The Year of the Monks
Photo courtesy of Larry Clark, © 1966 The Monks
by Will Bedard (March 1999)
Special thanks to Jamie Goodman of the official Monks site
1966. London was swinging, the Byrds soared on the wings of their most innovative single, "Eight Miles High," Brian Wilson labored in the studio on a legendary lost masterpiece and the Yardbirds fronted the mightiest lineup in rock'n'roll, with Messrs. Beck and Page on dual lead guitars. Pop Art and its bastard stepchild, Psychedelia, were about to rule the airwaves. But from Germany there came dark rumblings that hadn't been heard since the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930's. Guitar and organ howled in orgiastic competition as a thunderous tribal beat bludgeoned song structures into strange forms. Rhythmic cadences echoed the slap of jackboots goose-stepping down Berlin's boulevards. There were also strained and shrill vocals, eerily reminiscent of a sputtering orator disposed of only 20 years before in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery's garden.
All that was missing were the chorus of hoarse "Sieg Heil"s. Even then, there were aural equivalents in a song called "Complication." The lead singer chanted: "complication, complication" as the backing vocalists intoned "people cry for you, people die for you" over and over. The effect is mesmerizing, as is the rest of the Monks' 1966 debut album, Black Monk Time.
Strangely enough, there wasn't a war criminal in sight, just five decent, clean-cut American boys playing rock'n'roll. It's taken over thirty years for music to catch up with the ground work laid by the Monks on their one and only album.
Recorded in the waning days of '65, the album was an anomaly. Harsh and abrasive, the music has not only withstood the test of time, it's grown more pertinent with every passing year. A grotesque and fantastic tale precedes the release of Black Monk Time, though.
Formed in 1964 by five American GI's stationed in Germany, the Monks started off as a very traditional rock'n'roll outfit. Initially called the Torquays, the band played the standard beat music of the day. The musicians (Gary Burger, lead guitar/vocals; Larry Clark, organ/vocals; Dave Day, rhythm guitar/vocals; Roger Johnston, drums/vocals and Eddie Shaw, bass/vocals) covered Chuck Berry tunes, surf music and various songs by British Invasion artists.
Fortunately, the band was comprised of highly imaginative musicians. They soon tired of the expected format and began experimenting with their sound, focusing almost solely on rhythm. "We got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing harmonics," bassist Eddie Shaw said. "Everything was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated on over-beat." The music did not come out of the blue, however. The lead guitar player, Gary Burger, elaborated on the process. "It probably took us a year to get the sound right," he recalled. "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. And they became more defined over time."
One of the components in this alchemy of sound was feedback. Burger discovered feedback independently of the many English players who have all been heralded at one time or another as the inventor of said effect.
"We were practicing and I had to take a leak," Burger said. "I laid the guitar against the amp and walked off the stage. I forgot to turn it off and the thing began to make this god-awful racket. It started off humming and then it increased in volume. Roger started hitting his drums and it sounded so right together."
Eddie Shaw went one step further when describing that initial bout with feedback. "Just imagine the sound of the Titanic scraping along an iceberg," he said. "It was like discovering fire." Gary Burger quickly learned to control the feedback. Wielding a Gretsch Black Widow guitar, his lead lines were run through an audio atom-smasher that masqueraded as a Fender amplifier. A thick and distorted cacophony of black sound emerged. Burger trashed the speakers so often, however, that he had to switch to a heavy-duty Vox Super Beatle that had a custom-made 100 watt amp.
Around this time, the rhythm guitar was traded in for a six string banjo. The band wanted to sound as grating as possible and a banjo fit the bill quite nicely. Dave Day played this instrument, an oddity in rock'n'roll. To amplify the banjo, he stuck two microphones inside it. He chorded it like a guitar and the horse gut strings produced strange clacking sounds. Day's frenzied attack is one of the most unique aspects of the group's departure from conventional rock'n'roll music. The slashing banjo stays on the beat for the most part, but at times it introduces a counter-rhythm. The effect can be quite disconcerting. Day was also the band's original rock'n'roll citizen, having been an Elvis devotee since the mid-50s.
Gary Burger was never a flashy lead player, but he sought levels of dementia unknown to other guitar players of the era (except for the fretwork of Syd Barrett, original guitarist/vocalist with the Pink Floyd). Burger's guitar was employed in either short, stinging riffs or abrasive chordal poundings that dissolve into waves of feedback. A devotee of the Gibson fuzz box, Burger painted twisted, Bosch-like aural hallucinations.
Also a nominee for the greatest rock'n'roll singer ever, Gary Burger's vocals often crack, confirming the confusion and fury of a young man frightened of Vietnam and nuclear bombs. Spitting and strangling on the lyrics, Burger conveys rage in a way no punk vocalist has ever matched.
The backbone of the unit was the drummer, Roger Johnston. Initially a jazz influenced percussionist, he dispensed of complex fills and adhered strictly to the beat. This produced a primal effect, which was enhanced by his use of huge sticks on a French-made Asba kit. He was the band's whipping post, laying down a thick bottom upon which they ran amok. To accentuate the aboriginal nature of the music, Johnston rarely used a cymbal. Whereas another percussionist would have used a cymbal flourish, he substituted vigorous thwacking on the tom toms. "I dogged it. I wanted it to sound as raw and thumping as possible," Johnston said in a phone interview. Indeed it does, invoking primeval nightmares. His drumming conjures images of Roman centurions pounding spikes into crosses at a crucifixion.
Then there was Eddie Shaw's bass playing. As the other half of the rhythm section, Shaw was also initially a jazzophile. Fortunately, he had none of the pretensions associated with that genre of music. Shaw was a lycanthrope: a jazz man by day, a rock'n'roller by night. And in the Monks' world it was always dark. Shaw's fluid bass patterns pulsate and moan, breaking down into jagged chunks of noise. He played extremely loud, raising legions of stigmata on one's skin. He turned his Gibson bass and Selmer amp up until the 18" speakers rattled. The resultant bass lines buzz and throb, snapping and popping like hell's own spawn.
Last, but not least, there's the crazed fingers of the keyboard player. Larry Clark summoned different tones from his organ, ranging from something out of "The Phantom of the Opera" to interstellar delta pinging. Clark's playing was usually methodical, anchoring the band to terra firma. He would often introduce melody into the song during the bridge. These melodic breaks did not last long, however. Clark would bear down on the keys, fighting to be heard above the guitar feedback. The resulting discord is not unlike Booker T. Bach and Bo Diddley dropping acid together.
The rhythm section, Johnston and Shaw, along with Day's propulsive banjo, insisted on lockstep syncopation. Consequently, the music took on something akin to modal qualities. In this regard, they anticipated the Beatles' one chord raga "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the Butterfield Blues Band's legendary noisefest "East-West." Both of those songs were long thought to be harbingers in western pop, but the Monks ushered in the repetitious drone a half-year ahead of schedule. Burger and Clark stacked layers of noise on top of this modal effect. These discordant textures added depth, giving the lie to the simplicity of rhythmically-bound music. The band also introduced arbitrary key changes to the songs, producing tension. Taken altogether, the music virtually explodes, achieving a riot of sound that no other band was creating at that time. Out of this voodoo stew, twisted songs with dadaist titles began to coagulate; "Oh, How To Do Now," "Shut Up" and "Higgle-dy-Piggle-dy" to name just a few.
After being discharged from the Army, their image evolved. They dropped the first name, exchanging it for a new moniker, the Monks. Momentous changes were ensuing in their style, both musically and sartorially. "We went into a barbershop on the spur of the moment and either me or Dave Day got our head shaved in a tonsure like a monk's," the drummer, Roger Johnston recalled. "Then the rest of the guys did. I really don't know why, but we did it."
There was initial reluctance on some of the members' parts. It had taken them many months to
grow their GI haircuts out to an acceptable length that was in keeping with a hip band's image. Once shorn, though, the musicians realized they were no longer just a beat group. The Monks dressed in black at all times, wearing ropes tied around their necks. Eddie Shaw explained the unusual reason behind this. "I think we all live with ropes around our necks. Ours were plain and visible. It caused people to stare at us," he said. "The people with the painted silk ropes are the ones you have to watch, but even then, when they get smart, many of them trade theirs in for either an invisible one or a plain one. No matter what the ropes look like, they are all used for the same thing."
The image, in conjunction with the music's ongoing mutation, startled German audiences and induced an anarchy of perception. The reaction ranged from enthusiastic paeans in some urban areas to outright hate in the rural regions. At a provincial show, a young man became enraged at what he took to be blasphemy; a mere beat group dressed as religious ascetics.
"I had a guy jump on stage one night and begin choking me," reminisced Burger. "He kept it up with diligence until he received the tuning-peg-end of my guitar in the chops. That pretty much settled the issue."
The band also assaulted the crowds sonically, demanding their complete and undivided attention. If the audience tried to interact socially with one another, the Monks turned the volume up to ear-splitting levels. "We didn't want anybody to do anything but listen to us," Roger Johnston said. The results were electrifying. Phil Spector might have invented the legendary "Wall of Sound," but the Monks hammered out a "Steamroller of Sound."
A residency at Hamburg's famed Top Ten Club solidified the band's approach. The Monks gigged incessantly, playing six hours a night on the weekdays and eight or more hours a night on the weekend. They still played some of the standard beat material, but their originals became the core of the sets. The crowds were perplexed, to say the least.
"Some of them loved us. But others . . . well," Gary Burger said, pausing to laugh. "They didn't have a clue what was going on. I think the image confused them as much as the music. We were a freak show to them."
He recalled the city's rock'n'roll fans and their affect on the Monks. "They'd been the first to recognize the Beatles. The Star Club and the Top Ten were where the Beatles really learned to play rock'n'roll. The same with us. Hamburg's where we got our education. The fans made us work hard to entertain them. They knew their rock'n'roll, that's for sure."
Even in jaded Hamburg, though, the Monks were a tad different than the usual rock'n'roll fare. "The image was sometimes a little too strong, but we got used to it. We were generally safe on the streets, even in the worst parts of Hamburg at four in the morning," Eddie Shaw said. "We looked too serious and officious to mess with. Strangers were generally confused by us because our actions didn't reflect the dress. It was strangely androgynous and almost artificial looking. Some people told us we didn't look real. Walking through a crowded nightclub, I could feel people touching my head to see if everything was indeed real."
He elaborated on the audience's reaction to their strange garb and coiffures. "If a certain person had enough courage they would walk up and ask if they could touch our heads. Girls would draw back their hands and squeal. The whores of Hamburg considered us kinky. They loved us," Shaw said.
By this point, the band members had been in Germany for some time, beginning with their years of service in the Army. "We'd been in Germany for so long that some of us even dreamt in the language," Shaw related. On their off hours, the group sometimes suffered from boredom and loneliness. As young men far from home are wont to do, they indulged in sex and carousing. There were always willing groupies and plenty of beer and liquor. Larry Clark, however, proved to be an exception when it came to the intake of alcohol. A teetotaler, Clark told of the one time he did indulge in spirits. "I just didn't like the taste. I drank too much one night and decided to never repeat that experience," he said.
Roger Johnston reminisced about the band's pursuits offstage. "We all drank. Especially me and Gary and Dave. Eddie was married, so he didn't hang out with us as much," Johnston said. "But Larry didn't party. He was off on his Harley or playing chess somewhere. Everybody except for Eddie chased girls, though."
Unfortunately, there was some friction between two members of the band. The tension went back to their days as the Torquays. For a short time, an English girl had sang with the group. As is usual in these situations, one of the musicians had sex with her. Then, another one did. The two members involved in this triad were Dave Day and Larry Clark. The girl left the Torquays shortly thereafter, but the damage had been done. Consequently, Day and Clark sometimes went out of their way to subtly harass one another.
Drugs, in the form of speed, entered the Monks' world during their tenure in Hamburg. "I'd be tired, playing all night and drinking late to unwind when we got off," Roger Johnston reminisced. "Oma would give me a pill to pep me up, so I could play a show the next night." Oma was an elderly German woman, who had also introduced the Beatles to speed a few years earlier. Johnston began to rely on the pills to help him get through the long grinding sets. Some of the Monks, barring Larry Clark, also took speed on occasion. This indulgence and immersion in German culture had strange ramifications on the music, which would be apparent within a short time.
By November of '65, the Monks were ready to enter the studio. They had already laid down some demos, but now their management secured them a recording contract with Polydor. The album opened with their theme, "Monk Time." This song often caused tension when they played it live for off-duty American servicemen. In it, Burger waxes inarticulate vehemence, damning the conflict in southeast Asia. "Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam/ Mad Vietcong!/My brother died in Vietnam." He invokes a pop cultural touchstone, James Bond. All to no avail. "Stop it/ stop it/ I don't like it!" Burger howls. Nobody can figure out what the hell's going on over there, least of all the super spy. The Monks are sitting this one out, but they have garnered one tarnished nugget of wisdom: "Pussy Galore's coming down/ and we like it!" One must wonder if this is in reference to 007's nemesis or the groupies that the band serviced on a regular basis.
The second song kicks off with a martial beat, summoning visions of SS troops massed on Russia's borders. Young men's militant voices demand everybody listening to "shut up/don't cry!" Make us feel at home why don't you, fellows. Clark's organ moans and wails, making way for the scorched earth policy of guitar and bass. During the break, the Ukraine burns as Monkish hordes loot and pillage. Then, Burger's back. His voice strains under the pressure of reaching for notes out of his range. Or maybe its just that the whiskey he was drinking throughout the recording sessions had charred his vocal cords, leaving lesions and third degree burns. The name of this tune is "Shut Up." A most sixties-type mantra, eh?
Nursery rhyme lyrics, suffering from delusions of schizoid simplicity, are next. Yes, we know "girls are girls/ and boys are boys," but does anybody have any idea what the hell the rest of the song is supposed to mean? Mail your answers care of this magazine and they'll remain confidential. This reviewer often runs out of toilet paper and grabs whatever's handy. Then, Gary Burger shouts "Higgle-dy-Piggle-dy!" Chaos comes down like sniper's bullets in Dallas, converging somewhere near heaven. Insistent, biting leads from the fingers of Gary Burger, puckering bass lines and staggered rhythms courtesy of the damn drummer make for a green fuzz of gunsmoke, which sticks in your brain like carbolic acid taffy.
Ah, then there's the fifth track, which is really a black mass held incognito. The banjo snickers like a guillotine. Suddenly, Clark's organ fills cathedrals in one's head, driving Gary Burger into spastic exorcisms of contempt and infatuation. "I hate you with a passion, baby," he squeals. "But call me!" his demonic henchmen hollowly chant. "You know my hate's everlasting, baby," Burger sputters. "But call me!" the sacrilegious congregation intones again. The keys perform precise lobotomies as bubonic bass lines spit and hiss. Burger's feedback snarls like the grim reaper's rusty scythe ripping through mildewed cowls. Congress should pass a law against Gary Burger. He should be banned from playing guitar until 2010. He's armed and dangerous. Hopefully, by that year he'll be hooked up to a dialysis machine, unable to wreak havoc on nerve endings ever again, the evil son of a bitch.
"Oh, How To Do Now" is next in this savage sideshow. Its a parade of pinheads and Siamese twins, escapees from Dr. Caligari's cabinet. There's so much fuzz in this song, you could make hair shirts for an entire convent of flagellants. Johnston's drumming sticks toothpicks under your fingernails. Once again, enduring Gary Burger's feedback discombobulates and self-immolates synapses. Eddie Shaw trades in his bass for a bazooka on this one. Or maybe its a Panzerfaust. And there's a key change toward the end that doesn't help matters one bit. The tension builds and Day's banjo clicks like a pressure cooker rattling on the stove. How many times do they repeat the damn title? 50! But what hell does it mean? Finally, the Monks let you off the rack, just so they can take you into another funhouse.
Rock'n'roll has never gotten heavier than the Monks did on "Complication." Hooded night riders gallop through this tune. Clark's organ caws like a crow above the skeletal scarecrow terror of lynchings. For pure white Christianity. Burger, some dreadful magi, issues orders. First, to his assassins as they penetrate the night and perpetrate mayhem, all for the glory of Allah. Thugees crouch in the bushes, waylaying unwary travelers. For Kali, the bloodlusting bitch and devourer of men's souls. For the crimson god, Mars. War, baby, war! Death! Burn them hootches, Marines! Search and destroy, body counts, kill them VC! Wallow in it, boys! The way down is the way out! Whew! The first seven songs on Black Monk Time make up the most intense experience a rock'n'roll connoisseur will ever encounter. Thankfully, the Monks sense of humor comes into play on a few of the remaining tracks.
The next song is some inbred idiot savant offspring of the Ikettes' "I'm Blue (the Gong Gong Song)," which tells you that when these boys decided to steal something, it wasn't a Willie Dixon tune that everybody knows they didn't write (this is a hint for Led Zeppelin; nick something goofy and occult). Anyway, the song lurches like some love sick wino, raving and drooling and mewling all over the premises of the song structure. The bridge is a visit to an absinthe ward, where all the patients suffer from eternal kinetic katzenjammer syndrome. That long guttural word is German for "the squalling of cats in your head," used in reference to a hangover. "We Do, Wie Du" is a two week bender soaked in vodka. Shaw's bass stumbles like the somnambulistic Frankenstein monster with Johnston's drumming playing the part of Ygor. Of course, Burger is the mad scientist in this movie. Day rattles his chains down in the dungeon, demanding release.
"Drunken Maria" is a song about some boozy Spanish harlot. But the Monks are in Germany, damnit! Why are they doing this to me? Clark's keys, well, have you ever heard that saying "Support mental health or I'll kill you"? Thankfully, Shaw bails you out, depositing you in purgatory. "Love Came Tumbling Down" like what, the clap? It's got to be some incestuous ode to groupies and penicillin. Any other comments would be superfluous. Insights Messrs. Burger, Clark and co.? "Blast Off" commences with, what else, the roar of engines. It's early surf music played on a haunted spaceship as a galactic fleet burns off Orion's shoulder. Clark's ghostly keyboards send frantic SOS morsecode messages back to earth. Supposedly, space is a vacuum where sound doesn't exist. Tell it to the Monks. Thunder rolls around the shores of the Milky Way as Lucifer's host plummets from a schism in time into uncharted nether regions. The rip in the sky mends as the Sputnik organ bubbles from beneath the ocean.
The original album ended with "That's My Girl." It's reminiscent of the Who's "Disguises." Why? Both of the singers can't even recognize their own girlfriends. But only Gary Burger, supreme among rock'n'roll vocalists, can render the phrase "make love" so it sounds sleazy, like a piece of gum you've picked up out of the gutter to chew or a scab encrusted clitoris. Then there's the break. It's like the Brooklyn Bridge, buckling in high winds as tidal waves engulf New York. Finally, the moronic Burger realizes the girl in question is his!
Thankfully, the LP was recorded with analog technology on a four track machine. The instruments bleed together, creating dynamics that digital is sadly unable to achieve. The bare bones production on the album reflected what the band sounded like live. There was nothing on Black Monk Time they could not replicate on stage. "We sounded about the same on the album as we did live," Larry Clark said. Gary Burger qualified this statement to a slight degree. "We never played a song the exact same way twice. The structure was similar, but we'd really stretch out," he said. "And the recording process available really couldn't capture the feedback right. It was really loud on stage. But yeah, we sounded similar live and on the album."
See Part Two of the Monks article
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