The Twelve Dreams Of Doctor Sardonicus is quite likely one of THE most iconic albums to be released during 1970 and, such has been its impact, cited by many bands as being very influential, it’s been reissued several times and has been continually available. This album is easily Spirit’s meisterwerk and few of their contemporaries around this time were making albums anywhere near as good, with the exception of stone cold classics like Loves’ Forever Changes. It’s now been remastered and being reissued as a double CD, with the original album plus bonus tracks on disc 1 plus, on disc 2, Spirit’s live performance at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, May 1970.
Dr Sardonicus is an album which transcends genres – is it psych? Jazz? Pop? – and all the songs are good, with tracks like Nature’s Way, Mr Skin and Space Child being exceptionally so. The album contains some gorgeous melodies, innovative usage of the Moog synthesiser and musicians who, temporarily, put their fractious relationship behind them to produce something special. Sadly however, Spirit imploded soon after this album came out, with John Locke (keys) and Jay Ferguson (vocals) leaving, and Spirit were never the same again. The band reformed on a few occasions during the decade but never again came close to releasing an album as good.
The album opens with Prelude-Nothing To Hide, which shows Randy California’s bluesy side. The gorgeous Nature’s Way follows, and is possibly the first environmental protest song, with the effect increased by using acoustic guitars rather than electric. Greta could do worse than listen to this, and also Animal Zoo, about the problems of living in the congested city, with its noise and pollution. The delightful Love Has Found A Way is a collaboration between Locke and California and segues nicely into the short but beautiful Why Can’t I Be Free, a call for peace during a turbulent period in US history. The Spirit classic Mr Skin follows, with the band using horns to good effect. It’s a song which has been covered many times and remained a staple of Spirit gigs right up to the end.
John Locke’s Space Child is an eerie and spacily atmospheric instrumental, with Locke using the Moog effectively to create an ‘other worldly’ vibe. When I Touch You is the longest track and also the rockiest. Street Worm is a fast keyboard driven song with a good tune and sounds like it could be Jethro Tull circa their Stand Up period. Life Has Just Begun is very melodic with great vocal effects, and Morning Will Come is almost a rock ‘n roll boogie song, but both songs ooze class. The album concludes with Soldier, one of the more serious offerings, with pipe organ used to good effect.
There are also eleven bonus tracks, which is usually a cue for including all kinds of miscellanea. Here we get Dirty Dan, an instrumental sounding like a jam, and the somewhat rambling Red Light Roll On. But Rougher Road is delightful, a Byrds influenced song which could have been on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and also Randy California’s unreleased Walking On My Feet, which is short but sweet. There are rehearsal takes of Space Worm and When I Touch You, mono single takes of Animal Zoo and Morning Will Come, plus a first live airing of Nature’s Way, at the Fillmore West May 1970, with Randy California introducing it with ‘here’s a song I wrote this afternoon.’
Disc 2 contains a previously unreleased Spirit gig at the Fillmore West, May 16th 1970, with tracks drawn from across all four of their albums, with a few unreleased tracks added on, though Mechanical World was recorded at the Boston Tea Party, Oct 1969. The quality of the recording is ‘warts and all’, with a few tracks a little rough and incoherent in places, but even to make it sound as it does has involved considerable efforts in cleaning and restoring the original master tapes.
Performance-wise it sums up Spirit at the time, being casually loose in places, with the band seemingly indifferent, but on other tracks, sounding like they’re really tight and playing flat out. Three songs from Dr Sardonicus are included, Prelude-Nothing To Hide, with Randy California going for it on guitar, a slightly different version of Mr Skin, with Randy’s voice sounding like a vocoder’s being used, and a disappointing version of Animal Zoo, which starts well but descends into a jam, as does Uncle Jack, and the previously unreleased instrumental Country Jam and Jealous follow suit, with both sounding like they’re being composed on the spot. But there are several standout tracks, including All The Same and the mighty 1984, played slightly heavier and with more keys being used, and John Locke coming to the fore in Fresh Garbage. Randy California taps into his inner guitar hero during Fog and Dark Eyed Woman, letting rip with some scorching runs, emulating his mentor Jimi Hendrix, whom Randy played with. There are good harmonies in So Little Time To Fly and, from their debut album, there’s a fine version of Mechanical World, though the lame five minute drum solo was unnecessary.
The quality of Dr Sardonicus raises the inevitable question … what might have happened had Spirit not split up? Were they, as was said, ‘too weird for their own good’? Having poor management didn’t help either, as due to this they missed out on performing at both Woodstock and the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. But whatever, their music still survives and, if you can get past the cover, which looks like a bad acid trip, Dr Sardonicus deserves a place in everyone’s collection.