Spirit - Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Released 1970 on Epic
Reviewed by banjo, 03/06/2005ce

This one's a keeper.

Why aren't Spirit more popular?

I've been wrestling with this enigma for years now. I was into Love and Red Crayola and the Elevators way before I'd even considered Spirit - a band that, unlike those, actually had a couple FM hits (I make the distinction since 'My Little Red Book' and 'You're Gonna Miss Me' although great, were AM hits and are never heard from today on 'classic' FM radio). I mention Love specifically since so much of Spirit's early work is in the same canon with regards to 'setting a scene' specific to a mythic/mystic time and place. The music on the first album 'Spirit' and especially on their second; 'The Family That Plays Together' is arguably as strong as vivid and as bold as anything on Love's 'Forever Changes'. I know that now and if you haven't delved yet, hopefully you will too.

The Love comparison isn't really 100% though since what Spirit really put across was wholly their own thing. And it was this originality that probably held them back. When 1970 San Francisco was mellowing out with Workingman's Dead and the like (nothing wrong with that), the unfortunately influential Rolling Stone magazine gave Spirit's masterpiece, the 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus a lazy review. It's easy to see why. First, they were an LA band. Second, they were futuristic strange and tight. They weren't about 'roots' but rather, in a more Anglophile way pursued their own ground to break. Any roots they did have were more grounded in structured Jazz than bluegrass or folk; Although even that's misleading, since Randy California's beautifully fingerpicked passages are certainly folksy - just original.

12 Dreams opens with 'Prelude', just that sort of Randy California arpeggiation - sung in his characteristically plain & unaffected voice, somewhere in the region of Arthur Lee and Ray Davies. This sun-dappled prettiness gives way to the seething surging innuendo of 'Nothin To Hide' (we're married to the same bride) - a joyous hard rock ode to the band's muse. The band rocks in a cool way. Totally unique and addictive.

Next up is a treasured classic. If you haven't ever heard 'Nature's Way' you are simply missing out. This, along with 'I've Got A Line On You' (from 'Family That Plays Together') is one of Spirit's 'hits'; Songs that regularly get played on classic rock stations (if they have good taste). It's a beautiful Randy California song, brimming with passion and mood. It's the kind of song that stays with one for life. No exagerration.

Certain parts of 'Sardonicus' are way ahead of their time. So original was this band's particular vision that there was simply no precedent for much of what they did. Now be careful here...I'm not saying it's typically avant-garde ie; it's not like they anticipated Punk or anything. Not that kind of original. Again, it's the type of true originality that either created massive popularity (The Beatles Sgt. Pepper - best comparison although they certainly already had the popularity) or condemned a band to real obscurity (not MOJO obscurity - where everyone's got the reissue).

I wouldn't be surprised if Spirit's 12 Dreams had influenced Todd Rundgren's 'A Wizard/A True Star' or 'Something/Anything'. Either way, Spirit's 'Love Has Found A Way' is music of the future seen from a late-60s perspective. It's brilliant in the way that those albums are: Brimming with ideas. Electrifying. Someone ask Todd this sometime. Enquiring minds want to know.

The other far-out songs on Sardonicus; keyboardist John Locke's 'Space Child', singer Jay Ferguson's 'When I Touch You' and 'Street Worm' defy description somewhat. Again, it's not the sort of music that's weird for weirdness' sake: It just is. Strangely out of place with its time, with its glacial synths and stately bass - almost electro-glam sounding like something off of Roxy Music's 'For Your Pleasure'.

My favorite track is Randy California's 'Life Has Just Begun'. Beginning with the strangely profound line 'Hey Kiowa...I know your name' this song is one of Spirit's perfect creations. In a good way, this song seems to have singlehandedly created some of R.E.M.s finer moments (in the same way that the Elevator's 'Dust' could be said to have, also). I must've listened to this song hundreds of times, yet the magic is still there - and it's not a grower: You will know you are hearing great art the moment you put it on.

And with that I'll end this review. There are other classic songs that I haven't mentioned. I'll leave them to you to discover, if you haven't already. Last words: This album was Produced by David Briggs, who produced some of Neil Young's best work. Despite its futurism, it's definately a '60s LA album - respledent of the best of that place in its time in its own way. It was, more than any other Spirit album, labored over & perfected. It hangs together somewhat like a concept but it really isn't. More of a Song Cycle. It's 'conceptual' in the sense that it was meant to be cared for for years to come. Buy this album if you haven't heard it yet - the reissue has some great bonus tracks - and you'll be richer for it.

I overused the word 'original' here and for that I apologize but truly, the word was invented for this band.

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