Imagine if the Doors, The Byrds or Love had, long after their late ’60s heyday, reconvened to record a quartet of brilliant albums, the first a double LP of classic, even epic, proportions issued just months before punk broke. This is what happened when LA band Spirit returned as though from the dead to release Spirit Of ’76, Son Of Spirit, Farther Along and Future Games in rapid succession, between 1975 and 1977, to the astonishment of their small but fanatical following.
Such a feverish late burst of creativity was surprising not just because of the quality of the work but because the group’s focal point, a young singer and guitarist called Randy Craig Wolfe dubbed Randy California by Jimi Hendrix in 1965, was missing presumed out of action for good.
Spirit’s first three albums, Spirit (1968, including “Taurus”, an influence on Zep’s “Stairway To Heaven”, and the rhythmically idiosyncratic “Fresh Garbage”, sampled in 2003 by Pink), The Family That Plays Together Stays Together (also 1968, featuring the band’s sole US Top 30 hit, “I Got A Line On You”), and Clear (1969), were an effective blend of rock, jazz, folk, pop and psychedelia. But by 1970’s Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus?co-produced by Neil Young man David Briggs and the Spirit LP that most frequently makes the Greatest Albums honours lists?band relations had reached an all-time low and they fell apart.
Over the next few years, news would filter back to the UK about their mercurial leader, barely 20 when Spirit split. In 1971, he was thrown from a horse and fractured his skull, forcing a spell in hospital. The following year saw a solo venture, Kapt. Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, with charismatic bald Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy (actually California’s stepfather) back on board and one Clit McTorius aka Noel Redding on bass. Titles such as “Downer”, “Devil” and “I Don’t Want Nobody” hint at the atmosphere of despondency and dementia in which it was recorded.
California and Cassidy then began piecing together fragments of music and dialogue for the ill-fated Journey Through Potatoland project, Spirit’s very own Smile, but it was rejected by Columbia for being too political and uncommercial. A gruelling tour of the UK in ’73 saw out hero in a fragile state, appearing onstage at some dates in nothing but black boots and matching jockstrap. After a severe bout of depression and cocaine overindulgence, California suffered a breakdown.
He tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off Chelsea Bridge into the River Thames, only to be pulled, struggling, from the icy water.
Exhausted and destitute, he spent 1974 recuperating at his mother’s home in Molokai, Hawaii, working as a gardener and washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant. It was during this period of convalescence that he acquired a guitar and started writing again, with Spirit once more in mind.
Back on the mainland, he immersed himself in the study of Urantia, a 2000-page treatise with religious overtones dating back to 1935 based on the utterances of Jack Bond, a Cleveland barber who would go into a trance and speak, as California explained, “in an alien voice formation”. Jack Bond, played by one Burt Schonberg, makes quasi-mystical pronouncements throughout Spirit Of ’76.
Together with the runic sleeve typography, this can make Spirit Of ’76 seem portentous. Truth is, it’s the most fun you can have with your headphones on. Finally left to his own devices after years of battling for supremacy in Spirit Mk I with the likes of Jay Ferguson, a reinvigorated California produced this collage of rock hymns, wah-wah freak-outs, distorted speech, Star Trek bleeps and other random FX at Tampa’s Studio 70 in Miami. Many of the voices and instruments on the record were treated using sustain, reverb, echo or delay, giving it a hallucinatory shimmer, a warp factor.
If it feels like a dream or trip, it was rooted in reality. For California, Spirit Of ’76 was a way out of his private hell. It marked his spiritual awakening. And it was, as he said, “about the betrayal of American values” in the run-up to the nation’s 200th birthday (the LP was subtitled “A Bicentennial Memorial Album”). While his contemporaries were mired in nihilism or narcissistic self-reflection, California, along with Todd Rundgren (for Urantia, read Utopia), was one of the last counterculture musicians concerned with the death of ’67 ideals and the country he loved. “An all-American acid patriot,” as NME called him. It’s testament to California’s genius that Spirit Of ’76 isn’t the sound of mental collapse (like Skip Spence’s Oar), but an intellectually sophisticated transcending of personal turmoil that serves as a state of the nation address.
California surveyed the landscape and found a people in need of reassurance. A humanist with a sense of humour, with Spirit Of ’76 he provided the disillusioned Woodstock kids out there in the Diaspora with sci-fi sonics, new anthems and cover versions from their youth as succour. “Come gather round people, wherever you roam,” he sings on the opening medley of “America The Beautiful”/”The Times They Are A Changing”, which includes the first of six ’60s sacred texts reinterpreted here?with a radical empathy absent from, say, Bowie’s Pin Ups. Here, the original’s revolutionary optimism, via California’s astral folk guitar and light, airy voice, becomes altogether more wistful.
All the covers?”Hey Joe”, even Keith Richards’ “Happy”?have an elegiac quality. On the diaphanous “Like A Rolling Stone”, Dylan’s accusatory vitriol, on contact with California’s soothing, ego-less vocal, is sublimated as nine minutes of miasmic compassion. The happy-clappy album-closing take on “Star Spangled Banner”, on the other hand, is so mocking it’s almost more inflammatory than Hendrix’s own, and subverts the album concept at a stroke. Mischievous boy. Spirit Of ’76 embraces blissful lunar lounge muzak (“Feeling In Time”, “Guide Me”), cosmic country (“Joker On The Run”), Hendrixian thunder (“Veruska”), hard rock that dissolves in the ear (“Victim Of Society”, “Sunrise”) and white gospel prayers (“What Do I Have?”, “When?”) so intimate you can hear California breathe as his fingers scrape the strings. Throughout, the trio of Barry Keene on bass, Cassidy on drums and California on everything else offer virtuosic performances and solo with jazzy fluidity. Meanwhile, there’s Jack Bond’s stentorian electro-babble, the recurring “Tampa Jam” theme and the various sound-bursts (a rocket ship whoosh here or ping-pong match there) phasing from left to right speaker to entertain you.
When Spirit performed at The Rainbow in 1978 and California parted the crowds during “Hey Joe”, it was like a visitation from some ancient hippie god. And yet he’d only just turned 27?younger than The Police, bottom of the bill that night. At the height of punk, pace Rundgren, California was the only space cadet worthy of worship. He was still only 45 when he drowned in 1997, saving his son caught in a riptide off the coast of Hawaii. Notwithstanding the excellence of his next three albums, Spirit Of ’76, a record of visionary wonder, is California’s memorial.