571. ‘Spirit in the Sky’, by Doctor & The Medics

Given the way the charts have been going over the past few months, I’m ready to write this next #1 off as another gimmicky novelty…

Spirit in the Sky, by Doctor & The Medics (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 1st June – 22nd June 1986

From Cliff and the Young Ones, past Falco and The Chicken Song, to this: a mid-eighties take on Norman Greenbaum’s classic 1970 number one (obligatory link to my original post here…) The beefy guitars that open on that famous riff are very welcome – it’s been a good long while since we’ve had proper guitars at #1.

It’s a faithful cover, all the notes are there in the right order. Even the trippy effects between the lines and the riffs are recreated. It’s fine. It’s a great song, and if you stick to the script you’ll end up with a reasonably good cover. But as the song develops, and after repeated listens, you start to wonder why they bothered…

It plods along with the feel of a knock-off karaoke version, especially when the tacky, synthy organ comes in. You can hear it in the background from around midway through, sounding like the one used in the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ theme (sorry, very niche reference for non-British readers…) It’s the version of ‘Spirit in the Sky’ that you’d use in a TV series if you couldn’t afford to pay for the original. Meanwhile, in my post on the original I remember questioning whether Greenbaum was singing this as a religious song. Here, the lyrics pass you by. They’re sung so unremarkably that you don’t really notice them.

It is, as you may have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, not a patch on the proto-glam, acid-fried original. And, yet again, this record backs up my bias against eighties production: it just sounds so much better when ‘real’ instruments are used… By this point my 1980s fixation is very much ‘old man shouts at cloud’ territory, but I can’t help it.

One of the main reasons why I approached this record as a novelty is because the band singing it are called Doctor & The Medics. It just screams ‘aren’t we zany!’ They had been around since 1981, formed in London by The Doctor (AKA Clive Jackson). From the look of the band – big hair and Kiss-style make-up – I want to like them. This is possibly the closest we’ll get to an ‘80s glam rock chart-topper (a genre that’s a definite guilty pleasure of mine). The video also has a goth-glam feel to it, with pale women in floaty white dresses popping their heads out of windows.

The Medics were primarily a covers band, but sadly their subsequent versions of ‘Waterloo’ (featuring Roy Wood) and ‘Burning Love’ didn’t set the charts alight. They remain on the verge of being one-hit wonders, and continue to perform with only The Doctor as an original member. Their sole Top 20 hit isn’t a novelty, then, I can confirm. But neither is it anything more than okay… Meanwhile, ‘Spirit in the Sky’ has one more appearance at #1 to come. And if you thought I was down on this version, well…

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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…

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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.