Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Spirit Of '76

It's often said, and seems to have become part of rock history lore, that the mid-1970s were a wasteland for rock music. The big artists of the 1960s had given us their best music already, and were offering pale imitation or retreads, most often overproduced and bloated with pretension.

But this really was not the case at all if you looked anywhere below the surface. Although glam rock had largely faded, it was well into its transformation into punk rock through the vehicles of artists such as Patti Smith and The New York Dolls. Bob Dylan released his most meaningful album since "John Wesley Harding" with "Blood On The Tracks". David Bowie was moving into the techno-disco musical world that would blossom through "Station To Station" into the stunning "Low". John Cale & Sparks released marvelous albums. Reggae music was at a high point with Bob Marley and Burning Spear. There was a lot going on, and all of it interesting.

Into this dropped Spirit's "Spirit Of '76", a sardonic look at the bicentennial through the prism of some of the most radical music of the 1960s. This double LP really struck me, not least because it was the first record I had heard since Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" that managed to recapture the loose adventure and something of the sound of that album. Finally, today I picked up a BGO CD reissue of this album. Very satisfyingly, it sounds just as fresh and exciting as when I first heard it.

The album is very much of its time, being a seemingly undisciplined mish-mash of science-fiction spirituality (thanks to the interjections of a certain "Jack Bond"), genial & reflective compositions by Randy California, and a series of cover versions. It's the cover versions that give the record its backbone, through both the choice of song and the interpretation. Thus we hear "America The Beautiful", "The Times They Are A-Changing", "Walking The Dog", "Like A Rolling Stone", "Happy", "Hey Joe" & "The Star Spangled Banner".

Two songs associated with The Rolling Stones, two with Bob Dylan, two with Jim Hendrix and, overlapping, two patriotic anthems. Given the affinity of Hendrix himself for Bob Dylan (think "All Along The Watchtower"), we start to see wheels within wheels of influence at work here. Randy California and Ed Cassidy - essentially the entire cast of Spirit at this point - confirm and then subvert our expectations. "Like A Rolling Stone" is given a full Hendrix-style workout, yet "America The Beautiful" and "The Star Spangled Banner" are given unaffected, straightforward interpretations miles removed from Hendrix's own transmutation of "The Star Spangled Banner". Although none of these covers surpass the originals, neither do the originals surpass these covers making this one of the most satisfactory albums ever made based on the covers alone. But the other material, strange and quirky though it be, perfectly complements these songs both in musical and lyrical substance. "Spirit Of '76" is not only the best Spirit album made after the breakup of the original 1960s band, it also rates very highly in comparison to those magnificent early records.

Thus it is a shame that it has fallen so far into the cracks of rock history that it is only available in the U.S. as an import on a label specializing in rare releases. At least it is available though - thank you BGO.

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