Originally Spirits Rebellious, Spirit are among those bands who, despite being part of the late sixties West Coast milieu, have been largely left behind by the stellar rep of other bands of the era. They missed out on the first wave of psychedelia, and poor management led to their missing Woodstock. They’re not mentioned in the same breath, or with the same awe, as artists like the Dead, the Airplane, Janis Joplin, etc, and while these acts are considered iconic, Spirit tend to be known by younger fans, if at all, mainly through the attempt by one-time member Mark Andes to sue Led Zeppelin, alleging copyright infringement of a part of the song Taurus, from their debut album, Spirit, which he claimed was used by Zep as the intro to Stairway To Heaven. Listen to Taurus and, 45 seconds into the track, the all-too familiar intro to Stairway can be heard. Did Zeppelin overtly plagiarise Spirit and rip them off ? You pays your money, etc, but one thing’s certain … ‘there’s a lawyer who’s sure, all that glitters is gold, and he’s buying a Stairway to Heaven.’
Spirit originally split in 1971, and throughout the seventies and eighties there would be more reformations, splitting up, etc, but this first split came ironically just after the release of what many consider to be their finest album, The Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus (Dr Sardonicus was the name of the mixing desk!!) due to ongoing band dissension. Their three albums prior to Dr Sardonicus – Spirit, The Family That Plays Together and Clear – had raised the question about Spirit which followed them throughout their career … ‘were Spirit too strange / quirky for their own good?’ Certainly, there’s a case for stating this when listening to the albums they released during the mid- 1970s but, whatever, it’s this writer’s belief that Spirit’s first four albums are collectively as good as any other releases from bands of their era.
After splitting in 1971, Randy California relocated to Hawaii where he remained for two years, ignoring music completely, until reuniting with stepfather Ed Cassidy (drums) when Spirit reformed and signed to Mercury, who proceeded to release four further Spirit albums before the band fell apart again. Sunrise And Salvation; The Mercury Years Anthology is a collection of these four albums, some with several bonus tracks, plus three further CDs containing tracks of varying quality from unreleased studio demos and various live performances from across the period, plus a detailed 44-page booklet. The studio albums contain some sparkling tunes, suggesting Randy’s sabbatical hadn’t dulled his creative streak, but the extremely erratic nature of these albums were to prove Spirit’s best work was far behind them, and while albums like Spirit Of ’76 (1975) and Farther Along (1976) contained several good moments, the quality of the tracks came nowhere near the standard they’d reached on their earlier albums, with several sounding like unfinished studio jams and some being little more than solo works by Randy California.
Spirit of ’76 was actually released in 1975 and was their tribute to the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations. Of the original line-up, only Ed Cassidy and Randy California played on an album which bore little resemblance to the earlier band but, for all their later work, this is the most listenable of the Mercury era recordings and one worthy of the band’s name, even allowing for there being too much filler, such as three versions of Tampa Jam. The album comes on two discs, with the second disc featuring fourteen previously unreleased live tracks
After opening with somewhat ‘out there’ versions of America The Beautiful and The Times They-Are-A-Changing, plus an attempt at the Star Spangled Banner, Victims Of Society and Sunrise, inspired by the passing of Jimi Hendrix, are two of the better tracks. There’re covers of Walking The Dog, an attempt at the Stones’ Happy but without the swagger of the glimmer twins, and a credible version of Like A Rolling Stone. The most poignant track is Maunaloa, the beach where Randy California was to drown rescuing his son in January 1997. The version of Hey Joe is exquisite, with some gorgeous echoey guitar.
The bonus live material, recorded in Cleveland, Ohio in November 1974 with Mark Andes joining Randy and Ed, sees Spirit resurrect some of their earlier classics, and there are good versions of Fresh Garbage, Mr Skin and the beautiful Nature’s Way. Victims Of Society is ramped up and the set ends with versions of On The Road Again and Happy, with Randy in full-on guitar hero mode. These live tracks demonstrate, when they were on their game, Spirit were a match for anybody. This reviewer was lucky enough to see Spirit live and this set reminded me how good they were that evening.
On disc three, the first ten tracks are the Son Of Spirit album featuring tracks left over from the Spirit Of ‘76 sessions. The music is mostly written by Randy and Ed, and it’s only half as long as the previous album , and maybe only half as good. Tracks like It’s Time Now and Don’t Go Away are forgettable, and the version of Yesterday is tepid, but Holy Man and The Other Song are high spots, and on Magic Fairy Princess and Circle, Randy California gives us glimpses of his real talent. The vinyl album of this would be for completists only. The following twelve tracks comprise the Farther Along album, released June 1976, with four bonus tracks plus a live’version of the track Farther Along. With the exception of Jay Ferguson, replaced by Mark Andes’ brother, this was recorded by four fifths of the original band. But the music suggests Spirit were lacking in any direction. Title track Farther Along is a good tune, and Mega Star and Colossus are positive works in progress, but Atomic Boogie and Stoney Night foresee the disco boom and sound more like Kool & the Gang. World Eat World Dog is a jazzy track and Don’t Lock Your Door has a country feel. There are five bonus tracks; Hawaiian Skies and Song For Clyde are embryonic, and the live version of Farther Along is good. The other two are forgettable. Similar to Son Of Spirit, this is another album only for completists.
Future Games (A Magical Kahuana Dream) takes up disc four, featuring just Randy and Ed, and is absolutely a ‘one-of-a-kind’ release. Coming from somewhere out of left field, it’s an album melding together snippets of tunes with flashes of dialogue from various TV shows like Star Trek and Batman. There are a few good pieces of music in among all the quirkiness … Stars Are Love, Detroit City and Buried In My Brain being prime examples, and there’s a re-imagining of All Along The Watchtower, but there can’t be any surprise this album received no airplay whatever. There are also eleven bonus tracks, with Hollywood Dream and Same Old Naturally being genuine standouts, the rest being alternate versions of songs which didn’t have much first time around.
On The Thirteenth Dream, December 1982, the reformed original band re-recorded several of their earlier classics with a 1980s feel, with assistance given from guests like Bob Welch and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter. Fresh Garbage has an almost ‘metal’ feel and Pick It Up sounds like a Robert Palmer outtake. There are decent versions of Mechanical World, Elijah and Uncle Jack but Nature’s Way and Mr Skin are reduced to the point of blandness. The disc concludes with six live tracks recorded in Detroit 1985, with fine covers of All Along The Watchtower and Tobacco Road, a rock version of Dark Eyed Woman and Prelude: Nothing To Hide from Dr Sardonicus.
The three CD’s of unreleased miscellanea are of extremely varying quality. Disc six, Spirit Of Salvation, contains 21 songs featuring the band, plus eight Randy California solo demos. Highlights on this disc include a good version of Dylan’s Positively 4th Street, which sees Randy playing all the instruments and singing in a slightly higher vocal register, and the folk ballad Jimmy Brown, featuring just Randy on guitar, and there’s another attempt at Yesterday, which Randy sings quietly over an echoey background. Several of the songs are clearly works in various stages of progress and contain the nucleus of good songs waiting to be developed, such as Looking Into Darkness, Future In My Hands, Holy Man and Wake Up America, all of which would have benefitted from being more fully developed. I’ve Got To Use My Imagination, though, sounds like a poorly rehearsed garage band while Kathy’s Song (not Paul Simon’s one) is a lovely sentimental ballad and one of the best tracks on the record. Which is more than can be said for tracks like Neptune’s Caper, Family, Maharishi Speaks, Sparkling Sands and Cass Drums, none of which add anything to the album. The last eight tracks are all Randy California solo efforts, the pick of which are Miss Lani and Thinking Of You, plus also High With You, with Randy stating to his lady how he wants to ‘get high with you, wanna go to the sky with you,’ but on love rather than chemically, and it’s a pity these three songs didn’t become more than just demos.
Disc seven was recorded ‘live’ in Austin, Texas, June, 1975, with the line-up comprising Randy and Ed plus Barry Keene on bass, who also sang. The set begins promisingly with Going Down, with Spirit giving a credible impersonation of Hawkwind. Spacey guitar effects are prominent on tracks like So Little Time To Fly, Miss This Train and the nine-minute All Along The Watchtower, which sees Randy California stretching out on guitar, while country influences are prominent in Joker On The Run and Old Blue, a song about a dog. Mr Tambourine Man is played acoustically with Randy’s voice rarely rising above a whisper. From Dr Sardonicus we get fine versions of Mr Skin and Nothing To Hide, plus the classic I Got A Line On You, a song covered by Alice Cooper’s ‘supergroup,’ Hollywood Vampires. The set ends with a lengthy On The Road Again, with a deviation into the Star Spangled Banner midway through. The sound quality on this set was occasionally muddied, resulting in several songs from the full set not being included, and this set i general is nowhere near Spirit’s best, but there are several good moments on this disc and it’s worth a listen.
The final disc, Future Games, The Early Demo Version, is the same album as disc four with slightly varied and shorter versions of the same songs, in the same running order, with many of the songs sounding identical to the actual album. The saving grace of this disc is the presence of eight live tracks, recorded in Cleveland, Ohio, June 1975, with Spirit really rocking out. Randy connects with his inner Hendrix on Downer, Victims Of Society is superb as is Mr Skin and the nine minute Like A Rolling Stone, while All The Same sees Ed Cassidy engaging in a lengthy solo. After Ohio Jam and Old Blue, the set finishes with a lively I Got A Line On You.
Rather like Spirit’s career, the quality throughout this box set is extremely variable but, as their first four albums suggest, with better management, better luck and egos kept in check, Spirit could’ve been one of the more successful bands of their era. Certainly, in Randy California, they had a guitarist the equal of anyone on the West Coast, given he’d learnt his chops playing alongside Hendrix when aged only 15, and they wrote several classic tunes of their era.
However, as this is a boxset for the fan, if you’re new to Spirit, don’t start here … start with their first four albums then progress onto this set as you’ll then have the appropriate listening context.