Classic Rock 199 tells the story of Spirit. The band's fourth album, Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus, was launched to little fanfare but is now universally recognised as a psychedelic music landmark.
So here, starting with the good Doctor, are six bona-fide classics of the genre. Somebody pass the lava lamp.
SPIRIT — Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus
Released in 1970, this is often regarded as Spirit’s finest album. It’s here that Randy California gives full vent to his inner fears of life’s drift. Encouraged by producer David Briggs, his guitar performances are both virtuoso yet also emotionally entangled. It’s as if he’s struggling to come terms with the unpredictabilities he faces every day. And this leads to some of his most electrifying playing.
Of course, this is isn’t just about California, with the rest of the band, especially Jay Ferguson who complements California on keyboards and percussion.
There are moments when the magic is temporarily dissipated, but that never maters. It’s the overall character and feel of this album that matters. The oft-repeated mantra ‘Life has just begun’ is perhaps the fulcrum of the album’s attitude. But this is used to highlight the fragility of existence. And more than 40 years later, its message still chimes loudly – life is for living, whatever the consequences.
**THE GOLDEN DAWN — **Power Plant
The Texans were both championed and shafted by the 13th Floor Elevators. It was the latter who recommended The Golden Dawn to their label, International Artists. But while the band recorded Power Plant, their debut album, in mid-1967 its release was inexplicably delayed a year, because the label wanted to put out Easter Everywhere, the second Elevators album, first.
And when this remarkable album was finally put out, it was given such a critical mauling that the discouraged band split up. Many reviews unfavourably compared this to the Elevators, when the truth was that The Golden Dawn were the better band. This album is inventive and inspired, with some crucial guitar timbres from George Kinney, Tom Ramsey and Jimmy Bird.
While not strictly a concept album, there is a theme running throughout. It’s about the dawn of enlightenment, and how that could be corrupted if we’re not careful. In recent years, this has become something of a cult album. But if the label had done the right thing in 1967, who knows what The Golden Dawn would have achieved.
**SKIP SPENCE — **Oar
The one-time Moby Grape man is often compared to Syd Barrett, with good reason. Like the Pink Floyd genius, Spence was plagued by bouts of lucid brilliance and incoherent cries of torment. But unlike Barrett he had one solo album that is utterly compelling.
The songs on Oar were written by Spence during a six-month stay in a New York hospital after attacking two Grape bandmates with an axe. Legend has it that when he was released, Spence got on a motorbike and rode down to Nashville, while still in his hospital gown! He teamed up with producer David Rubinson, and recorded this collection of songs that gave an incredible insight into his mauled mind. At times, the album so exposes Spence’s vulnerable psyche that it is almost voyeuristic listening. At other turns, it is downright harrowing. But this holds the attention with a mesmeric maze of insights.
Rubinson kept the production sparse, and allowed Spence to relate his tales of darkness and salvation. Nobody has better captured the insolence and insouciance of insanity brought on by drugs. This is a musician who fully bared his soul and probably didn’t actually feel any cathartic reward for his bravery and bravura.
The album was released by Columbia in 1969 with no marketing back-up, and became the lowest selling record in the label’s history up until that point. But it was never forgotten, and in 1999 the likes of Robert Plant, Tom Waits and Mark Lanegan paid homage to Spence by recording More Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album. It’s said this was played to the man while he lay dying in a hospital bed. According to myth, when the last track faded away, Spence looked up, smiled and then faded away himself. Probably nonsense, but it would have been appropriate if he eventually found some peace through his own masterpiece.
THE MOODY BLUES — In Search Of The Lost Chord
In 1968, The Moodies immersed themselves totally in the psychedelic waters. After their breakthrough the previous year with Days Of Future Passed, this time they took a real swing into the challenging and timely vibe of the whole pysch process.
There was mysticism here, glowing alongside philosophical mantras built on the twin treatises of drugs and alternative lifestyles. The Moodies embraced the mood and tempo of the Beatles among others, in experimenting with ideas and also bringing in different instruments. If Days Of Future Passed was disciplined and maybe lacking in adventure, the same could not be said here. The band threw out all the rules, in the process proving any reputation for being staid was way off the mark.
The theme of the album was the eternal, restive quest for truth. But there was also an underlying humour, which showed that the Moodies weren’t being seduced by the quick fix of any passing Eastern guru.
Most memorable tracks are Legend Of The Mind, which was inspired by Timothy Leary, _House Of Four Doors, The _Best Way To Travel and Ride My See-Saw. But everything here works supremely. This includes Justin Hayward’s incorporation of sitar, Graeme Edge using tabla and Mike Pinder bringing the Mellotron into sharp focus.
While the band had more successful albums, they never again truly pushed the envelope as they did here. It was a bold statement that made them one of the UK’s finest psychedelic explorers. In fact, what they showed everyone else was that psychedelia was never about repetition. This was, and should always have been, a one-off album. The perfect psych turn on.
**THE PRETTY THINGS — **S.F. Sorrow
Who released the first ever rock opera? If you said The Who, then go immediately into remedial rock classes. This album came out in December 1968, nearly six months before Tommy.
The concept is built around Sebastian F. Sorrow, whose life is tracked from birth to old age, and there are some similarities in construction to Tommy, even though The Who have long denied S.F. Sorrow was any sort of influence. But this does not need the more famed Pete Townshend work as a crutch. It stands in its own right.There’s a sense of musical achievement here that makes the overall ambition of this album seem sensible. The pyrotechnic psychedelia is melodramatic and does credit to what was a pioneering format at the time.
Unfortunately, EMI refused to promote the album, believing it was too dark and negative to have mass appeal. It also didn’t help that this was released the same week as the Beatles’ White Album. But a notable lack of profile means S.F. Sorrow hasn’t been overhyped and overplayed down the years, and its freshness is maybe a contrast to the overly exposed Tommy, seminal though the latter unquestionably is.
**FELT — **Felt
Stan Lee No, not that bloke from Marvel Comics, but the guitarist in The Dickies. Several years before he threw in his lot with those punk types, Lee was a member of Felt, an Alabama psych band whose self-titled, debut album lit up 1971, but failed to sell. Well, they were on the little known Nasco label, which might explain the commercial constipation.
But what these six tracks show is a young band who even in this formative part of their career had a grasp of how to impress through their creativity without toppling over into the torpor of self-indulgence.
The Change is the big song here, and has Beatles-esque pysch moments that bring out the colour and shape of the musical tone. Mixed in there are jazz and blues daubs, to add to the flavouring.
The flow is balanced and thoughtful, and there is a conceptual link between the songs, which deal with the life of teenagers in redneck America during this era. The album was recorded and released in just two days, and the band were all under 17. Makes this even more of a landmark – or, at least it should have been.
Our Spirit feature is available in Classic Rock 199, available as digital or print editions from MyFavouriteMagazines.