Even by the genre expanding, epoch making standards of the day, late 60s American West Coast band Spirit pushed the musical envelope to the nth degree. To describe them as eclectic just doesn’t do justice to their glorious amalgam of folk, rock, psychedelia, blues and jazz; there were no parameters in this particular Spirit world.
The original incarnation of the band comprised singer and multi instrumentalist Jay Ferguson, bassist Mark Andes, John Locke on keyboards, teenage prodigy Randy California on guitar, and most interestingly, shaven-headed forty something drummer Ed Cassidy, aka Mr Skin.
Locke and big band veteran Cassidy brought their jazz chops to the mix. Not only was Cassidy twice the age of the other band members, he was also California’s step father, and their relationship was the true dynamic of the band. The charismatic California was absolutely his own man, once throwing Neil Young off when he wandered on stage for an impromptu jam. Aged fifteen, California had played in a band with a pre-stardom Jimi Hendrix, and it was Hendrix who chose California’s stage name. (His real surname was Wolfe.)
California was no mere Hendrix acolyte however, being a highly individual, fluid player, and a master of a variety of styles. Although the Spirit band name continued in various incarnations into the 1990s, releasing fifteen studio albums, they are most fondly recalled for the original quintet’s first four indispensable albums. For an understanding of Spirit’s wide ranging diversity, it’s best to start at the beginning with their eponymous debut album, released in 1968. The opening track 'Fresh Garbage' with its Latin flair, the weird but wonderful ‘Mechanical World’, highlighting California’s mastery of sustain, and the sitar laden ‘Girl in Your Eye’, leading into the classically influenced ‘Taurus’ all define the early Spirit sound and ethos.
The flawless The Family That Plays Together soon followed, a seamless suite of songs, all double tracked guitars and tasteful strings. The album’s many highlights included the trippy ‘Dream Within a Dream’ and the trilogy of ‘It Shall Be’, ‘Poor Richard’ and ‘Silky Sam’, which sounded like nothing else at the time.
1969’s Clear Spirit was even more varied in style, with several jazzy instrumental tracks, but there was still room for Hendrix style rocker Dark-Eyed Woman, proving California could have moved in that direction if he so wished. There's ‘Give a Life, Take a Life’, complete with ethereal vocal harmonies reminiscent of The Byrds and The Beach Boys at their best. The moving ‘Nature’s Way’, the fun-drenched ‘Mr Skin’ and the guitar pyrotechnics of ‘Street Worm’ helped make 1971’s The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus the original band’s most highly regarded album.
Although it was eventually certified gold, this timeless masterpiece was initially a commercial failure, which prompted Ferguson and Andes to form Jo Jo Gunne. California also quit and Locke and Cassidy completed 1972’s Feedback. California returned, becoming the keeper of the flame in Spirit’s various incarnations, invariably supported by the ever faithful Cassidy. A series of uneven, perplexing, sporadically brilliant albums followed, many of which are worthy of further investigation. Sadly only Ferguson, who moved into movie soundtracks and Andes who found fame and fortune with Heart are still alive, California having drowned aged just 45 in 1997.
However, Spirit may yet get their moment in the spotlight and due recognition thanks to an on-going legal action initiated by Mark Andes against Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin over the similarities between California’s Taurus and Zep’s Stairway to Heaven. Listen to ‘Taurus’ followed by the opening bars of 'Stairway to Heaven' and you will understand why. The fact that the rock behemoths supported Spirit in the late 60s, covered ‘Fresh Garbage’ live, and openly admired ‘Taurus’ adds to the evidence for the prosecution.
Commercial success largely eluded Spirit – they missed out on both Monterey and Woodstock festivals, and they never gained the notoriety of The Doors or the huge critical praise afforded to contemporaries such as The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Perhaps too experimental, quirky, innovative and prescient for a wider audience, Spirit have recently been the subject of a new box set that will hopefully achieve the recognition they deserve. If you don’t know where to start, here’s my guide to their best tunes
Fresh Garbage (Spirit 1968) Sampled by Pink for ‘Feel Good Day’, many Spirit fans feel that the opening track from the band’s debut is the band’s finest song. Jay Ferguson wrote this plea for the environment years before climate change and save the planet became an issue. Don’t forget; “Look beneath your lid some morning, see those things you didn’t quite consume, the world’s a can for your fresh garbage.”
Uncle Jack (Spirit 1968) A winning slice of British psychedelia with The Who-inspired harmonies, a propulsive rhythm section, and California’s trademark piercing guitar.
Taurus (Spirit 1968) Flutes, strings and California’s beautiful acoustic finger picking make this instrumental a life-affirming experience.
I Got a Line on You (The Family That Plays Together 1968) California’s exuberant rocker, containing one of rock’s greatest guitar riffs was the band’s one flirtation with the singles chart (number 25 in the USA).
It Shall Be (The Family That Plays Together 1968) Based on a jazzy piano riff from John Locke, Spirit’s whole multi-layered vibe is perfectly captured here, with stunning use of strings, horns and woodwinds, complete with a great vocal. So laid back its’ almost horizontal.
Dream Within a Dream (The Family That Plays Together, 1968) An acid trip set to music, with an infectious refrain (“stepping off this mortal coil”) juxtaposed with California’s piercing guitar.
It’s All the Same (The Family That Plays Together, 1968) Expertly constructed rocker and the perfect example of Cassidy’s complex, yet tasteful drumming style.
Ice (Clear 1969,) Hugely atmospheric seven minute instrumental illuminated by Locke’s shimmering electric piano and California’s John Coltrane inspired riffing.
Give a Life, Take a Life (Clear, 1969) Pastoral harmonies and lustrous production make for a ballad that lingers long in the memory.
Nature’s Way (The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus , 1971) California’s heartfelt ecology ballad has stood the test of time, as relevant now as it was in 1971.
Love Has Found a Way (The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus 1971) A triumph of studio techniques and musical improvisation, featuring wonderful vocal interplay between Ferguson and California. Stick around for the climax and the listener is rewarded even more as the track segues into the one minute stoned bliss of ‘Why Can’t I Be Free’.