Where will you be when your freedom is dead?: Spirit’s controversial “1984” on “Radio 1990″

By on May 9, 2019

This episode of Night Flight’s “Radio 1990” — which aired on April 13, 1983, and you’ll now find streaming on Night Flight Plus — features Topanga Canyon jam band Spirit with 19-year old lead singer Randy California singing his new song “1984” on Germany’s Beat Club” on January 30, 1970.

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“1984” — clearly inspired by George Orwell‘s novel — was a stand-alone U.S. single on December 17, 1969, and across Europe in February 1970.

It later appeared on The Best of Spirit (1973), and was subsequently added to their expanded CD reissue of their third album, Clear.

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Arriving at their creative peak just as the new decade dawned, “1984” was shaping up to be Spirit’s second biggest hit to date until AM radio stations banned it.

A popular radio tip sheet claimed California’s controversial lyrics — warning Americans that their freedoms were being curtailed by Richard Nixon‘s paranoid administration — were inappropriate for airplay:

“It’s time you started thinking inside your head,
That you should stand up and fight!
Oh, just where will you be when your freedom is dead?
Won’t you listen tonight?”

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On the “Beat Club,” California changes the last line to “Fourteen years from tonight,” a reference to Orwellian Big Brother government and the forthcoming future of “1984.”

In the U.S., the single topped out at #69 on Billboard‘s Top 100, but this TV performance helped it become a huge hit in Germany.

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Randy California (b. Randolph Craig Wolfe on February 20, 1951) grew up in a very musical family.

His uncle, Ed Pearl, owned the Ash Grove venue, and frequently he brought over blues/folk legends like John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt and others for jam sessions.

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At age 15, California  — who’d already mastered slide guitar blues — dropped out of Chatsworth High and began playing music professionally.

In the summer of ’66, his family moved to Forest Hills, Queens, where where his bald 43-year old stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy — who’d been in the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder — hoped to line up jazz gigs.

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Randy joined the Tangerine Puppets, playing with two future Ramones (John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi) as well as Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (later of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers). He also taught his neighbor Walter Becker blues guitar basics.

Then, at Manny’s Music Store near Times Square, Randy ran into a 20-year old guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, who invited him to play with his band, Jimmy James & the Blue Flames, at their Café Wha? residency in Greenwich Village.

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California played with Hendrix for the next three months, but because he already had a Randy in his band — Randy Palmer (a.k.a “Randy Texas”) — Hendrix started calling him “Randy California,” a name he kept for the rest of his life.

Hendrix also invited California to move with him to England, where he was forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but Randy’s mother Berenice decided her son was still too young.

Read more about Randy California below.

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Randy California’s family moved back to Santa Monica in early 1967.

Randy and Ed Cassidy began jamming again with singer-songwriter Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes (who’d been jamming with Canned Heat), a couple of his high school buddies that he and Ed had previously played jazz fusion with as the Red Roosters.

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After adding keyboardist John Locke (who’d been playing with future Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger), they began rehearsing at the Yellow House, Locke’s communal Topanga Canyon abode where Barret Hansen (Dr. Demento) also lived.

They began calling themselves Spirits Rebellious — after Khalil Gibran’s collection of short stories — but eventually shortened it to Spirit.

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Spirit signed with Lou Adler’s Ode imprint and over the next three years released four highly-acclaimed albums: 1968’s Spirit and The Family That Plays Together, 1969’s Clear, and their masterpiece, 1970’s The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.

They also toured with Traffic and Led Zeppelin — which probably led to Jimmy Page ripping off the opening guitar arpeggios from California’s 1968 instrumental track “Taurus” for their intro to “Stairway to Heaven” — and appeared in Jacques Demy‘s L.A.-set counterculture film The Model Shop (1969).

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Spirit playing at the Scene in NYC, 1968

Several of their singles — California’s “I Got A Line On You” (their only Top Forty hit at #25), “Nature’s Way” (a perfect Earth Day anthem and heartfelt cautionary warning about the ecological ruin of Mother Earth), “Prelude/Nothing to Hide,” and Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo” and “Fresh Garbage” — ended up in regular rotation on then-fledgling FM radio.

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Their poor album sales and dodgy decisions like declining Hendrix’s offer to play at Woodstock demoralized Ferguson and Mark Andes, who left Spirit in 1971 and later formed Jo Jo Gunne (their “Run, Run, Run” charted at #27 in the U.S.).

Ferguson later had a successful solo career with hits like “Thunder Island.”

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The often erratic and mercurial Randy California (who got heavily into LSD and cocaine) recorded solo albums, and even filled in for an ill Richie Blackmore as Deep Purple‘s lead guitarist briefly during U.S. tour dates.

He also contributed to B.B. King‘s L.A. Midnight album in 1972, the same year he officially left Spirit.

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California and Cassidy occasionally revived Spirit over the next few decades — often to tour Europe, where they were more greatly appreciated — and released a handful of additional Spirit albums.

Sadly, Randy California drowned off the Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1997 while trying to save his 12-year old son Quinn, who was caught in a deadly rip-tide (Quinn survived, but Randy’s body was never recovered and was declared “lost at sea”).

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Watch Spirit’s “1984” performance from Germany’s “Beat Club” in this 1983 episode of “Radio 1990” on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.