Spirit was one of the great bands of the late 1960s Topanga Canyon scene, an ambitious melange of hard rock, jazz, folk and spaciness. General pop listeners today may just recognize "I Got a Line On You," their only Top 40 hit in 1969, while album rock radio listeners who were around in the early '70s might remember various tracks from the group's classic album The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, such as "Nature's Way," "Mr. Skin" and others. But to those listeners who have heard any of the original band's albums in their entirety -- particularly Sardonicus and The Family That Plays Together -- Spirit is eminently memorable, and probably now a favorite.
Spirit's roots go back to 1965 with The Red Roosters, a teenage band that included Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes, Randy Wolfe, and his stepfather, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy. That band soon splintered when Cassidy moved the family to New York for a time, where Wolfe gained the moniker California gigging with a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix. Soon the family returned to Los Angeles, and Wolfe/California formed the band Spirits Rebellious. By 1967, the classic Spirit lineup had coalesced with all of the former Red Roosters and keyboardist John Locke.
After four albums, lead singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes departed to form Jo Jo Gunne. Shortly thereafter, California and his mercurial guitar style also departed, leaving Cassidy and Locke to finish out their record contract with a couple new members -- who took possession of the band's name after Cassidy and Locke also exited. Adding to the confusion, Cassidy soon put together his own Spirit semi-cover band for tours a short time after Sardonicus received some belated radio play. (The best place to unravel Spirit's convoluted history is via an excellent timeline compiled by Bruce Pates at Tent of Miracles, a fan site where this historical info is sourced from.)
That wasn't the end of the story, though. Cassidy eventually tracked down California, and the pair reclaimed the name from the hired guns. Their first move was to find a record deal, which was accomplished by signing to Mercury in 1975. Spirit fans adventurous enough to seek out more material from after the original breakup will find much to like, but also plenty of confusion in the albums from the Mercury era.
First up were three LPs worth of material largely recorded in the same sessions in Florida, and mostly featuring just California and Cassidy. The semi-U.S. Bicentennial tribute Spirit of '76 is a rambling double disc that often leans toward the acoustic side of the band (and, despite the title, was released in 1975). The follow-up/companion Son of Spirit is more focused but perhaps a bit less interesting for it. A better place to start is 1976's Farther Along, a reunion of the original band minus Jay Ferguson. It's a pop-aimed effort that is eclectic and accomplished enough to sit comfortably beside their first four albums.
Then there's their final Mercury album, Future Games: A Magical Kahauna Dream. Coming after the relatively straightforward Farther Along, any listeners who had stuck with the band had to think the group was indeed playing games with them, if they even had a chance to hear Future Games. California is the only member pictured on the cover and the album is likely largely his conception, though there are some shared songwriting credits with Cassidy and others, including the notorious Kim Fowley.
In many ways, the album is more of an experimental audio collage than a collection of specific songs. There are songs -- and good ones, like "Would You Believe" -- but they often seem adrift among the bits of dialogue (including numerous clips from Star Trek) and various short musical bits woven into the mix. The densely layered production adds to the collage effect; songs or pieces of songs flow into each other without regard for typical beginnings or endings, and there are occasionally even parts that sound completely unrelated that are floating around deep in the mix. There's clearly a conceptual base and probably a storyline here, somewhere, but I haven't found it yet. It's a disorienting journey, to say the least, but it's definitely not a boring one, and like anything involving Randy California is well worth checking out for Spirit fans.
Unsurprisingly, Spirit's contract was not renewed after the anti-pop of Future Games. Many more projects credited to both the band and California solo continued to appear right up to and since the guitarist's tragic drowning death in 1997. While those later albums were not always easy to find when originally released, there's more Spirit material available now than ever before; even Future Games and the band's other Mercury albums were finally reissued on CD overseas. The original band's run has been well documented in recent times by excellent CD and vinyl reissues of their four Ode/Epic albums, as well as three LPs worth of unreleased material on Sundazed. (Mercury, 1977)