Monks - Biography
Musician and rock connoisseur Julian Cope has called The Monks’ album Black Monk Time (1966) “one of the most chilling electrifying freakouts of all time.” The band’s improbable story resembles fiction, but it’s all amazing fact.
Formed by former American servicemen in Cold War Germany, the quintet cut their teeth in the same Hamburg “beat clubs” that spawned The Beatles. These self-styled “anti-Beatles” sported an austere look – tonsured heads, black garb, knotted rope ties – and flashed an abrasive, blood-simple sound as twisted and outré as their appearance. They never performed in their native country, their lone LP was never released in the US, and they disbanded in obscurity. However, in the ‘90s, they were rediscovered by a fervent cult and lauded as pioneering avant gardists and proto-punk visionaries, and they made their homeland debut 32 years after breaking up.
The group had its genesis in jam sessions on a US Army base in Gelnhausen, near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1962. Guitarists Gary Burger, a Minnesotan, and Dave Day (né Havlicek), from Washington, began playing together informally at the servicemen’s club. With a rotating cast of other enlisted men and locals, they began performing regional off-base shows as The Torquays, taking their name from an instrumental by The Fireballs. By 1964, the band’s lineup solidified with the addition of Nevada-bred bassist Eddie Shaw, Chicagoan Larry Clark on keyboards, and Texan Roger Johnston on drums.
After the five bandmates exited the service, they decided to make a go of it as a working band in Germany, and The Torquays began learning to “make show,” as the Fab Four did before them, in front of demanding, oft-drunken audiences in the nation’s beat clubs and rathskellers. Their lone single from this period, self-recorded in a small Heidelberg studio, is undistinguished mid-‘60s rock; on stage, they favored goofy-looking matching outfits and equally goofy antics, if vintage pictures are any indication.
Sometime in 1965, The Torquays were approached during a gig at the Rio Bar in Stuttgart by two men who offered to become their managers. Karl-Heinz Remy and Walther Niemann came from backgrounds in design and advertising, and heard something in the group’s sound they felt could be developed. The pair undertook a messianic program that completely and very rigorously overhauled The Torquays’ beat-band style into something rich and strange.
Everything in their music was pared down structurally to the bare essentials and cranked up sonically for maximum damage. Burger’s guitar work and Clark’s organ playing now favored high-volume distortion, and amplifier feedback – then still a rarity in rock performances – was employed as a central part of the attack. Johnston’s drumming now began to lean heavily on bottom-end tom work. Most importantly, Day exchanged his guitar for an amplified banjo, which he deployed almost like a percussion instrument. The group’s material, sung (or shrieked) mainly by Burger, ranged from anti-war rants to sheer nonsense.
Under the direction of Remy and Niemann, the five musicians, still looking like hirsute beat musicians, recorded an album’s worth of demos at a Ludwigsburg studio in September 1965. (These tracks have been variously re-released as Five Upstart Americans  on Omplatten in the US and Monks Demo Tapes 1965  on Play Loud!/Munster in Germany.) The managers urged a look in keeping with the pared-down, rough noise they were making, and they took on an image – shaved heads, cowls, nooses as ties – with an unprecedented severity. With the fervor of a religious order, they renamed themselves The Monks in early 1966.
The Monks were signed to a contract by the major Polydor Records, largely on the strength of live shows at Hamburg clubs like the Top Ten and the Star Club where The Beatles had earlier made their bones. Released in an intimidating jet-black sleeve with stark lettering, Black Monk Time (1966), their first and only LP, captures the band’s ardent, minimal wildness on vitriol-filled tracks like “Monk Time,” “Shut Up,” and “I Hate You.” Their visually arresting, out-there ‘66 German TV performances are worth seeking out on YouTube.
The album sold enough to justify one last, campy single, “Love Can Tame the Wild.” By the time the 45 snuck out in 1967, managers Remy and Niemann had split, and The Monks had abandoned their unique look and sound for flower-power threads and a more conventional psychedelic approach. (Around this time, they shared a German bill with the then-rising Jimi Hendrix.) A last-gasp Asian tour was arranged, but on the eve of departure drummer Johnston abruptly quit; left in the lurch, the other members called it a wrap in September 1967. All eventually returned to the US.
The Monks were around for an instant, but they had staying power. The group was initially embraced by garage-rock aficionados like Mike Stax, who profiled the group in a 1992 issue of “Ugly Things” magazine. The price of a used German copy of Black Monk Time skyrocketed to several hundred dollars. In the mid-‘90s, the album was reissued on CD in Europe, amazing a new generation of listeners. Under the name Thomas Edward Shaw, the group’s bassist, an aspiring novelist, privately published his fictionalized memoir Black Monk Time with wife Anita Klemke in 1994. Julian Cope named The Monks as the forgotten precursor to such minimal, progressive German acts as Can, Neu!, and Faust in his 1995 book Krautrocksampler. Finally, in 1997, Infinite Zero, the label run by former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins and producer Rick Rubin, gave The Monks’ album its first American release on CD.
The five original members of The Monks – who had all withdrawn from playing music professionally with the demise of the band -- stepped back into the limelight for their US debut at the Cavestomp Festival, an annual gathering of garage rock bands, in New York in 1999. Day and Johnston tonsured their heads for the occasion. The wildly received set was turned into an album, Let’s Start a Beat!: Live at Cavestomp (2000).
For a hot minute, The Monks’ bizarroid music veered dangerously close to the American cultural mainstream, though only the cognoscenti noticed: In 2000, Coca-Cola used an instrumental snippet of the band’s anti-war credo “Monk Time” for a national TV commercial.
Roger Johnston died in 2004; Dave Day passed away in 2008. Both musicians had played a handful of gigs with the reformed Monks.
Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback, a detailed labor-of-love documentary about the band directed by Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios, made the film festival rounds before its 2009 DVD release. The same year, Black Monk Time received its first American LP release on Light in the Attic Records.
Post and Palacios produced a two-CD tribute album, Silver Monk Time (2007), with contributions by admirers like The Fall, Jon Spencer, Alan Vega, Chicks On Speed, and Mouse On Mars; The Monks’ lead vocalist Gary Burger also guested.