The Clear Message and Cryptic References in Pixies’ First Hit “Monkey Gone to Heaven”

As the lead single from Pixies’ second album Doolittle (1989), “Monkey Gone to Heaven” was the first song many people had heard from the Boston-based alternative rock band. It still stands as one of their best-known and most accessible songs. Even so, some of the message of “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is obtuse, as the lyrics of frontman Black Francis tend to be.

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There is not much mystery as to the song’s broader meaning, which deals with environmental degradation, but some of the particulars are mysterious. Instead of trying to resolve the riddle ourselves, we can go straight to the source, as Francis has talked about the meaning of specific lines in various interviews. If you’ve sung along with “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and wondered who the “underwater god” is or why “man is five,” read on and wonder no more.

A Clear Message with Cryptic References

“Monkey Gone to Heaven” begins with a verse that encapsulates how the song is both clear and cryptic at the same time. When Francis sings of An underwater god who controlled the seas / Got killed by ten million pounds of sludge / From New York and New Jersey, he evokes an unmistakable image of oceans threatened by pollution. But who or what did Francis have in mind when he wrote of an “underwater god”? In an 1989 interview for NME, he said, “The man dying from the sludge in the water in New Jersey is just me getting mythological. It’s Neptune that I picture dying from the pollution.”

In the second verse, Francis addresses an environmental threat that was becoming a grave concern in the late ‘80s—the depletion of the ozone layer. Several artists referenced the ozone layer in songs in the aftermath of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Consider how Public Enemy referenced the ozone layer in “Public Enemy No. 1” (I’m the rhyme player, the ozone layer) and “Fear of a Black Planet,” (Skins protected ‘gainst the ozone layers) and how Neil Young addressed it in “Rockin’ in the Free World” (Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer). Francis gets mythological in his account of how ozone depletion would not only endanger humans, but also a “creature in the sky.”

The creature in the sky
Got sucked in a hole, now there’s a hole in the sky
And the ground’s not cold, and if the ground’s not cold
Everything is gonna burn, we’ll all take turns, I’ll get mine too

As for the “monkey” in the refrain This monkey’s gone to heaven, Francis was not relying on mythology. It was merely a phrase he had written two years prior to penning the other lyrics for the song. The line stuck with Francis, because he liked the way it sounded.

Why is God Seven?

The most mystifying part of “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is its third verse. In an interview for Esquire, Francis acknowledged he was “less concerned with making sense than making the lyrics pop out of the speaker when people are listening to the music.” That approach applies to this verse, where Francis assigns numbers to humans, the devil and God.

If Man is five, if Man is five
If Man is five, then the devil is six
Then the devil is six, then the devil is six
The devil is six, and if the devil is six
Then God is seven! Then God is seven!
Then God is seven!

Francis was mainly concerned with getting a rhyme with “heaven,” though he didn’t exactly pull the lines out of thin air. In an interview for Alternative Press, he revealed the verse came from a vague memory that he recalled. He explained, “I just remember someone telling me of the supposed fact that in the Hebrew language, especially in the Bible, you can find lots of references to man in the 5th and Satan in the 6th and God in the 7th. I didn’t go to the library and figure it out.”

The Impact of “Monkey Gone to Heaven”

“Monkey Gone to Heaven” was Pixies’ first song to enter Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart, and it spent 11 weeks there, peaking at No. 5. The song has been covered by several artists, including the post-hardcore band Far and the hardcore punk band Gulch.

Doolittle was also the band’s first entry on the Billboard 200, and it stayed on the chart for 27 weeks with a peak position of No. 98. It is Pixies’ only Platinum album. The 25th anniversary edition of Doolittle received a perfect 100 score from Metacritic, making it one of 17 special editions to earn the honor.

Pixies followed up “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by releasing “Here Comes Your Man” as the second single from Doolittle. It became their highest-charting hit in the U.S., reaching No. 3 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart. Pixies would have a string of hits on modern rock radio over the next three years, which ended when Francis broke up the band in 1993. (They would reform in 2003.) Numerous artists have cited Pixies as an important influence, and Kurt Cobain was particularly forthcoming about their impact on him and Nirvana.

Is “Monkey Gone to Heaven” any less enjoyable without an understanding of how Francis came up with the lyrics? Probably not. He certainly succeeded in finding words that “pop out of the speaker.” The song is a satisfying listen, and the strangeness of the lyrics only adds to its allure.

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