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Shorthand for a long-gone era, groovy religion and journeys into space
May 30, 2014 9:47 PM   Subscribe

Norman Greenbaum discusses the creation and ongoing popularity of 'Spirit in the Sky'
posted by paleyellowwithorange (50 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Read TFA and immediately told my husband not to use the song at my memorial service.
posted by immlass at 9:55 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Weird that they didn't really go into the Doctor and the Medics '80's cover, which was (sadly) my intro into the song, in my teenage highschool neo-psychedelia phase.
Terrible cover, but it was everywhere at the time. #1 in the UK, I think. I still have the 12".
I very quickly learned of the original, superior version with it's kickass fuzz quitar and handclaps and never looked back.
Oh, youth.
posted by chococat at 10:28 PM on May 30 [9 favorites]


This is one of those songs I love when I hear it, and then I start listening to the lyrics and feel kind of gross.

The album was released in October 1969, but the single came out in early 1970, It got quite a bit of airplay, especially in L.A.

If this is the song in the closing credits of the Mad Men series finale I will be so made.
posted by Sara C. at 10:38 PM on May 30 [6 favorites]


Uggghhhhhhhh I meant mad, and missed the edit window.
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Quite enjoyed the article. It's nice to read about someone putting a hit together, and actually realizing the benefits. I'm a little confused how this song comes out of listening to Porter Wagoner, though. I vaguely recall having seen that show while channel surfing as a kid (and wondering why he rated a show, but that's another issue).

Can't say the song is a favorite, but it's not one I'd tune away from. I do like the feel quite well.
posted by Goofyy at 11:57 PM on May 30


I'm a little confused how this song comes out of listening to Porter Wagoner, though.
"Partway into his show he would do a gospel song and this idea hit me: Maybe that’s what I need to do. So I did. Country gospel is basically what I’m trying to say."
posted by edgeways at 12:27 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


Pardon me, but do you have a moment to talk about our Lord Rocket Raccoon?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:33 AM on May 31 [18 favorites]


This song really made a great bookend to Miami Blues, which is of course Alec Baldwin's finest work.
posted by planetesimal at 12:33 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


I don't think anyone, including Norm Greenbaum himself, will ever be able to explain its ongoing popularity, because what makes that song cool is a couple of guitar riffs that can't be conveyed in words, or even adequately described in standard musical notation.

The first riff is at the beginning. You've got to listen to it. And to really understand it, you've got to listen to it looped.

In a notation system which I have just invented for this comment, the first riff goes like this:

----  -- -- -- -- --   ---/\\/-- ----  -- -- --

which is roughly the shape of a heartbeat.

The second riff loops like this. It continues the heartbeat, but hits a high note before the song fades out.

That's the "Spirit in the Sky".
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:00 AM on May 31 [20 favorites]


And then, 4 years later, ZZ Top goes on to use pretty much the same guitar riff in a song about a Texas brothel. Greenbaum comments on that, as well as a mysterious visit from Ted Nugent, in this interview that's pretty interesting.
posted by TedW at 4:01 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


Heh, twoleftfeet hadn't posted when I made my comment, but it ended up being a nice segue.
posted by TedW at 4:02 AM on May 31


i've got the original vinyl album and it's quite good, with a variety of styles - no other fuzz rock gospel songs - someone should get around to covering "junior cadillac" - it's certainly not one of those one hit wonder and a lot of filler albums
posted by pyramid termite at 4:04 AM on May 31


I've always like the sound of it, but ignore the lyrics as much as possible. I'd probably enjoy ZZ Top's brothel song more. What's its name?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:21 AM on May 31


The article mentions that Greenbaum was previously a member of Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band which was a psychedelic jug band.

Whatever happened to psychedelic jug bands?

Granted, Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band only had one "hit", Eggplant That Ate Chicago, (mentioned in the article), and to my ears it would be hard to listen to that song more than once, especially on psychedelics. But that shouldn't condemn the whole genre of psychedelic jug bands, should it?

No way! Not when you've got the 13th Floor Elevators.

Psychedelic jug bands could make a comeback any day now.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:37 AM on May 31 [6 favorites]


Kirth Gerson, that would be their song about the Chicken Ranch (AKA The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), located in a shack outside LaGrange.
posted by TedW at 4:54 AM on May 31


Some part of my brain feels like music should always sound like this. I mean, I like other stuff too. But this, very much.

I'm surprised to hear people are so creeped out by the lyrics. I mean, I'm pretty damn secular humanist over here, but these lyrics just seem like rather standard, inoffensive gospel stuff to me... and it doesn't sound like it was even sincerely Jesus-y, Greenbaum was just kind of writing gospel stuff to see if he could.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:06 AM on May 31 [8 favorites]


A while ago, Greenbaum talked with Film Threat about a proto-music video for "Spirit in the Sky".
posted by pxe2000 at 5:36 AM on May 31


When we did roller skating in phys ed in high school, apparently "Spirit in the Sky" was the only song in the roller rink's entire catalog that had the appropriate meter for the Two Step, so we had to skate to it about three times every session. It lost all meaning through repetition—which is all to the good, really.
posted by BrashTech at 5:41 AM on May 31


The opening riff always, always, always makes me wonder which George Thorogood song it is.

Then the singing starts and I change the radio station.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:42 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


The guitar tone on that song made a big impression on me as beginning guitar player and I suspect a whole bunch of others.
posted by tommasz at 5:43 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised to hear people are so creeped out by the lyrics. I mean, I'm pretty damn secular humanist over here, but these lyrics just seem like rather standard, inoffensive gospel stuff to me

The crucial line is "Never been a sinner, I never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus" which will annoy non-Christians by being smug and preachy, and annoy Christians by going against the whole basis of their religion.
posted by kersplunk at 6:39 AM on May 31 [15 favorites]


I always associate Spirit in the Sky with Little Green Bag (more because of Greenbaum than anything else). But Man, that was one era of pop music.
posted by sneebler at 7:10 AM on May 31


The crucial line is "Never been a sinner, I never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus"

I was eight when "Spirit In The Sky" came out, so (as with many other songs I heard on the radio about the same time, such as "My Ding-A-Ling" and "Lola"), I just sang along and didn't think at all about the lyrics until years later. When I finally did, this line stood out, but I found it charming in its goofy cluelessness.
posted by ogooglebar at 8:03 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


Spiritualized and Spacemen 3 owe their entire careers to this song. That's just about the highest praise I can think of giving to one piece of pop music.

It makes me happy to know that Greenbaum used the lyrics as a self aware cultural reference, the song is so original and clever that I'd always suspected as much. I'm also really happy that he's been able to reap the commercial rewards over the years and is living a comfortable aging hippie existence in Northern California. See, the music industry system of royalties and copyright control works!
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:22 AM on May 31 [3 favorites]


I'm a pretty hard core atheist, and find the lyrics about as inoffensive or non-creepy as any gospel song or late 60s/early 70s song. If anything, they seem pretty hippie-dippy in their religiosity. Unusual for a pop song of its time, and unconventional as a gospel song, sure. But smug and preachy, no, not at all.

As mentioned, the song has a good hook, distinctive, prominent and simple. I don't know it's as good as all that, being picked up for movies regularly, and still getting air play.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:25 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


Huh, to me, these lyrics have always been blatantly laced with biting sarcasm. Wouldn't have occurred to me to take it seriously.
posted by scrowdid at 8:27 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


these lyrics just seem like rather standard, inoffensive gospel stuff to me

Yeah, kersplunk has it. The lyrics are so fucking smug. Not just that lyric, either. The whole thing is along those lines. I mean, even the Jesus parts aren't, like, Jesus was awesome, or I trust Jesus, it's "I've got a friend in Jesus", which sounds like some kind of celebrity plus one situation. It's very me-me-me, I'm so great, I'm perfect, I'm the best. Also, since the lyrics are very repetitive, it's just vapid and self-satisfied and obnoxious.

Also, I get the two-fer, since I grew up in a pretty devout (mainline Protestant) Christian family and just about everything about the religious aspect of this song is like the OPPOSITE of what Christianity teaches.

I think I'd respect it more if it were a real gospel song set to that riff, or some kind of fledgling Christian rock. As it stands it's just poseurish and misses the point entirely.
posted by Sara C. at 8:31 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


The crucial line is "Never been a sinner, I never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus" which will annoy non-Christians by being smug and preachy, and annoy Christians by going against the whole basis of their religion.

He actually thought that was the way it worked, though. Like, he's Jewish? So he doesn't actually have a friend in Jesus. But he thinks Porter Wagoner might claim to.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:07 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


chococat: Weird that they didn't really go into the Doctor and the Medics '80's cover

Really! That's the missing link behind the entire history of the song. The article makes it sound like "Spirit In The Sky" just started re-appearing in movies and TV shows for some unexplained reason. The Doctor And The Medics version was huge, played over and over on MTV, and sounded weirdly compelling, like nothing else on the air in the mid-'80s. That's what put the tune back in people's heads and led to its prolific re-use.

It's interesting how the song's detractors and its fans point to the same reason for their reactions -- as an evangelical Christian song written by a hippie Jew, it's an exercise in form but the content is off-kilter. (For another example from the same period, check out Roy Wood's "Songs Of Praise".) It's like all that blues-rock that came out of the '60s, written by English boys who didn't understand anything of what they were hearing but who were desperately in love with the sound of the Blues.

"Spirit In The Sky" is the Prisencolinensinainciusol of Gospel.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:08 AM on May 31 [11 favorites]


So he doesn't actually have a friend in Jesus.

Or maybe he does, I don't know, Jesus is supposed to be a friendly guy
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:14 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


Jeez, c'mon Metafilter, where's the hate? To me, this song is as annoying and pretentious as "In the Year 2525," and I hated the songs the first time I heard them as much as I do all these decades later.
posted by kozad at 9:17 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


Awwwwww, I kinda love "In The Year 2525", though I have never bothered to listen to the lyrics. So maybe I will go to YouTube right now and learn to hate it.
posted by Sara C. at 9:18 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


If this is the song in the closing credits of the Mad Men series finale I will be so made.

Billboard top 100 singles of 1970 if you want to explore possibilities.

I'm thinking Raindrops keep falling on my head. (isn't it automatic that it has to be slow tempo and sunny? (there are a lot of candidates.))
posted by bukvich at 9:21 AM on May 31


I remember reading an interview at the time with Dr of Dr And The Medics (it was probably in Smash Hits) where he said that the producer of one TV appearance got jittery about the "I've got a friend in Jesus" line. So he changed it to "I've got a friend in Brighton".

Which would be a version I'd like to hear. Were it not for the Dr And The Medics version being such a soulless cover-by-numbers.
posted by Devonian at 9:28 AM on May 31


In The Year 2525 has lyrics?
posted by sneebler at 9:49 AM on May 31


The lyrics aren't that bad, they just need updating:
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna merge with the code that's the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin' up to the computer in the sky

Goin' up to the computer in the sky
That's where my bits will go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna merge with the code that's the best

Prepare yourself, you know it's a must
Gotta have a friend in Atkins(?)
So you know that when you die
He's gonna upload you to the computer in the sky

Gonna upload you to the computer in the sky
That's where you're gonna go when you die
When you die and they lay you to rest
You're gonna merge with the code that's the best

Never been a doubter(?), I never doubted(?)
I got a friend in Atkins(?)
So you know that when I die
He's gonna set me up in the computer in the sky

Oh, set me up in the computer in the sky
That's where I'm gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
I'm gonna merge with the code that's the best

Merge with the code that's the best
fixed it.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:05 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


Good humble pull quote from TFA RE: ZZ Top:

Ray: I’ve got to ask, I always wondered about the similarities of ZZ Top’s, “La Grange” guitar riff compared to, “Spirit In The Sky.” Do you think that was just a coincidence?

Norman:“It’s interesting when you pull apart those beats between Canned Heat (“On the Road Again”), me, and ZZ Top, they’re very similar yet it’s different enough to be different. I think we all just ripped off the old guys from the 1920’s who laid down this beat. If you go back and listen to all the black music from the 20’s you’ll probably recognize all of rock and roll. We all have our influences and there are just so many notes. But again, if you listen to, “Spirit In The Sky” there are notes in there that are way different and to the ordinary ear it may sound alike.”

posted by aydeejones at 10:13 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


John Lee Hooker was one of those old blues guys. There was even a lawsuit over the riff in La Grange.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:49 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


> "When I die and they lay me to rest"

Maybe at the end of Avengers 2... (spoiler)
posted by Fiberoptic Zebroid and The Hypnagogic Jerks at 1:27 PM on May 31


I remember getting an mp3 of this in the early days of file sharing.
It was attributed to Simon and Garfunkel.
For some reason, that misattribution has stuck with me for a long time.

They also didn't do "One Toke Over the Line". Sweet Jesus.
posted by mean square error at 1:38 PM on May 31 [2 favorites]


Billboard top 100 singles of 1970 if you want to explore possibilities.

ooh, looky, more fuzz gospel! (stay for the guitar solo, it's one of my favorites)
posted by pyramid termite at 1:43 PM on May 31 [1 favorite]


I think the lyrics are meant to be sardonic. And I look forward to hearing Riders in The Sky in a movie soon.
posted by Brocktoon at 2:22 PM on May 31


I'm going to agree with everyone else here about the somewhat questionable lyrics- some of you might be interested in the Strict Machine mashup.
posted by sandswipe at 4:08 PM on May 31


Jeez, c'mon Metafilter, where's the hate?

Well, I specifically came in here to say I fucking hate that song, so I got ya covered.
posted by Ickster at 4:15 PM on May 31 [3 favorites]


Thanks, sandswipe, from now on I'm just going to believe that the lyrics that go with that rad guitar riff are "Strict Machine", and stop worrying about it.
posted by Sara C. at 4:22 PM on May 31


Another option if you can't get enough of the riff is Goldfrapp's Ooh La La.
posted by asterix at 9:01 PM on May 31


To interpolate: I had a new roommate in 1991 who discovered that I played a little guitar. "Do you know 'Spirit in the Sky'?" was really the only question he asked me about my playing. I didn't but nowadays I could probably figure out the changes in a flat minute. I resist on religious grounds.
posted by telstar at 10:56 PM on May 31 [1 favorite]


If this is the song in the closing credits of the Mad Men series finale I will be so mad

Oh my god, this is totally going to be the song in the closing credits! Anyone want to put money on it?

And seriously folks, thanks for finding the lyrics so irritating. It's giving me a really good laugh...
posted by dry white toast at 11:09 PM on May 31 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite, haven't heard that in years, and it made me want to get up on stage and do a praise dance with a choir.
posted by dhartung at 12:15 PM on June 1


Some wise soul took this song, some Ray Charles, some ZZ Top, some Rock N Roll Part II and created what I strongly believe to be the best mashup of all time...
posted by gern at 1:56 PM on June 2


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