Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: The Monks – Black Monk Time

on September 04, 2010, 8:00am

“Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band.” Rock and roll lore has it that Brian Eno said that. He may have been right; but if it wasn’t for a small, virtually unknown band of American servicemen in Germany a few years earlier, there might not have been a Velvet Underground or Can or Kraftwerk or punk (or at the very least not as we recognize them today). With the recording and release of Black Monk Time, The Monks redefined elements of rock and roll, helping to lay the foundations for future rock movements such as Krautrock and punk. Oh, and they invented feedback too.

The Monks were a band comprised of five American GIs who remained in Germany after their stint in the Army was up in the early 60s. Band members Gary Burger, lead guitar; Larry Clark, organ; Dave Day, electric banjo; Eddie Shaw, bass; and Roger Johnston, drums (all five members shared vocal duties, with Burger on lead) originally began playing together as a means to blow off steam while on the front lines of the Cold War in Germany. In fact, during the Cuban Missile Crisis they sat in their tanks with the engines running and sang anti-war songs. “We were sitting in tanks, ready to go,” Johnston says in the 2006 documentary Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback.

Going by the name the 5 Torquays, they mostly played covers of American R&B artists and British Beat bands. Bass player Shaw said, “The Monks were five different guys from five different genres of music. We had to adapt to each other…” Over the course of a year, the band started writing its own material and began to experiment with its sound, often ending in complete failure. Gary Burger said, “…but the [songs] we kept felt like they had something special to them. And they became more defined over time.”  As the band members worked on defining their sound, they came into the company of a couple of avant German artists schooled in post-Bauhaus ideals. Walther Niemann, a former student at the Folkwang Academy, and Karl-H. Remy of the Ulm School of Design had a vision to turn the 5 Torquays into The Monks, an “anti-Beatles” completely devoid of any pop sentiment. The transformation from R&B cover band to an anti-pop outfit (you thought I was going to say consortium didn’t you?) happened on two levels – the image and the music.

The image was pretty easy. With a name like the Monks, if you want to go literal, the look is pretty much defined. Dressed in all black, hooded capes (often monks’ cassocks) with white rope nooses worn as ties (Eddie Shaw later said in his autobiography the ties represented the metaphorical nooses worn by all of humanity), the look was completed when Day and Johnston showed up with their heads shaved with the traditional monk tonsure, prompting the remaining members to follow suit. Remy wouldn’t even let the band appear out of uniform, saying to them, “You’re a Monk, think like a Monk.” With the image set, it was time to sharpen the sound.

Niemann and Remy deconstructed the band’s songs to their essence and rebuilt them through repetition of their inherent simplicities. Using Ulm School ideas, the new songs became more minimalist, relying more on rhythm than melody, much like the R&B artists of the ’50s, and they didn’t follow the typical verse-chorus-bridge format of most pop songs.  Remy also suggested Day play his rhythm guitar chords on an electric six-string banjo, resulting in a more metallic, wiry sound.  This, Johnston’s oft-described “tribal” drumming, and Shaw’s repetitive basslines provided a more aggressive drive to the band. Larry Clark’s organ would often play piercing single tones extended beneath the bass lines, at times bursting into the front just long enough for you to notice him before falling back in with the rest of the band. Burger’s lyrics, mixing Dadaism with paranoia, would often combine playful nursery rhyme sounds with hard-edged political commentary, especially towards the conflict in Vietnam. But the pièce de résistance to the whole shebang was feedback.

Now saying that the Monks invented feedback is a bit like saying Nikolai Tesla invented alternating current. You can’t really claim ownership over the laws of physics, but you can claim discovery of and perhaps even control of such laws. In this case, it simply involved one band member needing to take a piss break. During a rehearsal, guitarist Burger, needing to pause, placed his guitar up against the amp and ran out of the room. He forgot to turn the volume down. Slowly the hum began to build and grow. As Burger ran back into the room, Johnston and Shaw had already begun playing drums and bass along to it. Grabbing the guitar, Burger began waving it in front of the amp and pushing and pulling his guitar to create bursts of sound.  Through experimentation, the band developed and sharpened the feedback to such a point that it could be controlled and manipulated, leading to the fuzz-tone sounds blanketing Black Monk Time and directly or indirectly helping to develop the artistic visions of other artists such as the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, and even The Jesus and Mary Chain. Hendrix, after meeting the band back stage after a gig in Germany, described their music as “strange.” Ah, irony.

Black Monk Time begins with a simple pounding of the drums, as Larry Clark’s organ provides that constant, singular tone. When Gary Burger’s cracking voice slices through introducing himself, he tells you straight up with no bones their feelings:

“All right, my name’s Gary. Let’s go, it’s beat time, it’s hop time, it’s monk time now! You know we don’t like the army. What army? Who cares what army? Why do you kill all those kids over there in Viet Nam? Viet Cong? My brother died in Viet Nam.” –“Monk Time”

In this one opening statement, the Monks have already set themselves apart from every other act, beat band or otherwise. Imagine being on the dancefloor and hearing that. At first the message is, “Hey, we’re here to have fun! Whoo hoo,” and the next line suddenly is asking why you are killing kids in Southeast Asia. On the Silver Monk Time tribute album, Burger updated his lyrics for an electronic version recorded by German musician and Atari Teenage Riot founder Alec Empire. On the updated track he sings, “Why do you kill all those kids over there in Iraq? George Bush, who is he?” Burger has even stated that the Monks were an anti-war band whose messages in the ’60s still hold true today.

The literal, dark humor, blunt lyrics, and air of insolent audacity did not go over well with crowds, often leaving audiences confused. But what else would you expect from audiences accustomed to beat bands singing about girls and dancing and instead getting a bold, angry guy dressed in his best Gregor Mendel and screaming, “I hate you with a passion baby!” And not only that, but the next line blames you for it all: “I hate you because you make me hate you.” Though, I must admit the driving beat throughout “I Hate You” is pretty damned sweet, especially when punctuated by the organ preceding Burger’s cries.  (It’s got a groovy beat, Dick, and I can dance to it.  I give it a 42) “I Hate You” is also a great example of how the band used monk-influenced chanting methods in their vocal calls and responses.

Not all the songs are heavy, in your face, or deemed to make you squirm. “Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Choice” and “Higgle-dy Piggle-dy” demonstrate the band’s beat roots and that despite the new abrasiveness the Monks were bringing to the table, they were still able to have fun. The two songs combined barely clock in at four minutes, yet between the fun upbeat banter of the former and the neo-psychedelia of the latter, so much ground has been covered. In a bold move of rash hindsight, you might say that many of the sounds of the last half of the 60s are encapsulated in these two songs. And the goofy little “Oh, How To Do Now” is one of those lost tracks that should have been on the Nuggets compilation.  This perfect gem of the era, combining a forward thinking progression with a repetitive, titular chorus, is a prime example of Remy’s Ulm approach to the band’s sound.

When the Monks released Black Monk Time in 1966, they only printed 3,000 copies and barely sold those. The band went on an exhaustive tour of Europe and eventually burned out over constant touring and a possible argument relating to the band playing gigs in Vietnam. By 1967, the Monks were no more, and the album was lost to time. Black Monk Time has received a number of reissues over the years, with one of the more notable being the first American issue in 1997 when Rick Rubin and Henry Rollins reissued it on their Infinite Zero label. Most recently in 2009, both Light In the Attic and Universal Music Germany issued reprints of Black Monk Time with extra bonus tracks.

When the album is playing, it is very obviously a product of the ’60s – the styles, production, recording, everything. Listening to this album now may not seem so earth shattering, especially considering the sounds that we have come to identify with the late ’60s.  However, put yourself into a European audience (or even an American one) during that time. This was some very different music. It would have been interesting to see how an American audience would have responded to the Monks. The Monks never got to tour the US prior to their dissolution. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that the reunited Monks had their US debut at New York’s Cavestomp Festival.

I may have exaggerated a bit in reference to the songs above and their encapsulation; however, the album as an entirety most certainly is not just a time capsule for us in the present (their future) but a beacon of what was to come. Bands like the Fugs and the Godz out of New York (as well as the VU) built off similar foundations that the Monks began, pushing some elements even further into the fringes. Genesis P. Orridge, Psychic TV founder and member of Throbbing Gristle, was quoted as saying the Monks were the missing link between beat music and the Velvet Underground. Krautrock took influence from the Monks’ tendency to improvise in their sets, and the band’s use of electronic effects in much of their music would go on to influence German electro rock including Kraftwerk. Alec Empire has said he believes that if a line were drawn from 60’s Krautrock to 70’s Kraftwerk to Einsturzende Neubauten in the ’80s, it would all go back to the Monks – five Americans who may have laid the foundations of German rock for the next three decades.

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