The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970)

The fourth album by the rock group Spirit. Strangely, it is their best-known album, but sold poorly when it was first released. It gained a following and became their first Gold Record.

Spirit has always had a strong cult following, and that has not changed with time. Spirit could easily have gotten lost in the bull-rush of rock groups coming out of the 1960s. Strong songwriting skills and their eclectic attitude separated them from every other band wanting to make it big.  Spirit has been called a psychedelic-rock band, a jazz-rock band and various other labels, none of which really captured their unique sound.  Their second and third albums were a cross between Jethro Tull, Santana and Pink Floyd.  Pretty heady stuff, give “Ice” a listen.  You’ll think you’ve wondered into a jazz nightclub, late in the evening.

Some folks might remember the rocking song, “I’ve Got a Line on You,” from 1968, which reached number 25.  This was their most focused attempt at commercialism.

The classic lineup of the band made only four albums before internal combustion caused the band to splinter.  The very creative forces that gave the band so many interesting sounds accelerated tensions about direction and songwriting style.

When Twelve Dreams was released, it went to only 63 on the charts, despite a great deal of work and belief that it was going to be a big hit. Drummer Ed Cassidy (who was also Randy California’s stepfather) said, “There was frustration, we had had what we though was going to be successful.  Maybe, it’s not working and it’s time to move on.”

California was devastated when reviews, including Rolling Stone, gave it thumbs down. Despite touring to support the album, the band broke up in June 1971.  Two members left, while the others carried on with new players.

Spirit’s classic lineup:

Jay Ferguson: vocals, percussion, keyboards
Randy California: guitars, vocals, bass
John Locke: keyboards, art direction
Mark Andes: bass, vocals
Ed Cassidy: drums, percussion

You might have heard of Spirit recently due to the litigation between the estate of Randy California and Led Zeppelin over similarities between Spirit’s “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” The song in question was from an earlier Spirit album.

The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus was the last album of the original Spirit lineup, group members Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson left to form Jo Jo Gunne.

Although the album was a slow seller at first, it took awhile to find an audience. David Briggs, who has worked with Neil Young, came aboard as producer. Briggs gave the band a large bag of studio wizardry to showcase these smart and airy songs. While the songs are not lengthy progressive-rock suites, they are snippets of literary-driven songs of the complexities of life. Spirit was well-read and with a sense of humor.

The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is a poor man’s Abbey Road.

Side A

“Prelude – Nothin’ to Hide”  This song starts gently, then shifts into a more powerful gear.  Great harmony vocals.  California is quite talented on both acoustic and electric guitar. The guitars zoom from speaker to speaker courtesy of Briggs.

“Nature’s Way”  The most famous song on the album, this gentle guitar song is very melodic and a bit of an anthem. Again, the harmony vocal work is exquisite.

“Animal Zoo” A guitar riff song, with percussion breaks and a strong bass line.  A song about living in the human zoo.

“Love Has Found a Way” A jazzy song with backward tapes sending noise through your earphones during the instrumental break, which is interesting given the very melodic nature of the song. Lyrically, there is a lot going on here.

“Why Can’t I Be Free?” An acoustic song, simple but a big message.

“Mr. Skin”  Another famous song from the album, a heavy R&B arrangement with a funky bass line and horns.  Wicked chorus.

Side B

“Space Child”  You might think Todd Rundgren studio wizard stuff here, with quirky change of paces and spacey instruments.  The song has a jazzy feel to it, the synthesizer work is a very early example of using the instrument on a rock album.

“When I Touch You”  Spacey, distorted guitars bring on a very heavy, pounding psychedelic rock song.  Spirit proves they can rock hard, when they feel like it.

“Street Worm”  Bass player Mark Andes is very underrated, he gets a workout here.  This is a pounding rock song, very early 1970s.  The guitar work from California is outstanding, whether he is finger-picking or fuzzy, distorted soloing.

“Life Has Just Begun”  Acoustic guitar centered song, with great layers of vocals. Whatever this song is about, you want to hear it again when it finishes.

“Morning Will Come”  A big, brash, R&B flavored song with horns and a booming bass line.  These guys had a great sense for vocal stacking in their songs.

“Soldier” A slow, beautiful song, a little bit like Badfinger.  Gorgeous vocal arrangement.

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