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. Read more
In some ways, the band hearkens back to the 1965-1968 garage band era, yet also captures some of the darkness of late 70s post-punk. This made them something of a throwback, and a welcome addition to early 80s college alternative radio in the modern era as well. It can be argued of course that it is the pursuit of that 60s sound which fueled college radio at that time, when the simplicity of garage rock was something of a touchstone for post-punk groups like the Fleshtones.
Yet, with this song in particular, it is something of a curious listen in the sense that it sounds entirely timeless, even if at the same time it is tied to a specific era. There is as much Joy Division in there as there is the rough-shod R&B influence of bands like the 13th Floor Elevators.
The result is a highly potent strain of guitar-driven rock music that was able to endure the changing sounds of the 80s, through to the 90s when guitar bands had won back their favour, and onto this decade where the Fleshtones enjoyed something of an renaissance at Yep Roc records with a new release in 2003, Do You Swing?. Since then, they’ve put out a number of releases without any sign of slowing.
Here’s a clip of pisstaking Pennsylvanian punks The Dead Milkmen performing their wonderfully hamfisted DIY love song “Punk Rock Girl” from their 1988 album Beelzebubba. The song was an unlikely MTV hit, helped in part by the equally half-baked, yet hilarious video.
If ever there was a time for simple, slightly misbegotten punk rock, it was 1988 and the Milkmen were the johnnies on the spot. They escaped critical praise for the most part, by seeming to care little for craft or for glory. And their cult following was based around their derisive, yet humourous, attitude toward pop culture, and due to the fact that they had the smarts to write songs that speak directly to their audience’s experience. The band’s world is the land of insecure teens, shopping malls, and casual juvenile delinquency, with a bit of young love thrown in. Has rock’n’ roll ever been about anything else?
In this tune we get the young love tale, complete with disapproving parents, and somewhat random and disjointed us-against-the-world sentiments. It barely hangs together musically, and is largely dependent on the cheap laughs to fuel it. This should be awful. I should hate this. But, as it is I always found it kind of endearing. So many bands have tried to strike the balance between tunefulness and ‘wackiness’. Mostly, I find this approach to be pretty repellent – I’m looking at you, Moxy Fruvous. But with these guys, they’ve got such little guile, so little ego invested, and so little technical skill of any kind, you kind of root for them anyway.
My favourite line in this tune? Well, I think it might be:
“We got into her car away we started rollin’
I said how much you pay for this
Said nothin’ man it’s stolen…”
Yes – totally silly. A cheap laugh. I love it. God help me.
1988 was my graduating year of high school, and I can tell you there wasn’t much on the radio that year that had much character. Everybody was pretty busy Wang Chung-ing. Yet this tune on heavy rotation on video channels was like a wonderful, half-cocked balm, a little blip on the sonic landscape that made me remember that pop music could still be about silliness and fun – that it didn’t have to be slick and made for mass consumption. It could still be inconsequential, kind of catchy, yet still divide the room into those who got it, and those who didn’t.