Who the hell were Spirit? It’s not a crime if you don’t remember the Los Angeles band that flourished in the late Sixties and early Seventies. They barely brushed the mainstream during their time, and since then, their songs haven’t exactly become staples of classic-rock radio. Spirit have become noteworthy in recent years, though, as the band facing Led Zeppelin in a high-profile copyright suit. A section of their 1967 song “Taurus” bears a resemblance to the intro of “Stairway to Heaven,” one that’s either vague or uncanny, depending on who’s making the assessment.
The trial begins June 14th, and it’s raising many questions about the increase in songwriting litigation against artists, following recent cases like Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke (over “Blurred Lines”) and Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith (over “Stay With Me”). It’s also bringing Spirit back into the public eye. So whether you’re an old head whose brain cells are a bit foggy or a savvy millennial with an ear for vintage psychedelia, here are seven songs that demonstrate why Spirit are worth remembering as more than a Zeppelin footnote.
Spirit came together in 1967 in Los Angeles with an unconventional lineup. Drummer Ed Cassidy was 44, a veteran of World War II as well as the West Coast jazz scene – and his stepson Randy Wolfe, who took the name Randy California, became the singer/guitarist. California also had some experience under his belt as a former member of Jimi Hendrix’s short-lived group Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. With Spirit, Cassidy and California whipped up a heady, potent answer to San Francisco’s psychedelic scene via their 1968 self-titled debut, which featured a single called “Taurus.”
The instrumental, lush and symphonic, heralded the dawn of progressive rock just around the corner – and it also sported, among its many mini-movements, a descending guitar figure by California that the band later claimed was stolen by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Their circumstantial evidence: Spirit and Zeppelin shared a stage a handful of times in 1968, giving Page plenty of opportunity to absorb “Taurus” before writing “Stairway,” which was released in 1971. And it’s not like Zeppelin hasn’t been accused of plagiarism before, most notably when folk artist Jake Holmes sued the band in 2010 over his 1967 song “Dazed and Confused,” the clear (and uncredited) basis of Zeppelin’s 1968 song of the same name.
“I Got a Line on You” (1969)
The closest Spirit ever came to becoming a household name was in 1969, when the single “I Got a Line on You” hit Number 25 in the Billboard charts. Unlike the vocal-free atmospherics of “Taurus,” “I Got a Line on You” featured harmony galore, straddling the line between the soulful hard rock that was on the rise at the end of the Sixties and the lingering traces of peace-and-love trippiness that still informed California’s supple guitar work. California’s voice is gutsy and melodic, helping to propel the single to success – a little less sophistication, and “I Got a Line on You” could’ve been a Steppenwolf mega-hit. It also established the dynamic between riff-hungry rock and psychedelic abandon that would become more pronounced as the band forged ahead into the Seventies.
The year 1969 was a huge one for sci-fi-influenced music, thanks to David Bowie’s epochal single “Space Oddity.” But with “1984,” Spirit flaunted California’s parallel love of sci-fi. The song was named after George Orwell’s dystopian classic, and in its own way, the music is just as chilling. “1984/Knocking on your door,” California intones at the start of the track before it segues into an angular, almost mechanical bass line that sounds totally New Wave – more than a decade ahead of its time, as if the year 1984 really were knocking at Spirit’s door. Of course, Bowie himself would record a song called “1984,” drawing from the same literary source material, in 1974. Not that Spirit was done with recording sci-fi music. …
“Nature’s Way” (1970)
Spirit’s latent progressive tendencies finally shot to the forefront in 1970. That year, the band released its magnum opus, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. Ambitious, multi-layered and sprawling – at the time, Rolling Stone raved that the album “lay languidly upon the very steps to Parnassus” – it produced the single “Nature’s Way,” which became a Spirit staple. It’s not hard to see why. Over a driving acoustic guitar, California pleads, “It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong” – sounding favorably like fellow Angeleno Arthur Lee of Love, one of Spirit’s closest contemporaries. The coughing at the end of the song is reminiscent of the coughing at the start of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” released a year later, although in Spirit’s case, it seems to be an ominous, melodramatic reaction to air pollution rather than a paean to pot. Or maybe it’s both.
“Mr. Skin” (1970)
Cassidy wasn’t just a generation older than California and the rest of their band. The same year David Crosby was celebrating “letting [his] freak flag fly” in CSN’s “Almost Cut My Hair,” Spirit’s drummer was as bald as an egg, a fact that provided Cassidy with his nickname among his bandmates: Mr. Skin – which became the title of the b-side of “Nature’s Way.” Starting with a staccato organ-and-guitar salvo, the song eases into a brass-punctuated, cowbell-happy jam that mythologizes Cassidy’s alter ego. The song proved to be so popular among fans, it was re-released as a single in 1972.
“Lady of the Lakes” (1975)
Cassidy and California founded Spirit and were part of the band when it ended in 1997, but their first breaks from the group came in the early Seventies amid a spate of creative squabbles and power grabs. Understandably, Spirit’s fortunes suffered during this time, especially since they hadn’t established enough of a mainstream foundation to carry them through the lean years. When the stepdad/stepson team returned for the 1975 album Spirit of ’76, and like The Grateful Dead, Spirit decided to snub the trends of the decade and stick with what it knew best: psychedelia. While “Lady of the Lakes,” a single and standout track from Spirit of ’76, didn’t help Spirit become psychedelic standard-bearers like the Dead, the song’s easygoing vibe and swirling Americana weren’t that far from the concurrent work of Garcia and company.
“Star Trek Dreaming” (1977)
Since the song “1984,” the future always seemed to be bearing down on Randy California. So when, in 1977, Spirit released Future Games, it was a safe bet the album was going to be weird. And it was. His interest in science fiction took an obsessive turn, with several of the songs even having pronounced Star Trek themes, including “Gorn Attack,” “The Romulan Experience” and, even more blatantly, “Star Trek Dreaming.” Weirder still, “Star Trek Dreaming” eschews Spirit’s previous psychedelic sound altogether in favor of an eerie yet playful collage of skeletal rock, echo-slathered glossolalia, cryptic dialogue, and yes, samples from the original Star Trek show. As California remarked in an interview in 1978, “It was a foggy time.”
Fascinatingly kooky in a Dr. Demento sort of way – it should be noted that Barry Hansen was a roommate and demo producer of Spirit’s in the mid-Sixties before becoming Dr. Demento – “Star Trek Dreaming” and Future Games as a whole also foretold the group’s deterioration. After a hiatus in the early Eighties, though, Spirit regained its footing and struggled on as both a touring and recording act until 1997, when the tragic death of California while he was saving his son from drowning ended Spirit for good. Cassidy died of cancer in 2012. Neither of them lived to see the results of a lawsuit that’s ironically making their band more famous than ever before.