Their story is pure gold: five bored American G.I.s stationed in Germany, forming a run-of-the-mill cover band to pass the time, then becoming frustrated with the conventions of contemporary rock music and eager to mould the genre in their own image.
“And who the hell is going to melt the hot and cold world of tomorrow?” the Monks muse on the liner notes of their first and only studio album: Black Monk Time – a record produced by extraordinary coincidence yet still managing to provide a perfect example of the free and joyous musical experimentation that happened during the 1960s.
They first began playing together in 1963 under the name ‘Torquays’, producing admittedly crude covers of American rock and roll from the 50s. A few years of experimentation followed, with lead guitarist and vocalist Gary Burger approving new members when the need for talent arose, sometimes reluctantly so. The Torquays spent a lot of time with German Exis, a youthful take on the existentialist ideology, even after they were discharged from the US Army. Exi culture was heavily influenced by rock and roll, particularly the Beatles’ psychedelic later work.
Even early in their careers, the band were interested in making what they called ‘anti-rock and roll’ – music intended to be a direct contradiction to what was popular in the mainstream. Nothing exemplifies this more than the song “I Hate You”, which pokes fun at traditional love songs by simply replacing every instance of the word ‘love’ with ‘hate’. A small management shuffle and image update came in 1964, and the Monks began to take shape.
Their personas: eccentric; their music: highly experimental. With a large emphasis on rhythm that was painstakingly honed over the course of a year and a half, their sound conveyed a kind of subversive energy that immediately put them at odds with the record-buying public – in fact, Black Monk Time was never sold in their home country due to its controversial lyrical content, which covered topics ranging from the Vietnam War to the perceived ‘dehumanised state of society’. However, their use of high-volume distortion and feedback loops designed to challenge audiences found the Monks popularity amongst their contemporaries despite a lukewarm initial critical reception. This is evocative of the attitude of the musical movement that would consume Germany in the following years: The Krautrock scene, which existed to divorce itself from traditional blues and rock influences.
Burger’s vocal delivery is shrill yet compelling as it’s driven along by an instrumentation that is pure rhythm. The lyrics ring loud and clear right from the first track, “Monk Time”, where they read much like a paranoid, politicised stream of consciousness:
“You know we don’t like the army
Who cares what army?
Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?
Mad Viet Cong
My brother died in Vietnam!”
However, on the other tracks in the album, the lyrics became much more avant-garde and even nonsensical as they fell into a soundscape that was almost devoid of melody save for some light percussion in the background. The main sonic landscape was built out of deliberate feedback, which was described in the book “Black Monk Time” by Eddie Shaw as being discovered accidentally after a band member left his guitar next to an amplifier.
“You could almost see the sound waves, moving as an incoming tide across the room. Roger [Johnston, drummer], out of simple boredom, had begun to beat a rhythm. It had an astounding effect – this yowling of a wild unleashed electronic noise and then Roger’s heavy drum beat accompanying it. It gave the cacophony a strange sense of having been arranged. [Gary] jumped up on stage, picked up his guitar and twanged it, still holding its face towards the amp speaker. Sound exploded. The effect was instant. It was like discovering fire.”
Whilst being pioneers of a technique that would be imitated by bands around the world, the Monks were aware of their fringe, outsider status. They were a garage rock band at heart, but their anti-war sentiment expressed in the lyrics to some songs made the Monks perhaps one of the first proto-punk projects to ever exist. It would place them among acts such as MC5 and the Stooges; rhetoric-saturated rock music which could be the foundation for the later punk movement – a youthful, frustrated rejection of cultural norms. Bands such as Dead Kennedys, the White Stripes and even the Beastie Boys seem to have experimented with the musical ideas and techniques introduced by the Monks.
“We all knew we were doing a different kind of music”, Burger told music journalist Andrea Swensson in 2009. “but as far as being a forerunner band—that was the furthest from our minds. We really weren’t thinking that. We were thinking that we were playing rock and roll with a twist, and the twist was the electric banjo, the feedback, the drums, basically not using cymbals but lots of tom toms. We had no idea that we were creating a new movement. And I’m still thinking, hey, we were just a rock and roll band that really had a lot of fun.”
Shortly after the record’s release, the Monks disbanded due to internal tensions and frustration at their lack of commercial success. Despite how innocuous he made it seem, Gary Burger’s band still had quite the legacy. They found recognition in record collector circles, with copies of the few original pressings of Black Monk Time sometimes being sold for upwards of $1,000 before they were reissued.
The band released a handful of singles in later years, including the ‘lost’ early demo “Pretty Suzanne” and played a couple of reunion shows in the 90s, but never returned to the recording booth. Many think it would have been impossible to recapture the magic of the original album – its energy was the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle that could only occur in the right place, in the right time, in the hands of the right people.