Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

I’ve always liked Spirit. Just before my 18th birthday, I dropped a very strong hint to my younger brother – who was 13 at the time and not yet a waiter with money from tips to spare – that I’d welcome Spirit’s Clear to mark the occasion. He duly obliged. It was – and is – a very good album, but I’d already bought myself the cream of the crop two years earlier. So Twelve Dreams retains a special place, not least because it is, almost undeniably, their best.

They always struck me as one of the most interesting of West Coast rock acts. For one thing, their drummer Ed Cassidy was older and completely bald, at a time when the other four members of the band – like just about everyone else who was young at heart then – all sported manes of hair. This was a time, remember, before Duncan Goodhew, our clean-shaven go-faster Olympic swimmer; a time when the black population seemed universally to sport Afros the size of privet hedges; a time when baldness was fodder for Benny Hill’s knockabout ‘humour’.

Ed Cassidy, who lived four score years and nine, was guitarist Randy California’s stepfather, which was also a bit peculiar. He tended to dress all in black when everyone else was in floral shirts and kaftans. And he was a jazz drummer who had served his time with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Roland Kirk before going on to found the semi-legendary Rising Suns with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.

So Ed Cassidy was a little weird. And Spirit were a little weird. They hailed from LA, with its strong jazz heritage, and later I would come to realise that it was probably precisely this that appealed to me and made the band more interesting than ‘purer’ West Coast acts from upstate in San Francisco.

Ah, Frisco… I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘The Airplane’, whose Grace Slick was one of the gutsiest female vocalists ever to front a male band, but I steered clear of Grateful Dead lest becoming a ‘Dead-Head’ opened up a Pandora’s box. Janis Joplin was too ragged and uneven, I never got Moby Grape, and Steve Miller would reach me later. For a time, I had Quicksilver Messenger Service’s ‘Happy Trails’ and would spend many a happy hour playing along on a tennis racquet to Gary Duncan’s epic guitar solo on their rambling version of Bo Diddley’s ‘Mona’. And, sigh, despite their beautiful artwork, I would end up selling both my albums by It’s A Beautiful Day.

I guess Spirit’s LA roots made them tougher and earthier. For all the jazzy undertones, there were a lot of urban hard rock overtones. In Belfast, I would go to concerts at the nearby Queen’s University students’ union building and a local student band would often ply their trade as a warm-up act. They didn’t have a lot going for them, but I was taken with a rocky number called ‘Fresh Garbage’, which hailed, I discovered, from Spirit’s eponymous debut album.

There’s no garbage at all on Dr. Sardonicus, but it’s a weird mélange of styles. This, their fourth album, came out in 1970 and it’s cover and interior art work suggested an LSD trip in a hall of mirrors. Ed Cassidy’s face and pate are painted to suggest some sinister not-quite-child-friendly villain from TV’s Batman. Randy California sports a black turban ornamented with a miniature version of his step-pop’s painted head, and all is, like, wild and freaky, man.

But there is very little lysergic self-indulgence. Apart from keyboard player John Locke’s glorious ‘Space Child’, which opens Side 2 and sounds like a piano jazz trio fed through a Moog synthesiser, the song-writing is shared between rhythm guitarist, Jay Ferguson, who would soon take bassist Mark Andes with him to form JoJo Gunne, and lead guitarist, Randy California, who once played in the same band as a very young Jimi Hendrix.

This is an album of genuine songs. Roughly half are Ferguson’s, while the other half are California’s. The former’s tend to have a slightly raunchier and more commercial leaning, as typified by the splendid ‘Mr. Skin’, which was featured on the CBS sampler, The Rock Buster. ‘Mr. Skin’ was the band’s nickname for their rock-solid shaven-headed drummer, who apparently raises his head ‘in a touchy situation’ and makes his bed ‘in the heart of the nation’, able to ‘bring you pain’ and ‘bring you sudden pleasure’.

California’s songs are a little more ecological and introspective. They range from the more gentle and harmonious ‘Nature’s Way’ and ‘Life Has Just Begun’, which both suggest fellow LA denizens, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, to the pure rock ‘n’ roll of ‘Morning Will Come’, with a horn arrangement in which Southside Johnny & the Asbury Dukes would later specialise.

California’s electric guitar is very electric and there’s much flashing between the speakers designed, perhaps, to impress teenagers in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, some of the vocal harmonies are Beach-Boy-beautiful and may have been an influence on Eagles-to-come. A song like California’s brief but lovely ‘Why Can’t I Be Free’ would not sound amiss on the second side of Abbey Road.

So it’s a strange brew of spaced-out Zappatic jazz-rock, CSN&Y harmony rock and the kind of raunchy rock that reputedly impressed and even influenced Led Zeppelin. (Only Sherlock Holmes could have resolved the mystery of who really wrote the guitar intro to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.) Dr. Sardonicus marked both the zenith and the end of Spirit Mark 1. Spirit Marks 2, 3 etc. would soldier on regardless without Andes and Ferguson, but they would never really produce anything that matched the vinyl footprint of these twelve beguiling little dreams from the urban west coast.

I saw them once in the early 70s but apart from RC I've no idea what the band line up was. Don't think I've listened to that album since then, and as you say it's a little weird. It doesn't sound as dated as you might expect and 'Mr Skin' is probably my favourite track. I didn't know about the Jo Jo Gunne connection, and yet I had a single of theirs which I'm pretty sure got into charts.

Ahh.....Grace Slick.....Unrequited Love.....great band too.

Saw 'The Dead' a few times too, and sported a 'Dead-Head' sticker on my hat for a while. Probably something I should keep quiet about...

You're a well respected man about town, Chris. Not many will have seen Spirit live. They might have been better appreciated if they'd had someone like Grace Slick up front. Jo Jo Gunne did get into the charts; I remember seeing them on Top of the Pops.