(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.”
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.”
*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.