Since singer/songwriter/guitarist Randy California's accidental death in 1997, his recorded legacy as the leader of Spirit and as a solo artist has been explored in a series of CDs assembled by Mick Skidmore and released by the British Acadia label. On this lengthy album, which contains about five hours and ten minutes of music on four discs, Skidmore delves into a period in California's career when Spirit had broken up yet again and he had received interest in his solo work in Europe, leading to touring and the release of his second solo album, Euro-American, by Beggars Banquet Records in the U.K. in 1982. In essence, this collection is an expanded version of that disc and Shattered Dreams, a subsequent LP of unreleased material from the same period issued by Germany's Line Records in 1986. At least, that's a good way to describe the first two CDs, which more than double the length of those albums by adding rarities, demos, remixes, and longer edits. But Skidmore didn't stop there. In the middle of these years, California arranged for Beggars Banquet to release a long-shelved Spirit album, Potatoland, and he went back on the road under the Spirit name to promote it. Disc three chronicles that touring with live tracks recorded in 1980 and 1981. Disc four, described as a "collector's bonus disc," adds yet more demos as well as a seven-song performance by "Randy California and the California Band" in Scotland in October 1979. "These discs," Skidmore writes in his liner notes of the album as a whole, "collect as much from that period [1979-1983] as I could find."
It was a period, Skidmore notes, when California was "caught in something of an identity crisis." After the breakup of the original five-man Spirit lineup at the start of the 1970s, he had released his first solo album, Kapt. Kopter & the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds (1972), then spent most of the rest of the '70s leading various configurations of Spirit, including reunions of the quintet and lineups consisting of himself, drummer Ed Cassidy, and a hired bass player. His return to solo work at the end of the decade was something of a liberation for him, but it was also short-lived, as far as the billing was concerned, anyway, probably for purely practical reasons. Skidmore quotes bass player Steve "Liberty" Loria, a member of the Randy California Band of 1979 along with drummer Jack Willoughby, as saying that, in early 1980, after California dropped Willoughby and brought back Cassidy, he showed up for a gig and discovered the group was being advertised as Spirit. In truth, there was never that much difference between the Randy California-led lineups of Spirit and Randy California the solo artist. Skidmore refers to "the spacey Spirit vibe" as opposed to the more pop/rock and melodic hard rock of California's solo work. But across the expanse of this album, the real musical difference is that between the studio recordings and the live tracks. In his studio recordings, California tends to be more pop-oriented, while the live material finds him rocking harder and longer, with extensive guitar solos inserted into some of the same songs.
Either way, the material remains highly accessible, begging the question why California and Spirit were not more commercially successful during this period (or during any other period, for that matter). Fans will get the chance to ponder that question at length while listening to this album, but neophytes should not be put off necessarily. The collection is priced to move; at release, it was selling for only £16, which translated into retail and mail-order prices of under $30 in the U.S. The fourth disc might be billed as a "bonus," but in effect both the third and fourth discs were free add-ons, making this an economical package as well as an extensive one. (The CD booklet was littered with minor typos, the most serious of which was that the fifth and sixth tracks on the fourth disc were reversed from their actual order; "Stepping Son" precedes "Past Love," not the other way around.)