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Spirit: Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus - Album Of The Week Club review

Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus was the album that put Spirit at the forefront of conceptual psych-rock

Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus
(Image: © Epic Records)
Spirit: Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus

(Image credit: Epic Records)

Prelude - Nothin' To Hide
Nature's Way
Animal Zoo
Love Has Found A Way
Why Can't I Be Free
Mr. Skin
Space Child
When I Touch You
Street Worm
Life Has Just Begun
Morning Will Come
Soldier

Having spent 1969 on the road promoting their first three albums, Spirit seemed to have missed the psychedelic bus. But Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, released in late 1970, featured songs that would put the group at the forefront of conceptual psych-rock. The otherworldly atmosphere of the music was mirrored by trippy album artwork, created by mystic poet Ira Cohen at his Mylar Chamber studio in New York City.

“I saw that album as a quantum leap,” said vocalist/percussionist Jay Ferguson. “We made it at Studio B Sound City, and the talk was of making our own Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, or a Sgt. Pepper thing. Nobody else thought it that special. It got no airplay, terrible sales and shocking reviews, apart from in England where you thought it was the highlight of our career. That’s where it gained the reputation that eventually saw it go gold many years later. It was our pinnacle.”

In fact critic Nick Tosches gave Sardonicus a fair crack in Rolling Stone (“a blockbuster of a record”). Among the album’s many gems were Randy California’s eco-epic Nature’s Way, Ferguson’s Mr Skin, and the stupendous Nothin’ To Hide where Randy lampooned the black magick crowd of Topanga weirdos in the lines ‘Swastika plug in your ear… jealous stars in your pants.’ Credit producer David Briggs for suggesting they inject a drop-dead drawl ‘fuuaaack’ in the bridge. 

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Other albums released in November 1970

  • American Beauty - Grateful Dead
  • Derek And The Dominoes - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
  • Bryter Layter - Nick Drake
  • The Man Who Sold The World - David Bowie
  • No Dice - Badfinger
  • Barrett - Syd Barrett
  • Loaded - The Velvet Underground
  • The J. Geils Band - The J. Geils Band
  • Naturally - Three Dog Night
  • Despite It All - Brinsley Schwarz
  • Emerson Lake & Palmer - Emerson, Lake & Palmer
  • Stephen Stills - Stephen Stills
  • Tea for the Tillerman - Cat Stevens
  • All Things Must Pass - George Harrison
  • Gentle Giant - Gentle Giant
  • Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One - The Kinks
  • Play It Loud - Slade
  • Air Conditioning - Curved Air
  • Blows Against the Empire - Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship
  • Cruel Sister - Pentangle
  • Loaded - The Velvet Underground
  • Medusa - Trapeze
  • Number 5 - Steve Miller Band
  • Starsailor - Tim Buckley
  • Steppenwolf 7 - Steppenwolf
  • Warhorse - Warhorse

What they said...

"It was, more than any other Spirit album, laboured over and 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." (Head Heritage)

"If you're a classic rock fan, or just someone looking to try something different, you should give this album a listen. It's definitely a great album for any psychedelic fan. The music is always interesting because of how much ground Spirit could cover in any one song. Between their variations in genres and the interesting studio effects, there is rarely a dull moment on this album." (Sputnik Music)

"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." (Backseat Mafia

What you said...

Jonathan Novajosky" A very pleasant surprise. Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus has a great flow to it that gives off an almost seamless. I particularly enjoyed the softer piano-heavy tracks like Space Child, Life Has Just Begun, and Soldier. The vocals can be hit or miss with me, but on the tracks where things are slowed down, they are solid. A nice choice for the week. 7/10

John Davidson: Spirit's Dreams Of...  is an interesting album. It comes from the same slightly off-kilter psychedelic place as The Small Faces Ogden's Nut Gone Flake and The Who's Tommy, but it has a distinctly American flavour of oddness to it . Rather than the white soul boys singing cheeky cockney knees-ups and angry mods, these are blissed out Californians. But there is something about the harmonies and the odd riffs that evokes those other bands.

As an album, it broadly works but there are few stand out songs that you could pluck out as a singalong single. While there is structure of sorts, the songs have multiple sections even when they're quite short, and it's sometimes hard to spot when one song becomes another.

The vocals and overall composition are fine, but it is the guitar work that really stands out for me. This is helped by some very clean and timeless production which stops the album sounding dated. If a modern art/prog band brought this album out today it probably wouldn't sound much different.

Favourite track: Love Has Found A Way.

As a last thought, this album makes for an interesting companion piece to Jellyfish. Both are produced by talented California-based bands that eschewed the mainstream and for good or ill, and created works that were entirely their own.

All told, I didn't love it, but it's well worth a couple of listens.

Mike Knoop: Is Spirit the American Uriah Heep? Maybe, maybe not; but the first things that hit my ears are the dazzling vocal harmonies that I love from the Heep I've heard. Jay Ferguson's voice also reminds me of the Heep's Dave Byron, even if he doesn't hit notes quite as high. 

His scream on When I Touch You, should be counted among rock's greats. I enjoyed this album a lot, and more with each listen. All I knew about Spirit before this week is that Randy California had one of the greatest stage names in the music biz and that whole Taurus/Stairway unpleasantness with Zeppelin. 

I also recognised Nature's Way once I heard it, I just never knew who it was. Like others have written, it flows nicely and has a very clean production sound. It's a great bunch of songs and sounds very much like a band album. California and Ferguson seem comfortable with letting the rest of the band have their time to shine, too. David Blumberg's punchy horn arrangements on Mr. Skin and Morning Will Come fit in well too. Great choice!

Pete Mineau: The flow of this album, as others have mentioned, is part of what makes this album such a pleasant listen. No doubt, much thought must have went into that aspect of the recording process by the band in order to release what they believed would be the ultimate expression of their latest musical project.

That being said, let me tell you a little story (okay, a long story) about how I got turned on to The Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus by Spirit.

When I was in the Navy, back in 1978 and stationed in Long Beach, California, there was a dope dealer that would come around to the barracks once a week and go door to door to see if anyone needed anything. He went by the name "D.C." and was former Navy himself, having just been recently discharged. D.C. was taking night school classes on base which he had started while he was still enlisted, so that afforded him a pass to come on base, which he used to his advantage to visit us.

D.C. had a "secret knock" that he always used to let you know it was him. (Never mind that he showed up on the same day at the same time every week!) So he'd comes by, do his knock and I'd let him in. We were usually happy to see each other... I would always buy a bag of weed from him and he often told me that he knew he'd make his rent because I was a loyal customer. He then would tell me to put my "stuff" away and would pull out some of his own stash and say, "Let's smoke!".

Now D.C. loved to catch a buzz with me because, as he also often told me, "You got the best taste in music in this whole place." I guess I was flattered by his approval, but I was also a little confused. You see, and I don't want to seem racist here but, D.C. was black and every other black sailor that I knew in 1978 was into funk! It was always being blasted from the other rooms in the barracks.

Regardless of the colour of his skin, I really enjoyed hanging out with D.C. He was very knowledgeable of rock history and we would have some great conversations before he would bolt up from his chair and say, "I gotta finish my rounds!" and be on his way until the next week!

One week, D.C. stopped by and we were going through our little ritual when Spirit's Nothin' To Hide comes on the radio. (Los Angeles had the best rock radio stations and DJs in the late '70s... long before it was called Classic Rock! But I digress!)

D.C. yells, "Turn this up! I love this song!"

I crank the volume for him and he says, "This whole album is great! Do you know it?"

I tell him no, I'm not all that familiar with Spirit.

He says, "I've got this at home. I'll play it for you one of these days when you stop by."

Now, D.C. had told me where he lived a few times, but I had never been by... I always considered ours more of a friendly businessman/client relationship, but I took this to be an open invitation to stop by and check out his place.

The next Saturday, my buddy Howard and I were hanging around downtown Long Beach, when I made mention of stopping by to visit D.C.'s place. Howard, who was also one of D.C.'s regular customers agreed.

After climbing the steps to his upstairs apartment we gave the "secret knock" on the door. From inside we hear a muffled, "Who is it!?!"

We say, "It's Pete and Howard...open up!"

The door opens a crack and D.C. peaks out.

"What do you guys want?!", he says.

We say, "Nothing! We were in town so we thought we stop by for a visit!"

D.C. says, "There's nobody else with you is there?"

Howard and I look at each other, say "No!", and he reluctantly invites us in. (This was my introduction into the paranoid life that a dealer leads!)

We sit down break out some weed and attempt to assure D.C. that we were not there for nefarious reasons and just wanted to party with him.

I say, "Hey, what about that Spirit album you were talking about the other day?"

D.C. jumps up and says, "Good call! I'll put it on!"

I'm sure the weed helped, but as side one ended I was blown away!

D.C. said, "Gotta flip it over...this whole album is great!"

He was right! So much so that I decided that I had to own a copy of this incredible collection of songs myself! So, the next week I went to the PX and bought a copy for myself... in 8-track tape form!

The next time D.C. stopped by my room, I proudly show him my latest purchase. He takes the cartridge, begins to examine it and then says with a hint of disgust, "No, no, no... this ain't right man! This ain't how it goes!"

Come to find out, the songs were rearranged to give the listener the best "8-track" listening experience. No fading out and dividing of songs between tracks! Thus, the whole flow of this magnificent album was now an exercise in chopped liver!

(To make my point, I include this piece that I found online that shows how they butchered Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus when they released it on 8-track!)

Original LP (and subsequent CD) order
01 - Prelude - Nothin' To Hide
02 - Nature's Way
03 - Animal Zoo
04 - Love Has Found A Way
05 - Why Can't I Be Free
06 - Mr. Skin
07 - Space Child
08 - When I Touch You
09 - Street Worm
10 - Life Has Just Begun
11 - Morning Will Come
12 - Soldier

Fucked-Up 8-Track Order (Keeping the original track numbers so you can see how far off they went with it):
01 - Prelude - Nothin' To Hide
04 - Love Has Found A Way
10 - Life Has Just Begun
02 - Nature's Way,
05 - Why Can't I Be Free
07 - Space Child
12 - Soldier
03 - Animal Zoo
09 - Street Worm
11 - Morning Will Come
06 - Mr. Skin
08 - When I Touch You

D.C. was totally correct! "This ain't right man! This ain't how it goes!" It's all about the flow that makes this not just another album full of songs!

Eventually I purchased the LP version of this classic, and it was one of my first CD purchases when updating my collection.

I often wonder what ever happened to D.C. as I immediately lost track of him in 1980 when I got out of the Navy and moved back to Michigan. I will, however, be forever grateful for his weekly room service and for turning me on to this incredible album which I give a 5 out of 5 rating to!

John Wheatcroft: Just listened to again this morning, and on maybe my 3/4 listen overall since buying about a month or two ago, and I enjoyed it. Definitely a vibe or feeling of the era, but something I would definitely recommend as a great starting point for the man's work.

Bill Griffin: My initial reaction was a Big No, but I kept playing it and playing it and it's grown on me. I hear a lot of other artists and songs in this, most of them I believe came after this release so if Mr. Skidmore wants to sue more people, he might not be without potential targets. When I Touch You, for instance, wouldn't sound out of place on a Tool record.

Brian Carr: Music historian me has heard of Spirit and even recognised the name Randy California, but surprisingly I have never listened to them, other than probably stumbling across I Got a Line On You a handful of times.

Sorry, but I’m completely out on Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. I just can’t get past the vocals, which in the best moments sound like a weak Roger Daltrey and are horribly off key in the worst. Guess I can’t like everything.

Final Score: 7.46⁄10 (102 votes cast, with a total score of 761)

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