Listen to this track by college radio darlings and grunge-era forebears The Pixies. It’s “Monkey Gone To Heaven” , a single as taken from their seminal 1989 record Doolittle.
The song made impact on the alternative rock charts with a top ten showing. It scored well in the UK as well, with the NME praising it for, among other things, it’s integrated use of strings with rock instruments. It’s not as if this is the first time this arrangement was employed. But, it was a first for the Pixies, who’d otherwise traded on hard-edged instrumentation; guitar-bass-drums-shouting . Here, those elements are taken to another level in one of their best statements as a band.
The song seems to hold an apocalyptic vision, with oceans, skies, and burning planets right out of the book of revelation. Of course, the numerology section of man as five, the devil as six, and GOD AS SEVEN! helps to create that effect pretty handily all by itself.
But, I think this song is less about lofty cosmology, and more about issues that are far more down to earth.
Musically speaking, this song is unconventional in a Velvet Underground-esque vein, with more of a spoken word approach to the lyrics as intoned by singer and guitarist Black Francis (born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, no less) as opposed to a straight-ahead tune. What it does very well is to set up short cut images to a pretty well-traveled theme; civilization versus nature. In this song, the oceans are “killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey”, and a hole in the sky threatens to cause everything to burn.
This song captures the spirit of the times, during a period in history when holes in the ozone and environmental degradation in general were just beginning to enter into the public consciousness as a global issue. It was in the late ’80s when we all began to realize that the price of our lifestyles is actually pretty high where the natural world is concerned. That sense of fearfulness is certainly presented well here.
In this song, that terrible realization is presented as a song of the end of the world, and one with Biblical gravity thanks to the aforementioned numerology referenced in the final section of the song. Beyond that, what lies at the heart of “Monkey Gone To Heaven” are the big questions about our own origins, our relationship to the planet we live on, and what it means when those things are out of sync or forgotten entirely.
In the end and despite our vast technological achievements, this song asks: what is our place? How should civilization be balanced against the forces of the natural world? What are our responsibilities where striking that balance is concerned? Is it too late to change course and save ourselves? By the 21st century, in the era of Inconvenient Truths, these questions would remain to be pertinent.
The Pixies would create a template for a new crop of rock bands by the 1990s, with these new bands trading on the same ferocity and directness for which the Pixies were known. By the height of the grunge period, they were reaching the end of their run themselves. But, in 2004 and after solo careers, the band would re-unite, although original bassist/vocalist Kim Deal would leave the band in 2013. She was replaced first by Kim Shattuck who joined them on live appearances, and then by Paz Lenchantin.
You can catch up with The Pixies on Pixiesmusic.com.
And here’s a curiosity; David Bowie’s thoughts on The Pixies. When Bowie loves your band, you know you’ve got something.