Saturday, February 14, 2015


As much as I get on Bob Lefsetz case (as if he really cares) once in a while he'll dream up a very good blog about a forgotten band from the past.  While he struck out on the Grammy blog, he came back and hit a home run with his tribute to Spirit, perhaps one of the best and versatile batch of musicians that ever formed a band.  The late Randy California and Ed Cassidy have been the anchor of this band for many years till California's accidental drowning in 1997 and Cassidy passed away in 2012. Cassidy, one of the oldest rockers of this era, started out playing in jazz bands and featuring the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Gerry Mulligan around the late 50s.  Then formed the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder before moving on with The Red Roosters that featured Randy, Jay Ferguson and Mark Andres. When John Locke joined up, they became Spirits Rebellious before shortening the name to Spirit.

The classic lineup recorded for Ode and later Epic.  The first album Spirit was unlike anything you heard before, Mechanical World was the first single released in all of its 5 minute glory.  Radio couldn't quite figure what to do with a song like this and it never reached higher than 129 on the Bubbling over chart.  The next single I Got A Line On You, hit number 25 and is now a classic rock staple. The albums themselves were a different matter, there are filler moments on all three, the first, The Family That Plays Together and Clear, the latter two beginnings of progressive rock.  1984, the fatalistic single managed to hit number 69 on the charts before disappearing due to ongoing fight with Lou Adler and CBS Records which may have killed off any more chart action.  Somewhere along the line Epic Records got Spirit. 

But while the band was imploding, they managed to get the late David Briggs (Neil Young's choice producer who also owned Spindizzy Records, the home of Grin) to put together what is considered Spirit's best album  12 Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus.  A record way ahead of its time, I consider this to be one of the 100 most influential and best albums of all time, beginning with the words You have the world at your fingertips which also ends on the solemn Soldier, what lies between these songs remains rock and roll goodness with Nothing To Hide, going into Nature's Way and Animal Zoo and the freaky Love Has Found  A Way, going into the reflective Why Can't I Be Free and ends side 1 on what might be their best overall song Mr. Skin. Later versions of Mr. Skin has John Locke's organ riff beginning whereas The Mobile Fidelity CD chops it off (or the original album itself).  Side 2 gives us Locke's space jazz of Space Child going into the prog rock meltdown of When I Touch You, where Jay Ferguson adds screamo ooph to the coda. They return to rock on Street Worm, then go into the folkish Life Has Just Begun, to which the fade out A Beginning , leads off failed single Morning Has Come and then ends on Soldier.  12 Dreams can stand along among Led Zeppelin 4, The Who Who's Next and The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers as best albums of that fabled year.  And still sounds vital as ever.

After that album, Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes left to concentrate more on boogie rock and roll in Jo Jo Gunne for Asylum in 1972 and all four of their albums have classic moments, although the least of them all, So Where's The Show suffers from a poor side 2.  California bowed out and the Staehely Brothers (Al and John) joined up and with David Briggs producing again, gave out Feedback. It's a uneven mess of a album, that does have some moments (Chelsea Girls) but has gone by the wayside although Collector's Choice issued it for a while.  Sensing that the best moments have gone pass, Epic issued The Best Of Spirit.  With 5 tracks from 12 Dreams, and the remainder from the first three albums, it does represent Spirit at their best but in 2003 a reissue of Best Of Spirit adds five more tracks including Taurus, a acoustic California number that somehow Jimmy Page took to use for the introduction to Stairway To Heaven which has had a few law suits in the courts about plagiarism that Page took to use.  With the inclusion of So Little Time To Fly and I'm Truckin, The expanded Best Of Spirit is a must have in your collection.   With the freaky Mechanical World, 1984, Fresh Garbage and Uncle Jack, it has just about everything you could want from Spirit.  Time Circle a 2 CD 1991 retrospective cherry picks albums fracks from the four albums and a load of outtakes and singles only songs.  Perhaps better to get the studio albums instead.

The Mercury years and then some showcased California returning back with Ed Cassidy and I must admit that the only album that I ever heard from this was the 1984 failed comeback attempt of Spirit of 84(or original title The Thirteenth Dream) to which the original lineup returned to re record seven of the 10 songs selected including an all star lineup of I Got A Line On You which got some MTV airplay.  It's also known as one of the earliest albums released on CD as well, that CD is rare to find.  A strange album they did Potato-land came out in 1981 via Rhino although it has its roots back to the early 70s is noted, but what I remembered from it sounded like a story from a bad comic book.  The Further Along  album is noted for the return of the original lineup with Jay Ferguson joining up last for some live dates, but a disastrous show featuring a drunk Neil Young   led to another split of the ways.  But basically the reviews of the Mercury albums showed critic indifference or just not as memorable as the Ode/Epic years.  And I guess we'll leave it at that.

I did see Spirit play in Arizona in 1987 and what is perhaps the most quietest concert that I ever went to, perhaps it was being played outdoors and they didn't want to wake up the snowbirds but Randy was in fine shape and Ed having his biggest drum set in tow.  Somehow Randy got IRS to sign them up for a new album and Rapture In The Chambers was the end result.  John Locke rejoined the band after a stint in Nazareth and so did Mark Andes, perhaps the last real attempt to connect the original members (Jay Ferguson sat out). Outside of Hard Love, a song geared toward album rock, the rest of the album was not memorable. Mike Nile joins California and Cassidy for Tent Of Miracles, a better album but not by much. California Blues was the final record, to which Randy shows off his blues side and covers Hendrix.

With the drowning of California, Spirit ends there although Ed Cassidy would continue as Spirit Revisited for a few 1998 dates. John Locke would pass away on 2006 and at the age of 89 Ed would leave the world in December of 2012. 

For the most part, most if not all Spirit albums are available on CD, Sony Music has kept the Ode/Epic albums alive with bonus tracks, Beat Goes On has kept the Mercury albums overseas (although the Polygram Mercury Years CD is out of print).  The emphasis remains that 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is their classic all time best, that remains an A plus album in my book and every music collection should have that.  Also The Best Of Spirit (2003 expanded edition) is a must have as well if you want to hear the classic hits that made Spirit what they are today.  These two albums prove that they were way ahead of their time and on the basis of these two albums why they should be in the rock n roll hall of fame of your choice.  They are in mine. Also the importance of David Briggs to produce Dr. Sardonicus can't not be forgotten.  He made a great record sound like a classic in the way the songs go from one to another. 

But in any case there'll never be another band like Spirit, they were right for the late 60s and early 70s.  They might be gone but they're not forgotten.


TAD said...

Crabby: You're right, at their best, Spirit were really good, and ahead of their time -- tho I can't agree with the writer in their single-CD best-of who called them "The American Pink Floyd."
I've got SARDONICUS and I play the BEST OF quite a bit ("1984"'s pretty great), but I couldn't get into their other studio albums, too much filler I guess -- and some of it sounds kind of dated now.
I was working in the record store when POTATOLAND came out -- all I remember from it is "My Friend," which was a real nice tho short acoustic-guitar singalong. They should have let it go a couple minutes longer....

R S Crabb said...

Hi Tad,

That was my take as well on their earlier stuff, the best moments are on The Best Of Spirit. That and Sardonicus are the two best albums that is Spirit. I don't agree with Ron Garmon who calls them the US Pink Floyd, I just don't hear any Floyd references on any of the songs, Spirit has way too much jazz like passages or avant garde pieces and Ed Cassidy plays too fast too. Perhaps a nod to Piper At The Gates Of Dawn but there was no band at that time doing what Spirit was doing. Randy California may have been inspired by Axis Bold As Love era Jimi Hendrix.

Sardonicus is their best, the rest of albums had one or two good to great songs and then they fill it up with uneven stuff which is why I didn't think much of the Full Circle 2 CD retrospective. Another reason why I didn't bother with the Mercury stuff and Potatoland was just plain weird. In the end, Spirit could be considered a great singles band, if the singles would have sold better. They spin their tires more often than not but when they come up with Mechanical World or 1984 and of course Got A Line On You, they made a song that you'll remember forever. And I Got A Line On You is perhaps the best 2 and half minute song ever made. They were on to something on that one.

TAD said...

Yeah, my picks for best 2-minute song ever are "I Got a Line on You" and Five Man Electrical Band's "Absolutely Right" -- both great orgasmic rushes. When they're over you sort of shake your head and go "What happened?!"
Oh, and let's not forget "Nature's Way"....