Spirit of xenophobia
From the moment I first heard it, I was dazzled by Spirit’s 1977 album Future Games: A Magical Kahauna Dream. It appears to be a trippy sonic collage about our possibilities in space. But the album is also seamed through with military xenophobia.
Spirit was the most notable of the progressive rock bands to emerge out of LA in the late 1960s. They matched extraordinary pop songwriting skills with a solid foundation in keyboard-driven jazz, all topped off with Randy California’s folk and bluesy, Jimi Hendrix-influenced electric guitar.
But then the band imploded, leaving California with sole claim to the name. The failure of the group’s 1970 masterpiece Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, the constant infighting, a physical injury (which may be the cause of the scars that are plainly visible on his body on the back cover of Future Games), and Hendrix’s death all deeply affected California, who spiraled into depression.
His early 1970s albums struggled to reconcile the joyful, optimistic music he’d heard growing up in a devout Jewish household in LA with the political and personal turmoil that now surrounded him. That turmoil had been signposted clearly in his song ‘1984,’ a compelling ‘Ohio’-like cry of outrage which might have been a hit if it hadn’t been blacklisted from AM radio.
Repeatedly across the decade, California would produce wonderfully simple, nursery rhyme songs (arguably all modeled on Paul Simon’s 1973 hit ‘Loves Me Like A Rock’), and then splash waves of heavy sustain guitar and electronic frippery all over them.
His yearning for meaning, as the name Spirit had suggested (it was taken from Kahlil Gibran’s book Rebellious Spirits), led not just to songs about faith, but to queasy celebrations of his homeland. The double album Spirit Of 76 waves its bicentennial flag furiously, but also recognizes the dichotomy at the heart of the country. It opens with a pointed collage merging ‘America The Beautiful’ into Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing.’
It is this uneasy nationalism that would dominate California’s vision of American supremacy in space, Future Games.
Musically, it’s possible to trace the album’s wild studio experimentation and absurdly over-the-top production back to that other set of dreams, Dr. Sardonicus. You can also link it to the complex and baffling concept album The Adventures Of Kaptain Kopter And Commander Cassidy In Potato Land that California recorded in 1973. Potato Land, another dream sequence, appears to be a veiled critique of a divided America, ending with a plea for brotherhood and inclusivity.
There’s continuity, then. The singsong Paul Simon melodies are still there in Future Games, and there’s even another Bob Dylan cover. But I see the roots of the album most clearly in two outside works.
In 1974, a straight-laced businessman named Bill Holt dropped out, bought an acoustic guitar, a primitive synthesizer and a tape deck, and began recording material off the television — what we’d now call “sampling.” Holt compiled two side-length collages of songs, synths and samples and released it privately under the name Dreamies.
The second side of the album, ‘Program 11,’ a barrage of ambient and TV noise, drones and electronic bleeps, is particularly interesting since Holt’s agenda seems to have informed California’s own dream collage. ‘Program 11’ builds up an horrific sense of cold war paranoia, perhaps reflecting the nuclear bunker-like basement in which it was created, only to end with Holt expressing optimism for a future of technological advance: a world free of “neophobia.”
Here is Future Games in embryo. All it needed was the science fiction angle, and California had already found that in his 1973 session for ‘Red Shift,’ a track released on Peter Hammill’s glorious album of gothic folk rock The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage.
Hammill had invited California, then in the depths of his depression in London, to contribute his trademark drone guitar to the track. What the two men created was a vision of man alone in the stars, wracked with self-doubt, barely fending off insanity, a mote in the void.
‘Red Shift’ features disembodied vocals, a foggy, drug-trip production, California’s keening multitracked solo, and lyrics of space-age isolation, cosmic wonder, and clutching, personal madness.
On the surface, Future Games is the exact opposite of ‘Red Shift.’ It’s a bouncy, joyful set of catchy pop songs, mostly with geeky science fiction lyrics, all drenched in a Star Trek vibe thanks to numerous samples from the series plastered all over the album. It couldn’t be more upbeat.
“We’ve our phasers set on smile,” as California sings in “Bionic Unit.” In the album’s opening track, he declares: “I just came here to remind you that the stars are love.” This bucolic hippie vibe seems ideally suited to a California who had finally found peace as a surfer dude in Hawaii. He’s wearing a lei of rocks and shells on the cover. He looks like he just came off his board.
Incidentally, it wasn’t just science fiction that informed the album’s pop culture overload — there’s also material from other 1960s cult TV like Batman, from children’s programs like Sesame Street, and even a sequence taken from an Abbott And Costello movie. There are snatches of Hawaiian music, the then de rigeur CB radio culture, and samples from FM broadcasts from Miami and LA.
But it’s obvious that California is celebrating a widescreen vision of our future modeled on those optimistic 1960s pulp stories of America in space — isn’t he?
Because the deeper you delve into California’s magical kahauna dream, the more of a nightmare it becomes.
The Bob Dylan track should be a giveaway. It’s ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ a song that merges Jewish spiritualism with the nuclear-age shadow of a wolf at the door. Then there’s ‘The Romulan Experience,’ which simply recites the plot of the Star Trek episode “Balance Of Terror.” Another door, another wolf. In one of the album’s more childish moments, California even begins reciting a joke: “What did the big frog say to the little frog?”
Even though it embraces the future, the album is seamed through with distrust.
Like Holt, California sees neophobia as the problem. But he says much more. He urges America to build ever greater military hardware in order to maintain its dominance in space.
Of course, we must be wary of the unknown perils of the final frontier as we roll our wagons out on this great adventure. But California points to enemies far closer to home.
It’s fine for him to summon up memories of the Polish death camps and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, then remind us our state-of-the-art technology (in 1977) is German cars and Japanese electronics. More troubling is the subtext that America’s bright new future is only possible if the country remains militarily vigilant and xenophobic.
“So I say to you, my dear American friends,” California sings at the conclusion of the album, “let us never ever look away, for fear that we might never look again.”
He has no truck with “forgive and forget.” He knows the Germans and Japanese will eventually “rise against us for another blast.” And he’s not convinced by their claims of having reformed: “We have been good, maybe too nice, to the foes who tried their best to crush our great country.”
Arguably neither of these adversaries tried to “crush” America. By “too nice” he presumably means we didn’t drop enough atom bombs on them. And the reasons California gives for their aggression — jealousy and fear — seem naïve to say the least. They’re a pat psychology Americans seem indoctrinated to believe: the world hates us because we’re free.
The message of the album is this: the games of the future must be military games. We secure our progress into the cosmos only by supremacy on the Earth and in the stars.
And that’s darkly ironic. Future Games is a celebration of manifold destiny from a man who has made his home in Hawaii, a sovereign nation forcefully annexed by the US in 1898, and who presents himself in the title and cover as an enlightened space age kahuna.
There could, I guess, be a guilt complex involved. This might be the reaction of a conqueror jealous of his new borders.
But to believe that, you’d have to believe California was aware of working on so deep a level, and that’s unlikely. More likely it’s what it seems to be: a proud American with his flag in his hands and his head in the clouds.
Randy California is one of my all-time heroes. I love the man. I adore this album — it’s up there in my top ten favorites. But it still makes me wince.