Perhaps you’ve heard their story. A bunch of GIs find themselves stationed in Germany in the mid-’60s. They decide to form a band, which they call the 5 Torquays. The Torquays are really nothing special, playing covers of Chuck Berry songs and other popular music of the day in rowdy German clubs.
After they are discharged from the Army, they stay in Germany, hook up with a couple of wacky guys from the West German avant-garde movement, and the Monks are born. The two West German managers, Walther Neimann and Karl Remy, set out to position the Monks as the “anti-Beatles,” as they are not fans of the British band’s lightweight pop sensibilities. They dress the Monks in black, with long capes, and ropes around their necks serving as ties. Musically, a crucial change is made when guitarist Dave Day moves to electric banjo, in search of a more percussive sound. One day, on a lark, drummer Roger Johnston and Day get their heads shaved into monk’s tonsures. The other members follow suit, and the look is complete.
That’s the basic outline, but little of it is what’s really important. What’s important, this being a CD review, is the music that the Monks made. Along with a few other bands, like the Sonics, the Monk’s pretty much invented what we now call garage rock. They were punks years before we used the term to describe a genre of music.
It has been claimed (primarily by Burger himself) that guitarist Gary Burger’s extensive use of feedback, along with the newly developed fuzztone and wah-wah pedal, caught the attention of none other than Jimi Hendrix, who of course went on to influence generations of guitar players. In any event, the influence of the Monks on the Velvet Underground and other “noise rock” bands is undeniable, and the same holds true for acknowledged acolytes like Henry Rollins, the Beastie Boys, and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.
Sadly, the Monks didn’t leave much in terms of a recorded legacy. Their only official studio album, Black Monk Time, was initially released by Polydor in 1966. The album has subsequently seen several reissues, the latest being this new, and thus far most definitive version from Light in the Attic Records. The company has paired Black Monk Time with a collection of demos and live tracks called The Early Years 1965-1965, and in doing so has created some much-needed context to enhance the Black Monk Time experience. The new reissue adds two bonus tracks to the four that were included on the 1994 Repertoire Records version of the album, for a total of 18 tracks.
Though the band reunited in 1999, and continued to play shows (though the death of Dave Day from a heart attack last year may have put a final end to the Monks), there has been no newly recorded music thus far. In 1996, Silver Monk Time: A Tribute to the Monks, was released. The album featured tracks from The Fall, Silver Apples, and Jon Spencer, among others.
When I first listened to the album, I recall posting something on Twitter like, “Listening to the Monks – Black Monk Time. I’m pretty sure these guys are out of their minds.” Maybe. It would be easy to hear this music and think of it as a parody. There are times when it reminds me of those really bad fictional groups that would appear on American sitcoms in the ’60s. But it’s important to remember that all important context. The lyrics seem pretty innocent, even naive by today’s standards, but it was a different world in the mid-’60s. The music might seem hokey at times, terribly dated at best, but it’s important to remember that there were very few other bands making music like this, and as I said earlier, it’s impossible to deny the influence that the Monks have had on subsequent generations.
The song “Complication” is as good a window into the Monk’s sound as any. You can hear several of the band’s trademarks here, including Day’s scratchy banjo, Johnston’s tribal drumming style, Gary Burger’s strangled vocal and fuzzed-up guitar, and Larry Clark’s organ on overdrive. “We Do Wie Du” features all of the above, along with Eddie Shaw’s distorted bass. If you hear echoes of the White Stripes here, you’re not alone. In fact, Jack White is one of the contributors to the album’s liner notes, as are Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Colin Greenwood of Radiohead, Casey Wescott of Fleet Foxes, Iggy Pop, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, and Lenny Kaye, fans all.
Garage rock gurus, or irrelevant hipster heroes? I lean toward the former. How about you?