[Note: In a crazy and sad coincidence, Monks singer/guitarist Gary Burger died just two days after we wrote this post. You can read more about his passing here.]
We’re gonna take a little trip in the Weird Band Wayback Machine this week. It’s 1965 and we’re in Hamburg, Germany. On the infamous Reeperbahn, at a club called the Top Ten, where The Beatles had been the house band four years earlier, a group called The Monks are pounding out original, primitive rock songs wearing matching black outfits with ropes in place of ties. They’ve even all shaved the tops of their heads in the style of monastic tonsures. Their music sounds like nothing else of its time; raw and rhythmic, almost entirely devoid of melody, with shouted, nonsensical lyrics (except the parts about Vietnam, which probably would’ve sounded nonsensical to most Germans in 1965).
Where the hell could such a group have come from, you might ask? Well, it turns out they were a product of the American military. They began playing in local clubs while they were still enlisted men, calling themselves the Torquays and performing a fairly standard house-band repertoire of Chuck Berry tunes, surf-rock instrumentals and early British Invasion stuff. It wasn’t until after they were discharged that they took a turn for the weird. The new name The Monks came first; the shaved heads happened later, on a whim. But the original music, even though it sounded like cacophony to most listeners back in the day, was all the result of careful experimentation and hours of playing live together.
“It probably took us a year to get the sound right,” said lead singer/guitarist Gary Burger, in an excellent history by Will Bedard on the band’s website. “We experimented all the time. A lot of the experiments were total failures and some of the songs we worked on were terrible. But the ones we kept felt like they had something special to them.”
Among their many unconventional moves was replacing Dave Day’s rhythm guitar with the harsher twang of a six-string banjo. They also did away almost entirely with high-hats and cymbals and were one of the first bands to experiment with the deliberate use of feedback. All of it was intended to produce a sound as raw, primal and grating as possible. And judging from their one and only full-length album, 1966’s Black Monk Time, they succeeded.
Originally released on then-German label Polydor Records, and never distributed in the U.S., Black Monk Time has since gone on to become one of those records that collectors will fight over like coyotes over a chicken bone. Until it was finally reissued in the ’90s, it reportedly sold for nearly $1,000; these days, an original pressing in good condition can still be worth as much as $600.
Like many bands ahead of their time, The Monks weren’t built to last. They followed up Black Monk Time with a pair of singles, the novelty tune “Cuckoo” and a throwaway attempt at writing a saccharine pop hit, “Love Can Tame the Wild.” But by 1967, the group was done, torn apart by internal tensions, frustration over their lack of commercial success, and the strain of non-stop touring.
Since ’99, the group has played a handful of reunion shows and been the subject of a documentary film, 2006’s Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback, which you can watch in its entirety (in German) on YouTube. They’ve also released one “lost” track, an early demo called “Pretty Suzanne” which was included in the latest reissue of Black Monk Time on Light in the Attic Records. (Another Light in the Attic release, The Early Years: 1964-1965, contains demo versions of songs that would later appear on Black Monk Time, as well as two songs the band recorded as The Torquays, “Boys Are Boys” and “There She Walks.”) But they’ve stopped short of recording any new music, which is probably just as well. It would be impossible to recapture the energy of those early records, especially since the deaths of drummer Roger Johnston in 2004 and banjoist Dave Day in 2008.
Amazingly, there’s a ton of archival footage of The Monks performing, mostly from German television. We’ll leave you with a couple: “Monk Chant,” which features an amazing guitar-feedback freakout that predates Hendrix at Monterey Pop by a year; and “Complication,” which was, improbably, the lead single off Black Monk Time. Those ’60s German teenagers are trying their darnedest to dance to this stuff, but sadly, nobody had invented mosh pits yet.
P.S. Thanks to readers Alex and Twufee the Wondermoose for suggesting these guys to us many moons ago. Told ya we’d write about them eventually, guys.
- The Monks official website
- The Monks on Light in the Attic Records (reissue label)
- Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback (official site of the documentary film)
- The Monks catalog on Amazon.com