Perhaps Spirit’s finest album although some fans champion the psych pop of 68′s The Family That Plays Together. Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus was released by Epic in 1970. Sessions for the album came to a grinding halt when Randy California fell off a horse and suffered a fractured skull. He spent one month in the hospital and because of this it took the group nearly 6 months to complete Sardonicus. On top of this, tensions within the group were mounting. Randy California (guitarist) and Jay Ferguson (vocals) could not agree on the future direction of Spirit; Ferguson wanted to play commerical rock n roll while California favored a loose, experimental approach. This would be the last lp from the original lineup as internal friction would lead to Spirit’s demise. The band split up after the recording of this album, which was subsequently pieced together by producer David Briggs.
If you were to round up all the essential LA/California rock albums from the late 60′s/early 70′s this would be amongst the very best on that list. The songs on Sardonicus are more structured than before, only “Space Child,” a trippy progressive instrumental, has a slight jazz/fusion element that was featured so prominently on earlier albums. ”Animal Zoo” (a psych pop gem), “Mr. Skin” (quirky hard rock with horns), and the gorgeous “Nature’s Way” were all released as singles in 1970. ”Nature’s Way” is one of Spirit’s most popular tracks and a definite highlight on Sardonicus. The vocals and electric/acoustic guitars on this number are positively sublime and create a very intimate mood; it’s the kind of song that’ll stick in your head for years to come. Other great tracks were the moody piano ballad “Soldier” and the psychedelic folk-rocker “Life Has Just Begun,” which features a beautiful chorus.
While the Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus contained some of Spirit’s most radio friendly material, the group was still experimenting aplenty. ”When I Touch You,” one of their best hard rock tracks, featured a strong psych influence and a fine vocal performance from Jay Ferguson. Another track, “Love Has Found A Way” is a morass of backwards effects, strange lead vocals, and pristine harmonies. Two other hard rockers, “Prelude – Nothin’ To Hide” and “Street Worm” are full of great guitar work, clever fuzz effects, and killer solos: these tracks cleary explain why Randy California is so highly esteemed by his peers. Despite its clean, commercial production and the fact that it was loved by musicians and critics alike, Sardonicus did not sell.
The Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus was as good as any record coming out in 1970, certainly up there with the era’s very best. And although Sardonicus is progressive and foward thinking, it never sounds dated or self indulgent, the LP is a true masterpiece. It’s been reissued many, many times and originals on vinyl are easy to find. The best reissues have been put out by Sundazed (vinyl), Epic/Sony (cd) and Repertoire Records (cd). Spirit would soldier on with drummer Ed Cassidy and guitarist Randy California, releasing some fine albums and playing many memorable live shows. Ferguson went on to form Jo Jo Gunne, a commercial hard rock/boogie band that saw success in the 1970s.
In 1997 Randy California tragically died in Hawaii while saving his son from a dangerous ocean wave. It was a sad end to one of rock’s great groups.
“Why Can’t I Be Free”