Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Classic albums: Spirit - Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus  (1970)

Right on the cusp of the Seventies if you were into underground or progressive music (the term then was used for any music that was attempting to progress on from basic electric blues, so would embrace Cream, Led Zeppelin, as well as the early "progressive rock" bands such as Genesis) you'd have been aware of Spirit. They were a band that were respected rather more than enjoyed. They seemed to have potential to do good, though their music lacked identity or energy or fun or well just whatever it was that made music exciting. In essence Spirit were Worthy but Dull.

My first knowledge of them was from the sampler album The Rock Machine Turns You On, which contained "Fresh Garbage". To this day I retain a fondness for that song, and that sampler album - and I'm not alone in that. The track shows the band's West Coast origins with a laid back jazz and blues and country feel. combined with echoes of LoveGrateful Dead, and the Doors.  Mentioning those bands indicates why Spirit didn't become better known - they were playing on a very crowded stage, and they never really produced songs that captured the hearts and minds of critics or the general public. The band are probably better known these days for the court case over the similarities between "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven".

Wikipedia article on Spirit 

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is the band's most acclaimed album. It is seen as their highpoint - the band fell apart shortly after recording it, and though they did release other albums, they are not highly regarded, even among Spirit fans.  It was their fourth album.

Their debut album Spirit (1968) contains "Fresh Garbage". "Uncle Jack" is a piece of blues based psychedelia with some jazz drumming and trippy electric guitar, "Girl In Your Eye" has some Beatles sitar sounds - other than "Fresh Garbage", there's nothing distinctive or memorable. Most tracks were written by the singer and keyboard player Jay Ferguson.

The follow up was The Family That Plays Together (1968), which was a little tighter and rockier.  Song-writing was split between Ferguson and the lead guitarist Randy California. They rarely wrote together - preferring to write their own songs.  "I Got A Line On You" was a modest hit single - it's a modest late 60's rock song with nothing original about it. The lead guitar is particularly full of cliches.

The next released album was "Clear" (1969), though the band recorded the soundtrack to the film Model Shop. The soundtrack was released in 2005.

None of these albums is particularly interesting. They sound like the albums of a B-List band. They are on the whole competent, but there's nothing really to get your teeth into. They sound like a band that's perpetually caught up in the leaf swirl of a vehicle moving fast in a positive direction. They are not rocky enough or jazzy enough or psychedelic enough. They don't have flashy or interesting musicians or lead singer. They plod along in a quiet and worthy and unimaginative way.

So we come to their acclaimed album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Over the years people have made mention of this album. I've read the name several times. I can't say for certain if I heard it back in the early 70s. I may have owned it - I got through a lot of albums back then. Acquiring them and swapping them at speed. Always willing to try out new stuff, and always willing to swap out the crap for something potentially better. But if I did hear it or even own it, I don't recall it, and playing it now doesn't bring back any memories. Anyway....

The first track reminds me of Traffic - it has a good driving mix of jazz and rock, and the song has a more developed structure than heard previously from them.  But the comparison with Traffic is not right - Traffic had more accomplished musicians, so the sound is richer, lighter, more skilled and complex. Spirit are tighter and more direct. Though, tighter and more direct is more suited to straight rock. It doesn't quite work when the intention is to be musically varied and interesting, especially when dealing with jazz. Spirit's drummer is good, and can bring in interesting drum rhythms, but the rest of the band can't quite match him, so that is where Spirit are let down. They are, on the whole, not able to match their musical ambitions.

Jazz rock albums released in the 12 months before Twelve Dreams include  Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die,  Blood Sweat & Tears 3.  Frank Zappa's Hot Rats, Soft Machine's Third, Colosseum's Those About To Die Salute You,  and Chicago III.  Those albums are rather more obviously jazz than Spirit. Perhaps Caravan's If I Could It Again, I'd Do It All Over You is a nearer match.

Tracks like "Animal Zoo" reveal the country influence, so comparisons with Kinks, Grateful Dead, CSN&Y, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and the Band may be more revealing. Country rock albums released in the 12 months before Twelve Dreams include the Band's The Band, the Kinks' Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead, CSN&Y's Deja Vu,  the Flying Burrito Bros' The Gilded Palace Of Sin, and Poco's Poco.  But those albums are more clear in their country or folk aspects, and don't have any near the jazz feel of Twelve Dreams, though often the lead guitar is pretty much the same.  I think the Doors with their combination of styles, pop, rock, jazz and country are a closer match - Soft Parade has a similar feel to Spirit.

Head Heritage
The Independent obituary for Randy California
Spirit fanpage
Randy California fanpage

Tracklist (links to Spotify)

Side One
Side Two

Bonus tracks on 1996 remaster:
13. Rougher Road (3:17) *
14. Animal Zoo (Single version) (3:10)
15. Morning Will Come (Alternate mix) (2:50) *
16. Red Light Roll On (B-side) (5:41)

* Previously unreleased

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