Defending Spirit: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970) Album Review
Just recently, the surviving members of legendary hard rockers Led Zeppelin were called to stand trial. The estate of Randy California, founding member of psychedelic rockers Spirit, accused the band for plagiarizing the guitar bit in Spirit's instrumental piece "Taurus" and using it as the opening for Zeppelin's 1971 masterpiece "Stairway to Heaven." For hardcore music fans, this was nothing new as this was caught by music listeners years ago. Earlier this year, Zeppelin came out victorious with a not guilty verdict.
So what is there to say about this Spirit band? Was the band's music significant to the history of rock music? While that is up for debate, Spirit do have an interesting backstory. While they certainly weren't as influential as the mighty Led Zeppelin, Spirit did release some great music from 1968 to 1970. Of the band's rather large discography, fans would agree that their best material can be found on their first four albums. Of those four album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is considered by many to be their best. Personally, I would agree with all of this. Spirit were such an underrated band that were unfortunately plagued with some bad luck. Not only is Twelve Dreams my favorite album by the band but it's also one of my all time favorite albums (and yes- I do have a list of this!). Twelve Dreams can be found somewhere in my top 100- so it's safe to say that I think highly of this album and Spirit.
Early years and the first three albums (1966-69)
The story of Spirit starts sometime in the summer of 1966. It was around that time that 15 year old guitarist Randy Wolfe had moved from Los Angeles to New York City. His mother, Bernice, had married jazz drummer Ed Cassidy- who was now Wolfe's stepfather. It was while in New York City where Wolfe joined a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. However, Jimmy James saw that he had two people named Randy in his band- Wolfe and Randy Palmer. James decided to give his bandmates stage names based off where they came from. For Palmer, he was now Randy Texas. For Wolfe, he was now Randy California. Jimmy James would later become Jimi Hendrix. When Chas Chandler of the Animals became interested in managing Hendrix, he asked for him to come over to England. Hendrix supposedly wanted California to come with him but his parents were against it- citing California had to stay in school. Hendrix would end up going to England and formed what became the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Despite not going with Hendrix, California was able to form a new band. By 1967, his family had moved back to Los Angeles. It was there that California would form a new band with his stepfather Ed Cassidy. Completing the line-up was singer Jay Ferguson, bassist Mark Andes and keyboardist John Locke. Originally, the band chose the name Spirits Rebellious before deciding to shorten it to Spirit. The band played around the LA area until producer Lou Adler took notice of them. By August 1967, the band were signed by Adler to Ode Records. In early 1968, the band released their self-titled debut album. The album featured songs such as "Fresh Garbage," "Mechanical World" and the soon-to-be controversial "Taurus." The album did fairly well for a debut album, charting at #31. The band followed it up with another two Adler produced albums- The Family That Plays Together in 1968 and Clear in 1969. The former featured the band's biggest hit single "I've Got a Line on You" while the latter was recorded around the time the band were recording the soundtrack to Jacques Demy's 1969 film Model Shop. Aside from "I've Got a Line On You," the band were almost unknown. The band did tour with Led Zeppelin in 1969 and were on tour with their fellow LA rockers.
By 1970, the band were working on their fourth album. Instead of going with Adler, the band chose Neil Young producer David Briggs. During the recording of the album, there were tensions within the band and drug use was rampant. Little did the band know, they were making what would become their best album.
The albums opens with the two-parter of "Prelude/Nothin to Hide." The former is a short and sweet ditty that bursts into the rocking latter. It's a great way to open the album, as it really does give the listener a feel for what's about to follow after it: a psychedelic rock ride. "Nothin to Hide" is a hard rocker with some trippy lyrics, which could be seen as an insight to the late 1960s and the hippie scene. In the chorus, the band declares they have nothing to hide as they are married to the same bride- which is ironic considering being married to more than one person would be something to hide. Then again, this album was released in 1970- not too long after the Summer of Love and the idea of free love.
After the first track, the psychedelic ride continues. Following "Nothin' to Hide" is the folk-like "Nature's Way." Of the 12 songs from the album, "Nature's Way" is easily the most popular song- as it has been used in several movies and TV shows. The song's environmental message easily fits with that time of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While it's eco-friendly, the song could be seen as a cry for change- not in the environment but in the world as a whole. The Vietnam War was still going on at the time. Heck, "Nature's Way" could apply to what's going on in 2016.
While Twelve Dreams has all of these serious and meaningful songs, Spirit still leaves time for some fun songs. "Animal Zoo" is an example of this: it's got a catchy beat (with a solid bass line from Mark Andes) and some whimsical lyrics- especially the chorus: "Oh no something went wrong/Well you much too fat and a little too long/Hey hey got too much to lose/Got to get on back to the animal zoo." The R&B infused "Mr. Skin" is another highlight. The song title is a nick name drummer Ed Cassidy had, according to Randy California during live performances. Whatever the case may be, it's a great song with hearty vocals from Jay Ferguson and some jazzy horns.
Side two mostly features psychedelic jam tracks with a touch of jazz. First, there's the fittingly titled "Space Child." The instrumental track sees Spirit once again dabbling with jazz. Having Cassidy's background in jazz music came in handy for songs like this, where the band were just jamming or improvising. Keyboardist John Locke also stands out with his piano work on the track. "When I Touch You" features some far out guitar work from California while "Morning Will Come" wonderfully meshes some hard rocking riffs with some top notch horn playing. The album ends with the somber but psychedelic "Soldier." It's not the most memorable closer but it's a great way to end the album, with some lyrics from "Prelude" added to the end- bringing the album full circle.
Spirit performing "Nature's Way" in 1978- during their later period
Post 1970 and aftermath
Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was released in November 1970. Critically, the album was well received. However, the album charted at #63 in the Billboard charts. At the same time, there were tensions within the band. It came to the point where in 1971, singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes left the band. A few years later, Ferguson and Andes had formed a new band- Jo Jo Gunne, a band that were able to stay together until 1975. Randy California would also leave in 1971, pursuing a solo career. This left drummer Ed Cassidy and keyboardist John Locke the only members left. Come 1971, brothers Chris and Al Staehley were brought in as the new frontmen on guitar and bass. This line-up released an album in 1972 called Feedback, which was really only a Spirit album in name. Musically, it was a country-rock influenced album and it didn't do too much in the charts or critically. At one point, Cassidy and Locke had left the band- leaving Spirit with no original members and the Staehley brothers touring under the band's name until 1973.
After being given back the Spirit name in 1974, Randy California reformed Spirit with his step father Ed Cassidy. For the next 23 years, California and Cassidy kept the Spirit name going by touring and making more studio albums- with a revolving door of musicians. The classic line up reunited a few times- with one attempt made in 1976 that Neil Young (yes, the Neil Young) encouraged California to do. At one gig towards the end of the show when the band played "Like a Rolling Stone," Young came up on stage to be a guest singer. California then supposedly tried to push Young off the stage. California would later claim he mistook Young as a drunk trying to get on stage while others think that California didn't like being upstaged. Either way, the original line-up would not reunite again until 1982 in support of a studio album.
On January 2, 1997, Randy California died after drowning in the Pacific Ocean. He was 45 years old. California was in Hawaii at his mother's house with Randy's 12 year old son, Quinn. The two were surfing and at one point, there was a rip tide. Randy saved his son's life by pushing him ashore. Unfortunately, Randy wasn't as lucky and drowned in the ocean. With Randy's death, Ed Cassidy continued Spirit for a little while longer as Spirit Revisited until 1998. Keyboardist John Locke died at 62 in August 2006 while Cassidy died in December 2012 at 89. As for the causes of death, Locke and Cassidy both died from cancer.
Since 2012, two of the five original members of Spirit are still around: Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes. As mentioned before, the two were in their own band- Jo Jo Gunne. Andes left after the first album but the original line-up of Jo Jo Gunne reunited for an album in 2005. After Jo Jo Gunne, Andes would join Firefall and then the Wilson sisters in Heart. During his time in Heart, Andes was able to enjoy success when Heart made a comeback in 1985 with hit singles such as "These Dreams" and later in 1987- "Alone." As of 2016, Andes is currently still active in music.
After Jo Jo Gunne's split, Jay Ferguson embarked on a solo career. Ferguson was able to gain a hit single in 1977 with "Thunder Island" and "Shakedown Cruise" in 1979. Starting in the 1980s, Ferguson became involved with writing music for movies and TV shows. By 2005, Ferguson had written the theme song for the hit NBC sitcom The Office, a US version of the UK series of the same name. It was the theme used until the show's end in 2013. Composing the theme for The Officeled Ferguson to win the 2007 Film & TV Award for Best Score for Comedy Television Program.
As for Spirit's legacy, it should not be tarnished by this lawsuit against Led Zeppelin. Spirit were a great band in their own right and consisted of five very talented musicians. They weren't too famous but that shouldn't have to matter: those first four albums they made from 1968 to 1970 contain some of the most underrated rock music of all time. So before you say anything bad about Spirit, listen to their music. Twelve Dreams isn't a bad place to start.
For more info on Randy California and Spirit, click here to go to the band's official website.