The Monks – “Black Monk Time” (1966)

April 19, 2010 at 2:01 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Written by Amanda Scigaj for Crawdaddy!, Jan. 26, 2010. For all intents & purposes, The Monks were one of the first “punk” bands, years before The Ramones and Sex Pistols, but they never got the recognition they deserved at the time. They have since been recognized as minor legends, and rightly so…

It was “Monktime” in Germany long before it was “Anarchy in the UK.”

Dressed in black, sporting tonsures instead of mohawks, and forgoing safety pin accoutrements, punk’s unlikely progenitors were the Monks, who released their one and only album, Black Monk Time, on Polydor Records in 1966. While America was watching the Monkees on television, the Monks were developing songs with titles like “I Hate You” and “Shut Up.”

Strangely, the guys behind these songs were not a band of disenfranchised guttersnipes, but a group of former American GIs living in Western Germany who originally played Chuck Berry covers as the Torquays. Growing bored with familiar material, Larry, Gary, Rodger, Eddie, and Dave decided to experiment, dishonorably discharging sunshine and melody. What replaced those elements were a thunderous drumming style and cornerstones of what would be punk: Feedback and distortion. 

Although the Monks’ first encounter with the wild and wooly effect was purely accidental (guitarist Gary Burger left his instrument too close to the amp on his way to the head), it soon became a staple of their sound. One can find videos of perplexed German teenagers trying their best to shimmy and shake to the Monks on Beat Club, a local spin on American Bandstand.

If the Monks’ sound was confrontational, their lyrics weren’t far behind. The year that the band released Black Monk Time, the American Dream was still alive and well in the United States, with the dissent of its youth only a mere rumble. But, on the opening line of “Monktime”, Burger waxes poetic about the first televised war: “You know we don’t like the Army / Who cares what Army? / Why do you kill all those boys over there in Vietnam / Mad Vietcong? / My brother died in Vietnam.” Recited with frank disdain, his screed foreshadows patriotic fallout, and the “tune in, drop out” mentality that would follow later on in the decade.

During this time, there were certainly a handful of other bands that experimented with similar sounds, including the Velvet Underground and the Fugs. However, this auditory assault was framed within the New York art scene; a place far away, both physically and socially, from a country torn apart by communism. While the Velvets were an art-rock band with a place in the Factory and a patron in Andy Warhol, and the Fugs were a band with a political bent and roots in the Beat Movement, the Monks were just five army guys without any home, making good music as if by accident.

Framework and context aside, Black Monk Time is an incredible album. It’s an extremely catchy tour de force, and you don’t need a history lesson to enjoy it. On the opener, “Monk Time”, there’s the crash of an electric organ, the heartbeat thump of the toms in militaristic precision, the frenetic chop of electric banjo and guitar, the call-and-response of provocative lyrics­­, and it all boils over into screeching fuzz. “Complications” is a chant detailing the lyrics, “People cry / People die for you / People kill / People will for you / People run / Ain’t it fun for you / People go / To their deaths for you / Complication!” As relationship woes always remain complicated themselves, Burger screeches emphatically, “Hey, well, I hate you with a passion baby, yeah I do!” on “I Hate You”, and the remaining Monks echo back, “But call me!” By far the catchiest and party-ready is “Drunken Maria.” In less than a sentence and two minutes, it captures a crazed frenzy so good you get the spins.

Although they were not a commercial success, neither were the Monks’ more popular peers. What is lasting and continues to be evident is their influence on punk and garage rock. Artists from Henry Rollins to the Beastie Boys have acknowledged their influence. The Fall covered “I Hate You” and “Oh, How Do You Now” on 1990’s Extricate, under the respective titles “Black Monk Theme Part I” and “Black Monk Theme Part II.” Tribute records have been pressed, fan clubs established, and their one album has been re-released several times over, most recently by Retribution Records, simply as Monk Time. The album continues to find new listeners; it is not remembered as an old black-and-white picture, but rather something that continues to resonate.

Amanda Scigaj

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