Exposé print issues (1993-2011)
Spirit — It Shall Be - The Ode & Epic Recordings 1968-1972
(Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 52619, 1972/2018, 5CD)
by Peter Thelen, Published 2018-07-02
Subtitled The Ode & Epic Recordings 1968-1972, this five disc set in a clamshell box pretty much covers the formative years of one of the finest and most eclectic bands of the late 60s in Southern California. Sure, The Doors, The Byrds, The Mothers, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Love, and Iron Butterfly and many others from the LA scene at the time were all better known, but Spirit was unique from the outset, combining rock, folk, classical, jazz, blues, psychedelic, and some unclassifiable elements into their sonic fabric. Exposé published a very detailed history of the band way back in issue #13 shortly after the accidental drowning death of guitarist Randy California that could well serve as an alternate set of liner notes for this set.
After a four-song demo (not included here) was shopped around in 1967, the band was picked up by producer Lou Adler (best known for The Mamas & the Papas, and later for Carole King) from his new Ode label, the first album Spirit appearing in January 1968. Opening with the tune “Fresh Garbage,” a catchy tune offering commentary on the wasteful habits of society, the song is essentially a folk-rock cut with a full-on jazz break in the middle. In fact at that point in time singer Jay Ferguson was responsible for most of the songwriting on the album, and coming from a folk-rock background, this is reflected in many of the tunes on the album, most notably “Topanga Windows” and the wonderful folk piece “Water Woman,” but Ferguson wrote some great rock tunes as well, like “Uncle Jack,” “The Great Canyon Fire in General,” and “Straight Arrow.” The arrangements on the songs are another matter, since keyboardist John Locke and drummer Ed Cassidy (who was Randy California’s stepfather) both had strong jazz backgrounds and brought that element into Spirit’s sound, evident on many tunes, but especially on the group penned “Gramophone Man,” and Locke’s closing eleven-minute epic “Elijah” where a repeating jazz-rock segment is punctuated by solo improvisations from each band member. California’s solo classical guitar piece is another major standout, though the string arrangements applied by Marty Paich are far too prominent, somewhat burying the guitar in the mix. “Girl in Your Eye” is a period piece penned by Ferguson, full of sitars and other psychedelic embelishments that firmly date-stamp it in the 1967-68 timeframe. Perhaps the album’s strongest cut – and it was released as their first single – is “Mechanical World,” a tune penned by bassist Mark Andes (who had previously played with Canned Heat) and Ferguson, its ratchet-like percussion attack and mournful vocals are punctuated by blistering lead guitar from California. The song got a considerable amount of FM airplay at the time, and is in fact what piqued my initial interest in the group. This debut album is presented here twice, once on disc one it its stereo version, and on disc four in its heretofore unreleased on CD mono mix.
The balance of disc one contains the band’s second album from December 1968, The Family That Plays Together, which opened with the band’s first (and only) Top 40 hit “I Got a Line on You,” written by Randy California (who a couple years earlier was playing with Jimi Hendrix in Grenwich Village), and the album also shows his emergence as a major songwriting power within the band. In addition to the hit, he also penned the powerful “Darlin’ If” that closed side one, the Hebrew language “Jewish” based on Psalm 133, a masterful collaboration with John Locke, “It Shall Be” for which this set is titled, and “It’s All the Same,” a colaboration with Cassidy that the band would open every show with, starting with a long siren sound, and featuring an amazing drum solo that sometimes even saw Cassidy playing the stage with his hands. Aside from the strong entry “Poor Richard” on side one, which features a powerful bass figure from Andes, Ferguson’s best songs are on the album’s second side, including “Dream within a Dream,” the powerful closer “Aren’t You Glad,” and the curious “She Smiles,” a song about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which also served as the B-side for the aforementioned single. On the first side of the album, Ferguson’s “Silky Sam” is somewhat of an oddity (with a card game in the middle of it) and “Drunkard,” a sad commentary of a broken man, both songs harmed by excessive string and brass arrangements. Still, this was a strong follow-up to their debut album.
During the recording of Family, French film director Jacques Demy shows up in Los Angeles with plans of putting together the cast for his next movie, pulling in Gary Lockwood (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame), French actress Anouk Aimee, and co-starring Alexandra Hay. On his arrival, Demy went out to pick up on the local culture, went into The Kaleidoscope, a hip LA night club at the time, on a night when Spirit happened to be playing, and as fate would have it, decided he wanted them to do the soundrack for his new movie The Model Shop. As it turned out, not only did they do the full soundtrack, but they also appeared in the film. What could be better for Spirit than a break recording a soundtrack for a hit movie? Unfortunately, although the music that the band composed and recorded was nothing short of excellent, the film was a box office bomb, so much so that a soundtrack album wasn’t released until over three decades later in 2005 (although some of the tracks began to appear first on the 1991 Time Circle compilation, and later on two Sundazed compilation LPs, Now or Anywhere and Eventide, mixed with other Spirit outtakes from the late 60s). The music is, for the most part, classic instrumental spirit sporting mostly their jazzy sound, with a couple of vocal tracks, “Now of Anywhere” and “Green Gorilla,” the latter a two minute bluesy romp, while the former nicks some ideas from “Aren’t You Glad” on the second album, integrating them into an entirely new song. And speaking of “Aren’t You Glad,” a fully raw and destringed demo version of the song is added as a bonus track, far superior to the version on Family. “Model Shop I” and “Model Shop II” are instrumentals that would be integrated in part or whole into the tracks “Ice” and “Clear” on the band’s next regular album, Clear. Several more instrumentals worthy of note include “Mellow Felow,” the six minute “Song for Lola,” “Coral,” “Eventide” and opener “The Moving Van.” All taken, The Model Shop can be thought of as the Spirit album that never was, and the fact that the soundtrack was never released in its time caused Spirit to pull many of the better ideas forward to the second side of their next album. The Model Shop soundtrack occupes the first half of disc two of this set.
Throughout 1969 spirit continued gigging, and new songs were played that would find their way onto the band’s next album, Clear (which occupies the second half of disc two), and a few others that wouldn’t show up until Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. The first side of Clear is probably the most powerful album side that Spirit had commited to date, opening with the overt rocker “Dark Eyed Woman” and continuing with concert favorites “Apple Orchard” and “So Little Time to Fly” – the latter another great tune penned by California and Locke. Next come three Ferguson tunes, beginning with “Ground Hog” and ending with the somewhat bizarre “Policeman’s Ball.” Sandwiched between then is the sublimely beautiful “Cold Wind” with its lush vocal harmonies, though the main vocal sounds as if it was recorded at a distance and somewhat buried in the song’s final mix. The second side features three instrumental tracks including “Clear” (a direct lift from The Model Shop, though in glorious stereo), Locke’s six minute “Ice” which pulls a number of ideas forward from the aforementioned soundtrack, and “Caught,” another Locke composition with plenty of space for group improvisation amid its structure. Interspersed between these are vocal tunes “Give a Life, Take a Life,” a softer piece with thoughtful lyrics – even if a bit preachy, and Ferguson’s rocker “I’m Truckin,” then closing the side with the group written “New Dope in Town” – again offering a beautiful jazzy interlude in its center section, but probably not the band’s finest moment as far as lyrics go. That said, Clear is a strong album and showed Locke’s emergence as a powerful songwriter (just in case “Elijah” on the first album wasn’t proof enough).
After being offered the slot just before Hendrix at the now legendary Woodstock festival in 1969 — the band’s management turned it down, instead sending them on a radio tour, which had a disheartening impact on the band’s morale, but they forged ahead. If things on this set were presented chronologically, the next two songs would be the A and B sides of the band’s self-produced non-LP single – released shortly after Clear in 1969, the politically charged “1984,” backed with “Sweet Stella Baby,” both performed regularly in concert at the time, it was headed to be Spirit’s second big hit, receiving a lot of airplay until suddenly it didn’t, being “banned” on commercial AM radio in the USA for its controversial lyrics. Disc two of this set is already 83+ minutes long, so this single appears on disc five instead.
A number of songs that Spirit had been playing live throughout late 1969 and early 1970 had not yet shown up on any albums, and some in fact never did (like the legendary “You Make Me Jealous”), but several were destined for Spirit’s 1970 follow-up long player The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, what would over time become Spirit’s most heralded album with a well deserved classic status. Those songs previewed in concerts, such as “Mr. Skin,” “When I Touch You” and “Animal Zoo” (three outstanding Ferguson compositions) and a mysterious instrumental which would emerge as “Space Child” would join Randy California’s now legendary “Nature’s Way” (a song that Spirit has re-recorded numerous times over the ensuing years and played at nearly every concert up until California’s untimely death in January 1997) and a half dozen other unforgettable gems across the two sides if the new album. So what makes Sardonicus so different from the three LPs before it? In the spring of 1970, California met with his good friend Neil Young to ask about producer David Briggs as a possible producer for Spirit’s next record, seeking a new direction from where producer Lou Adler had taken them up to that point. Young’s solid recommendation regarding Briggs started a productive relationship that led to Spirit’s finest creation to date. It took five months to record Sardonicus, and during that time Briggs became “a sixth member of the band” per California, working with them in a very hands-on way, guiding the band to their very best studio performances and offering outside-the-box ideas and inspiration throughout the album’s development. The presentation of the album’s tracks was sort of like a concept album, with the theme and lyrics of the beginning of opener “Prelude / Nothing to Hide” (which features some bad-ass slide guirtar work from Mark Andes’ brother Matt) also showing up at the end of the last track “Soldier” as it begins to fade out amid a majestic pipe organ playing along with the track. Many of the album’s tracks are crossfaded together, like “Animal Zoo” emerging out of the coughing and car exhaust at the tail end of “Nature’s Way,” then the California / Locke penned “Love Has Found a Way” emerges from a backward-effected “much too fat and a little too long” at the end of “Animal Zoo.” Certainly Briggs had a hand in the execution of many of these ‘concept’ ideas but the important thing is that they work, making the album a powerful sonic continuum. The second side of the LP had a couple of great rockers, “Street Worm” and “Morning Will Come” (by Ferguson and California respectively), separated by the stunningly beautiful “Life Has Just Begun” with its mysterious lyrics delivered over an acoustic guitar intro – easily my favorite song on the entire record. An out-take from the sessions, “Rougher Road,” is presented as a bonus track, and is easily as good as anything else on Sardonicus. But the album’s release an late 1970 came almost concurently with the sad news that Ferguson and Andes were leaving Spirit to form Jo Jo Gunne along with Matt Andes and drummer Curly Smith.
For a period of time the remaining members brought in John Arliss on bass and undertook a tour in early 1971 as a four-piece with Locke, Cassidy, and California, the latter adding a number of new songs to the band’s repertoire that unfortunately were never studio-recorded (but can be heard on bootlegs from that period). After this, California dropped out and Arliss was replaced by bassist and singer Al Staehely, a friend and former bandmate of Jo Jo Gunne drummer Curly Smith, introduced to Spirit by Ferguson. They went on a nationwide tour as a trio with no guitarist, probably hoping for California’s return, but as the tour passed through Texas, Staehely introduced them to his brother John, a guitarist who was available and so began the next chapter of the band, and their fifth album Feedback, again produced by David Briggs. The album tends to get a bad rap because it doesn’t sound much like Spirit ever did before. And that is true; you can’t remove the most prolific two of the three songwriters in the band, and replace them with another (Al Staehely) and not expect the band to sound different. In truth, Feedback sounds a lot more like Spirit than any of the albums by Jo Jo Gunne. The album opens with a strong rocker “Chelsea Girls,” Al Staehely’s gritty singing accompanied by a group of backing singers who appear on several tracks throughout the album, giving the songs a slight soul vibe. “Cadillac Cowboys” follows, one of the album’s hardest driving cuts with a strong boogie vibe, a great guitar solo from J.Christian Staehely (as he is listed on the album’s credits). Next up is one of two powerful Locke instrumentals presented on the disc, “Puesta del Scam” is probably as close to jazz-rock fusion as any piece the band ever did, leading off with a piano figure, with the rest of the band joining, and a completely insane guitar solo that swings from ear to ear when heard on headphones; Locke’s other instrumental, “Trancas Fog-Out,” is also excellent, but a little more gentle by comparison. “Ripe and Ready,” with its suggestive lyrics, is another rocker with a cool organ solo and top form Al Staehely vocal delivery, while the Locke penned “Darkness” features thoughtful lyrics and inspired playing by the entire band. The gentle acoustic number “Mellow Morning” brings a touch of country into Spirit’s repertoire for the first time, sounding a bit like their contemporaries Poco. “Right on Time” is another Staehely piece that starts with an acoustic country feel but cuts over to a swaggering Texas style rocker after the first verse. All taken, Feedback is an excellent album, even if totally unlike anything they did before. And here we arrive at the end of disc three of the set.
After the tour for Feedback, first Cassidy and then John Locke quit the band, so for a while the Staehely brothers recruited a new drummer and continued to tour as Spirit, but when their next release came out in 1973, it was credited to The Staehely Brothers, titled Sta-Hay-Lee. There are two more discs on this set, but there are no more Ode and Epic recordings in the 1968-1972 timeframe by Spirit, unless one wants to count Randy California’s brilliant 1972 solo release Kaptain Kopter and the Fabulous Twirlybirds, which Esoteric has already released with a bunch of bonus tracks, and in fact Cassidy played drums on much of it. But discs four and five of the set are an excercize in exhaustive completeness beyond the six albums that have previously been covered. Disc four starts with the mono mix of the first album, something that I personally have wanted to see released for a long time. It sounds similar to the stereo, being sourced from the same recordings, but it does sound slightly differerent, difficult to pin down but some elements stand out more in the monaural mix than thet did in stereo. Next, the four bonus tracks that were included on the 1996 Sony CD release of Spirit, including three songs from very early in the band’s repertoire: “If I Had a Wonan” was one of the songs on the band’s original 1967 demo, plus “Free Spirit,” the hard rocker “Veruska,” and a completely different full length take of “Elijah”.
In 1991, prior to Sony’s release of the first four albums (all that had been available up the that time were woefully substandard CD reissues of the first three on Edsel, and a low quality Mobile Fidelity release of Sardonicus), Sony (technically it was on Epic/Legacy) released a two disc compilation of tracks from the first four albums titled Time Circle. For reasons unknown, the tracks culled from the band’s second album, which include the first four tracks from side one, plus “All the Same,” “Dream within a Dream” and “Aren’t You Glad” from side two were remixed for this release, as well as the bonus track “Scherezode”. Also, stereo versions of three of the tracks from Model Shop are included. The remixes from Family are barely distinguishable from the originals with the exception of “Dream within a Dream” and “Aren’t You Glad,” on which the well versed listener will recognize these two are not the originals. The Time Circle remix tracks round out disc four and start disc five of this set, then we get the five bonus tracks that were included on the 1996 version of Family, including stereo versions of “Mellow Fellow,” “Now or Anywhere” and “Fog” from the Model Shop soundtrack, plus a very early “Space Chile” that would, over time, morph into the classic version on Sardonicus. Next up on disc four are two of the four bonus tracks from the 1996 reissue of Clear – including “Fuller Brush Man” and a stereo mix of “Coral” from the aforementioned soundtrack, followed by the aforementioned “1984” single, and ts B-side “Sweet Stella Baby.” Lastly, completing disc five are the mono single mix of “Animal Zoo” and its B-side “Red Light Roll On,” plus an unreleased monaural mix of “Morning Will Come,” all from the Sardonicus era. There is a good ten minutes of free space at the end of disc five where the Feedback era bonus track “New York City” could have been included, but it wasn’t.
One listen through this box set and it will be immediately apparent that Spirit was a band that was enormously creative and original, one that never received the full recognition they were due. Closing with a quote from Malcolm Dome’s outstanding booklet notes for this set: “Spirit didn’t change the world of music as we know it, but no other group sounded like them, and their musical legacy remains truly inspirational.”
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