Perfect Sound Forever


Top Ten Songs
Book Excerpt by Rev. Keith A. Gordon
(June 2023)

Even in the late 1960's era of innovation and freedom in rock music, Spirit stood head and shoulders above their contemporaries. Perhaps only Arthur Lee's Love shared the same sort of expansive and adventuresome artistic vision as the five guys in Spirit whose disparate and diverse musical backgrounds led the band to explore the outer regions of rock 'n' roll as the band incorporated elements of the blues, folk, R&B, and jazz into their heady brew of psychedelia-tinted hard rock. Although they never experienced the level of commercial success that their talents and innovative music deserved, few bands since have matched Spirit in eccentricity, originality, intensity, and instrumental virtuosity.

Spirit's roots can be found in a mid-'60's high school band called The Red Roosters, which played high school dances and small clubs in the L.A. area. Comprised of singer Jay Ferguson, guitarist Randy Wolfe, bassist Mark Andes, and drummer Mike Fondiler, the band's forward momentum was temporarily derailed when Wolfe moved with his mother and musician stepfather, Ed Cassidy, to New York City in 1966. It was there that Randy met up with fellow guitarist Jimmy James at Manny's Music Store. Before you know it, he was gigging with James and his band The Blue Flames at the infamous Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. Dubbed 'Randy California' by James to distinguish him from bandmember Randy Palmer (thereafter known as 'Randy Texas'), California picked up more than a few tricks from the older musician, who would later move to England and find fame and fortune after changing his name to Jimi Hendrix.

Randy's family moved back to Los Angeles in late 1966, the guitarist rejoining his former bandmates in The Red Roosters. Adding his stepfather Cassidy and keyboardist John Locke to the mix, they changed the band's name to Spirits Rebellious, after a book by spiritual writer Kahlil Gibran. Cassidy was already in his forties at the time, much older than his youthful bandmates, and had decades of experience in the jazz world playing behind legends like Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious Monk, and Roland Kirk. Locke grew up in a musical household; his father was a classical violinist and his mother was a composer and operatic singer. Also a few years older than his bandmates, Locke had more than a passing familiarity with jazz, and the band's anarchic dynamic allowed him to bring his more outre influences to their signature sound.

By May 1967, they'd dropped the 'Rebellious' from their band name and became known as just Spirit. Moving into a communal household in Topanga Canyon with roommate Barry Hansen (who would later become known as Dr. Demento, the host of a popular weekly syndicated radio program featuring comedy and novelty records), the band honed its musical chemistry by rehearsing daily at the house and performing weekly at L.A. club The Ash Grove, owned by California's uncle Ed Pearl. Randy practically grew up in the club, learning to play guitar from blues legends like Brownie McGhee, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightnin' Hopkins while also picking up tips from bluegrass giant Clarence White.

It was this line-up, with its diverse musical influences and ideas, that recorded four acclaimed albums in the short span of three years circa 1967-1970. In the wake of the release of their bona fide classic, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, the band splintered into three notable pieces - Ferguson and Andes to form Jo Jo Gunne, California to pursue a solo career, and Locke and Cassidy trying to keep the Spirit name alive with new musicians - before California would eventually reunite with Cassidy and take Spirit as a creative entity deep into the 1990's before his tragic death in 1997. Over the years, Spirit has earned a well-deserved reputation as an album-oriented band and, realistically, the band only enjoyed one Top 30 single - 1968's classic rock gem "I Got A Line On You" - in nearly 30 years of recording.

Still, the cult rock band's hefty catalog of albums is brimming over with great songs, any of which could have been an FM radio hit given the right circumstances and a little promotional push. These are the Reverend's picks for Spirit's Top Ten songs (and the album that each come from):

10. "Burning Love" (Tent of Miracles, 1990)
A mid-tempo rocker with brightly-shining guitars, an infectious recurring rhythm, partially buried vocals, and a strong bass presence, "Burning Love" is the epitome of the 1970's-era 'power trio' creation, updated for the grungy, smack-enthused 1990's. Nobody is going to mistake Spirit for Soundgarden, or even Alice In Chains at this late date in the band's history, but "Burning Love" is a dense, riff-heavy rock song that could have held its own in the ring with those aforementioned bands, except that there wasn't a guitarist with the talents of Randy California in all of Seattle or the Pacific Northwest at the time.

9. "Dark Eyed Woman" (Clear, 1969)
Presaging the sport of trippy, hippie dreamlike haze they'd create on Twelve Dreams, "Dark Eyed Woman" opens with a short intro before Randy's wicked riff jumps off, Andes' razor-sharp bass licks lay deep in the cut, and Locke's keyboards fill out the sound. California's mid-song solo is all fang and claw, the guitarist ripping at the strings while a discordant piano squawks in the background. The lyrics aren't too bad for the era, either - "dark-eyed woman on a hot summer's night, dark-eyed woman are you burning tonight, dark-eyed woman won't you step in the light" - and they're delivered with a touch of mystery to them while the band rages behind the vocals. The song was released as a single, but the label must not have put much promotional mustard behind it as it could have been an FM radio bullseye.

8. "Animal Zoo" (Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, 1970)
This longtime fan favorite rides in on the sounds of the city - car horns, the humming of a motor, din from the sidewalk - accompanied by an infectious guitar riff that leads into Ferguson's soulful vocals. One by one, other instruments are layered on top of California's guitars, until the entire band is rolling in the same direction. Ferguson's erudite lyrics speak of alienation in the modern world, touching upon environmental themes, framing it all quite cleverly:

"Living in the city, I've been abused (he has),
The jobs I keep and people I meet, they don't do more than make me amused.
Everywhere I turn now, just more bad news, so don't look now and don't ask how,
Gonna find me a way to the animal zoo..."

The 'Animal Zoo' is some sort of hippie ideal, a 'back to the country' Eden that so many poets and rock songwriters dreamt of in the late 1960's and early 1970's until Nixon-fueled cynicism became the word of the day and the way of the world...

7. "Uncle Jack" (Spirit, 1968)
Recorded in August 1967, nearly three months before "Fresh Garbage," the British Invasion-styled "Uncle Jack" sounds like an entirely different band. Evincing a strong U.K. pop underpinning, the song sounds a lot like The Move or The Creation, combining freakbeat melody with the bourgeoning psychedelic sound to create an infectious earworm. The lyrics are pure acid-inspired 'Summer of Love' poetry:

"Standing there, he's so deceiving,
Has he been or is he leaving.
Looking in his sea green eyes,
Uncle Jack will tell no lies.
Can you see it?"

OK, so Jay won't score many points for his oblique lyrics, but it's Randy's explosive guitar solo that ignites the performance, providing a stark counterpoint to the safe-as-milk psych-pop instrumentation and group harmonies. It's an altogether enjoyable song, but miles away from where the band and their debut would finally land.

6. "Taurus" (Spirit, 1968)
Ah yes, Randy California's "Taurus," a two-and-a-half-minute instrumental track that Led Zeppelin 'stole,' somehow stretching it into the eight-minute opus that was "Stairway To Heaven." Suffice it to say that this too-short electrical shock is simply magical. Opening with Marty Paich's gossamer string arrangement, Randy chimes in with the gorgeous six-string pattern that informed the opening to "Stairway," the charming beauty of his intricate acoustic guitar-play and the haunting strings that accompany it providing the perfect bridge between "the album's "Mechanical World" and the psych-drenched "Girl In Your Eye."

5. "Nature's Way" (Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, 1970)
Randy gets back around to the ecological anthem he started with "Prelude" in the classic "Nature's Way." Eschewing the oblique lyrical standard of most songs of this ilk in favor of a more straight-forward approach, the music here is mid-tempo with peaks of clamorous instrumentation, Randy's guitar riding the waves like a surfer and the group harmonies adding gravitas to the lyrics. While in and of themselves they're not overly complicated - "it's nature's way of telling you something's wrong, it's nature's way of telling you in a song" and "it's nature's way of telling you, it's in the breeze, it's nature's way of telling you, dying trees" - with Randy's plaintive vocals perfectly fitted to the song's lyrical message. California goes into more depth on the writing of the song in the CD liner notes:

"I wrote this song up in San Francisco while doing a gig at the Fillmore West. Written in the afternoon, I can't remember another song which flowed out more quickly. The group learned it at sound check, and we played it that evening. Over the years, so many people have related stories of how this song has helped them through difficult times. It is for the benefit of ourselves and others that the message in many Spirit songs has not diminished with the passage of time."

4. "Fresh Garbage" (Spirit, 1968)
The song opens with a hypnotic guitar pattern as the other instruments creep in on the edges in lockstep with California's recurring riff. The vocals drift in with a mournful reiteration of the song's title, "Fresh Garbage," as Ferguson swings into the rather simple albeit effective lyrics: "look beneath your lid some morning, see the things you didn't quite consume, the world's a can for your fresh garbage." The words are a placeholder for the song's instrumental passages, which are ambitious, inventive, and almost totally without precedent in 1968.

If California's succinct guitar patterns weren't exotic enough, Andes adds a hearty bass line, Locke nimble-fingers his way across the piano keys with a jazz-flecked solo, and Cass strikes the right balance of light-handed, early AM nightclub brushwork and minor percussion. In the liner notes to the CD reissue, California wrote that the song was inspired by a garbage strike and the resultant piles of refuse, referring to "Fresh Garbage" as 'an environmental song ahead of its time!" Writing for Shindig! magazine in 2009, Mick Skidmore (future band archivist) says ''Fresh Garbage' encapsulated most of the group's assets within three minutes... four decades later, it hasn't dated at all."

3. "1984" (Spirit of '84 / The Thirteenth Dream, 1984)
Opening with the sound of whirling helicopter rotors, the first burst blows through the door like an angry S.W.A.T. team before the song's familiar, ominous bass line kicks in. Of all the versions of this controversial song, studio and live, this is probably my favorite - it doesn't differ wildly from the original 1969 single, but it is fleshed out a bit with more barbed wire and hidden corners, the band sleeker and just as dangerously hungry as they were a decade earlier. Another horrible corporate oversight, with Mercury dropping the ball here by not releasing "1984" as a single at the time.

2. "Mr. Skin" (Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, 1970)
Written in tribute to Ed Cassidy and his legendary bald pate, this muscular rocker by singer Ferguson was destined to become a fan favorite. Aside from the song's sly groove, fueled by Andes' spacey bass lines (he's been mostly incognito to this point on the album), there's Cassidy's spry percussive efforts, Locke's keyboards and odd sounds coaxed therefrom, and pointed guitar solos. It's the addition of a funky horn break the equal of any Southern soul record that leaves its mark on "Mr. Skin," though, taking the song out of a brassy note reminiscent of Sly & the Family Stone.

1. "I Got A Line On You" (The Family That Plays Together, 1968)
California's bluesy rocker offered plenty of everything needed for the upcoming FM radio explosion - Randy's incendiary fretwork, a solid bass riff, gang harmonies, and a melodic hook that you could hang your hat on - all of which earned Spirit their first bona fide hit. The song is also a perfect showcase for the band's growing musical chemistry as well, producer Lou Adler managing to fit together all the disparate instrumental pieces into a coherent whole, and while California's lyrics are nothing to write home about (it's a love song, of sorts), it's the innovative soundtrack and dynamic band performance that holds it all together.

"I Got A Line On You' was released in advance of The Family That Plays Together in October 1968 and slowly rose up the chart to its peak position some five months later. Several international versions of the single were released in late 1968 and early 1969, some on collectible psychedelic-colored vinyl, and it would quickly become known as one of the band's signature tunes. The song had staying power too as it's been covered over the years by talents as diverse as Southern rockers Blackfoot, Nashville art-rockers Chagall Guevara, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Alice Cooper, Canadian bluesman Jeff Healey, and Kim Mitchell of the Canadian band Max Webster. Even Spirit 'covered' the song themselves on their final reunion album, The Thirteenth Dream.

Excerpted from the recently-published Sonicbond book, Spirit On Track, an album-by-album guide to the legendary band by Rev. Keith A. Gordon. Check out for more info!

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