A Lost Psychedelic Classic: Spirit’s The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Coming in at the tail end of the psychedelic era, Spirit just managed to slip in to the LA music scene of the late 1960s. They didn’t quite fit into that scene, though: folk rock bands like Buffalo Springfield, Poco and especially The Byrds dominated Los Angeles. There were other acts, too: Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the garage-rock meets folkie band Love and popular hitmakers like The Turtles, The Monkees or Beach Boys. As a band, Spirit was almost too eclectic to fit in with those, even as they incorporated little bits of each into their music.

Formed in 1967, Spirit was Randy California on guitar and vocals, Jay Ferguson on vocals, percussion and keyboards, Mark Andes on bass, John Locke on keyboards and Ed Cassidy, California’s step-dad, on drums. Of them all, Cassidy had the most experience: a jazz drummer by trade, he’d worked with Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderly and Gerry Mulligan before moving to rock. California had some chops too: he played with a young Jimi Hendrix in The Blue Flames. These two would greatly influence the band’s sound: rock, occasionally rollicking into full on into psychedelia, occasionally going full on into jazz.

Spirit had some success with their first three albums. Their debut, self-titled album peaked at 31 on the Billboard charts and 1969’s “The Family that Plays Together” reached 22, mostly on the success of their hit single “I Got A Line On You.” But as 1970 came around, the band was starting to splinter: California’s songwriting had been improving by leaps and bounds – and he wrote their lone big hit – but Furguson wrote the bulk of the band’s material. Their fourth album, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” was the first filled with California’s material.

Over 12 songs, “Twelve Dreams…” loosely works as a concept album, a sci-fi tale about a mad scientist’s wild dreams, but works better as a band trying a little bit of everything and succeeding in nearly all it’s attempts: it’s a band at the peak of it’s powers.

It opens with California’s gentle acoustic playing on “Nuthin’ To Hide,” but before anybody can get too comfortable, the band kicks in with a slick, glam-rocky groove, with California’s crunchy guitar riffs playing off against the keyboards and Ferguson yelling he’s got nothing to hide. It’s with a guitar freakout, horn riffs and yelling. Hey, it was the 60s!

After “Nature’s Way,” a song dominated by loud, booming kettle drums amid folky guitars, is “Animal Zoo.” With it’s bright keyboards, bass solo and poppy feel, it’s a great slice of 60s pop. Here’s a song about being disillusioned with your surroundings. “Gotta get on back to that animal zoo” isn’t the most original idea in the world, but nobody’s ever looked to pop for serious enlightenment. Unlike the first two, this doesn’t rock out exceptionally hard; it’s Ferguson’s first contribution to the album and it certainly shows a difference in his and California’s approach to songwriting.

They pull out all the tricks on “Love Has Found A Way,” a song that manages to feature backward guitars, a marimba, bongos and lyrics like “Children reaching for a hand / Soldiers killing at every command,” without sounding like an acid casualty. Why hasn’t this song been on a “Nuggets” complilation?

Maybe the best song on the album, and one of the more memorable songs Spirit ever recorded, is “Mr. Skin,” a song about Cassidy’s shaved head (legend has it Ferguson walked in on him with a groupie and saw nothing but skin; “Mr. Skin, you know where you’ve been,” sings Ferguson). It’s a slinky, funky track for the band, again dominated by horns and an organ, lending it a jazzy feel (and that’s before the saxophone solo). Don’t let that fool you, though: this is the catchiest thing on the album and actually became a hit years after the album’s release, cracking the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. Is there a little Zappa influence here? Or is it a sly nod to Cassidy’s jazz experience?

Kicking off side two is the jazzy instrumental track “Space Child.” A breezy, light track with a prominent lead synth, which is just lo-tech enough to sound like something out of a 50s sci-fi flick and combined with tinkling piano and Cassidy’s full-on jazz drumming (listen to his drum rolls at the end!) gives it a weird, experimental air.

This strange feeling permeates through side two: California’s guitars ring loud on “When I Touch You,” another track that shows these guys were just a couple years ahead of their time: the way this builds up with synth lines and raging guitars would have been right at home among glam rock bands like T-Rex. Later they tackle folk rock (“Life Has Just Begun”), more psychedelic pop (“Street Worm”) before moving to the piano-led, California-written ballad “Soldier,” closing the album on a slow note: “You have the world at your fingertips / No one can make it better than you,” sings Ferguson over what sounds like a church organ.

A word has to be said about the production of this album: here, Spirit turned to David Briggs on the advice of Neil Young. He’d just come off working with Young on two classics: “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “After the Gold Rush,” where he captured Young’s ragged, raw live sound (just compare them to “Harvest,” an equally good album but one polished and shiny like a showroom car). Here, he pushed Spirit into their best release: they go from genre to genre, sometimes even in the same song, and pull it off in almost every song. Even Robert Christgau, who didn’t care much for this album, gave them props.

This would be a high-water mark for the group: by 1972, both principal songwriters had left the group and Spirit more or less broke up for a few years. They’d reform, mostly with California, Cassidy and hired hands, for a spell in the late 70s, adding Ferguson for a couple tours in the 1980s. The reunions and touring came to a sudden end in 1997, when California drowned while rescuing his son in Hawaii. Keyboardist John Locke died in 2006.

The other members of Spirit are still active in music: Andes is still playing bass and released a solo album a few years back, while Cassidy was still drumming in 2010 and Ferguson now plies his trade as a composer of soundtracks.

Altogether, through it’s various incarnations and posthumous releases, Spirit released close to 30 albums. Most of these can be ignored, though. They weren’t at their best for long, but with “Twelve Dreams” they at top form and left one of the great albums from acid rock scene. This album might have a difficult repuation in some circles, but it’s not a hard album to get into. Just cue it up, maybe pretend it’s 1970 again and wonder just how these guys never quite achieved the fame a lot of lesser LA bands did.

Originally published at Flashfact.org, Sept. 23, 2012




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