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Spirit

L.A. teenagers Randy Wolfe, bassist Mark Andes, and vocalist Jay Ferguson formed The Red Roosters in the mid-1960s. The band was put on hiatus when Wolfe’s step-father Ed Cassidy moved the family to New York in search of work. In New York, Wolfe played guitar with Jimi Hendrix in Jimmy James and the Famous Flames. Hendrix christened Wolfe Randy California, to differentiate him from his bass player (known as Randy Texas. When Hendrix was spotted by Chas Chandler and offered a record deal in the UK, he invited Wolfe to join him.

Wolfe’s parents refused to allow the 15 year old move to the UK. Back in California he reunited with Andes and Ferguson to form a band. With Cassidy on drums and keyboardist John Locke, Spirit were signed by Lou Adler and released their self-titled debut in 1968.

Spirit were notable for their eclectic approach – their music reflects the psychedelia of the 1960s, but Cassidy and Locke came from jazz backgrounds. California’s guitar is steeped in blues and acid rock – not surprising for someone who played with Hendrix – while they also dabble in folk-rock like ‘Nature’s Way’. There was also a big disparity in band ages – at the time of their debut, California was 16 and Cassidy was 44.

After 1970’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus the group fractured. Andes and Ferguson formed Jo Jo Gunne, California went solo, while Cassidy and Locke recorded 1972’s Feedback with ring-ins. Andes later played with Canned Heat and Heart, while Ferguson scored a solo hit with ‘Thunder Island’ and turned to composing for TV, most notably the theme for the US version of The Office.

At this stage I’m planning to cover the group’s first four albums. Spirit reformed in 1975 with California and Cassidy, but failed to make the same impact. They broke up after California drowned saving his son from a rip tide off the coast of Hawaii in 1997.

Spirit Album Reviews

Spirit | The Family That Plays Together | Clear | Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus | Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds

Spirit

1968, 7/10
Spirit’s debut album was recorded with arranger Marty Paich, who adds strings. It’s dominated by Ferguson’s pop/rock writing, although Randy California wrote the memorable instrumental ‘Taurus’ and John Locke’s ‘Elijah’ closes the record with ten minutes of jazz jamming. Ferguson has some good pop tunes, but he isn’t a very emotionally engaging singer or writer; particularly noticeable on the awkward ‘Straight Arrow’, written after watching a bravura performance by Mark Andes’ actor father. The group would improve as California took more of a creative role; he’s only 16 here, although his guitar leads are often the most attention-grabbing aspect, especially when he’s double tracked.

Ferguson’s standout song is the opener ‘Fresh-Garbage’ – Led Zeppelin also performed it when they opened for Spirit in 1968. There’s also a Zeppelin connection to California’s memorable instrumental ‘Taurus’, where multiple lawsuits have explored the similarities to Jimmy Page’s introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The first side is much stronger than the second side, although ‘The Great Canyon Fire in General’ shoehorns the group’s jazzy inclinations into a concise and enjoyable song. It leads nicely into ‘Elijah’, although the CD reissue with two versions of ‘Elijah’ on the track-list isn’t ideal.

Like Spirit’s other early records, their debut is fascinatingly eclectic but also inconsistent.


The Family That Plays Together

1968, 7.5/10
At the time of their second album, Spirit were all living together in a house in Topanga Canyon. The title riffs on the slogan “the family that prays together”. It’s a step forward from their debut – it’s more focused and more hard-rocking. Like Spirit’s other early records it mainly functions as a build-up to their masterpiece.

Randy California is much more involved here, writing nearly half the songs including the lead-off track and top 30 single ‘I Got A Line On You’. His voice is more emotional than Ferguson’s, and they harmonise together nicely on tracks like ‘Darlin’ If’. California also contributes the bizarre ‘Jewish’, where he solemly recites a Hebrew prayer over fuzz guitar and dramatic percussion. Ferguson’s ‘Aren’t You Glad’ starts as a simple slice of sunshine pop before the band transform it, while ‘Dream Within a Dream’ and the mellow ‘Silky Sam’ are also highlights.

The Family That Plays Together is a solid second record from Spirit, focusing on succinct songs and showcasing the burgeoning writing skills of Randy California.


Clear

1969, 7/10
While working on The Family That Plays Together, Spirit were approached by director Jacques Demy to write music for his movie Model Shop. The film wasn’t a success, and the soundtrack wasn’t released until 2005. Because the soundtrack wasn’t released, parts of it were recycled for 1969’s Clear, which perhaps explains the number of instrumentals here.

Like Spirit’s previous two records Clear starts strongly, with the rockers ‘Dark Eyed Woman’ and ‘Apple Orchard’, as well as Ferguson’s ‘Ground Hog’. The instrumentals drag a little, but Ferguson’s ‘New Dope In Town’ is a good closer, mixing the band’s jazzy jamming with a solid pop hook. The CD version includes the banned, and under-melodic, single ‘1984’ and its bizarre b-side ‘Sweet Stella Baby’, about an overweight fan. The outtake ‘Coral’ is dedicated to the 11 year old sister of famous groupie Sable Starr – Sable was dating Randy California at the time.

Clear is often the most overlooked of Spirit’s first four albums. Despite the instrumentals, Spirit carve out a distinctive sound shoehorning their jazz chops into rock songs.


Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

1970, 9/10
Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus marks a power shift in Spirit, with California writing the majority of the songs. It’s a good change – Ferguson’s gimmicky songs are better suited to second banana status behind California’s more emotionally engaging material. California and Ferguson often sing together, and their voices blend nicely. The production, from David Briggs, is also a big upgrade, giving the band a dense psychedelic sound. Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was initially unsuccessful, precipitating Spirit’s initial split. It was only belatedly recognised as the band’s masterpiece, staying in print while their other albums were deleted.

The single was California’s ‘Nature’s Way’ – it’s a simple arrangement, but an interesting chord structure, and the spontaneity and passion of Ferguson and California’s dual lead vocals. Even though he’s demoted from primary songwriter here, Ferguson writes some of his most memorable songs. ‘Animal Zoo’ has a great singalong chorus (“much too fat and a little too long”) and ‘Mr Skin’ is a fun tribute to Cassidy. California’s opening ‘Prelude-Nothing to Hide’ is impressive, erupting from folksy beginnings into a jazzy rocker. Even when the material flags a little, the record’s well paced, and it closes strongly with the rocker ‘Morning Will Come’ and the suitably grandiose ‘Soldier’ with another great tandem vocal from California and Ferguson.

The lack of success for Twelve Dreams caused the splintering of Spirit into three factions – California went solo, Andes and Ferguson formed Jo Jo Gunne, while Cassidy and Locke soldiered on for a final album before breaking up. While Sardonicus was an artistic breakthrough, it was the last recording for the classic quintet.

Ten Best Spirit Songs

Nature’s Way
I Got A Line On You
Prelude / Nothing To Hide
Fresh-Garbage
Animal Zoo
Mr. Skin
Dark Eyed Woman
Aren’t You Glad
Taurus
Soldier

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