Black Monk Time reissue / The Early Years
, April 23rd, 2009 08:56
No-one, seemingly, has anything but the utmost reverence for the Monks. All the right people have had the right word abroad for them. It's getting to the point where they've become sacred cows (obscure 60s beat-punk division, admittedly). And suspicious cove though I may be, I'm struggling to staunch the flow of reverential prose.
The fact that they have a fabulous back-story is only a small part of the Monks' appeal. A background as GIs on American army bases in Germany, playing a predictable mix of surf instrumentals and R&B, took a hair-raising detour as they flipped from ciphers to full-blown conceptualists. German existentialists Walther Niemann and Karl Remy, in an attempt to subvert 60s pop orthodoxy and its domineering influence over popular culture, persuaded them their destiny lay in becoming the 'Anti-Beatles'. A noble gambit, driven by a neat ideological reimagining of the impact the Hamburg art scene had wielded on the Pre-Fab Four.
Shaving their heads into monks' tonsures and twisting the music into something from a much darker place — largely bereft of 60s pop's prevailing currency, melody — the Monks re-emerged from the shadow of the 5 Torquays, their original, hopelessly Anglocentric incarnation. The fitful, earthy psych-pop that resulted mirrored the development of a garage rock aesthetic back in the US, filtered through Gary Burger's emancipated approach to his vocal takes. Words and phrases are garbled, screeched, elongated or discarded; metronomic rhythms accompany a scuzzed up, endearingly dirty guitar sound, electric banjo and rudimentary organ. 'We Do Wie Du', for example, has a simplistic pop motif ala Herman's Hermits, but is stripped of its innocence by the broody production and pneumatic percussion. 'That's My Girl' positively leers. The atmosphere is of quiet menace, especially sexually. There's none of the bright-eyed, bushy tailed optimism of the beat era, and 'I Hate You's unyielding, unleavened misanthropy is demonstrably ahead of its time, both musically and lyrically.
In a pitch-perfect antidote to the summer of love, the Monks soundtracked the infinite anxieties back at home; most pertinently the Vietnam draft and the Cold War. One can only imagine the bravery implicit in hawking the interrogative "Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?" around the Bierkellers of Frankfurt and Nuremburg, even if they had been discharged from active service by that point. They only released one album, Black Monk Time, for Polydor Germany in 1966, and were all over by the following year, having never played on 'home turf'. But their seed fell on remarkably fertile ground.
The Monks' provocative "nein" to pop music orthodoxy resonated with the evolving Krautrock/German prog movement, and more than one commentator has effusively cited them as precursors to punk (and also associated genres such as industrial). We can gauge that impact via a subsequent generation of would-be mavericks (not that their biogs are ever likely to upstage the Monks for colour) who have proved uncommonly happy to step forward and proclaim themselves part of the same dynasty: from Einstürzende Neubauten to Radiohead to The White Stripes to Iggy Pop to Throbbing Gristle. Credit Ugly Things magazine for rediscovering them and Rick Rubin and Henry Rollins' original reissue on Infinite Zero in 1997. Since then there's been the tribute album, a film (The Transatlantic Feedback), and a bottomless well of peer affection, despite two members (Roger Johnston and Dave Day) passing away.
The Early Years isn't nearly as essential, though it's still captivating in parts — not least for the Joe Meek-esque 'Space Age'. But Black Monk Time retains its aura. As unique a document of musical instinct and irreverence in collision, carried by total, insular commitment to the project, as you're ever likely to find. Or even dream up.