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Oct 06

NORMAN GREENBAUM – “Spirit In The Sky”

FT + Popular41 comments • 7,728 views

#285, 2nd May 1970

Apparently much loved by the British public in whatever form it makes the charts, but this is a case where the original is best. Later versions play the song as a knees-up, but Greenbaum goes deeper and finds the spiritual connection between revival meeting and happening, the hypnotic link between hippy happy-clappy and glam stomp.

A lot of the record’s power comes from its distinctive sound – fuzz guitar snarling and purring all through the song, like a spirit voice Greenbaum’s raised up for accompaniment. The real voices accompanying him are barely less spectral, their final notes – “in the skyyy”; “when I diiiie” – hanging spookily in the fuzz along with the rattlesnake brushes and echoing stabs of lead guitar. Jesus figures heavily in the song, but only as a useful connection who knows the world beyond better than you do: Greenbaum was not a Christian, and this is not Christian rock.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 1 Oct 2006 #

    (This is one of a number of weird quasi-religious number ones during 1970/71 – I don’t really know enough about the period to hazard any broader explanation of why!)

  2. 2
    Daniel_Rf on 1 Oct 2006 #

    I was listening to the Beach Boy’s “Feel Flows” the other day, and thinking about how those mystical mumbo-jumbo lyrics would usually be something you’d associate with the height of 60’s psychedelia. Canonical pop history tells us that the entire mind-altering, transcendental druggy dream of the 60’s turned into a bad trip towards the end of the decade, and that’s why 70’s Rock and Pop is so full of paranoia and cocaine and whatnot; cue the “me” decade. But I don’t think that the longing for “togetherness” vanished completley – I mean, it couldn’t have ALL been about the acid, and I imagine religion must have seemed very tempting indeed for those still trying to hang on to whatever variant of the peace & love thing they might have experienced. So I imagine the early 70’s would have been a ripe market for religious imagery in Pop, both of the new age spritual type and the more traditional christian stuff.

    The current pop-cult interpretation of the 70’s tends to try to leave this out, or else emphasise its dark side (easy enough to find, what with the whole post-Manson cult thing), I suppose because ppl getting all twee and mystical and daft as a result of taking lots of DRUKS for a few years is a lot easier to make cool than people persisting with their mysticism after the acid’s run out.

  3. 3

    there was a not-small microsection of full-on hippydom which veered straight off into the “jesus freak” movement (or whatever it was called) and stayed there

  4. 4
    Mark M on 1 Oct 2006 #

    It was strange era, surely: what with JCS and Godspell and all. Obviously, there were plenty of hippy burn outs – Jeremy Spencer etc – finding some kind of way to god. Then there were Christians who decided that they better co-opt the Devil’s tunes before they lost the kids entirely. And also, non-specifically religious hippies others who just saw Jesus as the original longhair.
    Here’s Nik Cohn on Jesus Christ Superstar:

    ‘When John Lennon said in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, one could hardly have conceived how soon and how directly he’d be given the lie… It was true that Superstar’s public was essentially half-way house – middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow, demihep – and that even when it reached the young, it missed the hardcore rock fan. What it marked, in fact, was the final intergration of pop into Western culture… There were millions who had grown weary of Herb Alpert but couldn’t yet stretch to Frank Zappa…’

  5. 5
    Tom on 1 Oct 2006 #

    The other thing this record reminds me of (with no rational connection I think) is FINGERBOBS – I guess a number of hippies also ended up on kids TV, or maybe just that the childlike end of hippie style proved non-toxic for real children.

  6. 6
    tracerhand on 1 Oct 2006 #

    i always got a real american-indian vibe off this song despite the “i’ve got a friend in jesus” part. i mean the phrase “spirit in the sky” sounds like some straight up navajo shit

  7. 7
    bramble on 1 Oct 2006 #

    Its true that the era of 1969-1971 saw a number of songs that veered either to the lighter side of religious imagery – ‘we are stardust, we are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’ (Woodstock) – or the darker side, as with Peter Green’s Green Manalishi.Spirit in the Sky fitted into the mood of the free festivals of the time, along with brown rice, pans of lentils and longhaired freaks doing dervish dancing. However,it must hold some sort of record. It was number one for both Norman Greenbaum and Dr and the Medics, neither of whom had any other hit.If you also count Gareth Gates and the Kumars as an act, thats three one-hit wonders with the same song.

  8. 8
    Doctor Mod on 2 Oct 2006 #

    This song was a topic of a lot of debate among my friends while it was riding the top of thc charts. It’s always been pretty obvious to me that the whole thing was a send-up of the religious mania that started to take hold at the beginning of the 70s: hippies turning to Jesus as the ur-hippy, the whole Jesus Christ Superstar business, Hare Krishnas, the Children of God cult (which claimed Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac, etc., etc., etc.) That Greenbaum was Jewish didn’t seem to make much of an impression on anyone, perhaps because the “Jews for Jesus” movement was getting underway (remember when Dylan got into it?).

    Consider that NG has the unique distinction of being a double one-hit wonder (at least in the States). Several years before, he was the leader of Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Jug Band, whose one hit was a zany kazoo-laden thing called “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” (which I actually found rather amusing). They also made a notorious kazoo-ensemble instrumental version of “Eleanor Rigby” that’s downright sinister. Of course, very few people made the connection at the time–Dr West and company were soon forgotten. Still, I have to wonder if the Eggplant (“It came from outer space / looking for something to eat”) and the Spirit (both of them “things of the sky”) aren’t somehow doppelgangers.

    At any rate, one friend of mine, who decided to be a “cool Christian” and had something to do with her church’s worship services, wondered if she could incorporate it in a youth ministry service. I had my doubts about the sincerity of the song, as I’ve said. (I mean, with that guitar riff and bass line and that girl wailing away ecstatically and out of tune in the background, it sounded more like a somewhat orgiastic drug trip to my ears.)

    Nonetheless, when I tried to purchase it on iTunes earlier, I found that almost half the cover versions were from sincere gospel/Christian/spiritual albums/artists. Ironically, in spite of the number of covers available for purchase (including one by Elton John), the original wasn’t listed.

    “I’ve got a friend in Jesus” is probably a play on the well-known traditional American bible-church hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (so well-known that even a then-Catholic like myself had heard it), which was probably enough of an allusion to make the devout take the song at face value. But, then again (and with malice towards none), taking things at face value seems to be a key factor in fundamentalism.

    But hey–it really, really rocks.

  9. 9
    scott on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Further to what others have already said, it strikes me as part of a late-60s/early ’70s pop-spiritualism (the best kind of spiritualism, perhaps): cf. “My Sweet Lord,” Oh Happy Day,” “One Toke Over the Line,” “Jesus is Just All Right,” even to some degree, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Let it Be.” Doctor Mod’s belief that Greenbaum’s was a “sendup” of the whole thing (which I agree with) doesn’t, I don’t think, detract from what seemed like a pervasive (if not particularly coherent) subgenre in pop at the time.

    The beat in this track is still fantastic, and I always think of it as one of the first real ’70s-sounding sounding records, partly because that fuzz guitar is so K-tel/bubblegummy, maybe also because it prefigures Gary Glitter? I play it at weddings all the time, and it always sounds fresh ando often fills the dancefloor.

  10. 10
    peteski on 2 Oct 2006 #

    everytime I hear it as part of a commercial, my soul shrinks a little bit smaller.

  11. 11
    Tim Hopkins on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Tom will be pleased about that.

  12. 12
    markgamon on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Too riffy for me.

  13. 13
    Daniel_Rf on 2 Oct 2006 #

    There’s sound all over it!

  14. 14
    Erithian on 2 Oct 2006 #

    And by 1972 there were actual hymns in the chart! Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken”, Judy Collins’ vocal version of “Amazing Grace”, even the quasi-religious “Desiderata”, of which Les Crane apparently later said “I can’t listen to it now without gagging”. Hard to explain why, but, along with all the pop-spiritualism referred to above, I suppose it was the time of the Festival of Light, a time when someone like Malcolm Muggeridge could become a celebrity, a time when “Stars on Sunday” was a cornerstone of Sunday night TV. Heck, Cliff could even have sung the Lord’s Prayer to the tune of Auld Lang Syne and it wouldn’t have seemed ot of place.

    Tom, there was an exchange early in the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” thread that I wanted to refer to, but that thread grew so rapidly over the weekend that the remark would have been lost. I just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t for a moment suggesting that your reviews are anything other than honest appraisals. That’s precisely what makes Popular such a good read.

  15. 15
    Lena on 2 Oct 2006 #

    “I’ve never been a sinner, I’ve never sinned’? Well, bully for you, Norman. The only version of this song I like is by We’ve Got a Fuzzbox (And We’re Gonna Use It). “Oh Happy Day” is about a million times better than this.

  16. 16
    GeorgeB on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Re him “never being a sinner” etc. Give the guy a break. He was a hippy. He was jewish. He was intellectual. There’s more than a touch of irony here.

  17. 17
    Laura Brown on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Tom, is there a problem with the dates? You have this song listed as being a hit in 1985 and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as being from 1983.

  18. 18
    Doctor Mod on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Re him “never being a sinner” etc. Give the guy a break.

    I always thought this line was a sure sign that the song was a send-up, here poking fun at the smugly self-righteous.

    The only version of this song I like is by We’ve Got a Fuzzbox (And We’re Gonna Use It).

    The Fuzzbox version is possibly my favorite. With an absolute lack of any sort of sincerity, they obviously understood it was a send-up. But then, those girls could turn just about anything into a send-up.

  19. 19
    wwolfe on 2 Oct 2006 #

    Amongst the Christian-esque pop music of the era, I’d note Tommy James’ “Christian of the World” album from 1971. The cover shows Tommy in Christ-like robes, holding a staff, with devotees kneeling around him, while a great corona of light beams in the background. How this passed without comment or criticism from the faithful, I don’t know, since it’s hard to know whether sincerity or mockery would have been more blasphemous. (It’s not like the record passed without notice, either, given that it contained Tommy’s last Top Ten, “Draggin’ the Line,” a Top Thirty follow-up, “I’m Comin’ Home” – with a Christian-esque opening couplet of “I’m gonna make it/Back to my Father’s mansion,” and the secular shoulda-been-a-hit, “Adrienne.”)

  20. 20
    Lena on 3 Oct 2006 #

    I found this little article about Greenbaum – I don’t think he wrote it as send-up, though it has been sent-up, obviously!

  21. 21
    Doctor Mod on 3 Oct 2006 #

    Of course, there’s a Catch-22 involved for those of us who commit the sin of parody. (I plead guilty as charged.) Parody requires a sort of double-discourse, by which a certain “in-group” knows precisely what’s going on and the rest will see/hear what they want to see/hear, even if they feel mildly uncomfortable about it. You can never admit that’s what you’re doing, otherwise you lose a considerable portion of your audience (i.e., those who’ve been sent-up, invested a lot of sincere emotion in it (even though the parodist can’t imagine how anyone would really do that), and now feel betrayed–and the joke is up for the “in-group,” because it can only continue as long as it remains ambiguous.

    I like wwolfe’s term, “Christianesque,” which might denote a simulacrum of Christianity. (Just as Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” isn’t necessarily–and is unlikely to be–about actually virginity.) Greenbaum’s explanation sounds pretty vague–he’s never actually committing himself to any specific position. And this is precisely what he should do when asked about it. I suppose one might say that this song means whatever it means to the person listening to it. If one wants to take it at face value, one surely can and will.

    But to do so, as I explained to my youth minister friend so long ago, opens a whole can of worms in terms of traditional Christianity. (Believe it or not, I studied theology for a year or so, thinking I would become a nun or an Episcopalian priest–but my cynicism won out in the end, and now I teach the sort of fiction that admits to being precisely that.) To say one has “never sinned,” the line you point out, is theologically dubious to say the least. Within the context of Calvinist Christian worship (as in the case of my friend’s church), it’s even heretical. (We later had a debate about the adaptability of “My Sweet Lord,” but that’s a different story.) And then there is the matter that the lyrics really aren’t terribly profound or, for that matter, reverent. (“Gonna set me up with the Spirit in the Sky” sounds like some sort of quasi-legal business deal.)

    For my own part, I applaud Greenbaum for pulling it off. Who knew? A Jewish dairy farmer made a lot of money by writing a song about Jesus that could either be devotional or a weird acid trip–and then followed it up with something called “Canned Ham” (in which, as I recall, the female voice that howls “in the skyyyyyyy” on the earlier record toward the end something in a taunting voice to the effect of “now, Greenbaum, when you gonna buy me a canned ham?”)

    Oy vay!

  22. 22
    Dadaismus on 6 Oct 2006 #

    Even Lou Reed was writing songs about Jesus by 1969!

  23. 23
    Doctor Casino on 8 Nov 2006 #

    I like this song more than I remember liking it. It’s always a welcome appearance on any playlist – though I can’t yet imagine it filling any dancefloors as Scott says it does. Interesting idea though! It’s totally groovy; wwolfe’s mention of “Draggin’ the Line” is interesting because I think the two songs share a certain stoned forward momentum. “Spirit in the Sky” is several shades darker, and a bit more woken-up, and to my ears sounds like “Inna-Gadda-da-Vida” poured into a pop-sized bottle. The solo, the echoing leads, and of course the continuous fuzz set up the menace, but what’s essential is the fact that the aspect of the story that Greenbaum really seems to sink his teeth into isn’t the going to the place that’s the best, but the DEATH. “That’s where you’re gonna go WHEN YOU DIIIIE” – he relishes in the morbidity, which is what really makes this unusual as a #1.

  24. 24
    Dan R on 12 Jun 2008 #

    Fuzzbox’s version of the song is, I agree, the best. They incorporate a little semi-spoken addition two-thirds of the way in:

    Read the Bible every day
    Go to cxhurch on Sunday
    Do what your mother says
    And say your prayers before you go to bed
    And remember
    The Lord loves you

    Which I always take as a little divebomb targetting the way these songs got appropriated by churchy schools. In my primary school assemblies (vaguely CofE) we sung this, Morning Has Broken, Rivers of Babylon.

  25. 25
    Drucius on 13 Jun 2008 #

    Lordy no, the Fuzzbox version is four teenagers mucking about in their bedroom, the original is a groovy little foot-tapper.

  26. 26
    DJ Punctum on 13 Jun 2008 #

    RONG

  27. 27
    richard thompson on 13 Jun 2008 #

    We sang Morning has broken as well, at the time Cat stevens sang it, we were c of e as well in my juniors, I remember this being on TOTP, think it was a promo and Norman came on to introduce it with Tony Blackburn, I later studied a bit of theology myself in Wales where we weren’t allowed to have long hair, I’m more cynical now though I could never say that I’d never sinned.

  28. 28
    DJ Punctum on 13 Jun 2008 #

    This far down and no mention yet of “My Coo-Ca-Choo”?

  29. 29
    vinylscot on 13 Jun 2008 #

    I always felt “Son Of My Father” owed more than a little to “Spirit in the Sky” as well, especially the intro.

  30. 30
    DJ Punctum on 13 Jun 2008 #

    It’s the whole schaffel thing innit?

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