Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Adventures of Kaptain Kopter & Commander Cassidy in Potato Land

Crazy title, crazy album. Most of my contemporaries will probably know of/own this rather fuzzy, stoned gem. But for some reason I was driven to find out a little more about this ‘lost’ classic by Randy California and Ed Cassidy of Spirit.

Spirit, as most of you know, was a peculiar offshoot of the West Coast scene. Their masterpiece was their fourth official album - the David Briggs-produced Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus  – which highlights the band’s unique sound at its peak:  jazz-tinged psychedelia and melodic pop-rock. The first three albums – Spirit, The Family That Plays Together Stays Together and Clear - are all splendid too, by the way – I’m particularly enamoured of Clear. The earlier albums also are much better at showcasing Randy’s extraordinary guitar skills, especially in double-tracking and slide (which he played with Hendrix).

Potato Land (to give it its shortened name) was recorded in 1973 following the rather messy dissolution of the ‘classic‘ line-up of the band (that’s enough ‘classic’: ed): namely Randy California (guitar, vocals); Ed Cassidy (drums and baldness); Jay Ferguson (vocals, guitar); Mark Andes (bass) and John Locke (keyboards). To be honest just about everything connected with the band after 1973 is messy. The departure of Jay Ferguson along with Mark Andes to form Jo Jo Gunne precipitated Randy’s departure as well, meaning that Locke and Cassidy kept the name going by recording the album Feedback with the Staehly brothers, John and Al. Both drummer and keyboard player left the band as well, during the subsequent tour for the album, meaning that Spirit joined Fleetwood Mac or Dr. Feelgood in the ranks of bands that continued without any original members!

Following the acrimonious split California (born Randy Craig Wolfe: he earned his surname from Jimi Hendrix while they played together for three months in The Blue Flame at New York’s Cafe Wha?) proceeded to work on his first solo album: Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. The album’s a tangle of guitar shredding a la Hendrix (he’s possibly one of the few contemporaries of Jimi who could claim to have influenced him) and heavily rearranged cover versions, backed by The Experience’s Noel Redding (under the awful pseudonym of Clit McTorious) as well as Larry ‘Fuzzy’ Knight and stepfather, Cassidy (billed as ‘Cass Strange’).

The album’s un-focused approach meant that it failed commercially. Over the following year, as Randy fought to re-gain control of the band name ‘Spirit’, he and ‘Cass’ began working on a ‘concept’ album of sorts: namely, Potato Land, on which the pair set off on an adventure to the titular land filled with talking , cannibalistic potatoes, giant chocolate éclairs and... Oh, good grief, just typing this makes me doubt my own sanity.

A similar reaction from California’s label at the time, Epic, must have occurred, because the finished product was duly rejected and shelved, leaving the pair to reconvene with an increasingly convoluted combination of old and new members of Spirit. The band had, in their early years, suffered from poor management decisions (they were due to open for Hendrix at Woodstock but were forced to do a promotional tour instead), and the early disillusionment with record companies coupled with Randy’s alleged depression over the death of his friend Jimi stymied any rewards bigger than the respect and love of their peers.

Following the non-appearance of Potato Land (guaranteeing it the mystical aura only granted to unreleased projects from Smile to, say, Richard Thompson’s original recording of Shoot Out The Lights) Randy spent some time licking his wounds in Hawaii before reconvening with Cassidy to make the equally fuzzy and stoned double album Spirit of ’76 (in 1975, confusingly).  After this came the increasingly confusing variations of line-up, often with several members of the original band on board. Randy’s own idiosyncratic ideas on life, love and the universe (Spirit of ’76 contains a lot about the then-fashionably bonkers Urantia writings) colour most of the material. His early exposure to music and the attendant lifestyle (he was 15 when he met Hendrix) undoubtedly had a life-long effect on the mind of young Randy, meaning that to experience the magic you often have to wade through some pretty strange stuff (or smoke it). Any spoken word recordings of California make him sound like a totally baked Kermit the frog. No wonder, then, that Spirit never really escaped the box marked ‘cult’. Bear with me on this…

I was first introduced to Potato Land by a pair of friends when I was about 14 or 15. This would have been in the mid-‘70s a year or two after the album was recorded. Its legendary status had already been cemented, with bootleg copies (drawn from a radio broadcast of the album acetate by Bob Harris in 1973 on his BBC Radio One show when he hosted the pair) already in circulation with an attendant comic strip of the ‘adventures’.

At the time it meant little to me, having never heard Spirit or seen California play. But word of mouth was a powerful tool in those far-off days and the memory stuck with me. Flash forward to 1981 and the album was finally announced as being officially released. It duly appeared (and was bought by me) in the UK on the Beggar’s Banquet label, complete with comic book. No record seems to have survived as to WHO drew the comic, and indeed no record of its contents seem to be there either. If anyone has a copy I’d love to see/blog a scan!

Its mythical status seems to have guaranteed it a chart placing (#40 on the UK album charts, to be accurate) which was a first for Randy and Ed. Doctor Sardonicus sold so slowly that it took seven years to go gold! Yet, apparently, Spirit diehards were not happy with the appearance of Potato Land. Why? Because Randy had messed with the tapes, adding overdubs, changing tape speeds and even adding some more recent tunes which featured some very early ‘80s keyboard sounds and arrangements. It would take another 20 years before a ‘definitive’ version of the ‘album’ would appear. Why the need to put ‘album’ in quote marks? Because, when compared, neither version really adds up to a finished piece of work.

When Spirit archivist Mick Stapleton finally released the ‘original’ version of the album, it turned out to be a recording of that legendary acetate broadcast, cleaned up and with a few added live tracks taken from the previous year’s tour to promote Kaptain Kopter... Confused yet?

The album sounds like a demo, and its 30 odd (very odd, in fact) minutes consist of a few songs connected by dialogue wherein Cass and California take a trip in their ‘Koptermobile’ on highway exit 27 in order to find the things sadly lacking in the ‘real world’. Ahem…

The analogy was lame, but the sounds were undeniably cool. Even the oft-decried  dialogue is a varispeeded delight, despite not making much sense. The songs (as they stand) are also very fine. A reworked version of Clear’s ‘1984’ features some fine double-tracked lead; jaunty blues ‘Turn To The Right’ was destined to become a Spirit live staple and ‘My Friend’ is a Byrdsian gem of chiming West Coast psych. Elsewhere ‘Donut House’ is a woozy double-tracked delight accompanied by Cassidy’s rumbling toms and demonstrating the Hawaiian influence that Randy picked up on hiatus.
Allegedly ‘true’ Spirit fans were appalled by Randy’s careless reworking of several of the original numbers and the addition of new material when the album first appeared in 1981. Subsequent copies of the ‘definitive’ edition included a second disc which presented this version, next to the muddier ‘radio acetate’ version, and listening to it now, some 25 years after I first heard it, I can’t for the life of me, really see what was so wrong with it.

For starters Randy’s additional songs (albeit incongruous due to the obvious influence of disco, use of a slick horn section and more up-to-date- keyboards) are really no that bad.  ‘We’ve Got a Lot to Learn’ is a breezy psych soul anthem; ‘Potatoland Theme’ contains the aforementioned disco trappings under a reprise of the “we are the potato-faced people” marching theme (obviously based on the Wicked Witch’s palace guard chant in ‘The Wizard of Oz’).

Again, I’m finding it hard to justify writing stuff like this…

To continue, ‘Morning Light’ also shows that Randy’s been listening to the disco direction of contemporaries of, say, the Rolling Stones (‘Potatoland Theme’ sounds not unlike ‘Miss You’), and finally ‘Open Up Your Heart’ contains the dreamy harmonies, melodic piano lines (courtesy of original Spirit member, John Locke) and warm hippie platitudes that may seem gauche today, but lifted Sardonicus above the average. Ok, to be fair, it’s very similar in structure to that album’s ‘Soldier’, but it’s still gorgeous.

Added to this are a new bubbly synth intro that brings to mind Todd Rundgren’s experiments around the same time, and a coupe of hokey demos which may or may not come from the 1981 sessions, and there you have it: Randy and Cass having crazy carbohydrate-based fun.

The real joy, for me, is its failures as much as its successes. Quite obvious incomplete and, due to Randy’s notoriously oddball behaviour traits (he once jumped into the Thames following a mid-tour meltdown), destined to remain as such, Potato Land makes you work for your pleasure, pretty much in the same way that with Todd Rundgren you can go from pure pop perfection to cringe-worthy eccentricity and production hell in seconds. I love Zappa’s Uncle Meat for similar reasons. The longeurs, disjointed edits and obscure in-jokes just make you love the beauty in the cracks even more.

To anyone who doesn’t know of Randy and Co. I’d start with Dr Sardonicus and tread with care. I know others who know far more about this stuff than me, and have spent a lifetime being exasperated by the band’s patent failure to really ever deliver on their early promise. But like a fine wine, age just makes Randy California’s art with a guitar and a tune seem even more precious, if rarely glimpsed. In many ways he’s an idiot savant, a boy-child who both grew up too fast and never escaped a countercultural dream that kept him dumb. But then, if he’d become mega successful and shown good judgement he wouldn’t have been Randy California. Potato Land bears all of this out.

Spirit did reform a couple of times, and Randy and Cass continued to make music well up to Randy's untimely death by drowning in 1997 at the age of 45. But from 1976 onwards it's a real case of caveat emptor.

Finally, here's Randy in action on The Whistle Test, just before that meltdown I mentioned, with Ed on the drums performing 'Turn to the Right'. Enjoy: 


Peter said...

Nice. I think this is a nice summing up of Randy -'In many ways he’s an idiot savant, a boy-child who both grew up too fast and never escaped a countercultural dream that kept him dumb.' I think he was generally quite fond of himself too (hence his tendency to remove his shirt at every opportunity). 'Future Games' needs a book written about it...

paul said...

I have the comic book in mint, never got round to drawing my own potato man on page one...

Chris Jones said...

Ta geezer, feel free to guest blog ;-) the world needs to know this stuff, shirtless or not!

Chris Jones said...

Paul - get that scanner fired up!

ForceField Studios said...

Randy came into my studio (Northstar) in about 1979 with a cassette of what he said was his only surviving copy of a project he was working on. We transferred the tape from Nakamichi to 2" and he built the rest of Potatoland around it. We were friends for quite a few years after that and recorded some other stuff. You'll find my name, Victor Levine, on Potatoland.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful time recording Potatoland at North Star Studios in Boulder. I actually played the Open Up your Heart piano parts - first take no less - along with Morning Light piano and synth and most of the rest of the keys attributed to John Locke were mostly my playing (except synths on Potato land theme and organ opening on Open Up your Heart-that was John)

George Valuck

Chris Jones said...

Dear George and Victor - thanks so much for your fascinating insights into what has to be one of the most convoluted album histories of all time. Randy was a unique talent and you guys were undoubtedly incredibly lucky to have shared time with him!
Again, thanks so much for sharing the info and reading the blog :-)

Chris said...

I still remember the first time I heard this album. It was the first Spirit I'd ever heard and it was so profound in the effect it had on me. Randy was a seriously interesting character, he was at the same time both a talented individual with a beautiful musical soul and a troubled person who was his own worst enemy. Some of the things he played were so sweet and tight and made you feel alive and then you'd have a song where you had to take a second look because it's so far out there it's borderline crazy but Randy California somehow manages to shine through with his pure Randy Californianess and you end up getting a lot out of it.

The early Spirit was definitely some of the best music of the 60s and some of my favourite but for me, as a guitarist I always could never shake the fascination with Randy during his post-old-Spirit period and some of the stuff he used to come up with. He was so unique and so passionate in what he did; every note he played seemed positive, like he wanted to spread love and happiness for everyone to enjoy. That's what music is all about, sharing those good feelings and he was really good at that.

Randy California and Ed Cassidy are two of rock'n'roll's greats, in my humble opinion.

ForceField Studios said...

Randy is current again with the Taurus / Stairway front page news. Who else can lay claim to influencing BOTH Led Zeppelin and Jimi?