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Randy California

Randy California

Farther along with Spirit's Randy California.

Say Spirit to most people and their minds will automatically take a trip back in time, coming to rest finally on distant memories of Fresh Garbage and The 12 Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus. Fewer minds, probably will recall the splitting of the band in the late 60s, but more will remember the resurgence and reforming of founder members Randy California and Ed Cassidy for the Spirit of 76 album, a record which, despite its obvious 'concept' label, received much attention from old and new fans alike.

And so to 1978 – what has happened between the Spirit of 76 double-set and now? The more physical evidence is a trio of albums on the Mercury label — Son of Spirit, Farther Along and Future Games, A Magical Kahauna Dream – which collectively imply a carefully crafted studio approach coupled with a rather unsettled group line-up. A surprise ad in the British music comics at the beginning of March gave Tony Bacon the opportunity to find out a little more.

Saturday night at London's Rainbow Theatre. A seedy place at the best of times, strange transformation has taken place. At first it seems to be down to the fact that the mere process of breathing in is enough to bring the senses in contact with a not insignificant amount of illegal substance. Then it clicks – the vast majority of the audience seems to have emerged from a 1967 time-capsule and is busily emanating peace, love and all that. Even Jesus has turned up for the occasion.

The band were in Germany and rang Miles Copeland in England – 'Can you set up some gigs?' was the question. The answer came a week later in the form of three hastily, and admirably, arranged dates at Essex University, the Rainbow Theatre, and Bristol's Locarno, no less.

Some days after the Rainbow gig, Randy California relaxes in a London hotel, tired from a night spent worrying about tapes of the Rainbow set that the band had been listening to at London's Central Recorders studio.

'We heard the tapes yesterday evening and I couldn't figure out what was wrong — all I heard was tape-echo guitar,' Randy complains. 'I had two guitar sounds at the show, a regular with fuzz and wah-wah, and another amp set-up with phaser and echoplex. But all we could hear on tape was the sound of the echoplex. As it turns out our road guy had at the last minute told some guy to switch microphones on my cabinets, so I'm really afraid that all we have is two tracks of the echoplex sounding guitar, so you don't get the straight or the fuzz, you just get bleed-through.' He stares at the table in disbelief. The possibility of having to re-record the guitar parts looms — Randy seems prepared to put this solution into practice, because the rest of the playing is so good. 'There's a good album there,' he puts it.

Martin Birch was helping on the production of the tapes, and the last word was that he may have been able to pull some sort of sound out of the mix to save Randy the job of re-recording the guitar parts and losing some of the spontaneity. If all goes well this will be Spirit's first live record, apart from the inevitable bootlegs that have accumulated over the years. Not that live albums haven't been planned; indeed Mercury wanted the band to record a double at the Bottom Line club in New York, renowned for its sound. This turned out to be yet another in a string of communication breakdowns and coloured the Mercury deal with bad feelings.

The signing originated in 1975 when the band were playing gigs in Florida as a trio with Barry Keene on bass. They were due to play support to Alvin Lee at an 8000 seat venue when he pulled out at the last minute. 'We asked the promoter if we could take over the hall ourselves and charge a really low ticket price,' Randy explained, 'they were charging 6 to 8 dollars.' The band ended up charging 3 dollars, and 6000 people came to a really good show, opened by a comedian and culminating in a superb set from Spirit.

The money the band made from this was put toward the recording of the Spirit Of 76 album at Florida's Tampa studio, Studio 70. Randy describes the recording as a beautiful experience: 'At that time Mercury had heard that we were together again, we were out on the road doing a few more gigs, and they were calling our manager, who at that time was Marshall Berle. Anyway, I talked to the president of Mercury, Irwin Steinberg, and he started saying that they were interested. I said: Well, you might be interested, but I'm not gonna sign with you or anybody until I meet you, and if I like you personally... whatever.'

Two days later Steinberg and his business accountant were down at Tampa listening to the rough mixes that would later become side one of Spirit Of 76. Apparently Steinberg took a strong liking to one song in particular, Victim of Society. 'He said: Hey let me hear that song again,' recalls Randy, 'cos he really liked Victim Of Society. What blows my mind is that after they heard it and liked it so much, when it came to the time to put out a single they had one of their guys thought up the idea of taking Lady O' The Lakes, and taking the tape and cutting it up and splicing the song and releasing that as a single!'

Anyway, the deal was made and Spirit signed to Mercury. California was pleased about the deal as far as percentages go ('It's right up there with Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, whatever the big guys get!'), but in retrospect has little sympathy with record company philosophy. 'It's hard to know what to say to record companies,' he says, 'your instincts and all the things you believe in all seem to go down the drain when you're confronted with the power and the big business of the record company. When you get signed you're sort of put in to the little...,' his voice trails off. 'You're just an animal musician, dog, whatever you are, product, slab of meat that makes mu-zik.' This last word he spits out with contempt — one gets the impression that Mr. California's experience has coloured his judgement to no small extent.

The fact remains, however, that the albums Spirit made for Mercury are very good, all having the California magic-touch in some shape or form. Son Of Spirit came after Spirit Of 76, and is much more of a straightforward song album compared to the time-consuming concept aura of 76. A track called Family from Son Of had particularly intrigued me, and I asked Randy if he could tell me a little about its origins. 'There's about three electric guitars, there's acoustic too. There was piano too, that was John Locke playing piano, and an old friend of Cass (Ed Cassidy), Gary Marker, who used to play in a group with Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Gary Marker and Ed Cassidy called the Rising Sons. So Gary Marker, who's a really fine bass player, played bass on that. I played rhythm acoustic and Cass played drums on the original track in Los Angeles, and I took the tape to Tampa, added the guitars and the multivoices. I think I sped it up on the VSO a little, it is kinda fast.'

On Son Of Spirit, then, it was mainly Randy and Ed doing most things, with a few friends here and there. On the next record, Farther Along, there was a virtual re-union of the early Spirit line-up, with Mark Andes, his brother Matt, John Locke, Cassidy and California forming the nucleus. The record is stylishly produced; Randy readily attributes the quality of the record to 'mixer' Al Schmidt. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the next album, Future Games, failed to sell many copies either in the States or in Britain. It's a fascinating project, a continuous meshing of song into song; voices, CB radio talk, Star Trek recordings and other assorted links crafted into a kind of long, melodic version of Revolution No. 9.

Randy reckons that his best songs are not on Future Games, but surely, I suggested, it's more of a 'sound' album than a 'song' album? 'It was like a concept,' he says, 'I was just tripping out in the studio. When I got down to Florida and started recording the album, I just said: Oh hell with it, I'm just gonna do something that I've never done before, just something, I don't know what.' To achieve the kind of result audible on Future Games Randy had to perform a fair amount of control room acrobatics, as he explains.

'On the final mixdown we had a whole bunch of songs and we mixed them down each to 2-track — all there was was a 2-track and a 16-track in that studio, but there was Dolby. What we did was to put all the major songs on to 2-track, then we put them all in sequence back on to the 16-track. Mixing down I guess there were eight tracks altogether.' He pauses and looks into the air to make a calculation in his head. 'Stereo of the first side, stereo of the second side, Jack Bond speaks in stereo, then I think it was mono of the Star Trek and other things, like Kermit the Frog. So it was seven tracks, it was like mixing a song instead of mixing a side, mix things in and out, and...' He comes to a halt. How did Kermit the Frog end up on Future Games, I ask. 'Blair Mooney, the engineer, had three little girls of two, five and seven and their favourite character was Kermit the Frog. I went to their house for a Thanksgiving Dinner and they were playing that record. It was Cass's idea to write a song about a frog, we had it already written, Freakout Frog, so when I heard that Kermit I thought it would be a nice introduction.' Among the other links available for California to use were stereo tracks of Jack Bond talking 'about his mysterious self, and the Star Trek sequences. 'But those were like planned out,' says Randy, 'things that we had where somebody would say something and then it would lead into a song. So that did take quite a bit of time.' And that wasn't all that took time with Future Games, as Randy goes on to describe. 'I had trouble with that album, 'cos I mixed it down once and I took it to Capitol Records (cutting room) and the sound was so thin and trebly we tried to press it and just couldn't get all the highs in it. It sounded great in the studio, so crisp and all these highs, and they couldn't put it on. We sent back to Columbia pressing plant three times before they came up with a copy that didn't skip.'

Like many innovative musicians of his generation, Randy's involvement with recording has been a gradual learning process, where each trip into the studio has enabled him to learn a little more about techniques. 'I do know quite a bit about eq, limiting,' he admits, 'but I'm not too familiar with the new devices like the digital delays and things like that; I've heard the way they sound, it doesn't really knock me out to put things through a transistor.' This remark crystallises his 'taste it and see' approach to recording — the number of instances that surface on Spirit records where you can almost see the experimental train of thought running through the sound is enough to keep any avid sound freak happy. Randy looks back a way while we're on the subject of recording. 'I know that some of the older equipment like we used on Sardonicus, like Lang mid-range equalisers — old Neumann microphones gave the best quality sound for vocals.'

Recording and on-stage are undoubtedly separate entities as far as Randy is concerned — the three-piece that rocked the Rainbow was strangely reminiscent of The Jimi Hendrix Experience in a kind of controlled/chaotic way; certainly the order and clarity of the ideas and presentation on the more recent Spirit records is in direct contrast to the powerful barrage of sound that is Spirit on stage. Was Randy aware of this separateness? 'Well, that's true — and we've never had a live album out. The power of Cass's drumming I don't think has ever come out on record, it's monstrous, he's got a great big set of drums, great tone, he plays with mallets.

'You're right,' he says after a moment's consideration, 'there has been a great contrast between our records and us live, that's maybe been a problem...' He pauses for a little more thought on the subject. 'I saw Paul McCartney and Wings in LA at a big hall, and I was really impressed 'cos he had the sound really close to the way their records sound, plus he had that live sound going — I was really proud of what he was doing.'

In fact Randy is a bit of a self-confessed Beatles fanatic ('If I had to listen to one album before I died it would probably be Rubber Soul'), and has recorded a fair number of Lennon-McCartney songs on various Spirit albums, and also on his own solo album, Kaptain Kopter And The Twirlybirds. Released in 1973, the record did not exactly soar to the dizzy heights of the sales-charts, but was gladly received by California fans at a time when Spirit was defunct and nothing had been heard of Randy apart from reports of a road-accident. He confesses a liking for the record. 'I like it, I mean there was a lot of neat backwards guitar, I like to get into that. I think the production on it was really sort of European, I was trying for that really separate kind of crisp sound. I'm really happy with it.'

Backwards guitar seems to have gone out of fashion nowadays, but it remains a clever little trick if used sparingly and in the right places. 'When I do backwards guitar,' Randy explains, 'I turn the tape around and listen to the song as it's going backwards and when I play guitar I try and play as "backwards" as I can. I'll try and play like to make it sound backwards, so when it is, when you turn it round backwards, it's backwards, but almost frontwards!' Couldn't be simpler. 'It's not something I planned out, it's like when I hear a track backwards I try and put it backwards to match it, not really thinking of how it's gonna sound when it's turned round.'

At the Rainbow, Randy was using the obligatory Strat, something of a favourite with him. 'I had Velvet Hammer pickups put in it, but I'm not really happy with the sound I'm getting.' He changed from the Fender pickups because he thought they were 'tinny' sounding, the sound wasn't quite as fat as he wanted. 'So I tried the Velvet Hammer pickups at a low volume in a music store through a good amp and they sounded really a lot more full. So I had them put in, like a dummy; when I get back to LA I'll probably have Di Marzios put in!' Other guitars he owns include a Ricky 12 and a Silverbird electric, made by Danelectro for Sears and Roebuck which he used on the early Spirit albums. 'I also have my old Fender lap-slide, the one I used on Nothing To Hide. The acoustic I have with me here is just a regular Martin D28 1970, I've got an old Fender acoustic sitting up in our business office; that's about it for acoustics. It's frustrating, y'know, because I can never be happy with one guitar or one sound for some reason.'

Also at the Rainbow, Randy was experimenting with a Moog Taurus setup, going through his third amp set-up, another Marshall (the other two stacks sported Ampeg and Marshall tops). He stresses the exploratory nature of his involvement with the Taurus: 'It's a bass foot synthesiser pedal. It's got a range of four octaves, even though I only use the two lower ones. When I think about it I can step on it and add a big WOOOOW — a dimension. I don't really have it together where I can play lead on it yet.' Certainly Randy California and Spirit, whatever shape or form they happen to be in next time around, will never be content to stand still — constantly trying out new ideas and new sounds, both live and in the studio. 'We could make the three-piece sound really big and full,' said Randy, projecting some of his thoughts for the future into words. 'The right guitar, the right amplifier, if Larry maybe had a two amp set-up to reproduce some things, if Cass maybe had a little electronic drum thing... there's lots of ideas.'

Farther Along for all it's worth
You live your life for all it's worth
And then you go farther along
Farther along...

Selected Discography

The Family That Plays Together (CBS-UK: 63523/USA:KE31461)
The Twelve Dreams Of Doctor Sardonicus (Epic-UK: EPC641 91/USA: PE30267)
Spirit of 76 (Mercury-UK: 6672-012/USA: SRM-2-804)
Farther Along (Mercury-UK: deleted/USA: SRM 1-1094)
Future Games, A Magical Kahauna Dream (Mercury-UK: deleted/USA: SRM-1-11 33)

Randy California:
Kaptain Kopter And The Twirlybirds (Epic-UK: deleted/USA: E31755)

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Laser Graphics

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The Tascam Way

Sound International - Copyright: Link House Publications


Sound International - Jun 1978

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Interview by Tony Bacon

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