285. ‘Spirit in the Sky’, by Norman Greenbaum

In my last post, after deciding that I could take no more of Dana’s execrable ‘All Kinds of Everything’, I prayed that the seventies would get going, and soon…

Photo of Norman GREENBAUM

Spirit in the Sky, by Norman Greenbaum (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 26th April – 10th May 1970

Well here we are. I’d suggest that this might the moment the new decade truly kicks off, with a record facing right towards the future. It all starts with a fuzzy, scuzzy guitar riff, with plenty of echo, as if it’s being recorded from the end of a very long hallway. Then in come the stomping drums, and the catchy handclaps, and you realise that you might be witnessing the first glam rock number one.

When I die, And they lay me to rest, Gonna go to the place that’s the best… Several recent #1s have been concerned with death, dying and the end of the world. But ‘Spirit In the Sky’ puts a more positive spin on it. Going up to the spirit in the sky… Norman Greenbaum has a Calvinist’s assurance that he’s heading straight for heaven.

Never been a sinner, Never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus… He’s definitely confident. But now for the big question… Is this a religious record? Or is he taking the piss? I’d like to see it as a satire of the type of Christian who believes they’ll get to heaven, even though they’ve spent most of their time on earth being a dick.

Plus, it doesn’t sound like a Christian song. It sounds sleazy and dirty, with two long, heavy guitar solos – not something you’d hear on the organ in church. It feels like ages since we’ve had a proper guitar solo at the top of the charts, not since ‘Honky Tonk Women’, last summer. Greenbaum was in fact, Jewish, and had decided to write a ‘gospel’ song just to see if he could. He finished it, he claimed, in fifteen minutes. And, yeah, the lyrics are pretty basic. But that’s probably what’s given this record its longevity – the fact that it could be a one-dimensional religious song just as much as it could be a cynical piss-take. To this day it remains a popular choice for funerals…

NORMAN_GREENBAUM_SPIRIT+IN+THE+SKY+-+4PR-385695

I love that this isn’t a record that rushes. It stretches its two little verses and chorus out over four minutes, with plenty of bluesy riffing and glam-rock stomping, and what sounds like a cash-register opening and closing, opening and closing. It’s also the perfect song for the turn of this new decade, as if the optimism of the summer of love has soured and burned itself out on acid. The sentiment is still there; but the sound has been distorted.

Norman Greenbaum was a blues/folk singer from Massachusetts who burst out of nowhere with this monster hit, and then retreated back into anonymity. He lives these days in California. ‘Spirit In the Sky’ is probably one of pop music’s most famous one-hit wonders, the song that people would go for if they had name such a record.

In fact, ‘Spirit In the Sky’ will have a more successful chart career than its creator. We will meet it two more times at the top of the charts, in an eighties and then a noughties guise. It’s a great song, one that resonates to this day, one that I’ve been aware of since I was very young. And one that stands out even more in this countdown – like a sparkly beacon of light – sandwiched as it is between two truly terrible songs… The second of which is up next.

17 thoughts on “285. ‘Spirit in the Sky’, by Norman Greenbaum

  1. D’Orazi Hit Parade here. I just want to say I’m enjoying your site especially getting to see the similarities and difference between the songs and artists that hit #1 in the US and the UK. Since it peaked at #2 in the UK, I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Stars on 45 medley from 1981 that got reviewed in Stereogum’s Number Ones column today?
    https://www.stereogum.com/2083548/the-number-ones-stars-on-45s-stars-on-45/franchises/the-number-ones/

    • Thanks for the comment and for reading! I’ve read a few entries from Stereogum – usually from the 50s-60s that correspond with the songs that hit #1 in the UK. I’d heard of ‘Stars on 45′ but never heard it until now… Can’t say I’m a huge fan. They do a passable Beatles’ impression, though. It reminds me of Jive Bunny, a DJ who had big hits in the late 80s by mashing together old rock n roll songs into campy remixes…

      • Even as a big Beatles person, I’ve never heard of Stars on 45 til I discovered all the Billboard #1 songs a couple years ago. I’ve seen people put the song on their worst lists and while I agree it’s very cheesy, stupid, and awkwardly put together I’m more perplexed by it than outright angry at it. After all, it’s not like Stars on 45 has gotten played much after 1981 so it doesn’t give me an annoyance of hearing it everywhere. And at the very least, I do get the context for why it got big mainly because of people mourning John Lennon’s death considering when you watch all the coverage surrounding his death people were treating it not just as the death of Lennon but as the death of the Beatles and the ‘60s culture they ushered in. And on the Hot 100, Lennon had three Top 10 hits from Double Fantasy after his death and George Harrison’s tribute song to Lennon All Those Years Ago peaked at #2 in the summer of ‘81. So Stars on 45 fits with the wave of Beatles nostalgia and mourning that came in as a result even though the song was recorded before Lennon’s death. In America, Stars on 45’s success could also be attributed to the growing aerobics fad in 1981 with the baby boomers now in their mid-30s being able to exercise to a song with a thumping beat complete with a medley of the songs they grew up with despite the disco backlash in full force at the time. You can thank Stars on 45 for Jive Bunny and the whole wave of medley hits that came after in the ‘80s including Beach Boys Medley and Royal Philharmonic Medley which like Swing The Mood charted in America. In terms of Stars on 45, they pretty much milked the whole artist medley with a disco beat to the ground considering they do a couple other Beatles medleys along with medleys for The Rolling Stones, Supremes, Stevie Wonder, ABBA, and movie themes.

      • That’s an interesting theory. Yes, I imagine this could exist today, as a mash up of, say, Katy Perry hits… But only on YouTube, for those who wanted to seek it out. Back 40 years ago, the only way for people to get any kind of music was for companies to release it and for them to buy it… So you get this weird medley as a number one single! The charts have become a much more homogenous zone in the past decade – nothing too great, but nothing too ear-grindingly awful either – because there are so many other places to get your music. Safe and bland the order of the day…

      • Yeah it’s hard to imagine medley songs getting popular on the charts now since we can just make our own and post it online. There isn’t much of a demand from record labels or groups to make medleys and make them hits. Thankfully with the rise of streaming in the last decade, we’ve gotten a greater say in the hits to counteract the bland schlock the radio pushes us.

  2. It took me a while to warm up to it but Apollo 13 the movie…got me into. I really like it now. This is a much better improvement over the past song…I think you and I could come up with something better than the last one.

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  4. Norman may have been a one-hit wonder as a solo artist, but he had a glorious moment three years earlier as the front man of Dr West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band. I think they only made a couple of records, and only one (which, like ‘Spirit in the Sky’, he wrote) was a hit. It had surely one of the most wonderful titles ever – ‘The Eggplant that ate Chicago’.

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