Back in the day, before you could just click it & nick it, if you wanted to own a piece of music then you had to pay for it…I know, sucks yeah. It was no problem if you were holding folding. As teenagers on Saturday job wages your small circle of friends, with a smaller collection of vinyl, hung about in record shops (ask your folks) watching the older guys show us what it’s all about. In 1968 CBS pulled a right stroke with the release of “The Rock Machine Turns You On”, a sampler LP which sold for just 75p ($1.25). That’s how so many European teenagers knew tracks by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera & knew “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” by the United States of America. The company’s big guns were part of the machine…Dylan, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel. There was a track too from the debut LP by Spirit, a group from Los Angeles, which began my relationship with their music which, I guess, continues today.
I’m surprised that “Fresh Garbage” is only a little more than 3 minutes long. There was a lot of talent in the 5-piece group & they all get to do their thing in this perfect piece of LA psych-pop. Spirit’s gimmick was that, in a scene preponderate with young hairy people their drummer was really old, like 45, & was bald ! Ed Cassidy was the teenage guitarist’s stepdad, a jazz vet who kept the beat tight when the band went exploring. His boy, Randy California, was playing with Jimi when he was just 15 years old. Spirit’s LP lacked the focus & vision of fellow Angelenos Love but the ideas & the notes were there, many of them in the right place.
“I Got A Line On You”, side 1, track 1 of the next LP “The Family That Plays Together”, is Spirit’s attempt at a radio-friendly single. “Family” was more of the same good stuff but the group had 3 songwriters to keep happy. “Fresh Garbage” was written by singer Jay Ferguson but on “I Got A…”, California’s song, he is confined to BVs & reduced to messing about in the promo clip. John Locke, the keyboard player responsible for the cool jazz chords which made the band’s sound so distinctive, had 3 of his songs recorded on the sessions but none of them made the cut. A couple of years ago I found the expanded edition of this record in a charity shop, 5 bonus tracks, still sealed, just 75p (&1.25). The cogs of the rock machine still turning.
A hectic recording schedule meant that Locke & bass player Mark Andes got their songs on to the 3rd LP. “Clear” was not the commercial success expected by the label but, by heck, it’s a great record. The 3 Locke instrumentals stretch out Spirit’s sound into the best of West Coast progressive rock. The closing track, “New Dope In Town”, is credited to all 5 members & has more going for it than a Yes triple album, with more depth, considerate that our music needs the Blues more than virtuosity. It’s old music now but “Clear” still sounds great to me.
“1984” had exactly what 17 year old fanboys wanted from a get your motor running, psychedelic rock record. We could not afford the LPs but this 7″ plastic disc was ours. Surely the new decade would be Spirit’s time, starting with this smash hit. Of course this didn’t happen, you would have heard about it. Word is that US radio stations found the lyrical content inappropriate. More likely a distribution brouhaha between the group’s management & record label meant that there was little help for the single. This clip, from German TV, is just fantastic. The band are rocking the super-hippie look favoured by Californian bands in 1970 & are giving it loads. Quite what Mark Andes was thinking before he left the house in that pink get-up I have no idea. (Ah, that clip seems to have disappeared so here’s another…
For the next, 4th, LP Neil Young put Spirit on to his producer David Briggs, a talented man who improved the records he worked on. Your record collection is incomplete without “The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus”. There’s a start-to-finish quality & invention about the music, a life, the universe & everything lyrical flow. All the influences that made Spirit, (they are wide & many) are skillfully blended on this record. This is how it starts…
Perhaps Randy California was becoming too prominent in the group as his playing was maturing & improving. There was a tour to promote the new record then Ferguson & Andes walked. Their next group, Jo Jo Gunne, was pretty straight rock & roll, these guys wanted to be stars. Randy copped a head injury in a riding accident & was deeply affected by the death of his friend & mentor Jimi Hendrix. He was off the road, out of the picture, when his band had finally, fully realised their musical vision. “The 12 Dreams…” really does sit with “Forever Changes” at the pinnacle of the West Coast underground. By the end of 1970 the unit that had made these 4 LPs was over & done. The record took its time to establish itself, it was 1976 before it became a gold record.
Spirit continued to tour. They had a good rep & could get gigs. In 1972 there was another record, “Feedback” , which included only Cassidy & Locke of the founding 5. Is it any good ? Don’t ask me, I never really considered it a “proper” Spirit LP & I let it pass me by. Of much greater significance was Randy California’s solo record “Kaptain Kopter & the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds”. This was no Dr Sardonicus II, rather a surging power trio heavy on Hendrix. A lysergic leave-taking of the sixties, “sheer dense weirdness” according to Robert Christgau & that’s a good thing. There are hard rock covers of Paul Simon & James Brown, everything is slammed into as Randy, still only 21, worked out some heavy stuff & prepared himself for the Spirit of the seventies…of which more later. This is a 1979 version of “Downer”, a Kaptain Kopter klassic.