“The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast”: Remembering Dio’s psychedelic children’s song “Love is All”

By on July 10, 2015

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Ronnie James Dio — he was born Ronald James Padavona on July 10, 1942, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and died on May 16, 2010 — and we think it’s fair to say that most of his fans know about his powerful vocals for the many bands he fronted (Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio and Heaven & Hell), but here’s one you may not know about or may have forgotten.

“Love is All” accompanied this nearly-psychedelic animated short, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, made by the Halas & Batchelor company, which aired on “Night Flight” back in the 80s (also, “The Electric Company,” “The Great Space Coaster” and various other children’s shows on the Nickelodeon channel).

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The ambitious film (directed by Lee Mishkin) and the concept album were all based on the work of famed illustrator Alan Aldridge, who had created these fabulous animated drawings in the calm of his rural Norfolk studio, in eastern England, in the region known as East Anglia along the North Sea. Aldridge’s work ended up in a popular 1973 children’s book, with text by poet William Plomer, all of it based on the famous 1807 poem by William Roscoe, one of history’s first abolitionists, and telling the story of a party for insects and other small animals (that’s Dio singing the part of the frog).

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Alan Aldridge in 1971

Aldridge had been a rising young star in the 1960s and part of swinging London’s commercial graphics scene. He’d had no formal training but ended up having much success with his work, which appeared in magazines, on the covers of books, advertisements, record sleeves and posters.

In 1968, at the age of 25, he left his job at Penguin Books, where he’d been the art director for their fiction list, and opened up his own design studio, and it’s from that point on that he began making connections with the music business, and working with a lot of the famous bands, mostly British hard rock and psychedelic bands, doing all kinds of psychedelic airbrush work for their LP covers.

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He also was a creative consultant to the Beatles’ Apple company, designing the covers to two best-selling volumes of their Illustrated Lyrics, and he worked with all of the big British rock bands, including The Who, The Rolling Stones, Cream and he also produced a poster for Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls.

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After the Beatles split and his work with Apple came to an end, Aldridge began focusing on working on illustrating children’s books, initially inspired by the illustrations that Sir John Tenniel had done for Lewis Carroll’s books. Alridge had read that Tenniel had been unable to draw “a wasp in a wig,” and he accepted that as a challenge, thereafter discovering the 1807 classic The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, which was considered the first British children’s book to eschew moral instruction.

The book — a kind of anthropomorphized animal fantasy for children — showed creatures having a ball, and Aldridge combined both his love of contemporary British rock and psychedelia to create his illustrations. He spent the next year drawing the twenty-eight illustrations which were collected in the book, deciding on a main character for each page, working with airbrush artist Harry Willock, who colored in Aldridge’s penciled drawings.

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His publisher, Tom Maschler, who wrote a memoir about his time spent at Jonathan Cape, the legendary children’s book publisher, said about Aldridge’s work that it was a “cornerstone of a new graphic revolution.” Maschler initially put Aldridge in touch with poet John Betjeman, recently named Poet Laureate (Alridge’s first choice had been W.H. Auden, who declined), and they worked together for awhile, but Betjeman was unable to finish the work, and so it fell to William Plomer, a poet and novelist who was a reader for Jonathan Cape, to complete the work, which greatly expanded and altered the text from the original 1807 poem, focusing more on the animals’ preparations for the ball.

Plomer was 70 years old at the time and as such made for an unlikely pairing with the younger man Aldridge, but nevertheless their finished work, which also featured notes by wildlife expert Richard Fitter on every animal depicted in the drawings, was a huge success, published in September 1973. The Sunday Times ran a huge 12-page feature for it, putting the book on the front cover of its magazine (Aldridge had done many, many illustrations for the paper in the sixties, as was treated by the Times staff as one of their own).

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The book became something of a modern-era children’s book publishing phenomenon, with more than 25,000 of the first edition selling out in just three days. Over the course of the first year there were multiple pressings of it, selling upwards of 700,000 copies. (Sadly, Plomer died on the day of the book’s launch, never knowing what a success he’d become as a best-selling author).

The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast won the 1973 Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award from 1973, and spawned two sequels, The Peacock Party and Lion’s Cavalcade, and many other subsequent spin-offs and homages.

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The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast was then originally conceived as a solo project for Deep Purple’s keyboardist Jon Lord in 1974, and was only to be produced by his bandmate and bassist Roger Glover, who had recently left Deep Purple. The project originated with Glover when he was approached by Aldridge to do an album and possibly an animated film, which would need music, but Lord ended up being too busy with the band and Glover then took over the project, and it ended up being his first solo album.

Glover recruited Dio and many other lead vocalists to sing the songs, including David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes, who would both also sing for Deep Purple at different points in the band’s history, not to mention session stars Eddie Hardin and Tony Ashton, soul singer Jimmy Helms, Roxy Music’s Eddie Jobson and John Gustafson, and three quarters of funk-rock band Fancy.

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There was also a subsequent live rock opera, staged in both 1974 and 1975, the latter of which, staged on October 16, 1975, at Royal Albert Hall, featured aforementioned members of the band Deep Purple, Twiggy, black folk singer and musical performer Al Matthews (who was probably best known as “Sgt. Apone” in the movie Aliens), and it was narrated by Vincent Price.

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Ronnie James Dio was also supposed to perform at this one-off concert staging but his commitments to Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow made him unavailable — his replacement Ian Gillan was drafted in at the last minute and received a standing ovation on his entrance, since Gillan had not performed since leaving Deep Purple in 1973. The live concert was filmed and released in 1976. Dio did eventually get to perform the song at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999 as the guest of Deep Purple.

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Aldridge, meanwhile, went on in 1975 to design the cover for Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album, and was going to make an animated film from that album as well — we’re imagining it would have been a kind of Yellow Submarine animated film for the 70s — but the idea was later dropped.

He did, however, illustrate a book of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, and did the illustrations for another children’s book, The Ship’s Cat, written by Watership Down author Richard Adams, followed by another ambitious project, Phantasia, a kind of autobiography in verse and illustration. Although he continued to work for years as a script technician, diverting his creative output away from illustration, he is still recognized mainly for The Butterfly Ball, which remains his most cherished work.

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“Love Is All” proved to be so successful that it was released as a single that it was a minor UK hit but did well in European countries (#1 in the Netherlands!), and  it enjoyed some unexpected success in France, where the newly launched second TV channel Antenne 2 used it as a fill-in every time it experienced “technical difficulties.”

In the 1980s, the song was aired on Australian music show “Countdown” (1974–1987), where it ended up in the Top 10 four years after it was recorded.

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More recently, in 2006, “Love is All” was used by the Dutch political party CDA in its election advertisements for the 2006 Dutch General Election.

In 2008, the Design Museum in London hosted an exhibit by legendary artist Alan Aldridge, complete with opening night festivities.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Amanda_Huggenkiss

    Who didn’t love this when it came on Nickelodeon?