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The Long Shadow of Punk -Spirit’s ‘Future Games’: Third Part of Three

And so, on to Spirit and Future Games: A Magical-’Kahauna Dream, it’s lysergic title being a bit of a spoiler as to the contents within this single disc. A few words on Spirit are probably relevant here, in terms of context - they were a West Coast group (from L.A.) who didn’t really fit in with their psychedelic contemporaries, being somewhat jazzy in their sound and without a particular ‘image’ or an ‘angle’ to sell themselves with (the closest they got to thistheir  was in the fact of having a bald, middle-aged drummer, Ed Cassidy, a jazz musician who was teenage guitarist Randy California’s stepfather). Their history is really divided into two very different configurations and periods: the 1967-1970 group was a democratic quintet, that of 1974-79 was basically a vehicle for California, still aided and abetted by Cassidy the former writing most of the songs and acting very much as the visual focus for the band. Spirit 1 produced a quartet of period classics, the last of which, Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, is now acknowledged as one of the very best rock albums. It seems that California’s desire to be in charge (he still hadn’t yet even hit 20) led to the breakup of this incarnation of the band. A disasterous one-off reformation a few years later only reinforced their incompatability, and California’s control-freakery.

Spirit 2 also produced four albums of note, including the one under review, which was preceded by Spirit of ‘76, Son of Spirit and Further Along, all of which are mostly forgotten now. This is unfortunate, as they were all interesting, especially Spirit of ‘76, a double album which only reached No.147 in the American charts, despite receiving some FM radio airplay. It probably suffered from under-promotion, again perhaps related to problems with ‘image’ (or lack of), and to the fact that the second band bore very little relation to Spirit 1. In particular, Spirit 2 was clearly a psychedelic guitar band, with Califormia adapting a Hendrix ‘look’ and sound, at a time when this sort of music was becoming terminally unfashionable, before being put out of it’s misery for a couple of decades by punk attitudes and culture. Future Games was different, however, and reflected, probably unconsciously, a tighter, leaner approach to strong structure, while still keeping the hippie flag flying by it’s whacked-out conceptual adventurousness

For a start, the songs were very short and there were 22 of ‘em, eight more than there were on the first two Ramones albums! The longest is a version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower (famously covered, of course, ten years earlier, by Hendrix himself), which only clocks in a three minutes or so. This put them into the realm of later minimalist bands such as Guided By Voices and The Minutemen. What marked the album out at the time, however, was it’s arch conceptual nature, with it’s narrative being fractured and broken up by bursts of random noise, CB radio (anyone old enough to remember that?) and, in particular, fragments of the Star Trek TV (remember that 1977 was also the year that saw the release of the first, era-defining Star Wars movie). These segments tend to be eerie and surreal, with the voices of Kirk, Spock, Bones, etc, several featuring expressions of concern over Jim Kirk losing his mind after a visit to a dodgy planet. They are disorientating and somewhat disturbing (”your reality is slipping…as California sings on Buried in my Brain, and were very unusual production techniques for the time. Other inserts seem to be from selected from hammy old Hollywood horror movies from the 30s and 40s. It wouldn’t be too much to suggest that this album is an early example of ‘sampling’, using analogue technology of course. It certainly disconcerted the old hippies of my contemporary acquaintances

Paul Lester, in his Guardian re-review on 05/03/13 described Future Games as the “first collage pop album…released in early 1977, it was incredibly punk”. That’s certainly how it felt at the time - it was somewhat Janus-faced, looking forward to punk brevity and a fascination with popular cultural artefacts, and backwards to the glowing psychedelic haze of Hendix-influenced sci-fi lullabies (the Jimi of Bold As Love, 3rd, Stone From the Sun and 1983). It is one of my dearest musicological wishes to see both this and Good-Bye Pop receive their proper due, as “punk music by non-punks”.

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