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The Spirit of Rock Lives On

Spirit PR Photo

Spirit PR Photo
Last summer, a LA jury determined that a copyright lawsuit failed to prove that Led Zeppelin lifted “Stairway to Heaven“‘s intro from Spirit’s “Taurus” (1968). While the ruling put that matter to rest (at least from a legal standpoint), the trial also shone a light on a band many knew nothing about. When, in his closing remarks, Zeppelin’s attorney, Peter Anderson, said that Spirit’s music “would not even be remembered,” it seemed, frankly, a bit mean-spirited. For in truth the “Taurus” versus “Stairway” debate was really a testament to the passion of Spirit’s fans, even if their numbers don’t swell to Madison Square Garden proportions. Looking at their musical legacy, Spirit’s discography is chock full of hidden gems (“Fresh Garbage,” if you will) and at least one long-player masterpiece (Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus) that beg to be rescued from history’s trash bin.

Their personal history is full of interesting tidbits, too.

• In the mid ’60s, Ed Cassidy was already a 40-something drummer when his band The Rising Sons — with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal — played a series of gigs at a Hollywood club where he met then married Randy California’s mom, becoming the teenage guitarist’s stepfather before they became Spirit bandmates.

• The family moved to NYC in the summer of ’66, where 15-year-old Randy met a still relatively unknown James Marshall Hendrix in Manny’s Guitar Shop on 48th Street. Randy joined Jimmy James & the Blue Flames for a three-month stint at the legendary Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village.

• It was Jimi who coined the name Randy California as a way to differentiate him from another Randy in the Blue Flames.

• In ’67, California and Cassidy formed Spirit with bassist Mark Andes, jazz pianist John Locke and vocalist Jay Ferguson, who would later become a successful TV/film composer whose work includes the theme song to NBC’s The Office.

• Early demos of the group were recorded by the band’s Topanga Canyon roommate Barry Hansen, better known as radio host Dr. Demento.

Spirit’s self-titled debut (produced by Lou Adler) and its follow-up The Family That Plays Together were ambitious and eclectic efforts: a sophisticated mix of jazz, folk, rock, and even classical styles. The group earned a loyal local following, some critical acclaim and even scored a minor hit in 1969 with “I Got a Line on You.” And if they never achieved the popularity of contemporaries like The Byrds, Love, and The Buffalo Springfield, they can at least lay claim to sharing a bill with Led Zeppelin when both opened for Vanilla Fudge in December 1968.

Over a year later, the band worked with David Briggs (Neil Young’s producer at one time) on their magnum opus, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus — an album brimming with ideas and brilliant performances. Heard today, Twelve Dreams is progressive without sounding dated; a record crammed with surprises. The album opener, “Prelude, Nothing to Hide,” switches from acoustic ballad to a full-on, horn-and-slide-powered rocker thereby establishing the delightfully unexpected turns that continue throughout the LP. The song also highlights California’s penchant for oddly compelling lyrics (“No we got nothing to hide /We’re married to the same bride / We’re married to the same bride / She eats away from inside”).

“Nature’s Way”‘s plaintive message of environmentalism is as relevant as ever while “Animal Zoo” ends with the wonderfully eccentric chant “much too fat and a little too long” before it bleeds right into “Love Has Found a Way”‘s backwards rhythm loop which, in turn, tumbles abruptly into the gorgeous “Why Can’t I Be Free.” On its release, Twelve Dreams got a mediocre review in Rolling Stone and the band’s label, Epic, didn’t push the record. Yet the slow-burner eventually ended up certified gold and listeners continue to discover its distinct charms today. Even so Randy California remains one of the great unsung heroes of late ’60s and early ’70s rock. (Sadly, he died while saving his 12-year-old son from rip tide currents in Hawaii two decades ago). Indeed, Spirit’s first few albums — especially Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus — deserve to be held in esteem, no matter what Zeppelin’s lawyer says.

Colm Clark

Photo Credit: Publicity photo of Spirit courtesy of Epic

PS. Spirit’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus made our user-generated list of Top Ten Concept Albums. Click here to see what else made the cut.

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