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45 at 33: Doctor And The Medics’ Spirit In The Sky

“I had a conversation on the radio with Norman Greenbaum. He had been managing a hamburger bar and got the sack because of all these phone calls asking how he felt about the song being a hit again. His bosses said, “If you’re such a big star, you don’t need to be working here.” We had a lot of fun and partied all around the world. After our second LP, we broke up. I tell people I’m a multi-millionaire but we didn’t make much. Steve McGuire went on to work as production manager for Badly Drawn Boy, and a few years ago I put a new version of the band together. We do 100 shows a year. Until Gareth Gates had a hit with Spirit, everyone said it was the only record to have been number one by two one-hit wonders, ourselves and Greenbaum.” – Clive Jackson

Every year has its flukes but 1986 seemed chock schlock full of ’em: comedy novelty records galore taking over the top of the British charts, from Cliff and The Young Ones to Falco and The Chicken Song. 

Doctor And The Medics were one of the more passable ones – virtual unknowns before and since: amiable, absurdist psych revivalists scoring a massive international hit with a carefully unreconstructed cover of one of the greatest god-rock bubblegum hits of all time, Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 No. 1, Spirit In The Sky. 

The shredded beef guitars that open the famous riff were actually simultaneously fun, visceral, and welcome – indeed, it seemed like a good long while since rockiness types could celebrate something with ‘proper’ guitars in pole position.

Looking like Oxfam’s answer to The Damned or Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the Medics turn Spirit In The Sky into a glam stomper at the expense of its campfire witchiness, closing the gap between ’70 and ’73 to produce a mulch of hand-me-down seventiesness.

Indeed, I remember the track coming up for discussion one day at Bletchley Park college, and with my history book rarely staying on the shelf, I piped up “It sounds like a T. Rex rip-off to me.”

Our lecturer Alex Ward, who was certainly of the right vintage to remember Marc Bolan and co in their heyday, looked incredulous and snorted, “What do you know about T. Rex, Steven?!”

Well, it made a change from him calling my Simon when he felt like it, I suppose. Either way, 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 will always be a great song, even with ole hairy bum Gareth Gates tried to desecrate it for a spot of karaoke with The Kumars.

If you stick to the script you’ll end up with a reasonably decent cover, even if everything is pitched on the same trebly level, above all those bargain basement synths standing in for a horn section.

There is scant bend or flow in the record. Dynamics are in short supply, and the impression is that progression from this world to the next is a task equivalent to visiting the laundrette.

As the song continues, you start to zoom in on the biscuit tin drums and particularly the Doctor’s polite, diffident voice, powered along by his giant-haired visual hook – part Arthur Brown, part Roy Wood, all pop panto. 

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. The Medics were primarily a covers band, but their subsequent rejigs of ABBA’s Waterloo (featuring Roy Wood? Oh, that’s original) and Elvis’s Burning Love hardly set the charts alight. Ironically, the only time they registered something in the lower reaches was with something called Burn.

Still it’s not all bad. Occupying the top spot for three weeks in June 1986 meant they kept Simply Red from No. 1. See, there is a god after all.

Say g’night to the folks, Gracie.

Steve Pafford

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