“Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” by Spirit (1970)
When Spirit made the switch to Epic Records in 1970, signing with the Columbia subsidiary after three releases on Lou Adler’s Ode label, the band had the added benefit of working with producer David Briggs.
Fresh off working with Neil Young & Crazy Horse on “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” Briggs helped the five members of Spirit fully realize their songwriting and album-crafting potential with “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.”
The band’s fourth effort, though, turned out to be its least commercially successful to that point. Despite critical praise and heavy FM play, “Dr. Sardonicus” peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard charts. And sadly, it turned out to be the final album by Spirit’s original lineup (except for a 1984 effort consisting mostly of remakes), pretty much closing the book on one of the more interesting bands of the late ’60s.
A rift had developed between the band’s two primary composers, vocalist Jay Ferguson and guitarist Randy California. A listen to their subsequent releases shows the divergent directions each wanted to go: Ferguson, with Jo Jo Gunne, keyed in on Spirit’s more commercial elements; California, on his solo “Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds,” pursues a decidedly more experimental edge.
Both facets are evident on “Dr. Sardonicus,” which contains some of Spirit’s most enduring work. Songs like “Nature’s Way,” “Animal Zoo” and particularly “Mr. Skin” – Ferguson wrote it about the band’s bald-headed drummer, Ed Cassidy – continue to pop up on classic-rock playlists.
The album opens with the brief, acoustic “Prelude,” which segues into “Nothing to Hide,” with California singing obscure lyrics about being “married to the same bride.” He’s much more direct on “Nature’s Way,” an early commentary on environmental problems that maintains its relevance to this day.
Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo” mines a similar vein in a lamentation about living in the city: “The air I breathe, the water I drink/Is selling me short and turning me ’round.” There’s a bit of a misogynistic twist, though, it seems: “Oh, no, something went wrong/You’re much too fat and a little too long.” That last line is chanted quite a few times during the song’s fadeout.
California and keyboardist John Locke, both of whom now are deceased, combined to write “Love Has Found a Way.” That segues into the short, plaintive “Why Can’t I Be Free,” yet another world-gone-wrong rumination.
The attitude picks up with “Mr. Skin,” which is carried by Mark Andes’ thundering bass and the use of a horn section to punctuate the quirky melody. Ferguson’s lyrics reflect the boats of some kind of larger-than-life character: “I can bring you pain, I can bring you sudden pleasure/Your life will only gain if your love’s final measure.”
Locke provides one of his many ethereal instrumentals with “Space Child,” which is followed by a couple of Spirit’s harder-rocking numbers, Ferguson’s “When I Touch You” and “Street Worm.” A trio of California compositions wrap up the album on a relatively optimistic note: “Life Has Just Begun,” “Morning Will Come” and “Soldier,” which reprises a touch of “Prelude” toward the end, bringing “Dr. Sardonicus” full circle.
California eventually returned to the Spirit fold, teaming with Cassidy to keep the band going into the mid-’90s. Unfortunately, California drowned off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii, while swimming with his 12-year-old son, who survived. Randy was only 45.
Locke, who played occasionally with Spirit after the end of the original lineup, died of lymphoma in 2006.
Ferguson went on to have a solo hit in 1978 with “Thunder Island.” Three decades later, he won a Film & TV Music Award for his score of the NBC-TV series “The Office.” Andes has played with numerous musicians over the years, including Ian McLagan, who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Small Faces and Faces.
Cassidy, who was California’s father-in-law, was one of the senior citizens of rock during Spirit’s heyday, having started his professional music career in 1937. He’ll turn 89 on May 4.
As for “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” it remained a steady seller for Epic, eventually being awarded Gold Album status six years after its release. For fans of the classic rock era, it remains a must-hear effort.