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“Take Off to Acid Rock”: The psychedelic flashback of Dr. and the Medics’s 1986 hit “Spirit in the Sky”
“The original catalytic agent faded away,” Pat Prescott tells us in the beginning of Night Flight’s “Take Off to Acid Rock” — which originally aired on September 16, 1988 — “… but the sights and sounds are making a major flashblack for the Eighties.” One of the artists featured in this acid-drenched episode were “the loonie British band” Dr. and the Medics, who Prescott says “repay their debt to the Sixties with a cosmic rendering of Norman Greenbaum’s classic ‘Spirit in the Sky’.” Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.
The Reverend Dr. Clive Thomas Jackson — born at Knotty Ash Hospital in Liverpool, England, on July 7, 1961 — has told interviewers he first discovered the power of music through listening to Hawkwind albums in the 1970s, which launched him on what he has often called his “special journey.”
However, it was as an audience member, at an X-ray Spex gig at London’s Marquee club in 1977 (followed the next week by an Iggy Pop concert), that “everything clicked into place,” and from that point on, he realized “there were no rules, no limits to what can be achived in a performance if you give it everything you have got.”
The natural-born stage performer wasn’t yet a singer, and he didn’t know how to play any instruments, but he knew music, and so he became a deejay, and created a stage moniker for himself that would supplant his real name: Doctor.
He’d first spun records at at a psychedelic club called The Clinic, before ultimately ending up in a venue in a Soho basement called Gossips, where a Monday night club night sprung into existence, called Alice in Wonderland.
There, Clive/Doctor played 60s rock hits mixed in with 60s garage and psychedelia (Stones, Doors, Pink Floyd, Stooges, etc.), 70s glam and space rock and bubblegum pop (the Sweet, Bowie, Hawkwind, etc.), mixed in with the then more recent punk and goth hits by bands like the Cult, the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Alice in Wonderland’s Monday night clientel dressed up whenever they went to the club — apparently this means lots of brocade jackets, crushed purple velvet, black jade beads, and silver trinkets — with the boys and girls both wearing makeup and sporting Aqua-Netted big hair, tight trousers/short skirts, and pointy boots.
The Doctor devised kabuki-inspired makeup for himself that had his face, all chalky white with elaborte eyebrows looking something like a cross between the Joker from “Batman” and Gene Simmons of KISS.
Some of the bands who played regular Monday night gigs were local outfirts like the Herbs, Ring of Roses, the Perfect Disaster, the Surfin’ Lungs.
There were other bands who were occasionally booked, like the first London-area gig by Jesus & Mary Chain, who went on to have a much bigger profile despite the fact that at Alice in Wonderland the club’s sound man pulled the plug on their amps after ten minutes and club co-owner Christian Paris and the Doctor carried them off the stage.
Other early 80s acts who made an appearance at Gossips include the Cult, the Damned and the Mission UK.
In 1981, when Doctor was told that an opening act was needed for an upcoming gig at Gossips, he bet a friend of his that he wouldn’t be able to form a band in two weeks.
The good Doctor won that bet, even writing two original songs himself and dubbing the newly formed one-off band who would play mostly covers — Steve McGuire (guitar), Richard Searle (bass), and Andrew McLachlan (drums), later to be replaced by Steve Ritchie (aka “Vom”) — “Doctor and the Medics.”
Doctor and the Medics enjoyed the experience so much that they stayed together and eventually became the club’s house band, covering lots of Sixties psychedelic-tinged tunes including joke-filled originals, such as “Ride the Beetle” (the audience would throw themselves down on the club floor and wriggle like upside-down beetles for that one), “The Goats Are Trying To Kill Me,” “The Druids Are Here,” and “Love, Peace and Bananas.”
The band also featured “The Anadin Brothers,” who were all female, featured on backing vocals and dance routines for the live performances.
Originally there were three Anadin Brothers, but this was soon whittled down to Wendi Anadin aka Wendi West (Clive’s partner then, now his wife) and a girl named Sue, later replaced by Colette Anadin aka Colette Appleby.
By 1986 the lineup would also feature Andy Higgins, who were credited as “Chief Badger.”
Wendi West was also responsible for Doctor (sometimes abbreviated Dr.) and the Medics’ costumes and wigs, which became more and more outrageous as their popularity grew, which it did; ultimately the house band’s sets drew their own fans, who got into the action themselves by painting up their faces and dressing up outrageously in garish 60s psychedelic accoutrements whilst singing along with the band’s wonderfully inane lyrics.
Dr. and the Medics subsequently pressed up a single themselves — on Whaam! Records — which featured two originals (“The Goats Are Trying To Kill Me” and “The Druids Are Here”).
Dr. and the Medics eventually toured around England, building their fanbase at small clubs, and soon they were being hailed as part of “new” psychedelic scene along with bands like Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction.
Back home at Alice in Wonderland, they even spun off an alter-ego band, Bad Acid and the Spooks — featuring additional guitar assistance from the Damned’s Roman Jugg, and Gossips club co-owner Christian Paris and his brother Julian on saxophones — who would play on special occasions (which often meant a quickly thrown-together set when the band that was booked for the night failed to show up).
If you’d like to read more about this wild club scene, do yourself a favor and check out Christian Paris’s A Pretty Smart Way to Catch a Lobster (the Alice in Wonderland Years), described on this Amazon page thusly:
“Christian’s warmly-told story is the proverbial rollercoaster, packed with often hilarious anecdotes, messy excess, famous faces and events such as Jesus And Mary Chain’s first London club appearance. It’s got its share of downers too, such as the ill-fated opening of a Planet Alice in Hollywood, with Ringo Starr’s daughter. Now still running successful businesses, Paris beautifully revisits a never-to-be-repeated time when London’s underground community teemed with party fiends such as the Alien Green Jelly Girl and Sex Bitch Goddesses; a madcap DJ could top the charts; and, though paisley replaced safety pins, punk’s DIY spirit was alive and well enough to manifest again in this wonderful book.”
The often gullible UK music press began to write about this scene as if were an explosive new English music scene despite the fact that it was entirely self-created, and self-promoted, by the bands themselves.
Doctor on the cover of the UK’s Sounds, May 1986
These music scribes — always desperately seemed to be looking for the “next” movement to arise, often fanning what were possibly imaginary flames in order that the movement itself might catch fire — were soon writing about a “Sixties psychedelic revival” that may or may not have been ablaze by the mid-80s, although it was clear they were lumping more established touring bands like the Cult, Gene Loves Jezebel and others together with the more obviously cartoon-ish novelty acts who were prancing about in makeup and elaborate costumes, bands like Dr. and the Medics (they were called “comedy hippies” by one writer with an appropriate sense of humor).
In 1984, Dr. and the Medics released as self-pressed EP titled Live at Alice in Wonderland, despite the fact that it wasn’t recorded live at the club at all; the tracks featured audience cheering from a U2 live recording. The release featured “The Goats Are Trying To Kill Me” and three more originals.
In 1985, the band released a five-track EP, Happy but Twisted which came with a Dr. and the Medics fanzine called Medication and featured the band’s cover of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine.”
The EP was released on Illegal Records, founded by Miles Copeland III with his younger brother Stewart (of the Police) along with the Police’s manager, Paul Mulligan. It reached #2 on the indie charts.
This was followed by a single, “The Miracle of the Age,” produced by Andy Partridge of XTC and released by I.R.S. Records in the UK and Europe, which featured the “bedtime version” b-side of another club favorite of theirs, “I Don’t Want To Be Alone With You”).
It was their 1986 single — a cover of Norman Greenbaum’s massive sixties hit “Spirit in the Sky — that would launch them oh so briefly into that rare stratosphere that few bands ever reach.
Greenbaum’s hit — originally recorded and released in late 1969 — charged up the charts on its way to becoming a massive 60s hit which is still performed today (it’s likely that you’ve heard the song on hundreds of TV commercials, TV programs and lots of Hollywood movies, including Apollo 13, Ocean’s 11, Forrest Gump, and Wayne’s World II, to name just a few of the many).
The original hit reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1970, and lasted on the charts for fifteen weeks. It was also #1 in the UK, Australia and Canada.
The distinctive fuzz guitar riff — easily one of the most instantly recognizable in modern rock — was difficult to create, as Greenbaum didn’t use a fuzz box with a pedal; a friend had built the fuzz sound directly into the body of Greenbaum’s Telecaster guitar, an overdrive circuit stuck inside a hole in the guitar with an accompanying on-off switch and a small battery.
The guitar’s output sound was then run through a vintage Fender Twin Reverb tube amp.
Greenbaum — previously a member of the psychedelic jug band Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band — didn’t use a pick either, he used his fingers on the strings, plucking away.
The haunting spaced-out “beep, beep” sounds at the beginning of the track were created on a different guitar, a ’61-’62 SG Les Paul, with its signal driven through a 1968 Marshall Plexi 100-watt half-stack amp and a home-made overdrive box in front of the Marshall.
A lot of the song’s credit must also be given to Greenbaum’s producer, Eric Jacobsen (of the Lovin’ Spoonful), who had helped his friend Norman land a recording deal with Warner Bros. Records.
We have no doubt that its memorable production — which features hand claps, tambourines, booming drums and the inclusion of the Stoval Sisters, an Oakland-based gospel trio, singing backup vocals — is mostly due to Jacobsen’s prodigious talents behind the boards.
The lyrics — which talk about a trip to heaven to meet up with a “spirit guide” — were reportedly inspired by Greenbaum’s love for TV westerns, and conflicts between Cowboys and Indians. Greenbaum had come across a Hopi Indian greeting card that had a totem and a “spirit in the sky” depicted on the cover.
The lyrics were also partially inspired by country singer Porter Wagoner’s 1968 gospel-rich tune, “Pastor’s Absent on Vacation,” which talks about an old churchgoers tale of hard travels to make it to his house of worship only to find a sign on the front door saying that the church was closed.
Wagoner sings: “Jesus absent on vacation/Heaven closed till his return…” while the old man wonders aloud if Satan ever takes a holiday.
The single spawned dozens (possibly hundreds by now) of cover versions, notably those by Elton John (recording the song in 1969), the Blind Boys of Alabama — who recorded the track with Charlie Musselwhite on harp — and William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame, who recorded it more recently, on his 2011 release, Seeking Major Tom.
In 1983, Bauhaus covered “Spirit in the Sky” on their single “Sanity Assassin.”
Dr. and the Medics “Spirit in the Sky” single — which is practically a note-for-note copy — climbed to #1 in twenty-three countries around the world in 1986, including the United Kingdom, selling 24 million copies, and by some stroke of luck or genius or both, it kept the late George Michael‘s Wham! off the #1 spot for three weeks.
New Musical Express hailed Dr. and the Medics as “THE live band of the year.”
Dr. and the Medics’s debut album, Laughing At The Pieces (I.R.S. Records, 1986)
The music video which we’re featuring in our “Take Off to Acid Rock” was directed by Steve Lenhoff for Electric Rainbow Productions.
After the massive success of Dr. and the Medics’ “Spirit in the Sky” the band had some additional success in 1986 with “Burn” (not the Deep Purple song), which charted at #29 on the UK Singles Chart, effectively eliminating the band from the “one hit wonder” club, as they would have two – count ‘em — hits, not just the one, although no one seems to remember that particular musical factoid these days.
They also recorded a cover of ABBA’s “Waterloo,” with Roy Wood on saxophone, backing vocals and in the video, before the original lineup disbanded.
Clive Jackson kept the band going, however, forming his own record label, Madman Records, in the 90s, releasing Instant Heaven in 1996.
Today, Dr. and the Medics are still performing, with a different line-up, as a tribute act to various 60s artists.