Eccentric, inexplicable and utterly beautiful. California dreaming, indeed.
Peter Marsh 2004
Spirit are probably best known for 1969's The Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, a sort-of-concept album consisting of equal parts psychedelia, West Coast rock and jazz. Having recorded what many still see as their artistic peak, the band fell apart, appeared with an almost entirely new line-up, broke up again and finally resurfaced as a duo of guitarist Randy California (on the mend after a breakdown) and his stepdad, drummer Ed Cassidy. Though Spirit would exist in various forms till California's untimely death in 1997, mid 70s output like Future Games and this album remain probably their most exploratory and underappreciated work.
Spirit of 76 is some kind of vaguely political comment on America's Bicentennial Independence celebrations; we open with "America The Beautiful" which slides into "The Times They Are 'A Changing", while a foggy "Hey Joe" gives way to a surf-pop rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" as the album closes. In between there's a kaleidoscopic mix of sun-kissed pop, jangly acoustics, psychedelic blissouts, Beach Boys harmonies and hazy, fuzzed out jams, all filtered through California's increasingly eccentric yet inspired approach to the studio.
Keen readers may have spotted a Hendrix influence in the choice of material. Randy and Jimi played together in the Blue Flames, and there's some of Hendrix in California's cool, nasal vocal. His (much underrated) guitar playing carries some influence too; not the wild pyrotechnics imitated by thousands, but the lush textural explorations of "All Along the Watchtower" or "1983, A Merman I Should Be". From the yearning, jazzy atmospherics of "When?" to the swooning, cosmic skyscrapings of "Urantia" and "Once Again" to the cavernous, primal heavy metal of "Veruska", California soaks his guitars in swathes of warm tape delay, phasing and various flavours of distortion, threatening to overload the tape with his cosmic musings.
This may have something to do with fact that the music 'comes from another dimension somewhere along the Time Coast'. Throughout proceedings a character called Jack Bond pops up to mutter unintelligibly about this in a slowed down, echo drenched voice, and the album is stuffed full of whispers, false endings, a nice stereo ping pong match, and all sorts of smoker's delights. After 20 or so years of listening to this album, I'm still hearing new things. Or at least I think I am, which is a pretty good trick to pull off when you think about it. Eccentric, inexplicable and utterly beautiful. California dreaming, indeed.