Spirit: The Best But Most Neglected L.A. Band From the 60’s
Here is a look back at Mick Skidmore’s March 2001 feature on Spirit...
If there is one band from the ’60s that really deserves to be heard a second time around it is Spirit. Not only was the band musically superb but it was light years ahead of its time. Their 1970 album The Twelve Dreams of Dr.Sardonicus remains one of the most enduring rock albums ever, but in reality most of their music should find favor with anyone into the “jam band” genre. If you think Phish is diverse you have to investigate Spirit’s music, you will not be disappointed!
Sadly, Spirit no longer exists, the last incarnation having disbanded after leading light, guitarist and songwriter Randy California died in a tragic swimming accident in January 1997.
Jazz, rock, psychedelia, blues and folk were all intrinsic elements of this eclectic band’s repertoire, but the truth is they were one of the most original and underrated bands of the era, perhaps ever!
Spirit had all the makings of being a monster band but for some reason things never quite worked out the way they should have. They did enjoy a fair amount of success but their lack of compromise (not a bad attribute) made them decidedly uncommercial. Examples of the bad luck that plagued them was that their management decided that playing a gig at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 was not a good idea. Ironically Spirit was set to play as the last act before Jimi Hendrix’s explosive finale, but alas it never happened. They were also scheduled to play the Isle of Wight Festival the following year, again on the same bill with Hendrix, but again it never happened. Prior to Spirit’s formation guitarist Randy California was a member of Jimmy James and the Blues Flames in New York. The “Jimmy” was none other than Jimi Hendrix. As California was only 15 he never went to England with Hendrix when he was “discovered” by Chas Chandler. Of course, we all know the fame that Hendrix accumulated. In 1969 Spirit’s socio-political song “1984” was racing up the charts only to be pulled from play lists because of its political content and what could be worse than the sad demise of California at a time when his creativity and energy was at a high. Nonetheless, Spirit did achieve considerable aesthetic success and boasts a legacy of incredible albums that still sound remarkably fresh and vital, two and three decades after their original release. The good news is that a large portion of the band’s catalog is available on CD, but more on that later.
To cut a very long story short Spirit originally formed in the L.A. area in 1967 when guitarist Randy California (born Randy Craig Wolfe) teamed up with his stepfather/drummer Ed Cassidy, vocalist Jay Ferguson, bassist Mark Andes and jazz pianist John Locke. This line-up went on to record four albums, the self-titled debut released in 1968, The Family That Plays Together and Clear in 1969 and the previously mentioned The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus in 1970. The first three of these feature a more jazz-based Spirit with some incredibly sophisticated arrangements and changes for their time. Each of these discs is a masterpiece in itself. The first album does have a few whimsical lyrics but the artful jazz-rock meets ecology of “Fresh Garbage” and the doomy “Mechanical World” remain potent musical forces. The latter in particular contains an articulate double tracked guitar solo from California. Also of note is the beautiful acoustic instrumental “Taurus” which three years later would be “borrowed” by Led Zeppelin for the intro to “Stairway To Heaven,” perhaps a credit would have been nice! Not surprisingly, Led Zeppelin were big Spirit fans and even opened for them. Zeppelin would also later include snippets of “I Got A Line On You” in its live set. The last cut on the album is the 11-minute “Elijah” which was basically an improvised instrumental that centered around a repetitive jazz head but gave each member a chance for a solo. This was a true free-form piece live. Anything could happen from way out guitar work to handing out apples to the audience. The song does give a glimpse of the immense instrumental ability of these guys.
The Family that Plays Together took things to the next level of sophistication. It also yielded the hit “I Got a Line On You,” but it was the more tenacious jazz-rock pieces such as “It’s All the Same” and the soaring “Dream Within A Dream” that really stand out. California again shows his artful guitar work, juxtaposed against a sweeping string arrangement. The third album, Clear, is a transitional album in that a lot of it including the title cut and “Ice” were instrumentals with a strong jazz flavor, having been recorded for the film The Model Shop. On the rock side there is the guttural “Dark Eyed Woman.”
Each of the aforementioned albums is highly recommended, but if you have never heard Spirit and veer more towards a rock bias than jazz you need to check out the Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. As I have already said this album is a cult classic (its actually sold over a million copies) and truly a work of art. Ironically the original and most formidable Spirit line-up fragmented not long after the release of the disc. A mediocre review in Rolling Stone (back in 1970 it mattered what Rolling Stone said) did not help matters. The album is a sonic tour-de-force. There are no long jams or instrumental excursions but California and co., lace the disc with all manner of complex musical nuances and subtle textures. You will continue to discover hidden pleasures every time you here the disc. This would be a top-ten desert island disc for me. In essence, begin here. The album is available on Epic/Legacy in a 20-bit Super Bit Mastering (complete with several bonus cuts). The original 12-cut disc is a flawless masterpiece from the rollicking opener “Prelude: Nothin’ To Hide” with its stunning slide guitar work from California to the closing haunting “Soldier.” In between are the superb ecology slanted “Nature’s Way,” the jagged pop-rock of “Animal Zoo,” the eloquent jazz of “Love has Found a Way” and the powerhouse “Mr.Skin.” The latter is simply waiting for an up and coming jam band to cover it (Hey, Foxtrot Zulu-check this out). More muscular in tone and tenacity are the fusion-like “Space Child” and the blistering rock of “When I Touch You” and “Streetworm.” The latter two cuts highlight Jay Ferguson’s songwriting abilities and California’s significant guitar abilities.
After this album Andes and Ferguson left to form the more basic rock band Jo Jo Gunne. Spirit carried on briefly, but California left. A new bassist and guitarist were hired but the band was but a shadow of its former self and released the mediocre Feedback album.
In late 72 California reunited with Cassidy and resurrected the Spirit name. They recorded the bizarre Zappesque concept album Journey Through Potatoland which Epic deemed uncommercial. (A watered down version was issued in the ’80s on Rhino). In between this California released the truly superb Kapt Kopter and the Fabulous Twirlybirds album, one of the most exotic and exciting guitar albums of the ’70s. This disc had California out Hendrixing Hendrix with way out versions of songs by James Brown, the Beatles, Paul Simon as well as some originals. A quick listen to his outrageous version of the Beatles “Rain” should convince even the most skeptical of listeners. (This album is available only as an import, but easily attainable through the Internet).
Throughout the ’70s Spirit would remain under the charge of California and Cassidy. There were a number of reunions of the original band including one at the Santa Monica Civic in LA in 1976. This show only got written up in Rolling Stone because a drunk Neil Young joined the band for their encore of “Like A Rolling Stone” only to be pushed away by an irate California.
In the ’70s the band released the excellent Spirit of ’76, Son of Spirit, the mellow Farther Along, the bizarre Future Games all on Mercury Records. But they were dropped by the label eventually. The fact that they recorded a would-be single “Chairman Mao” (later re-titled “China Doll”) might just have had a little to do with this. Most of the Mercury material is available on the excellent two-disc The Mercury Years. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s Spirit recorded mostly for Independent labels and on their own label. Their output was erratic but never less than interesting. Albums such as Tent of Miracles, Live at La Paloma, Live Spirit and California Blues are all worth tracking down. The La Paloma disc is readily available from the band’s website and features some extended jamming from California, not to mention a ferocious take of “Hey Joe.” More recently Cosmic Smile was released. It is an album of previously unreleased material and marks the beginning of an extensive archive series. But if you truly want to discover the music of Spirit, begin with Sardonicus work back through the first three albums. If you get this far you will be totally hooked and enlightened. This band will not disappoint. California also has a number of solo albums that are worth tracking down, especially Euro-American which features the superb anti-hand gun song “Toy Guns” and the scathing rocker “Rude Reaction,” which chronicles the Neil Young episode. As a unit Spirit was one of the most talented groups to emerge in the ’60s. Randy California was one of the world’s truly great guitarists, songwriters and a damn good human being to boot. Happy listening adventures.