No. 34: ‘Mechanical World’

first album cover by psychedelic band SpiritPsychedelic rock never was long on drama. There were exceptions, of course — notably Jim Morrison and the Doors — but most bands of the acid rock era were content to noodle, protest and freak out.

In January 1968, the debuting L.A. band Spirit unleashed “Mechanical World,” a long, dark and strange single. Every second of the psychedelic track was played for maximum drama.

Jay Ferguson’s vocals sounded wrenched from the grave. He begins: “Death falls so heavy on my soul … ”

Ed Cassidy’s funereal drums came right out of a Hammer Films horror-show. The strings of arranger Marty Paich did a dans macabre with Randy California’s guitar.

Needless to say, Top 40 radio didn’t know what to make of this psychedelic masterpiece. (The single’s playing time was given only as “very long”). “Mechanical World” never cracked the charts, Billboard reports, but it did help sell Spirit’s excellent debut album in adventurous radio markets. (WQAM in South Florida was a big supporter.)

What gave “Mechanical World” its nightmarish quality? One clue: Its co-writer, bassist Mark Andes, reportedly worked on the song while disoriented by the flu.

Jay Ferguson’s lyrics suggested much, but revealed little:

Death falls so heavy on my soul
Death falls so heavy, makes me moan
Somebody tell my father that I died
Somebody tell my mother that I cried.

The song is basically those four lines, but there’s an intriguing coda.

Once in my younger days
Once in my younger days I had a girl to love.

spirit single mechanical world from first album SpiritWere these the dying words of a soldier? Could be. The Vietnam War was in full swing when Spirit’s debut album was recorded, with the Tet Offensive raging just as “Mechanical World” hit the airwaves.

A dystopian fever dream? Spirit would later “cover” George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Or, as the fateful drums suggest, we’re hearing the last words of a man about to be executed. (The Doors recorded the similar “The Unknown Soldier” a month or two after “Mechanical World” hit the L.A. airwaves.)

Take your pick. “In Spirit, my lyrics were largely fantasized,” Ferguson has said.

The album was produced by Lou Adler, who’d created a cinematic vibe for “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and Papas.

Musically, “Mechanical World” depends on a heavy-light call and response between guitar/organ and itchy-scratchy hi-hat cymbals. In some ways, it anticipates Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” of 1975.

Guitarist California delivers two jaw-dropping solos, the first among his best. At one point his sustain-drenched guitar soars to sonic-boom territory before crashing back to Earth. His former running mate, Jimi Hendrix, had to be impressed.

“Mechanical World” ends as if a soundtrack to a film, with the elegiac strings ushering out the listener — until a final intrusion of guitar and drums slams shuts the door. No happy endings in this world.

(View Spirit concert set lists.)

Comments

  1. Astroman says:

    I say this to anyone who will listen: Spirit is one of the most underrated and unjustly ignored bands in the history of recorded sound. Unfortunately, every time I say this most people say “Who?” (thus proving my point). But these five guys, Jay Ferguson (vocals), Mark Andes (bass), Randy California (guitar), John Locke (keyboards), and Ed Cassidy (drums), were all accomplished musicians. But when they came together something magical happened. They became a gestalt entity; five guys working with one mind and one vision. Their records repeatedly shift between dark and light, hope and despair, death and life, balance and counter-balance. And the thing is, it never sounds pretentious or forced, like with some other more well-known bands.

    “Mechanical World” is definitely in the darker realms of Spirit’s musical wanderings. It’s absolutely haunting. It has the kind of sound that sticks to the walls of your brain. In fact, I woke up one morning with that song in my head, and it took hours to get it out. Not that I mind having Spirit songs in my head, but when the same one is on a loop in your brain for several hours, it can get a little disconcerting. But the marks of a classic song are ones that can stay with you long after you’ve heard it, ones that stir up emotions in you, and ones that make you think. And “Mechanical World” does all that and more.

    • mechanical world also stuck on the loop over and over in my brain but it was for about 3 or 4 days. then I did something stupid I went and played it again and I have not only 3 days but about 7 days of brain looping. I loved it though. I wish I could see spirit on a video doing this song. that would really make my day. if you know where one is at please let me know. thanks to a wonderful group sorry I never knew about them sooner. but better late than never. peace out …

    • I still have the LP. Saw them at UCONN in 1969 or 1970. I get the same response from people. Who?

    • englishsunset says:

      Astroman: {I say this to anyone who will listen: Spirit is one of the most underrated and unjustly ignored bands in the history of recorded sound.} Your statement is one of if not the most perfect summation of Spirit, that I have ever read.

      Spirit, is one of the bands that represents my history…’67 thru ’69, in Los Angeles and San Francisco. A time when you just had enough money to pay rent and buy groceries you were blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead, just around the bend.

      Spirit, was one of “many” groups that trod the streets of L.A. and San Francisco as did many fans and people that weren’t even interested in them. The ’60’s were magic and although it came to an end, I feel blessed to have been a part of the scene as it were. It was unbelievable, yet I was there and know it was real.

      • Astroman says:

        Thank you, Englishsunset. Unfortunately, I missed that era, not being born until ’73, but I love the 60’s. My favorite bands, books, movies and television shows are all from that decade. And Spirit is one of my all-time favorite bands. Their talent seemed to be endless, and it just went to prove that you can have all the talent in the Universe and still be relegated to virtual obscurity.

        While Spirit aren’t totally obscure, it sickens me that bands from the 60’s that didn’t have a tenth of Spirit’s talent are played every day on classic rock and oldies radio stations around the country. I recently picked up Epic’s set “Spirit: Original Album Classics” which contains the first five Spirit albums, the last one, “Feedback,” only featuring two original members. The first four, “Spirit,” “The Family That Plays Together,” “Clear,” and “Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus,” are absolutely brilliant, and at least three of those albums should be spoken about with the same reverence as “Are You Experienced?” “Tommy” “Sgt. Pepper’s” or any other bona fide masterpiece of the decade.

        Maybe I’m biased because I love them so much, but I know what great music is. And Spirit is great music.

    • Michael Long says:

      I was a Spirit fan since The 12 Dreams, but went back and got hooked on the rest. Definitely underrated, but not among me and my friends. This was the music that took us out of the 60’s!

  2. Yes, Spirit is the most overlooked and underrated band in the history of rock. The Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus is an absolute masterpiece up there with Sgt. Peppers and Dark Side Of The Moon. It is tragic that it is overlooked. One of the greatest albums ever of any genre.

    But yeah, their other albums are great too.

    Didn’t Jimmy Page rip off “Taurus” from the first Spirit album? “Stairway To Heaven” sounds an awful lot like it.

  3. Was working construction on a out of town job with a guy that said “Hey, my grandpa lives near here … He was the drummer for a band called Spirit.” Wow … Lets go see him. Unbelievable. Walk in to his home and right on the wall is the 12 Dreams Gold Record. Amazing old bald headed musician. He had a black VW bug and a Black 1957 Chevy.

    He said he would be 70 in a week (1997?), so I took him out for a birthday dinner. Didn’t pester him about the music scene but he did tell me that besides playing drums, he played baby sitter because the youngsters in the band weren’t very disciplined. I Got a Line on You is a great tune.

    • Race Baker says:

      That’s a great story. From what I understand Ed Cassidy was Randy California’s step dad and an old school jazz musician. He must have been in his 40’s when playing with Spirit? Wild!

  4. Raul Herrera says:

    It’s ironic that the band was recording the album SPIRIT between August 31 and November 17, 1967, AND, our lead petty officer (Bosuns Mate First Class, Bobby Don Carver) was killed in action along the My Lai shore line on December 6, 1967. Mechanical World is the shot in the arm that continues to push me to finsih a non-fiction piece about the six-man crew of Swift Boat PCF-79. Five months before his death, Carver was instrumental in trigger firing an 81 mm white phosphorous round into the pilot house door of an enemy trawler carrying more than 90 tons on ammunition and supplies destined for the Viet Cong and Norht Vietnamese Regulars in the Mui Batangan Peninsula in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam. His action saved hundreds of American and friendly forces’ lives.

    I play the tune and relive that dreadful day, somehow it helps me cope with the demons that tear at my soul since that day. As the tune slows down to dying heart beat, I can still hear the blades of the medivac chopper from Chu Lai approaching us after picking up our crewmate and brother off a destroyer. As he flies over head, the pilot dances the bird from side to side as if Bobby Don is telling us goodbye. Mechanical World would be ideal for the movie soundtrack, a tribute to our fallen sailor and brother.

    • Astroman says:

      Thanks, Raul, for your service to our great country. It is amazing how a single piece of music can transport you back to a bygone era and make you relive memories, both good and bad. It just goes to show you the awesome power music has.

    • Johnin Austin says:

      Richard I read your post today and felt very connected to your experience, although I was about 12 then. Thank You for your valiant service and I hope the book has come to fruition by now or soon will.

  5. Country Paul says:

    I’m proud to have played this impressive song and excellent album the day we received it at WBRU in Providence — and many, many times thereafter. I really thought Spirit would be considered to be up there with the other great bands of the era; musicians knew them, but they receded too quickly from the public’s mind. Thanks for shining a well-deserved spotlight back on this.

  6. Sometimes the greatest are overlooked. This is particularly true with jazz musicians. Look at John McLaughlin. Possibly the fastest guitarist ever, but how many gold records does he possess? His music is in the stratosphere.

  7. It’s still hard to believe that Randy California was only 16 when he recorded this.

    We loved Spirit right from the beginning. Several of us drove to Detroit in July 1968 to see Spirit at the Grande Ballroom. The opening act was another lost psychedelic band – Fever Tree. In February 1969, we again went to a Spirit concert at the Grande Ballroom. The opening act was an unknown band with the unlikely name of Jethro Tull. This remains one of the best concerts that I have ever attended.

  8. Paul Morgan says:

    So good to read these positive posts about one of my favorite bands from the late 60’s. I was fortunate to see them live several times at Pirates World in Dania FL. What a great live urging band they were! Really connected with the audience (who were mostly stoned). Unlike many rock bands they didn’t lose anything going from studio to stage. It was tragic that Randy California drowned in his middle age years, but noble that he did so while saving his son. They were surfing together.

  9. B. A. Mann says:

    excellent article and analysis. thank you for thinking deeply about a song which did not impinge much on the consciousness of its era, as you point out. But for those who are keen observers and for me, this song indicates and signifies the world we have due to our lack of appreciation for our true nature, which is not “mechanical.” It is a very dark vision, I am afraid, a true one. like the rest of Spirit’s music

  10. Glad to see Spirit getting some love on this site. They always resonated w me. Their version of Dylan’s “How does it feel” song is the best cover ever in my book, though it was lost to obscurity. The whispered lyrics give me goose bumps.

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