Spirit and Nazareth Solo Albums from the Lost and Found (Part 1): Thunder Island

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

The late ‘60s band Spirit – who found themselves back in the news in 2016 over a copyright infringement suit alleging that the rock classic “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (whose first American tour was as the opening act for Spirit) plagiarized the band’s 1968 album cut “Taurus” – made some very good albums at their commercial and artistic peak (especially Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, featuring the cult classics “Nature’s Way,” “Mr. Skin” and “Animal Zoo”), but they also never were all that big a household name, either. (Only one of their singles, 1969’s “I Got a Line on You,” would manage to reach the Top 40.) Most of the band’s members would find much greater fame after the band called it a day. Donne Dacus, who would play with the band from 1973-1974, would later famously briefly replace Terry Kath in Chicago in the late ‘70s following the latter’s accidental death, appearing on the albums Hot Streets and Chicago 13. Original bassist Mark Andes (a former member of Canned Heat) would go on – with Spirit bandmate Jay Ferguson – to form the short-lived Jo Jo Gunne, which released four albums for Asylum Records and scored a Top 40 hit of their own with “Run, Run, Run.” Andes would go on to serve as the original bassist for Firefall (“You Are the Woman,” “Strange Way,” “Just Remember I Love You”) from 1975 through 1980 before spending a decade as the full-time bassist for Heart and serving as their bass player on all of their albums from 1983’s Passionworks through 1990’s Brigade. (He is still active as a musician and has been back with Firefall since 2014.) 

Jay Ferguson, following the demise of Jo Jo Gunne, would sign as a solo artist to Asylum Records (also doubling as labelmate Joe Walsh’s keyboardist on But Seriously, Folks …), then the home of one of the hottest bands of all, the Eagles. Fittingly, Ferguson’s second solo album, 1978’s Thunder Island, was helmed – as were Ferguson’s 1976 solo debut All Alone in the End Zone and 1979’s Real Life Ain’t This Way – by the producer of the final four Eagles albums of the ‘70s, Bill Szymczyk, also known for his extensive work with the James Gang and the J. Geils Band.

Thunder Island opens with its most recognizable cut, the title track, a Top Ten hit featuring some guest slide guitar from Joe Walsh (who also lends a hand on three other tracks here); the breezy summer anthem [comparable to a blend of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” the country rock of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” and the killer group harmonies of the Four Seasons’ “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”] is strangely heard only rarely on classic-rock radio these days, but it does pop up sporadically on oldies stations and was also featured in Anchorman 2: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and on that film’s soundtrack.

But there’s so much more to be enjoyed here than just the hit single, and Ferguson – a very underrated and appealing vocalist – delivers plenty of other enjoyable and catchy cuts with “Soulin’” (a great showcase for the drumming of Stan Kipper), the reggae-tinged “Babylon,” the lovely, vaguely-Pablo Cruise-like piano ballad “Love Is Cold,” and the guitar-heavy closer “Magic Moments,” co-written with Szymczyk (a rare songwriting credit for the producer).

The most impressive of the non-hits included here, however, is arguably the punchy, handclap-laden piano shuffle of “Losing Control,” another Walsh-featuring cut that did get released as a single yet strangely failed to follow “Thunder Island” into the Top 40. (The interweaving piano and guitar work on the cleverly drum-free final verse is particularly awe-inspiring.)

Ferguson would go on to have a second Top 40 solo hit – 1979’s punchy (and even more sadly forgotten) “Shakedown Cruise” – but after three more poor-selling solo discs, Ferguson would retire from the world of pop music in 1982 to start a new career in scoring films and television, a move that paid off in a big way: he’s still at it decades later and has not only composed the theme to NBC’s American adaptation of the British sitcom The Office but is the music composer for NCIS: Los Angeles.