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Class ?

Main Category: Roots Rock
Also applicable: Psychedelia
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years,

The Interim Years


Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Spirit fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Spirit fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating = 12

Magnificent and professional American psychedelia, even if it lacks inspiration in a couple of places.


Track listing: 1) Fresh Garbage; 2) Uncle Jack; 3) Mechanical World; 4) Taurus; 5) Girl In Your Eye; 6) Straight Arrow; 7) Topanga Windows; 8) Gramophone Man; 9) Water Woman; 10) The Great Canyon Fire In General; 11) Elijah; [BONUS TRACKS:] 12) Veruska; 13) Free Spirit; 14) If I Had A Woman; 15) Elijah (alternate take).

Wow! Why doesn't anybody ever remember THESE guys? They have almost vanished without a trace off this planet, and they were good. Spirit were one of these rare Sixties' American bands who wanted not just to be psychedelic: they wanted to churn out intelligent psychedelia, with a professional, laid back and restrained approach, carefully combining pop, rock and jazz elements to form a vehicle that might not always have been genial, but that was certainly always interesting, to say the least. Not to mention that Spirit are the only rock band I know of to have combined members of different generations: the band featured both ace guitarist Randy California and his stepfather - drummer Ed Cassidy. Can you think of something more cool? I can't.

Their debut album is said not to have been their best, but if it ain't, I'm seriously baffled - by all means, it doesn't deserve anything less than a 12, and if they really did better, wow... anyway, I'm all for it, and I'll write more about these guys when I get around to acquiring more of their catalog. And believe me, it's really worth hunting for. Now on to the long-awaited review.

Spirit released their self-titled debut record in 1968, when the LA psycho/acid scene was already in full blossom (and it would already come to its decline a year later); maybe that is why it's so often overlooked. But in many ways, it blows all competition away, and for a short while the band managed to really make it big due to their accomplishments. Compared to the Beatles, Spirit is definitely not ear-shattering; but compared to contemporary Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service (not to mention, ooh, the Grateful Dead), this record's a marvel. It is diverse, going from moody acoustic shuffles to psycho chants to fusion jams to straightforward pop ditties. It is vastly professional: Randy California's guitar chops (which he learned straight from Hendrix, by the way) are just about the best guitar sound you could hear from an LA band at the time, Ed Cassidy's jazz-trained drumming style is flawless, and bassist Mark Andes throws out astute lines that put him at least in the same league as Jack Casady, if not higher. And finally, these guys do know how to write their material, especially lead vocalist Jay Ferguson: the hooks are not immediately obvious, but after a couple listens almost every song on the album stands out on its own, and its brilliant eclecticism is completely adequate with its catchiness and melodicity.

And, of course, there's 'Taurus'. All of you certainly know this song even if you have never heard it before. How? Simple. After a brief, gentle strings and Mellotron introduction, Randy California picks up his acoustic and plays a melody that was... yeah, sit up straight: almost perfectly, note-by-note nicked off by Jimmy Page for the main acoustic riff of 'Stairway To Heaven'. Okay, so he changed a couple of chords to make it impossible for Randy to sue him, but that doesn't change the essence - and since it is historically documented that Led Zeppelin once used to open the show for Spirit and Page took a particular interest in 'Taurus', the fact may be considered proved. Now do you understand why I only gave Led Zeppelin a band rating of three? Not that 'Taurus' is really better than 'Stairway To Heaven' - but it's just different, a short, moody instrumental, with none of 'Stairway's epic magnificence, but also with none of its banal pretentions.

Out of the individual songs, it's hard to pick a favourite - they are all professional, memorable tunes. Currently, I'm mostly impressed by the grim pessimistic monotonousness of 'Mechanical World': in an attempt to mimic the Doors, the band actually delivers something in a slightly different style - an anthemic, angry rave-up with a two-chord sequence being endlessly repeated and Jay Ferguson wailing in the background: 'Death fall so heavy on my soul... Death falls so heavy makes me moan... Somebody tell my father that I died... Somebody tell my mother that I cried...', until he is being replaced by California's impressive Hendrix impersonation. The pessimistic notes are reprised for 'Grammophone Man', which is, however, more Kinks than the Doors: it's 'light', 'non-depressive' melancholia and a 'character song' so typical for Ray Davies. The main vocal melody is tear-inducing, and the irony (the song's about the downs of record industry, of course) is quite acute. Not to mention the great jazzy instrumental break, of course.

Then there's pure groovy psychedelia. 'Fresh Garbage' is one of their best-known numbers, a stage favourite that's said not to be as energetic and revealing in the studio version; well, maybe, I still like it very much. Isn't it fun to hear Ferguson chant 'freeeeeeeEEEESH GARBAGE' in a 'fresh papers!' intonation?

And then there are all those poppy ditties, so derivative yet so original. 'Uncle Jack'? Love it, maybe not as much as the Who's 'Happy Jack', but with all the Britpop harmonies, double-tracked guitar solos and funny lyrics, it comes very close. 'Girl In Your Eye'? Here they bring on a sitar which sounds very appropriate, too, although the song itself is more in the folkish vein; plus Randy changes his guitar tone to this stingy poisonous rattle which is vastly at odds with the gently sounding melody and provides a great counterpoint. And on 'Water Woman' the guys actually go country, with stupid water bubbles all around and a giddy, highly amusing atmosphere of its own.

Maybe a couple short tunes are weaker than the others, but that doesn't really get in my eye. What does get in my eye is the only serious misstep - the lengthy ten-minute fusion suite 'Elijah' (by pianist John Locke). The main riff is very good, and some of the solos are good, too, but the composition is definitely overlong; I could easily live without the lengthy guitar, organ, and drum drones going on and on and on with not much poignancy to them. Even so, the jam is definitely tons more involving than, say, some Quicksilver Messenger Service compositions I could name.

Don't bother about the CD re-issue, though: the bonus tracks include two rather lacklustre instrumentals, one pretty lame Randy composition called 'If I Had A Woman' (apparently, as a pop composer, Ferguson was the band's main star), and an alternate take on 'Elijah', all ten minutes of it. But I'm pretty much worn out by the first version already, so it's hard for me to notice the differences.

Please take the time to find the record, still. It's very important in that it has vastly changed my conception of American Sixties' rock: contrary to what I thought before, there were professional, eclectic bands on the West Coast that could have made good competition to the British ones. It's all the more frustrating to realize that pretty few people really know who these guys were.



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating = 10

The band is coasting on here - refining some sides of their sound and dumping lots of others.

Best song: I GOT A LINE ON YOU

Track listing: 1) I Got A Line On You; 2) It Shall Be; 3) Poor Richard; 4) Silky Sam; 5) Drunkard; 6) Darlin' If; 7) It's All The Same; 8) Jewish; 9) Dream Within A Dream; 10) She Smiles; 11) Aren't You Glad.

A serious disappointment. While for me Spirit's debut album was a wonderful mix of styles, fresh, innovative and diverse, the band obviously regarded it as a careful treading of water - and on their second album, only a minor handful of these styles remained. Instead of running all over the place (which makes that debut album such an arrow-target for the 'regular' critics and such an attractive target for me), The Family That Plays Together picks out one main groove - the slow, jazzy, relaxated one, and builds up more than half of the album's material according to that pattern. This might not be such a serious complaint, of course, had the band really worked out the hooks on these songs; unfortunately, the sound is uniform and smooth, and goes for atmosphere rather than distinct melody. True to the album's name, the band really plays together - in the bad sense of this expression, because the instruments simply gel into a monolithic mass and drown themselves out. I simply can't get wooed over the instrumentation on any of these songs, not to mention that the instrumentation is actually less diverse. Where are those hicky sitars, for instance? GIMME THE HICKY SITARS RIGHT NOW!

The album has also been sometimes called 'more hard-rocking' than the previous one, which makes me firmly believe that most Spirit critics have never bothered to truly listen to the albums. On the contrary, Randy California's guitar is horribly understated on the album - including even the songs which Randy wrote himself (and he emerges as the band's second, if not first, most important songwriter on here). Apart from a couple energetic guitar solos, he mostly sticks to the 'playing together' principle and that's it. Hard-rocking album? Man! Jazzy, yes; atmospheric, definitely; but in terms of hardness, this is an extremely mellow record. Heck, it has, like, three rockers out of eleven songs. Gee.

That said, the lead-in number is excellent - 'I Got A Line On You' just gotta be one of Spirit's most efficient pop-rockers, with a powerhouse piano riff carrying the song forward and incredible harmony arrangements, and it fully deserved a hit status, which it actually achieved. But it's also one of the most deceptive lead-ins, ever: the following five songs are all soft, slow, jazzy shuffles that have none of that energy whatsoever. Not that they are really bad or anything; apart from 'Drunkard', which is little more than a mushy over-orchestrated mess, any of these songs could have stood up on their own merits. But taken together, it's like a prime lullaby for dreamy hipsters, one of those rare cases when the total is actually less valuable than the sum of its parts. I mean, I love the way the dreamy, melancholic harmonies weave around the main organ theme in 'It Shall Be'; and I appreciate the way the 'woman tone' of California's guitar makes its dreamy, melancholic way into the mid-section of 'Poor Richard'; and I'm quite fond of the way that the dreamy, melancholic parts of 'Silky Sam' build up to a series of mini-climaxes (even if the song is essentially just a more complex version of 'It Shall Be'); and I'm particularly well-disposed towards the funny shakey vocal lines of the pretty ballad 'Darlin' If', which finally shakes off the comatose, drugged-out world of the previous four songs and diversifies the atmosphere a little with some clean, unadulterated folkish fun. But all this happens only if I listen to the songs separately, and even so, none of them are worthy of the highest level of praise. And listening to this stuff in a row clearly presents some problems - you have to be a particular fan of this brand of 'acid jazz' to fully get the groove.

Things get a little bit more upbeat with 'It's All The Same', a song that's painfully mediocre but it at least rocks out, with excellent Cream-inspired 'guitar solo symphonies' which then segue into... a drum solo. Oh boy. Even Ed Cassidy's age, which supposes wisdom and experience, didn't stop him from falling into the regular trap of a drum solo. Okay, so he already did a drum solo on 'Elijah', but that was different, because it was just a polygon for all the band members to display their skills. Meanwhile, Randy's 'Jewish' is nothing more than a stupid joke, and then we have to sit through two more of Ferguson's drones (luckily, they are a bit louder and they don't lull you to sleep, but they also don't have much in the way of memorable melodies) before getting to the album closer - which, ironically, happens to be the second best song. 'Aren't You Glad' has something that most of the other songs on here don't: a small amount of epic grandiosity, provided by Ferguson's high-spirited vocal delivery and majestic, soaring guitar lines from Randy. Oh, and actually, the last seconds of the song feature Randy playing his heart out on the most 'heavy' guitar solo on the entire record - which leads me to the conclusion that reverend critical people just listened to the lead-in and the lead-out numbers on the record before pronouncing their 'hard-rocking' verdict on it.

The fortunate thing is that in the future, Spirit would get better again, as the 'acid jazz' groove really didn't fit in well with them, and after all, the hippy era was already on its way out. The truth is, the band had way, way more potential than is displayed on this album, and they just failed to use it properly. Nevertheless, like I said, the songs are mostly good, or "okay" at the least. And you know what "okay" means, doncha?



Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 11

Tends to wear me out - much too samey-sounding, with melodies somewhat diluted. A minor classic nevertheless.

Best song: MR SKIN

Track listing: 1) Prelude - Nothin' To Hide; 2) Nature's Way; 3) Animal Zoo; 4) Love Has Found A Way; 5) Why Can't I Be Free; 6) Mr Skin; 7) Space Child; 8) When I Touch You; 9) Street Worm; 10) Life Has Just Begun; 11) Morning Will Come; 12) Soldier; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) Rougher Road; 14) Animal Zoo (mono single version); 15) Morning Will Come (alternate mono mix); 16) Red Light Roll On.

I don't quite get the deep hidden secret of this record. It is widely regarded as Spirit's finest hour before their dissolution, given excellent marks by all the critics and even more, this record was the only testimony to Spirit's spirit that could be found in print in the US for a long time. Actually, I'm beginning to wonder if it was that factor that implicated Sardonicus being hailed as the band's masterpiece, and not vice versa - people only could get a grasp at Spirit through that one release, and the rest of their career was subconsciously treated as a footnote.

Well then again, maybe not. There is one major advantage to this album: the guys sound completely mature and self-assured, with a special, unique sound that they have finally developed instead of running all over the place. There is one major flaw to this album, as well: the guys sound way too mature and self-assured, with a special, unique sound that replaces the diversity of old and makes most of these songs sound the same. No Britpop - jazz - folk - country - blues - psychedelia distinctions any more, just a special little brew of their own: mid-tempo jazz structures with moderately distorted virtuoso guitar and complicated rhythm textures, at times spiced with various psycho effects and gimmicks.

Randy California is now obviously at the forefront, pushing all the other players away, and he now also dominates the songwriting, contributing seven of the twelve numbers; Ferguson throws in another four, and Locke gets to 'shine' with a random psychedelic collage ('Space Child') that I don't particularly find very engaging. And not coincidentally, Ferguson's numbers are once again by far the most effective: 'Animal Zoo' is hilarious, a refreshing stab at country-pop that's one of the very few pieces of 'diversification' on the record. Just one note: the lyrics on the record suck throughout, with the band going for a 'profound' conceptual kind of message but failing - well, I suppose they were just pretending. Occasionally they find some pretty simple hippie mini-concept for a song, but much too often they're just unintelligible. I don't blame them, though - they were clearly going after the music rather than the words.

Okay, so 'Animal Zoo' is a highlight, but Ferguson's main claim for fame on here is doubtlessly 'Mr Skin', one of the band's best rockers - listen to it begin quite innocently, with quiet organ/guitar interplay and the band's sly soulful harmonies, but then they go for a rip-roarin' funk groove with a wonderful call-and-answer vocal arrangement and a brass section that would kick the bottom out of old Sly. Ferguson also contributes 'Street Worm', one of the hardest numbers on the album that to me, however, sounds more like a launchpad for these finger-flashing guitar solos from Randy than an actual song.

Randy himself, however, is in a relatively quiet mood: his songs are generally softer and moodier than Ferguson's, and that's including 'Nature's Way', the album's main minor hit single and the best known song from here in general. 'Moody' is the best description for the song; its instrumental melody is way too simplistic and repetitive to put it on a pedestal, but it gives a chance for the band to brew up some really powerful, mournful harmonies as they sing about... about... well, about 'nature's way of telling you something's wrong'. Quite emotional, if you ask me.

Other highlights are 'Life Has Just Begun', a gorgeous acoustic ballad with some more beautiful harmonies with the band, and especially the upbeat rocker 'Morning Will Come': the two songs form a magnificent 'optimistic anti-dote' to some of the more gloomy overtones on the record's first half. But I really can't say anything else about any other song, because, frankly, I don't know what to say. I don't see too many hooks in these songs: I admire the mastery and the perfectionism, and, of course, no California band in 1970 ever sounded like this, but I'd like the songs to have just a wee bit more edge to match the band's nearly-immaculate debut record. The four or five classics I have mentioned are all classics, no doubt about that, but the rest of the album is just a bit too sludgey, with instruments buried under each other and rather pedestrian vocal harmonies that don't seem to go anywhere - and I couldn't remember how the main melody of 'Soldier' or 'When I Touch You' goes upon the five hundredth listen. Missing the hooks and the diversity, I can't but give Sardonicus a wee bit lower rating than Spirit; I seriously think that looking at the band's output without a bias must lead to the same conclusion from everybody.

Oh, and by the way, this isn't actually even COMPLEX stuff. At least, it's by no means more 'complex' than their first records, unless 'boring' means 'complex', of course. It's far from ordinary and generic, of course, but so was Spirit. And the conceptual elements - the album title, the pretentious lyrics, vocal and instrumental links between the songs, etc. - just don't make the record any more special than it already is; after all, it's no Sgt Pepper, even if it's obvious that the band seriously intended for the record to become one.

That said, the album is still very good - and an easy eleven on the overall rating scale. Consequent listens bring out several interesting musical ideas initially buried down in the depths of sound, and at least half of the songs are extremely well-written, whatever that might actually mean.

Bonus tracks on the recent CD re-issue include a couple alternate mixes, a weak rocker ('Rough Road') and a hilarious piece of goofiness in 'Red Light Roll On', perhaps the most campy track ever recorded by Spirit - of course, they take that dumb approach completely tongue-in-cheek, and it guarantees you a good healthy laugh to conclude the listening process to. Because, to tell you the truth, a good healthy laugh is what the original release of the album seriously lacked.


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