25
Nov 09

DOCTOR AND THE MEDICS – “Spirit In The Sky”

FT + Popular57 comments • 5,625 views

#571, 7th June 1986, video

Every year has its flukes but this is one of the more inexplicable – unknowns before and since, amiable psych revivalists by the look of their discography, scoring a massive international hit with this unexceptional cover. Everyone I knew hated it, but even so I suspect it was one for the kids, powered along by Doctor’s big-haired visual hook – part Arthur Brown, part Roy Wood, all panto.

The band turn “Spirit In The Sky” into a glam stomper at the expense of its witchy campfire atmosphere, closing the gap between ’70 and ’73 to produce a mulch of hand-me-down seventiesness. But their approach could have worked – what kills it is the biscuit tin drums and particularly Doctor’s polite, diffident voice. Aptly for a song about the afterlife, the three hit versions of “Spirit In The Sky” make a kind of reverse Divine Comedy, and here we are in purgatory.

3

Comments

1 2 All
  1. 1
    Pete Baran on 25 Nov 2009 #

    My great Popular loss was not being able to mix all of the No.1 versions of this together. I am assuming the 3 is here to give you wiggle room for the future!

    I rather liked this, because I had never heard the original and, well, I like glam stompers. But I have soon recognised it as the pretty ropey version it was. And I hate songs about God, except the ones that are about not believing in him, and I don’t really like that one much either.

  2. 2
    punctum on 25 Nov 2009 #

    The second of this song’s trio of visits to number one, in the second of three different generations, confirms its inner strength as a song; but alas, where the Greenbaum original rises and bubbles and, above all, swings in a way which suggests that the record is being made by living, breathing human beings playing and working together, this cover epitomises everything that was awry and wrong about ’80s pop production. While Doctor and the Medics had already built up a considerable reputation as a sort of comedy Goth group on the indie circuit – a slapstick Sisters of Mercy, if you must – and indeed that same reputation has subsequently seen them through twenty years of freshers’ balls and similar, their “Spirit In The Sky” is an utterly null pop record; the Doctor himself (with a very un-Goth real name of Clive Jackson) sings the song flatly as though ordering a kebab. There is no bend or flow in the record; everything is pitched on the same trebly level, above all those blasted bargain basement synthesisers standing in for a horn section. Dynamics are absent, and the impression is that progression from this world to the next is a task equivalent to visiting the laundrette; particularly when compared with the astonishing, semi-spoken, semi-freeform reading of the same song later that year by We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It!!, which sounds like the Raincoats covering Meri Wilson’s “Telephone Man” and would have had a 10 from me had it been released as a single and reached the top. In fairness, though, the Doctors’ “Spirit” is still not the worst version of the song to get to number one; so one point in vague mitigation.

  3. 3
    Steve Mannion on 25 Nov 2009 #

    V sad that the person on that sleeve is not actually behind the weirdest 80s #1.

  4. 4
    swanstep on 25 Nov 2009 #

    @#1, Pete. You hate all songs about god? Then you hate a hell of a lot of great music: most of bluegrass-country just for a start. Oh well…

    Anyhow, this cover’s utterly redundant, and not at all thrilling like Bauhaus’s muscular Bolan and Bowie covers of a few years earlier (which did *nothing* chart-wise). The (new to me) vid. is amusing I guess, still we must conclude that the pop-gods are cruel:
    3

  5. 5
    pink champale on 25 Nov 2009 #

    yeah, it’s a regrettable truth that a pretty high proportion good records are by religious maniacs of one sort or another. i suppose because extremity and unreason are good things to chuck at pop. i can’t imagine too much good pop from anglican types though (except one we’ll be getting to very soon!). there certainly hasn’t been much from pointy haired panto goth idiots.

  6. 6
    Pete Baran on 25 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t know why I even wrote that. As I wrote it I was listening to God Spoke His Name by Claire Lynch – a track that I love.

  7. 7
    Tom on 25 Nov 2009 #

    It’s given us something to talk about. Frankly if this comment thread gets to 20 it’ll be a miracle.

  8. 8
    thefatgit on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Doctor And The Medics are but a distant memory for me. I chalked this one up as a novelty #1. I recall seeing them on TOTP, thinking some idiot had nicked Pete Burns’ hair and decided to be a pop star, for a bet or something.

  9. 9
    MikeMCSG on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Not much to say that Tom and punctum haven’t already covered though unlike Tom’s experience some of my fellow students did like this which made me hate it even more. I can only assume they weren’t familiar with the original (I knew it from repeat plays on “Junior Choice” in the mid-70s). They take much and add absolutely nothing;if it weren’t for a non-singing barman on the way undoubtedly the worst number one of the year.

    I’ve always assumed that real Goths loathed this band for appropriating their look for a pantomime act- have we got any here that could confirm that ?

    By the way if anyone tells you that this song was the first number one to be a hit for two one hit wonders they’re wrong. The good Doctor managed two more with the forgettable “Burn” (low 20s) and “Waterloo” -yes another pointless cover- (low 40s).

    The only remotely good thing I can say about this is that it did provide a good reason for not turning the radio on during my finals so perhaps they deserve a little of the credit for my IIi.

  10. 10
    Conrad on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Shame Level 42’s magnificent “Lessons in Love” never made the Top – Number 3 at its peak, Number 7 in the week this got to the top.

    I think Dr & the Medics appealed initially to the hippy, Marquee-going, second generation prog (Marillion, IQ, Twelth NIght) types, than goths. I had a few friends in that category, one of whom raved about Dr & the Medics’ debut single, “Miracle of the Age”, which was sort of ok ish.

    They abandoned the good Doctor when this drek came out though…

    I really shouldn’t have been hanging out with such a bunch…still, a life long love of Gong/Hillage came out of it, so it wasn’t all bad!

  11. 11
    MikeMCSG on 25 Nov 2009 #

    #10 Yep definitely my favourite L42 song too. I found that couplet-

    “If we lose the time before us
    The future will ignore us”

    – very striking as my time in the education system drew to a close.

  12. 12
    Izzy on 25 Nov 2009 #

    ‘Lessons In Love’, there’s a tune I had completely forgotten about. Nine-year-old me went head-over-heels for it for a few days. I remember that some of my pals were planning on putting on a concert to entertain the neighbours (the date doesn’t suggest any particular occasion for this, other than it being a fun way to pass a summer’s evening. Maybe we had the Live Aid bug) and being Mark King with an electric guitar(!) was how I envisaged myself in it. I can only presume and hope that, had it ever come to pass, it would’ve been entirely mimed.

    Despite my love for the tune, I hadn’t gone so far as to remember what the band was called. We eventually worked out that the band was called U2 – cueing appreciative nodding all round, purely on the basis that many an older brother had the ‘Boy’ poster on his wall.

  13. 13
    Glue Factory on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Re#1 and 4, I’m also fairly sure there’s more than one song about not believing in God, although I can only think of one at the moment.

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Most of the good feeling that I have towards this is a hangover from the original – but I don’t hate it as much as others seem to.
    The band were genuine enthusiasts for psychedelia at a time when its currency was pretty low. The band teeters on the edge of competence but unlike the last Number 1 were not taking the piss. Plus I always liked the Doctor Strange outfit worn by the singer and – according to Wiki the backing singers used to be synchronised swimmers – which, even if it isn’t true, seems right somehow .

  15. 15
    Conrad on 25 Nov 2009 #

    14, that’s true – I think they were a bit of a laugh, didn’t take themselves remotely seriously and were genuinely into the psychedelic scene.

    I think there was an undercurrent of interest in psychedelia at the time, the Blue Sunshine Robert Smith/Steve Severin album, the XTC Dukes of Stratosphere album, Cope’s sole stuff.

  16. 16
    Tom on 25 Nov 2009 #

    In fairness also the guy’s expression on the record sleeve gives the impression he’s as astonished by its existence as any of the rest of us.

    Now I think about it, I reckon this was the first number one I was aware was a throwback, a played-straight cover version, and I took against it partly for that reason.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 25 Nov 2009 #

    My favourite (party) song directly about God or at least worship might be ‘Stand On The Word’ altho the resolute conviction behind it does verge on disturbing (“we must not question…”).

  18. 18
    anto on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Utter Crap.
    Let’s be honest if you’re gonna be a one-hit wonder it really ought to be with one of your own songs.

  19. 19
    Billy Smart on 25 Nov 2009 #

    I don’t like the original in the first place, so imagine how much this must grate.

    Oh, they weren’t actually one-hit wonders. Something called Burn got to number 29 in the summer of 1986. But their Christmas effort, a cover of Waterloo with Roy Wood could get no further than number 45.

  20. 20
    Billy Smart on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Number 2 Watch: Two weeks of Simply Red’s preferable ‘Holding Back The Years’, which I loved at the time, but can never quite enter into the spirit of it when I hear it nowadays.

  21. 21
    MichaelH on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Re 2 and 9: But they weren’t really goths, were they? Rather than being part of the Batcave scene, they came out of the throng of groups that used to play at Alice in Wonderland (where “the Doctor” was resident DJ, a role he previously fulfilled at another influential psych revival club, The Clinic – which had no truck with goths). There were links to gothdom at Alice, but this was a psych club first and foremost. In the early 80s, Doctor and the Medics were one of the key groups in the psychedelic revival that gained traction in London indie – I guess the Television Personalities were its hippest exponents (the Medics’ first single was released on Dan Treacey’s Whaaam label), the Playn Jayn probably its best – and whose tentacles spread throughout indiepop in the next few years. This is the scene that popularised Syd Barrett among the indie kids, without whom no Mary Chain etc.

    From what I know, the Medics were always at the very kitsch end of things, which is why Clive Jackson felt no compunction about going for the hit. He was always playing it for laughs, unlike a lot of the other groups, and so I guess there was no need for him to worry about “selling out”.

    This record is, of course, tripe. But there is a small place for Doctor and the Medics in 80s pop history, and they deserve to be remembered with just a little more affection than as rubbish goths.

  22. 22
    Izzy on 25 Nov 2009 #

    This gave me a deal of pleasure as a kiddie, and I’m none too happy about its poor reception here. It’s got a good stomping beat, although I do wish it was a little faster, and I like the delayed guitar after the chorus. The video too, cheap as chips but zebra stripes are always nice to look at and the cast of characters seem pleasant enough. It might be fluff, but it’s good fun.

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Pardon my ignorance but what’s the third hit version of the song beside Norm Greenbaum and this one?

  24. 24
    dickvandyke on 25 Nov 2009 #

    Gareth Gates (Bradford’s finest singer – except for Kiki Dee, Tasmin Archer, Smokie etc) had a No 1 Lee about 6 or 7 years ago for Red Nose Day. You were busy Lee with a Soul blog!

  25. 25
    TomLane on 26 Nov 2009 #

    I was surprised to see this got to #69 in the U.S. And I do remember this version. Probably saw the video once or twice here in the States (hey I have a good memory). Nothing to hate here, I’ll give it a high 4. Norman Greenbaum’s version peaked at #3 in 1970 on the U.S. Billboard chart. It was his only Top 40 entry.

  26. 26
    taDOW on 26 Nov 2009 #

    I can remember Mtv somewhat trying to break it that summer (in the US), along w/ the “Howard the Duck” theme. The forgotten mideighties. That summer was all about Run-DMC though. Bizarrely I thought I vaguely knew “Burn” but what I was thinking of was their cover of “Burning Love”, from the soundtrack to Love at Stake (working title “Burnin Love”), an Airplane! style spoof on the Salem Witch Trials starring Bud Cort, Dave Thomas, Kelly Preston, and the immortal Anne Ramsey.

  27. 27
    Abe Fruman on 26 Nov 2009 #

    “and they deserve to be remembered with just a little more affection than as rubbish goths.”

    I’ll take your word on it, but must agree that that is a truly awful, if not tautological, way to be remembered.

  28. 28
    wichita lineman on 26 Nov 2009 #

    I remember going to see Acton freakbeat legends The Eyes play a one-off at Alice In Wonderland in 1984. They didn’t turn up, but Dr & The Medics played. Even their psych turn was decidedly tongue in cheek, but the Doctor’s dj set was something else – first time I heard Buzz Saw by The Turtles which blew my tiny mind.

    Back then, reunions were very rare. I couldn’t imagine how The Eyes would look – aged, office workers, I presumed. Thinking back, they’d have only been in their mid to late thirties.

    Holding Back The Years was a cover of sorts – Mick Hucknall had recorded it as a single with his previous group The Frantic Elevators. The cover featured ‘Simply Mick’ with a revolver in his mouth. Add your own punchline.

  29. 29
    Mark M on 26 Nov 2009 #

    Re 21: Thanks for that – I had vague memories of knowing about Doctor and the Medics before Spirit In The Sky, but that’s clarified that. The depths of my mind I now recall the fact that that scene also had it’s own shop, Planet Alice, which was at the unfashionable end of Portobello Road, somewhere along what is now the stretch between Honest Jon’s and Falafel King.

  30. 30
    MikeMCSG on 26 Nov 2009 #

    Mention of “Holding Back The Years” reminds me how much Simply Red struggled to follow up “Money’s Too Tight”. It was first released at the tail end of 85 and like two other singles from the first LP it failed to crack the Top 40. It was only when it went stellar in the US that we apparently decided they were a good group after all. Although I liked the song (still do) it did vaguely worry me that we seemed to be waiting for a lead from the Yanks (or worse,Jonathan King !!!) before deciding on a group’s merit after years of smug immunity from the likes of Grand Funk Railroad and Journey. Maybe Matt Johnson picked up on this in the soon-to-come “Heartland”‘s coda “This is the 51st state of the USA”.

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page