Spirit had big ambitions for their 4th album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, but when the album was released, it didn’t fare well on the charts, and even received some bad reviews. In the end, though, the band was proven right. “Twelve Dreams…” would go on to become their best-selling album, and critical opinion of the album has shifted so much that it’s often included on “Best Albums of the 1970’s” lists. On this episode, we explore one of the signature tracks from this album, “Mr. Skin”.
“Mr. Skin” (Jay Ferguson) Copyright Hollenbeck Music
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Time to get down to business, people. This is Brad Page from the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, coming to you via the Pantheon Network of podcasts. Each episode, I pick one of my favorite songs and we put it under the musical microscope, looking at all the details of the performances, the arrangement and the production that make it a great song.
On this edition, we’re looking at an often-overlooked band that did some great work in the late ‘60’s. Their roots grew out of a band called the Red Roosters, which featured Mark Andes on bass, Jay Ferguson on vocals, and a young guitarist named Randy Wolf, who had played with Jimi Hendrix for a while. It was Hendrix who started calling him “Randy California”, because there were two guys named Randy in the band; Jimi called the other guy “Randy Texas”. Andes, Ferguson and California were joined by keyboard player John Locke and a drummer named Ed Cassidy, who also happened to be Randy’s stepfather. He was a good 20 years older than the rest of the group and had quite a bit of experience as a jazz drummer. Spirit was signed to Ode Records by producer and label chief Lou Adler, and they released their first self-titled album in 1968, and it did pretty well on the charts. It featured a song called “Fresh Garbage” that got some airplay.
The album also included the song “Taurus” that decades later would be at the center of a controversy and a lawsuit when representatives of Spirit sued Led Zeppelin, saying that Led Zeppelin got the idea for Stairway to Heaven from Taurus.
Followed in December ‘68, which featured the song “I Got A Line On You”, which became their biggest hit.
Their third album was released in September 1969, and by 1970 they set about recording their fourth album, called “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”. That album is a concept album of sorts; each of the twelve songs represents a different dream. Not sure who Dr. Sardonicus is, but “Mr. Sardonicus” was the name of a 1961 horror movie about a man with his face contorted into a terrifying grin, sort of like the Joker.
The band put everything they had into this album. It was going to be their big statement, the ultimate Spirit album. It was certainly the most challenging album for them to record so far. They spent a lot of time and a lot of money making that album. But when the album was released, it landed with a thud. It peaked at #63 on the charts, and dropped off pretty quickly. It got some bad reviews, too. It basically drove the band apart. But the thing is, over time, the album sold slowly but steadily. Eventually it would become the band’s biggest selling album, going Gold by 1976, and over the years, critical assessment of the album has grown too, as the album often turns up on the “Best Albums of the ‘70’s” lists. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to the song “Mr. Skin”.
The album was produced by David Briggs, who’s mostly known for his work with Neil Young. “Mr. Skin” was written by Jay Ferguson, and it’s the song that closes out Side One of the album.
Drummer Ed Cassidy was about 47 years old when this album was made, old enough to be the father of everyone else in the band. And in fact, as I said before, he was actually Randy California’s stepfather. While the rest of the band looked like your typical long-haired rock stars, Ed Cassidy used to shave his head, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Skin” from the rest of the band. So Cassidy was the initial inspiration for the lyrics, but Jay Ferguson says the overall theme of the song was about “sex in America”.
The song opens with a keyboard part that’s then doubled on guitar. It has a very calliope-like feel, almost like circus music. Then Jay Ferguson enters on vocals, which are nicely punctuated with a bass fill that sounds like it’s doubled on keyboards.
Notice how he uses Oh’s the first two times, and then Ooh’s on the third and fourth times. Also, harmony vocals are added on the second and fourth passes.
Now we’ve hit the main riff of the song. A horn section is added. The album doesn’t list who the horn players were, but David Blumberg is credited for the horn arrangements.
Jay Ferguson had said that the song was influenced by the music of Sly and the Family Stone, which probably explains the sound of that intro. Sly used circus like sounds on songs like Life. Let’s pick it back up where the riff enters.
That’s some pretty active cowbell playing there. The vocals come in next, and they’re structured as a call and response with Ferguson’s lead vocal, then the band responding with what’s essentially the chorus of the song.
Okay, let’s explore this section a bit. This is basically a variation on the introduction of the song. Here’s what the band is playing.
The vocal line plays off that pretty nicely.
I really like the sound of Mark Andes’ bass, especially on the riff. It’s punchy and powerful. Let’s bring that up in the mix.
I love how the horn section hammers away at that riff along with the band. It creates a pretty massive sound.
And there’s a key change here.
Saxophone solo. As I said before, the horn players are not credited on this album, so I don’t know who played this part, but you can definitely feel the Sly Stone influence here. And before we leave this section, I want to call out the groove that the bass and drums are playing here. Once again, great bass sound section.
Next up is a short interlude featuring Randy California’s guitar. Randy’s guitar playing is not prominent in this song at all, but Randy was a driving force in this band. He wrote six of the twelve songs on this album, and co-wrote the 7th. He’s a huge presence on this record, but like all good players, he knew when to hold back, to let others shine and to do what’s best for the individual song.
This little section, though, shows a bit of what he picked up from Jimi Hendrix.
One thing we have talked about yet is Ed Cassidy’s drum part. It’s a key element of the song and it’s not necessarily what you’d expect the drum beat to be. So let’s bring that up in the mix.
The sax and the trumpet battle it out over the long fade, and they slowly increase the reverb effect as the song fades.
Spirit – “Mr. Skin”
After the lukewarm reception of this album, the band set out on tour to promote the record. But the fractures were there, and on the eve of a Japanese tour, things just fell apart, and as a result, Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson left the group and they started a new band called “JoJo Gunn”. We may listen to a JoJo Gunn song here at some point.
Randy California left the band shortly after, and though the group would come and go with various members, they never again came close to creating something as acclaimed or as influential as the “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” album.
Ed Cassidy, the oldest member of the group, passed away in 2012 at age 89.
Keyboard player John Locke died in 2006, age 62.
Randy California was swimming in the ocean off the coast of Hawaii with his twelve-year-old son, when a rip current pulled them out to sea. Randy was able to push his son into the shore, but Randy never made it. He drowned on January 2, 1997. He was only 45 years old.
Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson still with us today.
Thanks for joining me for this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. New episodes come out on the 1st and the 15th of every month, so I’ll see you again in about two weeks with another new episode. Until then, keep in touch with us on Facebook, leave your comments or reviews on Podchaser.com, and catch up with all of our previous episodes on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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We are part of the Pantheon family of podcasts, along with a ton of other great music-related shows. Be sure to check them all out. And I thank you once again for listening to this episode on Spirit and “Mr. Skin”.