of a hard rock band, it… was very odd.”

Still, an admirer of Aldridge’s work himself, Glover agreed and was immediately given a list of albums that he needed to listen to, if he was to capture the moods that the artist intended.  Spin Cycle is uncertain whether he’s ever actually told us what albums they were, but maybe that doesn’t matter.  For the end result surely transcends them all.

Devouring the book and discussing its characters with Aldridge, Glover started songwriting with no set notions whatsoever of who would actually voice the characters.  Only as songs were completed did he mull over the possibilities – Ronnie James Dio was involved virtually from the outset, while Glover also contacted Ian Gillan to ask if he’d be interested in appearing.  He wasn’t, but wound up playing a part regardless.  He co-owned the studio where it was recorded.

Purple’s own new arrivals David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes joined in.  Dio’s Elf bandmate Mickey Lee Soule came aboard, not only contributing some magnificent keyboards, but also co-writing (with Dio and Glover) two of the songs, “Harlequin Hare” and “Together Again.”  Tony Ashton, soul singer Jimmy Helms, Roxy Music’s Eddie Jobson, former (and future) Peter Green collaborator Nigel Watson, Eddie Hardin, Quatermass’ John Gustafson and keyboard player Mike Moran were all drawn into the web, while Ray Fenwick introduced the rhythm section of Les Binks and Mo Foster – his partners in Fancy, a band that was currently riding high on the American chart with a deeply squelchy and seductively groaned rendition of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” 

And, after all, that, says Glover, “when I finished it, I didn’t like it.  I always see the flaws.  I put six months work into it, and we had a party for the finished product.  But I’d been working forty-eight hours straight, no sleep, to finish, so I was rather stressed.  And all the people were there, all the artists and musicians who sang and played on it, the publishers, the record company.  It was all at my house, it was catered, it was a big huge celebration and I was so upset!  We played the stuff, and everyone was ‘oh that sounds great, Rog,’ and I just went to my room and burst into tears.”

He would recant, but Butterfly Ball was never as universally huge as it ought to have been.  A projected animated movie version never came to pass – only one piece of footage ever made it out into the public, a short clip that accompanied “Love Is All” that became a regular sight on Saturday morning children’s’ TV.  

But there was a live performance in November, 1975, and now there’s a box set, three discs (or maybe two-and-a-half) that serve up the full album, nine demos and alternate mixes, a 1974 radio special and the three song “Love is All” EP that went to number one in the Netherlands, and granted Ronnie Dio his first ever gold disc.

It’s very much a child of its time, at the same time as positively refusing to recognize its creator’s reputation.  Indeed, one still recalls the wails of dismay from large segments of the Deep Purple fan club as Glenn Hughes declared “Get Ready,” David Coverdale peeked “Behind the Smile,” and Dio… who would soon be forming Rainbow with Ritchie Blackmore… took the role of a singing frog.  

Time, however, erases both misapprehension and expectation, while never camouflaging the sheer reputation-whipping madness of it all.  Maybe the title “Watch Out for the Bat” does sound like something Dio might have performed with Black Sabbath (although he didn’t).  But “Old Blind Mole” (“he don’t need gasoline or coal”) is a long way from “When a Blind Man Cries,” and “Dreams of St Bedivere” is not a Blackmore’s Night album title.   

Rather, Butterfly Ball is sweetly good natured, pop-toned and tuneful, a riot of jolly melodies and singalong words… yes, it’s twee if you want to be cynical, but it’s hard to feel negative about something that is so utterly, foolishly, joyful as this.

It truly deserves its revival.

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