Fifty years later, the band still sounds great. Spirit has been in news in recent years related to a plagiarism lawsuit against Led Zeppelin over parts of “Stairway to Heaven”. I am not going to get into that, my focus will be on the classic period of the band.
Randy California (real name Randy Wolfe), John Locke, Mark Andes, Ed Cassidy and Jay Ferguson were Spirit’s classic lineup. The band started out as the Red Roosters, Spirits Rebellious, and finally just Spirit.
From 1968 to 1971, this lineup produced four albums and a handful of songs for a film soundtrack that are genuinely good. In 1972, this lineup broke up, although over the next several decades, Spirit would continue on with remnants of this lineup, until the untimely death of guitarist/songwriter Randy California.
What makes Spirit a memorable bands along the rock highway of thousands of bands passing through? Aside from only two hit singles (“I Got a Line on You” and “Nature’s Way”), Spirit’s real musical nuggets were the album tracks, which veered from jazz-fusion to rock to folk. I think of Pink Floyd as a similar band in the era, experimenting with both musical and lyrical genres, mixing styles and flirting with concepts.
Back in the 1970s, I discovered Spirit, mainly from their brilliant album, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, clearly their most commercial work. I found even this album a bit eclectic, I enjoyed it, but it never became part of my rotation. I still have my vinyl copy.
The first album, Spirit (1968), sounds like a cross between the first Traffic album and the last Buffalo Springfield album. A glimmer of 1960s pop, a bit of earthy folk, a pinch of Mothers of Invention, some artsy orchestration, a slice of psychedelia and the occasional jazz run. Produced by Ode Records chief Lou Adler, Spirit found its way on the album charts and hung around for awhile.
Every member of the band contributed to the songwriting, but the main writers were pianist/lead vocalist Jay Ferguson and guitarist California.
Their second album, The Family That Plays Together (1968), shows a remarkable growth from their debut. Although as diverse as their first album, their sophomore effort was tighter and more cohesive as a listening experience. “I’ve Got a Line on You” put them on the singles chart and proved they could do catchy rock and roll and not just trippy stuff.
Also produced by Lou Alder, with horns and strings arranged by Marty Paich. Spirit was becoming the unconventional band that other groups strived to be, but did not have the talent and creativity to pull it off. The pop landscape was littered in the late 1960s with groups that tried to sound as sophisticated as The Beatles or Beach Boys with odd signatures, orchestras, sitars, odd lyrics, borrowed musical genres and tight harmonies.
Cassidy, married California’s mother, was quite a bit older than his band mates, having served in World War II, and played with classic jazz artists like Cannonball Adderley and Gerry Mulligan, and was in a group wit Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. California was fourteen when he joined Cassidy in his first band. California would then join Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, led by Jimi Hendrix, who gave California his nickname.
Andes was in the group Canned Heat, but left before their fame. Ferguson had been in a bluegrass group and other L.A. bands. Locke also hailed from L.A., and grew up in a musical family, his father a classical violinist and mother an opera singer.
Spirit was asked by filmmaker Jacque Demy to write and perform the soundtrack to Model Shop, a film he was making. Spirit, like other up and coming L.A. bands, worked the clubs. They got their record deal with Ode by essentially auditioning there with Adler in the audience, and later with Demy there. The songs for Model Shop are pretty close to jazz-fusion, they are moody and jazzy songs, mostly instrumentals. These were talented musicians.
Clear (1969) followed next. Adler produced again, with the result being the weakest of their first four albums. Considering how much they were recording, then touring, there was bound to be an issue of songwriting. They had set the bar high. Don’t get me wrong, these songs are a bit less accessible and more complex.
“Dark Eyed Woman” is an outstanding song written by California and Ferguson. “Give a Life, Take a Life”, “I’m Truckin’”, “Clear” are standout songs.
The last of the four studio albums is the Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Explain how this can be their lowest charting album but their only Gold Record? For some reason, the public was losing interest and the group was splintering. This album was the only album of theirs that remained in print, deservedly so.
The band switched producers, going with David Briggs, a frequent collaborator of Neil Young. Musically, the songs are tight and waste nothing.
It’s a shame that as the band reached new musical heights, internally it broke apart. Andes and Ferguson left to start the band Jo Jo Gunne. California left to record a solo album. Locke and Cassidy recruited new members and carried on. California eventually returned to the group and stayed in its orbit until he tragically died in 1997.
While there were more Spirit albums after the classic lineup broke up, they did not match the commercial or critical success of the early albums.
Two very good collections of Spirit songs have been released.
Time Circle (1991) is a two-disc set, drawing on the first four albums along with Model Shop selections, with some remixes and outtakes from various sessions. It is a great overview of the best of Spirit’s work.
Spirit, It Shall Be: The Ode & Epic Recordings, 1968-1972 (2018) is a five-disc set containing the first five albums, plus Model Shop soundtrack, and many outtakes and remixes. The difference between this box set and Time Circle is the inclusion of everything recorded including songs that did not make Time Circle and the fifth group album, Feedback, plus mono recordings and other sessions. This set is very comprehensive, and includes everything from the best period of Spirit.