Spirit are a band I knew by reputation rather than any familiarity with their music, at least until I picked up a copy of The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus late last year. While at the moment they are best known for being the band that Led Zeppelin are currently accused of plagiarising (despite the fact that no member of Spirit is involved in the current legal tussle), on the strength of The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus alone, they deserve to be known for their not inconsiderable contributions to psychedelic rock.
Formed in the white-hot crucible of creativity that was the late 60s, Spirit were a band centred around vocalist Jay Ferguson, guitar prodigy Randy California and his drumming step-dad Ed Cassidy. With their sound fusing jazzy psychedelia with jam-orientated rock, Spirit were equally capable of straight up pop rock and more experimental sonic textures. Having already recorded a trio of albums, there were extended internal discussions within the band regarding whether they should simplify and streamline, or wig-out to achieve greater success. It took Neil Young producer David Briggs to coax their best album to date out of them, resulting in an album that proved that both of these approaches could happily co-exist and result in an album that remains a potent brew to this day.
Slightly wobbly concept aside (the songs apparently represent a series of dreams during one night of sleep), The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, is an album which sees Spirit playing to their strengths, with California’s playful guitar resplendent throughout and considerably more focus than the extended jam workouts which were still favoured by so many of their counter-culture contemporaries. An easy album to like, it’s also an easy album to misread, as I personally initially dismissed it as a lightweight, almost throwaway release, before it started to latch into the part of my brain reserved for snippets of songs that have burrowed into my psyche, only to re-emerge when I have something much more important to do than hum songs to myself.
While too much British psych-pop was almost unbearably twee, and a lot of American acts had a tendency to rely too much on heaviosity to get their point across, on The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, with Briggs’ help Spirit manage to forge a psych-rock sound all of their own. Rocking without being leaden, accessible without being disposable, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus is a well rounded album that transports you to that end of the 60s / start of the 70s period, when album sleeves were gatefold, trousers were as wide at the bottom as they were at the top and coats were afghan.
That said, for all the effort that went in to The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, in terms of chart performance, if was a bit of a dip in form, and Spirit would splutter on throughout the 70s, occasionally splitting the reforming. Meanwhile, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus kept quietly racking up the sales until it became their best seller. Which is just groovy.