Although their original line-up was together for just 3 years, Spirit are one of my favourite bands. Now, while some chap named Jimmy Page might disagree, he was a big fan of their first album and it is said that his walls were plastered with posters of Spirit and Randy California. In fact, he liked them so much that he used Taurus as the blueprint for Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Fact.
It’s not all that hard to see why folks like Spirit. Here’s a band who drew a line between Love and The Doors. Some incredible pop-rock numbers (like The Family That Plays Together’s I Got A Line On You), off kilter psychedelic shenanigans (Fresh Garbage) and jazz leanings (see Clear and the Model Shop soundtrack). They really were the bees knees.
However, it all went awry after Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Although the album is one of the most consistently inspired psychedelic rock albums of ever ever, the band just couldn’t survive. California pursued a solo career, Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes formed Jo Jo Gunne, and John Locke and Ed Cassidy flew the Spirit flag for a while by recording the fairly pedestrian Feedback and touring for a bit. Locke and Cassidy eventually called it quits (Locke going on to have a stint in Hawkwind before joining Nazareth) and Spirit was pretty much done. After Epic rejected the follow-up to California’s brilliant Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, he put together a new Spirit and, alongside Cassidy, became the keeper of the flame.
There are a good chunk of Spirit albums out there, but nothing was ever quite as inspired or fully realised as those first four albums. In my opinion, anyhoo. Of course, the success of those was due to the musical chemistry the band had and the song-writing contributions of California, Ferguson and Locke (as well as his piano and keyboard flourishes). Don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty worthwhile cuts among the CassiFornia years, but the best of that can be found on the Mercury Years compilation (though there is also a bit of filler on there – par for the course with double CD sets, right?).
Although they had reformed for Further Along, it would be another couple of years before the original line-up would record together again… and, well, that’s the subject of this here post. Hurrah!
1984’s The Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of ’84 to friends in Canadaland and Americaland) is a proper reunion album and, well, it’s pretty much a greatest hits collection for Mercury. It includes some re-recordings of old favourites and just three new tracks – penned by Ferguson and one with Randy California. It’s a strange album and you could argue that it’s unnecessary, but I’ve been listening to this a fair bit over the last few weeks.
I guess the tracks to focus on here are the originals. Of those, Black Satin Nights stands out. It’s unlike anything Spirit had recorded during their original run; it’s a straight-up 80’s rocker with a punchy hook and a great chorus. Locke provides a nice bit of synth over the choppy guitar and, like I say, that chorus is great. It’s easy to think of this as a rock radio hit and it’s familiar without sounding 80’s rockageneric. It’s actually pretty brilliant to be honest and you’ll find yourself singing along. Before long you’ll be singing unaccompanied. In the shower. Washing the dishes. Even muffled singing while brushing your teeth. I dare say if Mercury got behind it, Spirit could have had a hit on their hands.
The second new one is Pick It Up. While it’s not a poor track, it does suffer from that rockgenericitus thing with it’s… well, actually, it’s just not very memorable or worthwhile talking about. It’s pop rock by numbers and definitely not one of Ferguson’s best. All Over the World, meanwhile, is a bit better, even if it’s a bit mnah. Lyrically it’s all peace and love, but again it’s just not all that memorable and, like Pick It Up, it gets a bit repetitive.
On the other hand, the revisited hits are fairly decent. Well, mostly. I guess they allow the band a chance to jam on tracks that they had fun playing during their initial run, while also seeing how they translate in the new slick digital world as slick 80’s rock numbers. It also gives Mercury a bit of a pay day too, right?
Although not exactly brilliant or necessary, the slick pop-rockery of these versions of Mechanical World and Fresh Garbage are pretty enjoyable. The most successful tracks are those that already illustrated Spirit’s pop-rock side (the likes of 1984 and Mr. Skin, for example), but the seven minutes plus of this I Got A Line On You is a bit trying. In fact, I dare say I’d sooner listen to Alice Cooper’s version.
Like I say, I’ve had this on a few times over the last couple of weeks and I’ve been enjoying it. California is as great as always on the guitar, but it does feel as though the magic of this line-up is lost. Maybe if they’d have spent a bit more time in the studio and collaborated on another 7 tracks rather than revisiting and restructuring tracks that were pretty much perfect there would have been a different trajectory for the band. Especially if Mercury had got behind Black Satin Nights.
Or maybe not.
I guess my enjoyment of this one serves as a reminder that sometimes familiarity is all you need to enjoy music.
Next stop, the Sunset Highland Motel.