Here is the company Spirit kept in its brief heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s:
When I was a SoCAl kid in that era, we used to drive from San Pedro to Torrance to go to the Del Amo Mall, and as a kind of emblem, on the wall of the “hip kids” clothing section at one of the department stores (I forget which) were the most happening band names – the Beatles, Stones, Who, Creedence, Doors, and Hendrix were up there, and so was Spirit. All but the lattermost are cornerstones of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, classic rock radio and the popular imagination, and while there may have been bit of hometeam favoritism that helped put Spirit on the rockin’ department store leader board, they were not altogether out of place.
A (very) long car trip last weekend enabled a rare stretch of concerted listening, including the recently reissued The Best of Spirit, and while Spirit may not belong in the Rock Hall, they certainly deserve more respect than they currently get (not much) from the rock establishment.
Spirit was something of a Topanga Canyon psychedelic supergroup with songwriters Jay Ferguson (later of Jo Jo Gunne, a brief solo career, and much film/TV composition work), guitar prodigy Randy (Wolfe) California (who had played with and been renamed by Hendrix), bassist Mark Andes (Jo Jo Gunne, Firefall, Heart), keyboardist John Locke, and drummer Ed “Mr Skin” Cassidy, Randy’s stepfather, who had been a professional jazz drummer since the ’30s (Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan).
The original group became a jazzy psychedelic jamming wonder before producing four fine, if uneven, albums between ’68 and ’70, which very nearly perfectly boil down to the 16 songs (11 from the original Best Of, plus 5 bonus tracks), beautifully remastered for this reissue.
Highlights include California’s charging, summery rock-pop classic “I Got a Line On You” (their only Top 40 hit); Ferguson’s buoyant, carnivalesque “Mr. Skin,” which touches upon sex, Ed Cassidy’s shaved head, and sex, with a wicked backbeat; California’s folky, charming, slightly foreboding “Nature’s Way” (in which he sounds uncannily like Jerry Garcia) with great group harmonies. Also of note are “Animal Zoo” “Nothin’ to Hide” “Aren’t You Glad” and the haunting orchestral instrumental “Taurus” (the acoustic guitar figure of which was borrowed whole for the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” – Randy was bitter).
The story ends somewhat badly: after the original band broke up, California and Cassidy formed and reformed various versions of Spirit – none up to the original – until California was lost at sea off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii in 1997.
Though not quite up to what some zealots (including the liner note writer here) have labeled them – “the American Pink Floyd” – a noteworthy chapter in rock history nonetheless, and worthy of your attention.