California By Kopter (Or Twirly Bird)

Looking back on 50 years of a (Fabulous) Randy California solo album

Alternate Kapt. Kopter artwork (Image: Discogs)

Fifty years ago this summer, in the wake of the critical and commercial failure of Spirit’s now-considered-classic album Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, that band’s singer, songwriter, and phenomenal guitarist Randy California attempted to launch his solo career in 1972 with the oddball Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds.

First, a little history. Working with a new producer (longtime Neil Young collaborator David Briggs) and a new record label (Epic Records) for their fourth album, the long-suffering L.A. band Spirit tried to improve their fortunes with the creatively adventuresome collection of songs that would become 1970’s Twelve Dreams. Sadly, even with a new producer providing fresh energy to the band’s psychedelic-drenched sound, the album underperformed commercially at the time, peaking at #63 on the Billboard chart; even the three singles released from the album – “Animal Zoo,” “Nature’s Way,” and “Mr. Skin” – failed to creep much higher than the upper reaches of the chart, although they’d all become longtime fan favorites. 

The album’s reputation has grown over the years as it reached the ears of new fans, and it was finally certified Gold in 1976 for better than 500,000 copies sold and it has since been critically reassessed as a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll classic. After the mediocre response garnered by Twelve Dreams (and a contentious supporting tour, where inter-band tensions exploded), Spirit split apart. Singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes left in January 1971 to form the booger-rock outfit Jo Jo Gunne, which stuck gold the first time out of the gate with the hit “Run Run Run.” California suffered a head injury due to a horseback riding accident, and took time off from touring, seizing the opportunity to jam with various musicians in and around the L.A. area.

 

 

Randy eventually ventured into the studio to record his aforementioned solo debut, Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds. Randy enlisted talents like bassist Noel Redding (under the pseudonym ‘Clit McTorius’) and drummer Leslie Sampson (a/k/a ‘Henry Manchovitz’) from Redding’s band Road, as well as drummer Tim McGovern (who would later play with the Motels) and bassist Charlie Bundy (who would go on to play with Americana greats like Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark). The original eight-song vinyl was heavy on cover songs, with only three California originals, and the album evinced a fiercer, hard rock sound than Spirit had. 

The ghost of Jimi Hendrix cast a long shadow over the album’s creation, which wasn’t quite two years removed from the influential guitarist’s tragic death in 1970. More than a mentor to young Randy Wolfe (née California), Jimi also wrote the musical blueprint that California would subsequently shape and adapt to his own songs and guitar playing for decades. As such, you can clearly hear California (who was just 21 years old when he recorded Kapt. Kopter) channeling Hendrix’s innovative guitar style throughout the album’s eight tracks.

Kapt. Kopter kicks off with “Downer,” which features Randy at his most Jimi-esque, an ever-spiraling-upward hard rocker built on California’s experimental guitar scrape, effects-laden echoplex vocals, a recurring riff that sounds like madness put to music, and Leslie Sampson pounding away at the cans with a hearty, tribal rhythm. All of this is set against a dense, flamboyantly-psychedelic backdrop that includes former Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding and the wonders of the multi-track studio. Think of Hendrix circa Electric Ladyland and you’ll have some idea of where Randy was trying to go with what Jimi started.  

Randy California Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, Epic Records 1972

By contrast, “Devil” is a more reflective song, performed at a slower pace and heavier on the atmospherics, with only a few psychedelic trappings but not completely shorn of studio-enhanced electronic effects. There are shades of Spirit’s future sound here, mostly in the forceful bass undercurrents, busy drum-work, and imaginative song structure but, overall, “Devil” is a showcase for California’s enormous six-string skills. The third shifting of musical gears three songs deep into the album, a cover of the legendary James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody’ – the song’s full title is “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” – is a white-hot slab o’ psychedelic soul built around Bundy’s driving, fluid bass lines and McGovern’s funky, percussive drums, the rhythms peppered with California’s machine-gun guitar squeals and lots of perfunctory grunts and growls. 

Seemingly the most unlikely of the cover songs to be found on California’s first solo effort, his somewhat reverent reading of Paul Simon’s solo hit “Mother and Child Reunion” is strangely familiar, yet worlds apart due to the psychedelic, multi-hued coat of paint he provides the song. It opens with a fast-trotting guitar strum before the Larry ‘Fuzzy’ Knight’s bass guitar and Ed ‘Cass Strange’ Cassidy’s cymbals slide in, picking up the pace before California’s earnest vocals lead into full instrumentation. Epic Records, not realizing the gem they had here, could have struck gold with California’s imaginative reinterpretation of the song if they’d released it as a single to FM radio. 

Side two of Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds opens with the lengthy, largely-instrumental jam “Things Yet To Come,” which was originally recorded by the country-leaning L.A. rock outfit Sweathog for their self-titled 1971 debut album. Whereas the original version offered twangy vocals with just a hint of soul around the edges and relied heavily on drummer Barry ‘Frosty’ Smith’s rhythmic backbone, against which guitarist B.J. Jones embroidered his tasty guitar licks, California’s cover version is rougher around the edges (and twice as long). Expanded beyond Sweathog’s FM radio-ready four-minute-plus arrangement, this version is rife with dueling instrumentation, funky backbeats, vocals that are nearly buried in the mix, and every sort of guitar texture and pattern that Randy could capture on tape. 

Back cover of Kapt. Kopter (Image: Discogs)

Closing out Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds, “Rainbow” is considered by fans and critics alike to be one of California’s best songwriting efforts, a fine showcase for his creative guitar-play with engaging lyrics and a riff that grabs your ears and won’t let go. Accompanied on drums by his stepdad and Spirit bandmate Ed Cassidy, California layers in some nice bass guitar to the mix alongside his lofty yet semi-hidden vocals, resulting a semi-melodic, psych-heavy tune that is concise, rockin’, and complex. 

Released as a promotional single to FM radio, California’s cover of Rufus Thomas’s “Walkin’ The Dog” wasn’t included on the original Kapt. Kopter vinyl, but was tacked onto the CD reissue as a bonus track. A popular local DJ, gospel singer, and tent show comedian, Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas was a bona fide local celebrity by the time he recorded the hit single “Walkin’ the Dog” for Stax Records in 1963. California’s version of the classic song is played fairly straight-up, with no little reverence for the original, a funky instrumental backdrop underlying his spry vocals. There are few guitar histrionics here, California choosing instead to drop in considered solos in the vein of legendary Stax guitarist Steve Cropper. 

Critical opinion of Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds was definitely a mixed bag at the time, if writers took notice of the album at all. Legendary rock critic Robert Christgau was a fan, waxing effusive in his 1981 book Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies, writing “almost universally dismissed as a lysergic self-indulgence, the departed Spirit’s tunefully distorted guitar (and vocal) showcase will grow on you if you give it half a chance – any Joe Walsh fan who lets it get by never really liked the ‘60s to begin with. For sheer dense weirdness, it beats King Fripp, and if I had any passion for such things, I’m sure I’d love it.”

Probably the least coherent of California’s handful of solo albums, Kapt. Kopter nevertheless remains one of the guitarist’s most enduring and entertaining solo efforts in spite of its flaws, the performances full of energy and promise for better things to come when Randy later reunited with Cassidy as Spirit, cementing that band’s legacy with a string of albums that carried them as a creative entity well into the 1990s, until California’s tragic death in 1997. Kapt. Kopter has stayed in print for much of the 50 years since its release as subsequent generations of fans tune into the generational talent that was Randy California.

 

Review adapted from the upcoming Sonicbond Publishing book On Track…Spirit

 

 You May Also Like

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

One thought on “California By Kopter (Or Twirly Bird)

  • July 13, 2022 at 11:53 am
    Permalink

    Nice article but what is a “booger-rock outfit”? Hhaha!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.