Review Summary: One of the best unknown albums of all time.
Shaved heads. Black robes. Ties made of rope shaped like nooses. What else would you expect from a band named The Monks?
One thing you wouldn't expect is an album that sounds like this. And after listening to it, you won't believe that it was released it 1966. If you haven't heard about it don't worry -- the Monks were almost exclusively known in Germany until the last 15 years or so. The album wasn't re-released and available in the USA or UK until 1990s. And while the name is not readily known, anybody who saw The Monks live will never forget them. Although who could forget a group of American GIs outfitted as Monks pounding instruments while chanting "People cry, people die for you. People kill, people will for you."?
Some people claim they were one of the first punk bands. Others claim these Americans helped influence German rock, such as heavy metal and techno. Part shock rock, part noise rock, this is a band that some people may never understand. But one thing is for sure -- this is not your ordinary garage band. This certainly isn’t Gregorian Chant.
"Black Monk Time" is the product of a group of seemingly deranged American GIs stationed in Germany. However the quintet started out as a traditional American cover band in Germany (the Torquays). Over time the band mutated into The Monks.
So what do The Monks sound like? The Monks could be described as a five piece rhythm section with a guitar, bass, drums, electric banjo and organ that pound every instrument in their possession. But bass player Eddie Shaw said it best: "We got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing harmonics. Everything was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated on over-beat."
The over-beat, also known as the uberbeat, became the essence of The Monks sound. The Monks produced music that was minimalist, primitive, abrasive, militant, noisy, bizarre and fun. The guitar produces more feedback than melody. The bass is overdriven. The drummer beats on the tom like it is the only piece in his drum set. The "electric" banjo is a banjo with a microphone shoved inside. The vocals bark. And somehow the madman on the organ makes sense of the anarchy.
The tone of the album is set in the opening minutes, as Gary declares "it's beat time, it's hop time, it's Monk Time!." Instantly you begin to realize this is no ordinary album. The GIs continue to rant about the Vietnam war and everything else they feel like as the chaos proceeds until the album's conclusion. The aggressive behavior manifests itself in the form of songs such as "Shut Up", "I Hate You" and "Complication." But the militant backbeat and the wacky vocals were just part of the sound. The Monks innovated new sounds for the time. They experimented with feedback in “Monk Chant“, “I Hate You” and "Higgle-Dy-Piggle-Dy", which contain some of the first instances of noise rock solos. "Oh, How To Do Now" they take a John Cage approach by playing the drum with a tambourine. Even less abrasive tracks such as "Cuckoo" and "Love Can Tame the Wild" contain a peculiar element that makes this band so interesting to listen too.
From the original liner notes:
"Sunlight grids quiver in the system. Read on! It's monk time - it's hop time. Don't read this. We said: don't read this. Let sapphires glide into the grooves. What is beat? What is beat today? And what is over-beat? And who the hell is going to melt the hot and cold world of tomorrow?
Listen, as Roger beats, Gary plucks, Dave pummels. And Eddie dreams hell's bass part. And Larry fingers the keys of the day after tomorrow. The monks believe in nothing. The monks believe that everything is possible. The monks give everything. Words are the outline of lies. Why do the monks produce their own words - for days on end, as the moon shines - until one word leads to another. Don't listen. Count from nine until blast off, then swim into the city's primeval forest. Black discs mirror colorful, shimmering illusions. This black circle, however, quivers within the system of our dear world - goodness gracious - the experiment, after all, is only beginning. Truth is habit-forming. Lying is the art of pleasing the other. The monks for their part, love . . .
Gary Burger plays guitar and was born in Minnesota. Roger Johnston, a Texan, gives his drums the works. Chicago boy: That is Larry Clark - crazy-fingers at the organ, for his father was no gangster, but a priest. And Dave Day has more than one banjo and more than one microphone built into each of his banjos. He claims that he was born in Washington. And Eddie Shaw, who hails from California, uses his bass guitar as he sees fit!"
Bass player Eddie Shaw published a book in 1994 “Black Monk Time: Coming of the Anti-Beatles.” With the publication, the band seems to be finally receiving the attention it deserves. The opening track “Monk Time” is #165 on Pitchfork Media's top 200 songs of the 1960s. Hopefully more people will continue to discover their unique brand of music. While the group has released more material in recent years, this is the album to buy. The album sounds refreshingly different even today and I guarantee it will sound unlike anything else you have heard. If you happen to come across it, buy it! You won't be sorry.
Check them out on German TV performing "Monk Chant" (previously unreleased) and "Oh, How to Do Now". Watch them huddle up and attack the guitar (tapping at 1:15-1:30) and beat the drum with the tambourine (2:25-2:30).