Spirit, a jazz-rock-blues-folk-psychedelic fusion group from Los Angeles were around in my teenage years. In 1970, when the original line up’s 4th, seemingly final LP was released I was still at school. At just 17, you know what I mean, there are so many new bright shiny things to divert you. ” 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” was invigorating, inspiring music but would I still be affected by it 40 years later ? Don’t ask me, I was not sure what I was doing at the weekend. In 1972 there was an LP by a band which appeared to be Spirit in name only. Much more to my taste was “Kaptain Kopter & the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds” a dense, Hendrix-influenced collection by Randy California which showed him to be a fluid, inventive guitarist able to avoid the usual guitar hero cliches while still rocking out.
By the time there was another Spirit LP, in 1975, I was a married man… to a woman…really. I packed my lunch in the morning & went to work each day. It was a good time, we were Dinkys, (dual income, no kids yet), more money than sense. In 1975 I bought all the records I needed, plenty that I didn’t. “Spirit of 76” was definitely one that I needed.
Spirit Mark II were California, “Mr Skin”, drummer Ed Cassidy, with Barrie Keene on bass. The band had to scrape the money together to record, had to shop it around the labels, When Mercury did release the album it still pretty much remained a secret. “Spirit of 76” is a sprawling work, a statement double LP about the USA as it reached its bicentennial which starts with “America The Beautiful”, ends with “The Star Spangled Banner”. In between there’s a kaleidoscopic collection of tunes from perfectly judged covers, through Randy’s own mix of muscular rock & melodicism (“The Byrds & Jimi Hendrix in the same song”), to just plain craziness. It’s not a record that gives up its charms immediately, like all twin LPs the 25 songs could stand some editing but once you get this blend of the weird & the wonderful then the Spirit is going to move you.
In the 1970s an alliance of psychedelic idealism & entrepreneurship established a network in the UK for the manufacture & distribution of high quality L.S.D. At college I had met a couple of too much too soon acid burnouts…a warning. I had tripped without running naked down the street armed with a chainsaw, without jumping out of a 5th storey window, I could still walk through a door & be pretty sure it might not be a portal to another dimension. Our small circle of friends enjoyed pleasant lysergic evenings, in comfortable surroundings with good company. Our music of choice for many of these mind-has-left-your-body experiences was Spirit.
This isn’t jagged edged Acid Rock, I love that 13th Floor Elevators noise but it’s sure to harsh my buzz man. In 18 months Spirit released 3 LPs of imaginative psychedelic music, each one a box of delights. The washes of acoustic guitar, flowing lead breaks & Cassidy’s great percussion were given a clean, clear, even elegant production. “Son of Spirit” & “Farther Along” (a reunion of 5 of the original 6 members) maintained the level of “…76”. Mid-1970s Spirit had a vibe of their own, a lovely calm logic to the best songs, avoiding the bombast of Rush, Pink Floyd or all those other pretentious peddlers of Prog Rock.
In 1977 Spirit released their final LP of the Mercury years. “Future Games (A Magical Kahauna Dream)” is a polychromatic Spirit world, a Hawaiian sci-fi phantasmagoria. Gene Roddenberry is not included in the album’s credits despite the inclusion of chunks of Star Trek dialogue. I guess that back then you took your samples where you found them &, if no-one sued, then the price was right. There are so many good tunes on this record, often too short then interrupted by Kirk, Spock or Kermit the Frog ! Randy California’s lyrics can, on first hearing, seem simplistic, a hippie primer. If you put a little work into it you grok that it’s Nature’s Way of telling you in a song. In the late 1970s I knew young punks who carried “Future Games” around with their Pistols, Clash & Ramones records. You meet someone who knows this LP then you will probably get along with them.
Through 1981/82 I got to see the band play 3 times. “Red” Ken Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London Council, was a Spirit fan (I’d probably get on fine with Ken) . He had them over to County Hall for lunch & asked them to play at a free concert for those who wished to avoid the marriage of the Queen’s eldest son to some blonde who got lucky (or did she ?). Spirit’s festival sets could be a little heavy on Randy’s guitar gymnastics. At Glastonbury a bemused cameraman wandering through a cloud of dry ice searching for the source of some great feedback was hilarious. At Hammersmith Odeon, playing to their own audience, a version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was a perfect realisation of respect for & understanding of the rock tradition & of the Spirit dynamic.
There was one more surprise to come out of this second burst of Spirit creativity. “The Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potatoland” had been recorded by Randy & Ed in 1973/74 but it was not released until 1981. “…Potatoland” has tunes, “Open Up Your Eyes”, “Turn to the Right”, “My Friend”, which are up there with the best of Spirit. The album’s concept is a little half-assed but it’s a comic book (one was included in the package) in the stoned tradition of Gilbert Shelton & Cheech & Chong. I don’t need every evening’s listening to shake my world. There are times when good music, a simple story about Potato People & a giant chocolate eclair are just the thing.
Later recordings by Randy California & by the reunited Spirit missed the mark, lacking the assurance & subtlety of their best music. In 1997 Randy was drowned in Hawaii while rescuing his 12 year old son. He was just 45. Today Spirit are regarded because of ” 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” & their one successful 45 “I Got a Line on You”. The 3 LPs preceding “12 Dreams…” are all fine contributions by the original group to the best West Coast music around. The best of the songs on the records made in the 1970s are a continuation of an individual, original take on Rock & Roll. I don’t really care that Spirit Mark II are neglected. Myself, Martin, who put me back on to the group, & plenty of other people I like share a passion for these records & consider Randy California to be ranked as a guitar hero of his time.