The Year of the Monks, Part 2
Photos courtesy of Larry Clark, © 1966 The Monks
by Will Bedard
One must keep in mind, too, this was an era when rock groups were beginning to overindulge themselves in the studio. Mono was giving way to stereo and four track recordings were considered a hindrance. Lush production and strings were the name of the game, with Love's Forever Changes and the Pretty Things' Emotions being representative works of the era. The Monks' spartan sound stuck out like, well, a tonsure at a long haired love-in.
The album's cover reflected the music's stripped down minimalism. The word "monks" appeared on an all black cover, anticipating the Beatles' famed "White Album" by over two full years. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that every song on the record is an original. What other group debuted with an album comprised wholly of originals in early 1966? Besides the bastardized "We Do Wie Du," there wasn't a cover in sight. By mid-67, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience debuted with records made up totally of original compositions, but the Monks seem have been the first rock'n'roll unit to do so.
It was the music's uncompromising nature, though, that set it apart from its contemporaries. Whereas the Yardbirds graphic blues were mutating into psychedelia, the Monks music had no shadings. It was like an Orson Welles' movie set in post-war Europe i.e. stark and grim, shot in black-and-white. In 1966, the Yardbirds were referring to their music as "images in sound." If that holds true, then the Monks were producing music in black-and-white.
The original album has gone on to be one of the pricier pieces of rock'n'roll memorabilia. An original pressing of Black Monk Time has been rumored to fetch up to $1000 from some collectors. Finding one for less than $500 is rare.
After the recording sessions finished, the group returned to the touring treadmill. They were elated at the prospect of their album being released. The Monks played with unparalleled ferocity, stalking the stage like five exterminating angels whilst laying down carpets of aural napalm.
One of the original songs they performed live didn't make it onto the album. Fortunately, it appears as one of the bonus tracks on the CD reissue, obtained from a German television appearance. "Monk Chant" is just what the name suggests. The Yardbirds had already laid down a song with Gregorian chants in mid-'65 entitled "Still I'm Sad." Of course, that famed quintet usually did everything first. The Yardbirds' take on vespers was very, well, monkish, like frost on stained glass. On the fade, someone even whispers "amen."
That would never do for the Monks, though. Johnston's drumming is blood curdling, tapping horrible memories from Jung's collective unconscious. The Monks moan eerily, raising hackles on the neck. Burger mutters incantations, calling on some forgotten god. Visions of human sacrifice abound. Vestal virgins struggle and scream in the hands of pagan priests. Burger sets his talismanic guitar on the floor, where it commences to issue unholy feedback. Clark and Day join him, tapping on the frets to obtain the horrific sounds of arterial fluid flowing. Actually, it's more like a gang rape. Then, there's warm and dark visions of a knife raised as Johnston's drums thud like a heart in a seer's hand.
Often, they opened for more chart-oriented British groups such as the Creation, at that time riding the German charts with "Painter Man." "The singer painted a canvas, which he destroyed. And I remember the guitar player using a violin bow, but we just thought 'So, that's their shtick.' Everybody seemed to be trying out some gimmick to be different," Eddie Shaw said.
Dave Day also remembered playing with the Troggs, commenting specifically on their lead vocalist, Reg Presley. "They had that hit, you know 'Wild Thing.' The singer sounds so sexy on it," Day said. "But he didn't have any stage presence. He stood there like a wet mop."
The Englishmen were totally unprepared for the pyrotechnics the Monks displayed. The Americans' act had been forged in sweaty dives throughout Germany, often six to eight hours a day every night. Consequently, they demonstrated more chops and integration, blowing the Brits out the door. "The English bands thought they were big time. Until they heard us play," Day added.
At one show, they played with the Kinks, a band that at one time had been particular favorites of the ex-GIs. Larry Clark even used to sing the Kinks' second hit, "All Day and All of the Night" at gigs. Unfortunately, the Americans' admiration for the Brits was soon to sour slightly.
Tempers flared backstage between Dave Day and the English group's lead guitar player, Dave Davies. A fan had fought her way through security, hoping to secure a signature from her idols. The Kinks' Davies abused her verbally and she broke into tears. The Monks' Day consoled the fan, giving her an autographed photo of his band. She brightened and bustled away. Then, Day turned on the Kink.
"I told him he should treat his fans better. After all, they're the ones responsible for making a band successful" Dave Day recalled. Dave Davies told the Yank to piss off. It's quite telling that in his autobiography, "Kink," Davies makes short shrift of the Monks. He quickly mentions their stage persona, dismissing them as "silly." He never mentions the Monks' music or his altercation with Day. Roger Johnston was nowhere near as diplomatic as his bandmate. "The Kinks' drummer (Mick Avory) and bass player (Peter Quaife) were nice guys," Johnston recalled. "But the Davies brothers (Ray and Dave) were arrogant pricks."
By this point, Black Monk Time had been released, as was a first single, "Complication." Critical reaction appeared favorable. European magazines compared their album to LPs by the Cream and the Lovin' Spoonful. Despite the non-stop touring, these laudatory raves buoyed the band's morale to a certain degree. The Monks' notoriety didn't translate into chart action, however. Sales proved minimal. Consequently, the riches weren't pouring in as they had envisioned. Their first royalty checks worked out to about ten dollars per person.
One night the group played a show with the legendary Bill Haley and his band, the Comets. Dave Day, a rock'n'roll fanatic since the genre's inception, shyly introduced himself to the man. "He was wonderful. He was a little puzzled by what we were doing," Day said. "But he said it was very interesting." Haley seemed slightly amused at the younger man's stage persona. A picture was taken of him with Dave Day. There's a noticeable difference between Haley's trademark spit-curl and the Monk's gleaming pate.
Jimi Hendrix, then an obscure American performer based in London, was touring Germany with his English group, the Experience. Eddie Shaw noticed the black guitarist's melancholy diffidence. Hendrix, however, spent an unusual amount of time watching Gary Burger.
"He checked out how Gary used feedback. Hendrix and Gary used it differently. He also asked questions about Gary's wah-wah," Dave Day said. Remember, that particular pedal was a relatively new effect at the time. Hendrix was soon to make it part of his aural arsenal. Hendrix also mentioned that the Monks' music was unlike anything he'd ever heard. Shaw ruefully noted that this was not necessarily a compliment. Thinking they'd seen everything under the rock'n'roll sun, the Monks were impressed by Hendrix, nonetheless. "He was one of the greatest showmen I've ever seen," Larry Clark said admiringly.
Meeting their pioneering heroes and rock's newest revolutionaries was one of the few things the Monks had to look forward to. Months dragged by, with commercial success still eluding them. They weren't making money off the album, which Polydor said had not even paid for itself. The Monks were neophytes, babes in the woods, when it came to business procedures. They just wanted to play, hoping that their management was taking care of the legal end of things. Some of the band members voiced vague discontentment with this state of affairs. Gigging seven days a week gave them little time to get a grip on the situation, though. Further, the incessant process of touring itself wore on everyone's nerves. Playing and sleeping in beer drenched venues had lost its allure.
"We were getting a little bit burnt out," Eddie Shaw said. "We were still playing the same places after all that time. We asked when we were going to play in America. They told us when we had a hit over there. The problem was, they weren't releasing anything in the States." Dave Day and Larry Clark sniped at one another constantly. Tension between Eddie Shaw and his wife, who didn't want a musician for a husband, didn't help matters. Nor did Roger Johnston's drug use, which caused major mood swings in the drummer.
The CD reissue of the album contains some other bonus tracks. After "Complication" was released as the first single, two more 45's were issued. These singles did not appear on the LP, but rather were recorded with the intent to breach the charts. The two 45's show a noticeable change in direction for the band. "We were under pressure to produce something more like traditional pop," Gary Burger said. "So we gave it a shot."
The first single, "I Can't Get Over You" b/w "Cuckoo," is one of the most bizarre attempts at commercial music ever. The A side features organist Larry Clark on his sole lead vocal. The song is highly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground. It would not appear out of place on that band's eponymous third album. Close your eyes and you can easily hear Lou Reed's nasally voice delivering the lyrics. The Monks didn't have the penchant for antiseptic pop like the aforementioned New York quartet did, though. "I Can't Get Over You" comes across as slightly anemic. The flipside is a completely different matter, however.
The Monks' rhythmic attack is intact on "Cuckoo." It's the lyrics and vocals that strike one as eccentric. Burger's vocal opens the tune, swiping a page out of some outlandish Beach Boys' songbook. He nails high notes that no male, unless he's a castrato, should be able to hit. Next, the drummer finally gets his chance to be in the spotlight. Johnston's monotonal singing voice tells an odd story about somebody stealing his pet cuckoo. During the bridge, fuzzed-out guitars and booming drums remind the listener that, yes, this is the Monks. Then, Burger reprises the chorus, jarring the listener back to unreality.
Soon after, the Monks toured Sweden. They played several shows and made an appearance on national television. One night they stayed in a hotel, or so they thought, where they commenced to engage in the usual debauchery. Women visited their rooms. In the morning, the hotel's management appeared highly disturbed. Empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts littered the band's quarters. The Monks' behavior had shocked the man at the front desk and he let them know it. Confused, the band questioned him. He turned out to be an abbot, not a night clerk. The Monks' Swedish road manager had booked them to stay in a monastery! He thought it would be great PR, getting the Monks thrown out a religious order's sanctuary.
Not amused, the weary band returned to Germany and their lives on the road. By this point, fames luster was tarnished. "We were getting fed up," Eddie Shaw stated simply. The Age of Aquarius was supposedly dawning. Several of the Monks tried the sacrament that epitomized the so-called "Summer of Love." They found THC strangely lacking.
"There was some minimal enjoyment of hashish during the last year, but I can't say that it increased the sought after dementia levels," Gary Burger said. "I think it made me mellower and stimulated my urge to sing 'Danny Boy' soft, pretty and high in a windblown wheatfield with a violin section at my left elbow."
Of course, Eddie Shaw's memory differed slightly. "Yes, Gary was in the wheatfields often. We all were. I don't remember any violins. I only remember a chorus of sexy nuns," he reminisced. "Maybe they were prostitutes in disguise. Oh, God! Don't print that. Someone will say I called nuns prostitutes. Damnit, that's even worse. Don't say anything."
Perhaps the hashish could be held accountable for the continued softening of their sound. Once again, they entered the studio in an another attempt to crack the pop market. Certain members of the band were willing to experiment with these contrived and watered down formulas. Others found it a betrayal of the monkish ethic.
Their last single, "Love Can Tame The Wild," proved the latter faction to be in the right. A mawkish song, it has cliched lyrics that include taboo words like "moonlight." The 45 is as uninspired as the LP was revolutionary. The flipside, once again, is a strange little number. "He Went Down To The Sea" has psychedelic tinges and an Eddie Shaw trumpet solo. The one point of interest is Burger's girlish vocals as he delivers the gender bending lines "and then he went down to the sea/ and thought of the girl I used to be." Wrestling with one's sexual identity does not a song make, however. Over-beat is absent from both songs, giving no clue as to who this band is or had been.
By this point, dedication to the Monks' image was giving way to a desire not to be gawked at anymore. Johnston was growing his hair out as were other members. They were also wearing colorful clothing. Surprisingly, the least likey rock'n'roller of them all, the chess master Larry Clark, remained steadfast. He chided the apostates for their lack of belief. Clark tried to convince the fallen Monks that their once and future vision could still come true. Unfortunately, his liturgies fell on deaf ears.
Black Monk Time and the subsequent singles were unreleased in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Polydor was unsure of the music's reception outside of Germany. Further, one must question whether British and American listeners of the era would have been ready for such an assault on the senses.
This was never put to the test. The Monks had a tour of Vietnam and points east scheduled for 1967. After this, there were vague plans to play the States. The handwriting was on the wall, however. Touring war torn Southeast Asia made absolutely no sense to Roger Johnston. The police action in Vietnam was escalating. The band was making no money as it was, never mind the possibility of becoming rock'n'roll martyrs courtesy of the mad Viet Cong. Burger and Johnston had both gotten married in the meantime. Consequently, external pressure emanated from all three wives against the tour. Addled by self-doubt, Johnston fled back to America with his wife. He sent Gary Burger a postcard, announcing his resignation. The proposed tour collapsed.
Worn out and shell shocked, the rock'n'roll soldiers dispersed. Johnston was already in Texas. Burger caught a plane to New York City. Clark and Shaw, along with his wife, took a tramp steamer back to the States. Day was to stay in Europe for another nine years, living a hermit like existence in Germany's forests.
The story doesn't end with the Monks departure from Germany, though. Like the rest of humanity, they found a semblance of normalcy and continue to struggle through everyday life. Larry Clark went to college and worked at IBM for over twenty years until his retirement. Gary Burger lives in his home state of Minnesota, where he runs an audio and video production company. Burger produces records and in his spare time enjoys hunting and fishing. Roger Johnston also lives in Minnesota, where he works two jobs. Eddie Shaw runs an independent publishing company that issues books of fiction. He wrote an autobiography detailing his days with the band, entitled appropriately enough "Black Monk Time." Shaw still spreads the Monks' gospel, appearing at rock'n'roll conventions and reading on National Public Radio. And Dave Day . . . well, what would you expect from the original rock'n'roll citizen? In a phone conversation, Day was informed that this interviewer had recently seen Link Wray perform."Link Wray! Are you serious?" Day shouted. "Me and some of my friends still play 'Rumble' in our set sometimes! He's still playing? That's great!"
Day went on to tell about four of the five Monks getting together in February 1998 to record some new songs. "Man, we sounded incredible. It was amazing. We look fine. None of us are overweight. Hell, I'd shave my head and play with the guys in a heartbeat," he said. "I'd love to play in New York City."
Deferred dreams that might be realized? Let's hope Day's enthusiasm is infectious. When the possibility of playing live is broached with the other Monks, they usually laugh nervously and change the subject. They don't realize the grip that their music holds on today's fans, who are wise to the hype that accompanies every flavor-of-the-month act. The Monks also seem unaware of the true depth of interest that is slowly seeping to the surface. They've gotten on with their lives and rock'n'roll is a young man's game after all. But there are plans to release a CD of early demos and other unreleased songs, with the probability of the new material following in its wake. Maybe they're just hedging their bets, seeing how things fare.
There is a hardcore sect of Monks fanatics, upon whom the group could depend upon to turn out for to a tour. The music resonates with people who were born a decade after the band brokeup. Most telling, perhaps, of the music's staying power is an encounter Eddie Shaw had two years ago.
"I ran into a guy in Carson City who had been a GI. He'd gone out with a German girl and she took him to see us in a club in Hamburg. When he found out I'd been in the Monks he said 'I saw you assholes. What the fuck kind of music was that? I didn't like it, but I've never forgotten you'," Shaw said, chuckling.
Whatever the future holds, the Monks' legacy is secure. They left an incredible document in the form of "Black Monk Time." In retrospect, 1966 was rock'n'roll music's zenith, a watershed of experimentation, the promise of which has never been fulfilled. The Yardbirds' "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," a nuclear meltdown and aural firestorm posing as a pop song, has yet to be equaled. The Who's early potential soon dissolved into Pete Townshend's ego-tripping in an attempt to give rock'n'roll "meaning" when it already meant more than it ever would again.
The Monks didn't break up until 1967, but they were at their innovative peak the previous year. Modern music's just now catching up. Bands like the Beastie Boys and the Fall claim them as an influence. Somehow that doesn't hold water. The Monks music was truly one of a kind, forged in the sweaty dives of a place and time that is long gone. The Monks' influences, be they Bill Haley, Ray Charles or the Ventures, are alien to today's pop stars, i.e. they're quaint figures in rock'n'roll's musty history book. That locked up sound is impossible to recreate, whether because of today's technology or because now rock'n'roll is just a good career choice devoid of its former passion and freshness.
The only certainty is that there never will be the likes of the Monks again. If gods ever did walk this earth, they were five ex-American GIs playing over-beat music. With tonsures.
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