Graded on a Curve: Randy California,
Kapt Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds

After departing the group Spirit, guitarist Randy California knocked out an underrated and underheard covers-centric solo album Kapt Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. While not a masterpiece, it still provided a solid chunk of early hard rock action, and the disparate nature of those cover tunes also did a fine job of blurring the divisions that can result from over-strident genre categorization.

When the discussion comes around to the topic of the great Los Angeles bands of the late-‘60s (and with the right combo of stamina and substances the talking will arrive at that destination much sooner than a person might think), it’s sort of a no-brainer that The Byrds will be awarded their just due and such worthy names as The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Love, and even Capt. Beefheart & His Magic Band will have their moments of appreciation.

But you’ll know the conversation is fortified with good company if somebody stands up to stump for the cause of Spirit, a fine bit of discernment that will directly relate to that band’s truly unusual mixture of rock, jazz, psych, and pop influences. And it was a blend that proved fairly popular at the time; all four of the LPs by the original five-piece lineup hit the Billboard Top 100 Album Chart, and all four are mandatory purchases for those curious over the serious-minded American rock music of the period.

The records are Spirit (#31) and The Family That Plays Together (#22) both from 1968, Clear (#55) from ’69 and Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (#63) from ’70, and the membership of the initial incarnation was guitarist/vocalist Randy California, drummer Ed Cassidy, keyboardist John Locke, bassist Mark Andes and percussionist/vocalist Jay Ferguson. And anyone impressed by the above quartet of albums by this unique quintet should investigate their soundtrack to French director Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, unreleased at the time but given a nice LP issue by the ever dependable Sundazed concern back in 2005.

Spirit would appropriately be described as an album group, but they also had a few successful singles, their biggest “I Got a Line on You” making it to #25. However ‘twas “Mr. Skin,” a celebratory bit of Sly Stone-like West Coast grooving that’s probably the band’s best moment on 7-inch, and with smarter decision making on the part of Epic Records it would’ve been a shoe in for the Top Forty. But as the great Nick said on that first gorgeous Stiff Records 45, so it goes…

And hey, for such an odd duck of a band Spirit did have a good run. But expectations at the time were understandably much higher I guess, and they fragmented apart after Sardonicus proved a slow (but ultimately their strongest) seller. Naturally, most of the action subsequent to that breakup is as unspectacular and occasionally horrendous as a discerning fan of late-‘60s rock might expect.

For starters, nothing released under the name Spirit post-split ever came close to more than briefly flashing the sustained quality of those first four discs. Additionally, Ferguson and Andes formed the highly unexceptional boogie-rock lamesters Jo Jo Gunne; ‘twas the ‘70s after all, and the smart rock that Spirit exemplified was soon to be a tough truffle to snort out. To top it all off, Locke went on to contribute to Nazareth, Andes with Firefall, and power ballad-era Heart, and the tepid puddle of Ferguson’s late-‘70s solo stuff is well summed-up as a yacht-rock atrocity. Be-vare!

But the one wildcard in the post-Sardonicus Spirit deck comes from Randy California, who along with his step-dad Cassidy forms a large part of what made the group so interesting in the first place. California’s playing, legitimately jazzy without becoming a chops-heavy guitar-shop nightmare, was a constant factor in the band’s artistic success, so it’s no surprise that he worked with pre-stardom Hendrix in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.

For a guy possessive of so much talent, his 1972 solo debut Kapt Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, released by Epic to zero fanfare and quickly relegated to the status of a ‘70s footnote, initially seems like an impulsive lark, reminiscent not of a debut but of a journeyman musician’s contract fulfiller.

That’s not a value judgment upon the album’s quality but an attempted objective statement about an inaugural solo effort where five of the eight songs are cover material. Indeed, it’s only after spending a little time with the disc that it becomes clear that California’s aims aren’t all that different from the general direction of Spirit.

Because those cover selections hit upon an unusually wide spectrum of diversity; two from The Beatles (“Day Tripper” and “Rain”), one from James Brown’s drop-dead ultra-heavy funk era (“I Don’t Want Nobody”) and one from Ol’ Rhymin’ Simon (“Mother and Child Reunion”). The odd cover out is “Things Yet to Come,” frankly a massive improvement upon the original from the horribly-monikered and overzealously soulful San Fran hippie-scene also-rans Sweathog.

If it seems like the product of a jam session, that’s just what it is, California having worked out ideas via club stages with an assortment of musicians and then stepping into the studio with amongst others Cassidy and bassist Noel Redding (yes, he of the Hendrix Experience), both of whom contribute pseudonymously, likely due to contractual reasons. But even in the off-the-cuff atmosphere that Kapt Kopter permeates there is the integration of elements that were (and occasionally still are) segregated by certain (mostly moneyed) interests as not belonging together.

For instance, the “Black Music” of James Brown and the “White Music” of The Beatles and the low grade hard rock roar that’s slathered across both sides of this LP as applied to the urbane fruits of a well-respected songwriter like Simon. Again, not at all far from the focused stylistic bouillabaisse of Spirit, except that most critics at the time missed the similarity, and perhaps that was because as unsubtle as this style of heavy rock supposedly was (or is, depending on the context) California and company don’t belabor the point, choosing instead to just get down to business.

Kapt Kopter begins with two originals that deliver an ascending level of oddness and sheer quality; “Downer” is a suitable dose of early ‘70s shredding, but “Devil” features a tweaked melodic sense that’s far more ragged than the pop elements that played a role in the guitarist’s previous band. From there Brown’s classic is handled with a blend of roughness and affection, “Day Tripper” is approached in a manner similar to how Jimi throttled “Wild Thing” at Monterey, and Simon’s bit of pleasantry is introduced to wah-pedals and galloping rhythms and somehow survives.

Along the way California acquits himself as a very appealing if ultimately unexceptional vocalist (and not to overplay a comparison, but in front of a microphone he’s not unlike a loopier Hendrix). And as a string-bender, let’s just say he still doesn’t get enough credit (obviously quite the opposite of Jimi, so that’s where the similarity ends). In the early-‘70s loud rock that’s not quite yet hardened into heavy metal sweepstakes I’ll take this record in the pitter-pat of a young jackrabbit’s heartbeat over anything waxed by Mountain.

And that’s largely because side two holds a pair of expansive eight minute monsters, “Things Yet to Come” and “Rain.” That California manages to mildly alter the structure of The Beatles’ original (one of their finest tunes) without ruining it is credit to his imagination and goodwill. To be clear, Kapt Kopter is far from a perfect record, as the rather underwhelming closer “Rainbow” testifies. But it’s also a document where the faults are well weaved into the fabric of the whole and therefore easy to swallow. Though according to the critical drubbing it received, I’m in the minority in this regard.

To my knowledge Kapt Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds hasn’t had a vinyl repress in this century. But it still shouldn’t be that difficult to locate or very expensive once found. A much rarer object would be the promo single from California that preceded the release of this LP, featuring a swell take of Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog” and a nicely dusted original “Live For the Day” on the flipside. But those tracks have turned up on basically every CD reish of this slab, and they were even stuck onto the ’86 Edsel Records pressing of the LP, so simply getting to hear them won’t be a problem.

While essentially a record of niche interest and limited importance these realities detract from its actual artistic worth very little, for works of art can suffer as they approach universality and importance can also prove impermanent. After the dust settles, the true merit of any given era is shaped not by its popular documents but by the ones that slipped through the cracks. And Kapt Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds slipped mightily.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+ 

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