Spirit - Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus (Deluxe Edition, Esoteric Recordings)

Spirit – Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus (Deluxe Edition, Esoteric Recordings)

It’s weird to think that Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus tanked somewhat, upon its original release in 1970. Spirit‘s fourth and best album could only muster a lacklustre number 63 peak on the Billboard Hot 100, though it did fare slightly better over here, dragging its heels all the way to number 29 on the official chart. Now, it would have been physically impossible for me to have bought it at the time, but ever since I first heard it back in the 1990s, I’ve always been a little baffled as to why it wasn’t lauded in the same breath as Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds. It’s not like it didn’t have fantastically catchy songs on it either – just listen to the irresistible groove of ‘Mr. Skin‘ or the delightful ‘Animal Zoo‘ to get a feel of just how saleable it should have been.

Mick Skidmore’s outstanding sleeve notes in the accompanying booklet go some way to explaining this superb record’s initial lack of success. An absolutely brutal mauling in Rolling Stone can’t have helped, for a start, although by the time that review was published, frontman Randy California had suffered a serious head injury after falling off a horse, which meant a drastic lack of gigs and promotional slots, and the original band had split. Not exactly ideal, that!

…Sardonicus‘ did, eventually, and rightfully, attain gold status over a number of years and it is now regarded as the renowned classic it ought to be. This deluxe edition, lovingly remastered by Skidmore, somehow makes it sound even better. He says he had to do this “from a flat transfer of the master and use a manual process to bring out the highs and lows and nuances on each individual track.” Incredibly, this already nigh on perfect album is made to sound at least three times as good thanks to this tireless endeavour. ‘Ballsy’ is probably the best word to describe it now.

For those of you unfamiliar with this work of art, it opens with a very sixties, Donovan type vibe on ‘Prelude – Nothing To Hide‘ but soon becomes more theatrical, like something out of Hair, perhaps, until it develops still further into something approaching heavy rock in the vein of Montrose. Then we’re hit with the blissfully gorgeous ‘Nature’s Way‘ with its seductive harmonies before arguably the catchiest song in the Spirit catalogue kicks in – ‘Animal Zoo‘ is like the middleman between The Kinks and Creedence Clearwater Revival. If you’re not singing that within seconds of its completion, I would suggest you may have psychopathic tendencies…

Next up is the drug-fuelled but affecting ‘Love Has Found A Way‘, followed by the brief and fairly obviously Beatles influenced ballad ‘Why Can’t I Be Free‘.  Probably the best known of the tracks is the impossible not to sing along with ‘Mr. Skin‘ with its jerky, jittery, almost clockwork rhythm, and then the otherworldly but beautiful instrumental ‘Space Child‘, part jazz, equal part stoner rock, takes you on a spiritual journey in your own head.

When I Touch You‘ is kind of an alternative hard rock ballad, sometimes giving off a CSNY vibe, other times Free or, notably, Led Zeppelin. Immediately following that is the splendid ‘Street Worm‘ with a real John Sebastian vibe about it (think The Lovin’ Spoonful‘s ‘Summer In The City‘ and you’re halfway there). If you’re not already blown away, here comes ‘Life Has Just Begun‘, with its prevalent brass undercurrent, immediately hypnotic, yet when the piano enters the fold, even the metaphorical higher plane itself does, indeed, find itself on an even higher one.

It wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption that a young David Bowie may have been paying attention to ‘Morning Will Come‘, as shades (well, actually more than shades) of the pioneering rock icon’s later ‘Diamond Dogs‘ single become abundantly apparent with its rough-edged, urgent hue. And finally, ‘Soldier‘ rounds off proceedings with shades of both The Band and The Who, and a simple sounding lyric that is actually quite devastating when you happen upon the idea that this soldier may be at the end of his life and making an impassioned plea for his loved ones to get on with their own lives and achieve all their dreams, as best they can, without him.

So that’s the main album, but further to this, and the bonus tracks that were previously featured on the Legacy edition of …Sardonicus (standout track the sun-soaked ‘Rougher Road‘),  Skidmore has unearthed previously unheard live performances from The Filmore West in San Francisco in May 1970 and one from October the previous year at the Boston Tea Party. Some of it is a bit tinny but it stands as an interesting legacy of just how diverse this band was. The aforementioned Boston take of ‘Mechanical World‘ is certainly the best recorded of what’s on offer here – all 12 minutes and 27 seconds of its rhythmic, hypnotic sway, but most pleasingly for me personally is that it concludes with ‘Uncle Jack‘, one of the band’s best songs, in a version that takes me back to my own time in bands, as it sounds like the ‘band in the next room’ at a rehearsal studio. It has a kind of innocent charm due to that very fact.

Anyway, despite the slow-burning, eventual success of Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit remains arguably the USA’s greatest secret to the man on the street. It’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded. I kind of wish more people would acknowledge that, and here’s your chance.

Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus Deluxe Edition is released on 25th February through Esoteric Recordings.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.