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10 Best Spirit Songs That Don’t Sound Like Zep’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’

The L.A. psych-rockers should be remembered for more than just one infamous soundalike

Spirit Stairway to Heaven

The band Spirit

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L.A. psychedelic rockers Spirit have been in the news a lot lately, for flattering, if not necessarily positive, reasons. A lawyer representing the band's deceased guitarist Randy California, is claiming that Led Zeppelin stole the intro to the band's classic "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's "Taurus," penned by California.

While Spirit existed in various forms through to California's death in 1997, the band remains relatively unknown as well as underappreciated. Instrumentally accomplished, with a gift for unpredictable arrangements and folk melodies, Spirit were a key band in the Los Angeles' psychedelic rock scene of the late Sixties, and should be remembered for reasons other than an alleged act of plagiarism. Here are 10 of the band's best songs. By David Marchese

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“I Got a Line on You”

This 1968 hard rock charger was a minor chart hit, and it's got one of the band's most straightforward choruses. The way the song moves fluidly through snappy solos, barreling piano and dense harmony singing is a great example of Spirit's knack for exploring creative arrangements within the confines of a punchy single. 

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“Nature’s Way”

The second track on the band's stellar 1970 album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, "Nature's Way" is a dramatic lament for impending ecological disaster, full of doomy percussion and smacked-out acoustic guitar. 

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“When I Touch You”

Another track from Dr. Sardonicus, "When I Touch You" stands malevolently alongside the death-obsessed works of the Doors as a magnificent example of sinister late Sixties L.A. rock. Randy California's churning riff cuts visciously through mini-vocal freakouts and heebie-jeebie basslines. John Locke's organ shrouds the apocalyptic sounds in a layer of dark mist. 

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“Dark Eyed Woman”

Sort of a moody cousin to "I Got a Line on You," 1969's "Dark Eyed Woman," from the same year's Clear, would've sounded at home on a Nuggets-style compilation, so forceful and wiggy are its psychedelic energy. California's wubba-wubba guitar solo is straight-up weird, sandwiched as it is in the mix between drummer Ed Cassidy's jazzy cymbal work and what sounds like someone scraping a washboard.  

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“Aren’t You Glad”

Psych-rock fiends generally pick 1970's Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus as Spirit's best album, but 1968's The Family That Plays Together also touches brilliance. The closing cut, "Aren't You Glad," is an art-rock monster. Singer Jay Ferguson shifts between cocky imploring and starry-eyed remorse. The rhythm section of drummer Ed Cassidy and bassist Mark Andes build a kind of steady-gaited swing, and guitarist Randy California and keyboardist John Locke paint the song's shifting structures with a trippy rainbow of tonal colors. Even when five-minute song seems to slow down to let glassy strings enter, it feels like there's simply more music happening than in similar efforts from most other bands of the era.

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“Darlin’ If”

Randy California's gentle 1968 ballad "Darlin' If" is incredibly simple, almost beautifully naive-sounding, and wholly charming. And how many other guitar solos from the era can truly be described as winsome? The way California foreshadows the chord progression with a sliding run of notes during the lead's final few bars before the song returns to the verse is like the first golden rays poking out from above the horizon before the morning sun rises. 

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Found on The Family That Plays Together, "Jewish" features California's solemn Hebrew reading of a Jewish prayer, and the arrangement is Old Testament-audacious as fuzz-saturated guitar lines duel before subsiding to let some almost cocktail jazz noodling come in . . . only to be stomped by ominous drum hits and chordal chord stabs. This song is nuts. 

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“Animal Zoo”

Spirit were masters of musical moments, and a gorgeous one occurs during 1970's "Animal Zoo." Upbeat and catchy, the song grooves along on a modified Bo Diddley beat before soaring on the chorus's ascending vocal harmonies. At 1:45, percussion starts to shake and a piano trills, and just when things are ripe for a ripping guitar solo, a playful rinky-dink keyboard comes in to pump out a few circus chords, lending a playfully ironic vibe to what had previously been a strangely intense tune. (This, of course, is followed by a ripping guitar solo.)

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“Like a Rolling Stone”

By the time of 1975's Spirit of '76 album, the band had abandoned its pretenses to pop accessibility. Instead, Randy California wandered off into an intermittently rewarding mist of sci-fi psychedelica and bluesy guitar jamming. It's hard to say whether the world needed an ultra-mellow cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," but that's exactly what California delivered, making xanax out of one very bitter pill. 

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“Would You Believe”

Randy California spent many years living in Hawaii, and "Would You Believe," from 1977's deeply scattershot Future Games, is a soothing evocation of beachside vibes. The song wafts by on echoed slide guitar and California's reverbed vocals, sounding like chillwave if that microgenre had actually meant music-to-chill-out-to-while-listening-physically-close-to-waves. 

In This Article: Led Zeppelin, Spirit

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