One-hit wonders

(Picture: Thunderclap Newman with (sort of) band member Pete Townshend)

In music, there are, of course, those who have hit after hit after hit. Elvis, The Beatles, The Eagles, etc. And then there are the other guys (and gals) who manage to scale the heights once, give us a cool tune, then fall back into obscurity.

Case in point: Norman Greenbaum from Malden, Massachusetts (5 miles north of Boston). Now, old Norm actually had a few other hits such as “Canned Ham,” which you may or may not recall. But if you’ve never heard “Spirit in the Sky,” then you’ve been living in a cave for many years.  The song has been used in so many movies and commercials, Norman doesn’t have to do much else these days.

Greenbaum, an observant Jew, talks about the germination of the song:

“If you ask me what I based “Spirit In The Sky” on … what did we grow up watching? Westerns! These mean and nasty varmints get shot and they wanted to die with their boots on. So to me, that was spiritual, they wanted to die with their boots on.

It wasn’t like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important, it wasn’t the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky. Funny enough … I wanted to die with my boots on.”

Spotify link

Wikipedia: Thunderclap Newman was a British rock band that Pete Townshend and manager Kit Lambert formed in 1969 in a bid to showcase the talents of John “Speedy” Keen, Jimmy McCulloch, and Andy “Thunderclap” Newman. Townshend (using the alias “Bijou Drains”) played bass guitar on their album and singles, all of which he had recorded and produced at the IBC Studio and his Twickenham home studio.

There was no real expectation of a hit with their song, “Something in the Air,” but a hit it was, enabling them to tour (even supporting Deep Purple), and record an album or two. If you recognize Jimmy McCulloch’s name, he went on to play guitar with a variety of people, most notably Paul McCartney. He played on Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound, before succumbing to a drug overdose at the age of 26. (Alas, the only one still with us from that picture is Townshend.)

I am posting only the YouTube version of “Something in the Air” as the Spotify version is clearly a remake and it loses all the falsetto charm of the single, (Keen both wrote and sings the song.)

Ever hear of Andy Pratt? A Boston-born singer/songwriter, he apparently is still out there doing his thing. But his hit was called “Avenging Annie,” and, weirdly, there are elements of stuff that relate to the other songs. Like “Something in the Air,” it’s sung in falsetto. Like “Spirit in the Sky,” it was inspired by Western elements. And then the song was also recorded later by Roger Daltrey.* And two of the artists are from Boston. Exactly none of this was apparent to me when I put these three songs together.

“I wrote ‘Avenging Annie’ in the summer of 1972 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at my mother’s 1926 Steinway B Baby Grand piano,” Pratt explains.  “I had broken up with my first wife, and I was stoned on marijuana. On my turntable was the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, particularly the Woody Guthrie song ‘Pretty Boy Floyd.’

“You can clearly hear that the first part of ‘Avenging Annie’ is an altered version of ‘Pretty Boy Floyd,’” he adds. “I was going into a creative trance, and I altered Woody’s words. Then out came a Bach-like piano riff which I liked, so I began singing to it in falsetto, taking the part of a woman I called Avenging Annie. A whole story came out, which was a fantasy version of my relationship with my ex-wife, combined with the outlaw theme of the American West.”

Spotify link

*Avenging Annie was released as the B-side of a Columbia records promotional version of “Blinded By the Light.” Interestingly, I long ago had a promotional record of “Blinded,” (one of those bendy ones) and I wonder if that was the one.

 

 

 

34 thoughts on “One-hit wonders

  1. That Thunderclap Newman song was obviously the template for a large portion of Paul Weller’s post Jam solo output.
    Speaking of one-hit wonders, have you ever heard this song? It certainly fits my personal definition of the phrase.

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    1. I’ll take your word for it on Weller as I don’t know much of his post-Jam work. As to the Voyager song, don’t recognize it at all. I looked it up and it appears to have been a UK hit. I’m always amazed at how different the UK and US charts are and always have been.

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  2. Yeah the the ‘Newman’ song was a surprise back when, then I heard Townshend was part of it. You can here his influence all over it. I think he was using Entwistle as his model for the bass. Was the “varment” quote you or Norman? I like it. Funny on the ‘Annie cut. When I first seen the title in your post, I’m thinking where do i know that song?. Then you provided the answer. I have it on A Daltrey solo album. never heard the original

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    1. ‘Varmint’ was Greenbaum. You’re not the only Western fan it seems. As to Entwhistle, boy it’d be tough to touch him on bass. As to Annie, funny but I read about the Daltrey version, never heard it.

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      1. I have most of Daltrey’s solo stuff, uneven but worth a listen. A newer one that’s good is him and Wilko Johnson ‘Going Back Home. I think it would be a Doc type listen.
        The Gal doesn’t know it yet but she’s watching a duster tonight thanks of you.

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        1. Believe it or not, I never heard of Wilko Johnson till about a month ago in a book I was reading on pop music. (More later on that.) He had no impact here at all that I’m aware of. As to a Western, when’s the last time you watched ‘Unforgiven’?

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        2. You sent me off on a ‘Wilko” vein with your post. I listened to the Daltrey/Wilko on Spotify and I’m off into all sorts of good stuff. WJ is playing as I type, ‘Paradise’. Yeah i discovered him when I found Graham Parker and the Rumor along with Brinsley Schwarz. All that English pub scene. See what you did with your one hit wonders.
          Watched it again a year ago or so. I had given up on old Clint and it took me a long time to get to ‘Unforgiven’. He nailed it on the film. Hackman was great. I had a couple buddies who were in it.

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        3. Hey, that’s cool regarding your buddies and the film. I found Hackman to be so sadistic and mean in that film where he beats Richard Harris that it’s really tough to watch. Good film, though. I think that while he can sometimes churn out the good flick, like Woody Allen, Clint’s best days are behind him.

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        4. That is brutal in that scene. A discussion for another take. I haven’t watched a Clint movie since ‘Mystic River’. One hit wonders is a good topic. I get a kick out of it because so some called “One Hit wonders” have a pretty good body of work.
          (Wind River tonight on the flick night. You heard of it Comes recommended so CB is strapping in. I sent a thank you in the email for the review).

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    1. I’m impressed. I don’t know anybody who even remembers the guy. And if they recall “Avenging Annie,” could not tell you who did it. I did a little research and he still seems to be playing, although not exactly A-list clubs. And his Facebook page has a picture of what appears to be an album cover that says, “Do You Remember Me?” Ah, the pop life. It’s a rough one.

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      1. I like the album – piano playing 1970s singer-songwriter is always going to get Elton John comparisons, but it’s nice. You can see why he’s not remembered though – just so much music out there, someone with a minor hit and a solid album or two isn’t going to be remembered.

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  3. I really like Spirit in the Sky. Always have done. I remember the first time hearing it and loving that guitar sound.

    I was thinking that I’d never heard the other two tunes, but listening to Thunderclap Newman I realise that I have (of course, I have! Who hasn’t?)… definitely never heard Pratt, though.

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  4. I recognize the falsetto break in “Avenging Annie” (it’s been a long time!). The piano reminds me a little of Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack” or “Piano Man.” And “Something in the Air” I’ve always loved. Great melody, with a magical touch of hippie naivety and optimism.

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    1. Yeah, “Something in the Air” was really a product of its time. If a song had the word ‘revolution’ in it, we were all over it. I had to abandon the first YouTube video I tried to use as some yo-yo tracked it to a bunch of UFO videos. Listen to the lyrics, people.

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  5. What strange logic there is in “I had to use Christianity because I had to use something.” Oh well, I hadn’t know he was Jewish which, given the name (think Peter Greenbaum who became Peter Green, for starters), seems fairly obvious now. I am now thinking back to a boyfriend I had at the time (1970?) who hated Spirit in the Sky, with a vengeance, because he thought it was ‘religious and Christian’. I loved the song – in a way, still do. Just catchy and boppy!

    Never liked Something in the Air or Thunderclap Newman.

    There were certainly a lot of one-hit wonders… many of which I enjoyed and still do.

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    1. Yeah, it doesn’t seem like Greenbaum’s commitment to what he was singing was very firm. Like you said, catchy, great riff. I was watching “Apollo 13” movie the other day on the tube. At one point – before the thing conks out on them – one of the astronauts plays “Spirit in the Sky” back to earth. That leads to one of the Houston guys saying he’s going to “play all his Johnny Cash.” Love it. Anyway, welcome to my corner of the blogosphere.

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