Emerging in the late 1960s from Los Angeles, Spirit were an odd band even by the standards of an era when rock was in its infancy and genre rules hadn’t yet ossified. Spirit’s members ranged in age from 16 to 44, and melded jazz, rock, and pop. Frontman Jay Ferguson was an oddball lyricist, eschewing puppy love and lust to write about litter, the theatre, and whatever else popped into his head.
Most bizarre of all was the 1969 b-side, ‘Sweet Stella Baby’. It was written about a mega-fan of the band. That’s not unusual in itself – ‘Coral’, another 1969 Spirit outtake, was named for Coral Shields, the sister of famous groupie Sable Starr. What’s unusual is the specific mention of Stella’s weight – Ferguson croons that “she’s 200 pounds of lovely woman set free”. The Allmusic Guide dryly reports that “Some bandmembers felt that Jay Ferguson’s mention of her immense weight was a bit off color.”
It’s strange lyrically, but ‘Sweet Stella Baby’ works musically – John Locke’s funky piano underpins the song, California’s fuzzed-out guitar lines provide some propulsion, and California’s step-father Ed Cassidy gets a neat miniature drum solo. It’s a nice little tune that, for my money, overshadows its a-side, California’s ‘1984’.
Ferguson outgunning California in the writing department is unusual for Spirit – California wrote Spirit’s biggest hit (1968’s ‘I Got A Line on You’) and dominated their best album (1970’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus). Spirit are best-known nowadays for their court case against Led Zeppelin, where it’s justifiably alleged that the intro section of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is similar to Randy California’s instrumental ‘Taurus’.
Ferguson eventually wrote the best-known piece of music to emerge from the Spirit camp. It’s not his 1978 yacht-rock solo hit ‘Thunder Island’, featuring Joe Walsh on guitar. It’s his theme for American TV show The Office – the show’s cast picked it from four different contenders. Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight K. Schrute, wrote that:
The theme we eventually ended up with was a beaut. Composed by former seventies rock/pop star Jay Ferguson, it was fun and catchy with just a hint of melancholy. It perfectly set the tone for the show. I’ve written pretend lyrics to it on many occasions. Perhaps I’ll sing them to you one day if you’re nice.Rainn Wilson, from The Bassoon King: My Life In Art, Faith, And Idiocy