Sunday, 25 September 2011

Randy California - Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds (1972)

If ever I bought a record on looks alone, it was Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, a surprisingly smart £2.99 investment from Sifters in Burnage.

Randy stands guitar in hand on the front, wearing the regulation 1972 'righteously stoned hippie rock star' look to a tee and about to clamber into an incredibly rickety looking helicopter with the rest of his power trio. Lord knows where they're going to fit the drums.

The cartoonish font just adds to the impression that Randy isn't taking this opening salvo in his solo career away from Spirit terribly seriously. A quick scan of the track listing on the back reveals not one but two Beatles covers, along with further covers of songs by Sweathog, James Brown and Paul Simon, plus just three originals. 

Three factors seem to be in play here. Firstly, despite having already recorded four albums with Spirit, Randy was still only 21 at this stage, so a little youthful goofiness is to be expected.

Secondly, Spirit's fourth LP, 1970's Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, had taken six months to record, but initially failed to find much of an audience, with the public slightly baffled by a jazzy, experimental concept album about ecology and spiritual rebirth. It's considered deeply influential nowadays but it didn't produce a hit until 1973 and sales only reached gold record status in 1976.

The album's lack of early success had pulled the band apart, with Randy quitting to go solo in July 1971 and seemingly ready to get back to playing some old school rock'n'roll.

Thirdly, he'd been hit hard by the death in September 1970 of his friend and kindred spirit Jimi Hendrix. The two of them had been in a band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, for a short but intense period in 1966. Due to their being another Randy in the band (drummer Randy Palmer - now why would you want to change a name like that?), Hendrix had rechristened them California and Texas respectively to avoid confusion.

After three months of playing up to five sets a night, many of them at legendary Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village, the band split when Chas Chandler persuaded Hendrix to try his luck in England, with Randy unable to come along due to only being 15 at the time.

Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds makes no overt mention of Hendrix but his spirit lurks in the tumbling grooves of the songs, while one-time Experience bassist Noel Redding appears in rather more corporeal form on three songs, albeit under the unfortunate pseudonym of Clit McTorius.

The album opens with Downer, with a stomping groove laid down by Redding and drummer Leslie Sampson (credited as 'Henry Manchovitz') while Randy plays funky hard rock and sings about 'Been on a downer too long' in the vein of Hendrix's Manic Depression or Purple Haze.

Devil is another Randy original, this time with his new touring bandmates, drummer Tim McGovern and bassist Charlie Bundy, and particularly fine with its rolling groove and psychedelic guitars. They worked up this album jamming in bars in Topanga Canyon and Devil sounds perfectly of its time and place.

I Don't Want You is a cover of James Brown's I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I'll Get It Myself) with clipped, urgent funk replaced with a fuzzy guitars that work a lot better than you'd expect.

Day Tripper also gets a patchouli oil-scented Californian rock'n'roll makeover that works largely thanks to Randy's guitar and vocals that manage to simultaneously sound more uptempo and laidback than the original.

A quick romp through Mother and Child Reunion strips out the reggae inflections, with the lyric about 'that strange and mournful day' seeming more fitting to Randy's thoughts about Hendrix's passing than the original tribute to Paul Simon's pet dog.

Side two starts with an elongated rhythm-heavy jam through Sweathog's Things Yet To Come, featuring Redding on bass again plus two drummers. Two unnamed female singers provide most of the vocals with Randy's contributions sounding like they were recorded through a telephone, and it goes on to reach a fine climax after he starts to cut loose with his guitar just shy of the seven minute mark.

Rain bizarrely starts as a tripped out country hoedown before changing direction and giving the Beatles' original a scuzzy guitar workover with more fuzzed-up laidback vocals and a host of psychedelic studio tricks stirred into the pot over nearly nine kaleidoscopic minutes.

Kapt. Kopter signs off with Rainbow, another fine original that captures the Topanga vibe with it's backwards guitar and hippy vibe love song lyrics tainted with paranoia. Randy's father-in-law and Spirit bandmate Ed Cassidy appears under the moniker Cass Strange-Drums, which hints at the Spirit reunion that was to follow.

Randy would make more explicit tributes to Hendrix in the future, particularly the 1982 mini album All Along The Watch Tower, but few people have kept his spirit alive better than Kapt. Kopter.

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