An Introduction to the Monks
Imagine this scenario. You’re in a club somewhere in Germany, watching the crudest, funniest garage-rock band you’ve ever seen. They’re wearing monastic robes and nooses around their necks; they’ve shaved their heads into tonsures. One of them is playing a banjo, with which the PA system is ill-equipped to deal. The drummer’s technique is pleasingly caveman-like. The guitar player is blitzing the crowd with feedback. The singer is gibbering like a lunatic, screaming “DO YOU DO YOU DO YOU KNOW WHY I HATE YOU BAY-BAY HUH DO YOU KNOW! BECAUSE YOU MAKE ME MAKE ME MAKE ME HATE YOU BAY-BAY!”
The year is 1965. Your mind has officially been blown.
The Monks were a bunch of American G.I.s in Germany who picked up on the beat-group fad; they started a bar band called the 5 Torquays that seems, from the evidence, to have been just like every other group of Beatles wannabes. After they got their official discharges, they got a lot weirder, changing their name, adopting costumes and turning considerably more confrontational to keep the attention of easily bored audiences in Hamburg nightclubs – six hours of originals and covers a night, bassist Eddie Shaw has claimed, and eight hours on Sundays. Sometime in 1965, they recorded a bunch of demos (originally released in the late ’90s as Five Upstart Americans, most recently reissued as The Early Years); their gimmick at that point was that every song began with a churchy introduction by organist Larry Clark before singer/guitarist Gary Burger started screaming.
By the time the Monks ‘sole full-on studio album Black Monk Time came out in early 1966, they were frothing, feverish punk rockers, a decade ahead of their time, whose best songs were called “I Hate You” and “Shut Up.” A review of a performance in the German paper Bild-Zeitung declared them “noise, noise and no melody – robot music.” It would be a good long while before many people could read that as a compliment.
After Black Monk Time went out of print, it became a legend among garage aficionados. The Monks had a few high-profile fans – most notably the Fall, whose 1990 album Extricate included tracks called “Black Monk Theme” and “Black Monk Theme II,” which were respectively covers of the Monks ‘”I Hate You” and “Oh, How to Do Now.” (A few years later, the Fall’s Middle Class Revolt album featured another Monks cover, “Shut Up,” and they turned up again on a 2007 Monks tribute album, Silver Monk Time, doing “Higgle-Dy Piggle-Dy.”) But even though the Monks had been billed as “stars from the U.S.A.,” they never had a legitimate American release until Henry Rollins ‘Infinite Zero label reissued Black Monk Time in 1997. (They also had never played in the States until they reunited at the Cavestomp festival in 1999.)
Both Black Monk Time and The Early Years have just been reissued again, and they’re fascinating to hear next to each other, as a document of how, and how quickly, the Monks matured from a decent garage-rock band into earth-shaking weirdos. The Early Years includes the first single they made as the Torquays in 1964. “Boys Are Boys” is inoffensive fake Merseybeat, distinguished only by a nice organ solo in the middle. “Boys are boys and girls are joys,” they chirp lightly. By the time they demoed it as the Monks, they were faster, louder and hornier; the official Black Monk Time version changes the title to the much more lascivious “Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Choice.”
The most vivid contrast, though, is on both albums ‘opening track, “Monk Time.” It’s obviously the song they’d use to begin their sets and introduce themselves; singer/guitarist Gary Burger begins the demo by announcing “Hey hey, folks! Attention, for the Monks are comin ‘up here! It’s Monk time, yeah!” The Black Monk Time version, recorded only a few months later, is as fast and harsh as a mid-’60s recording engineer would let them get away with; after an acidic guitar solo, Burger launches into a frenetic tirade: “All right, my name’s Gary! Let’s go it’s beat time it’s hop time it’s Monk time! You know we don’t like the army WHAT army who CARES what army! Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam MAD Viet Cong! My brother died in Vietnam! James Bond, who is he? STOP IT STOP IT I DON’T LIKE IT!” The entire band, remember, had been in the army only a few months earlier.
That was the spirit of the Monks ‘moment, though: things were changing, very quickly. You can hear the remnants of the Monks ‘anything-to-please-the-crowd origins on their recordings: “We Do Wie Du” is pretty clearly a knockoff of the Ikettes ’1961 hit “I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song),” with a little bit of German thrown in. But they were also looking toward the future. Eddie Shaw’s 1994 memoir of the band’s career, also called Black Monk Time, suggests that the Monks invented intentional feedback. That’s a tough claim to defend – the Beatles had incorporated feedback into the intro of “I Feel Fine,” in 1964 – but the Monks were certainly one of the first bands to use it as an offensive weapon.
The Monks didn’t have a second album in them, although there’s a jaw-dropping video of them hammering out a new song called “Monk Chant” on German TV in mid-1966. There were a couple of additional singles – “I Can’t Get Over You” and “Love Can Tame the Wild” (both appended to the new Black Monk Time reissue) – on which the Monks are audibly restraining themselves, trying to be polite and tuneful like the bands who had hits. “Polite and tuneful” was not their strong suit, of course. Their great record is a stammering scream of loathing, lust and frustration, plucked from the shaking air at the moment when it was perfectly ripe.