Spirit

TrackAlbum / Single   
1984CBS 4773 single
Dark Eyed WomanClear
Fresh GarbageSpirit
I Got A Line On YouThe Family That Plays Together
Mechanical WorldSpirit
Mr. SkinTwelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus
Nature's WayTwelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus
Poor RichardThe Family That Plays Together
So Little Time To FlyClear
Uncle JackSpirit

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Contributor: Rob Millis

I’ve always had an opinion so wild and crazy, so likely to be guffawed at, so prone to ruffle feathers in its challenging of deep-held beliefs, so absolutely preposterous … that I’ve never openly shared it. I’ve always been good at tracking down records, turning friends onto stuff they might never have heard, and being a bit of a music nerd have often been asked if I have knowledge on a particular subject and generally my answer is taken as fairly reliable, as is my taste (with a few exceptions, says my “long-winded extended San Francisco jam”-hating wife). I’d hate to blow all that credibility with friends, associates and ­ having now contributed a fair few Toppermost articles ­ people looking to further their interest in an act, wisely choosing this esteemed site that Merric has put together for that very purpose and having reasonable expectation not to hear a load of old far-fetched flannel from somebody talking as if they’ve been at the crack pipe.

It is well known that a young Randy Craig Wolfe (the late Randy California to you) befriended and spent many a time jamming with the late Jimi Hendrix, prior to the former starting Spirit ­ of whom this article tells, when it finally gets going sensibly ­ and the latter moving to the UK with Chas Chandler. We all know that Hendrix started out playing the requisite soul/blues guitar for the likes of Curtis Knight and the Isley Brothers, and yet by the time he got to the UK he was the master of these howling, screaming other-worldly spacecraft noises, liberally peppered into his fiery blues technique.

Randy California, on the other hand, had very little of the R&B feel in the guitar parts on his early records, and what you hear is almost just the futuristic noises. Very intuitive they are too, bent every which way to juxtapose beautifully with the more formal jazz background work of drummer (Randy’s stepdad; we all know that) Ed Cassidy and electric piano genius John Locke. It’s almost as if Randy California had developed this jagged, psychedelic rock style so carefully he could weave it in and out of chord progressions thrown at him. Purple Haze, in contrast, sounds like the angular riffs were worked out in advance and a song hung around them. This is my dilemma, folks. If you take out all the bluesy parts of Hendrix’s guitar style, you seem to be left with the bits he added in between meeting Randy California and leaving for England. Right, then (looks in both directions and over shoulder): I wonder if Randy California is the true pioneer of post-R&B rock guitar… ?

Along with California, Cassidy (who, as well as some great jazz gigs had been a founder member of the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and one Ryland P. Cooder) and Locke were vocalist Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes. Spirit’s first LP (self titled) was released in 1968, and bloody good it was too.

I’ve plumped for the first three songs off the LP as it isn’t every debut that has an opening trio of songs so powerful, contrasting and fresh. Fresh Garbage vies with I Got A Line On You as the band’s best known song. The rhythm section and electric piano kicking off like it’s a Herbie Mann LP of the day or something of that ilk, but whoosh! in comes California with his guitar and the song is off, pausing on the way for the jazzy electric piano interlude and with the band whooping it up the song starts again, ending on those mighty bent notes and “fresh ­ fresh ­ fresh…” tape-echoing the song to a halt.

Uncle Jack is a favourite ­ at first glance poppier, punctuated by almost symphonic guitar notes; Jay Ferguson sang it ­ his was the lighter, more polished voice. Settling down in the middle for exactly the kind of solo that my introductory suggestion, err … suggested.

Mechanical World was another very different piece; a slow, deliberate piece with a distant and dramatic feel. It was attempted as a single with the exact running time eschewed on the label in favour of the comment “bloody long”.

Far more successful as a single was I Got A Line On You, reaching (US) no.25 in late 1968 and opening their second LP, The Family That Plays Together. Another corker ­ from this we’ll take the opener and Poor Richard. Like Fresh Garbage ­ a song it refers to in the opening line – this relies on a distinctive bass part to open the proceedings and finds its way along, with a slow, moody vocal and after a very brief moment where you think Brian Wilson has arranged the vocals yet another of those seat-of-the-pants solos from California, roughly aping the vocal line but bending and meandering its way from one note to the next.

Spirit next busied themselves on a movie soundtrack for the film Model Shop and some members have complained that their third LP, Clear (1969) was rushed into without sufficient thought and time after the movie project. Unfortunately this theory is blown out of the water by the quality of the record, which took a sleeker rock-savvy sound and embraced an ever wider quantity of influences and directions. Apple Orchard, for example featured the song sung in unison with the bluesy riffing, while Locke contributed his trademark jazzy electric piano. Dark Eyed Woman opened the album in style and So Little Time To Fly was a more mature sounding composition, later covered by, of all people, Status Quo.

Not featured on the original version of the LP, but added later to some releases of it, was the single 1984 (US chart place of #69) ­a pocket sized rock opus based on Orwell’s novel. The video (see above), a German “Beat Club” show performance linked to this piece, shows what a great visual act they were with California’s rock star looks and state-of-the-art Dan Armstrong perspex guitar contrasting with his style of wearing the guitar over one shoulder like an old fashioned folk troubadour; Cassidy’s trademark massive orchestral bass drums flank the rest of his regular kit.

Yet watching the video you can’t help but feel that not unlike the Carl Wayne/Roy Wood dynamic in our own The Move ­ that Jay Ferguson, ostensibly the lead vocalist and de facto front man, had less and less to do as time went on and California sang his own songs with increasing confidence, flair and above all else ­ regularity. The Beat Club video to me shows Ferguson desperately trying to throw shapes and look cool while being reduced to a backing vocal, while California, the über-hip gunslinger delivers the lead vocal and the searing guitar with cool confidence. Nevertheless, the original line-up would make one more LP before splitting.

And what an LP it was. The Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, by far and away their best seller, and for many their favourite ­ although many would say that of every one of the original line-ups LPs discussed so far! Lyrically the album embraced ecology and nature (Nature’s Way is a selection here; one very effective cover version I have heard was by country singer Victoria Williams). The opener Prelude/Nothing To Hide used an almost Motown like bass feel to pump it along, as did Mr. Skin, an unbelievably catchy tune that was posthumously released as a single after the album continued to sell respectably long after the original line-up had toured it and eventually fragmented.

Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes quite to form Jo Jo Gunne (many will remember the chart hit Run Run Run) and Randy California took a sabbatical after sustaining a head injury after falling off a horse. Cassidy and Locke remained, recruiting brothers John and Al Staehely on guitar and bass respectively, honouring their live commitments and they also recorded a 1972 album Feedback for Epic records. Without California’s dominant and distinctive guitar, though, the identity of the band just wasn’t there and the album was a good effort, but not Spirit. As is often said of The Band’s Cahoots LP (their fourth LP; the first three were groundbreaking standard setters) ­ if it had sported a different band name on the cover, it might have been better appreciated.

Things got worse after founders Locke and Cassidy also quit, leaving the Staehely brothers in charge of an effectively bogus band until they too called it a day in 1973. But Epic, buoyed on by the respectable sales of Dr. Sardonicus ­and as was quite common anyway with reissuing late sixties releases of merit around the time ­ repackaged the band’s debut LP and Clear as an eponymous double set, followed by a Best Of LP. Both LPs hit the charts briefly and this prompted trying Mr Skin as a single (they’d already tried it in 1970 and it failed to chart, this time it earned a minor US placing of 92). Cassidy was sufficiently inspired to put a touring line-up together, initially with just himself from the original band, but ultimately he went to look for his errant stepson for a better chance of getting Spirit up and running properly again. Let’s backtrack a little.

California had busied himself after his horse riding accident with a solo project, the 1972 Hendrix-inspired Kapt. Kopter & the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. Despite my impudent suggestions at the start of this piece, one man who always stood up for his old friend was California. The album (among others) even featured Noel Redding on bass, and among the tracks were imaginive reworkings of The Beatles’ Rain and Paul Simon’s Mother And Child Reunion, among California’s own Hendrix-inspired riffy rock; the format was generally a guitar-based trio to suit. Cassidy contributed some of the drums, and the pair recorded a follow up, with Locke, provisionally called The Adventures of Kapt. Kopter and Commander Cassidy in Potatoland. Epic showed no interest in putting out the album, however and it sat for many years as a piece of Spirit folklore. California fled to Hawaii after the project faltered unfulfilled.

Cassidy and California did reunite and put together a new Spirit for Spirit Of ‘76 and Son Of Spirit. I haven’t included anything from them here; none of the earlier tracks were worth sacrificing in the Topper 10 just for the sake of doing so. Along the way all the original members of the band drifted in and out of the basic trio of California, Cassidy and a bassist, which by the time of Farther Along, saw Andes back in his old role. The reunion didn’t last long and Spirit continued its revolving door existence for the rest of its life, notable milepost being the final release of the Potatoland project (after fans petitioned!) and a full reunion in 1984 for one album, Spirit Of ’84 and in 1988 a line-up with Locke, Cassidy and California formed and existed until 1997 when tragically California drowned while trying (successfully, at least) to prevent his son from doing so when a surfing trip went tragically wrong. Locke died in 2006 from lymphoma.

The final end to the story must be marked by the eventual death of Ed “Cass” Cassidy as recently as late 2012. Rock’s oldest rebel passed on, just a year off his ninetieth birthday. RIP California, Locke and Cass.

 

Randy California (1951–1997)

John Locke (1943-2006)

Ed Cassidy (1923–2012)

 

Randy California and Spirit website

Spirit tribute website

Spirit biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #335

2 Comments

  1. Simon Sadler
    Aug 26, 2014

    A fascinating read. I adore Sardonicus (probably in my all-time top 10 albums) but have never ventured beyond it, fearing the rest of the Spirit canon wouldn’t live up to it. Maybe this is the time to dip my toe into those uncharted waters.
    (you definitely need that first album, touched by genius… ed.)

    • Rob Millis
      Oct 29, 2014

      Thanks Simon. I agree with both you AND the webmaster. You need the first LP as well, in fact everything up to Sardonicus but I wouldn’t bother much with what came after. It’s only four albums to fork out for, so a great band to just bag the essential albums without needing to re-mortgage! Do be kind enough to let us know what you make of the others when you get them. Cheers, R.

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