Music Features

Overlooked Albums #31: The Monks - Black Monk Time

There must be some strong karmic forces ruling the universe. Take, for instance, The Monks, a German-based American group whose sole album, Black Monk Time, didn’t get a release in the UK or the USA. Destined to obscurity since their break-up, they became a quirky footnote in rock ‘n’ roll history, grouped with the hundreds of garage bands that never made it. But the album has grown in stature since it came out in 1966, a banner year that saw the release of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, The Beatles’ Revolver, and The Kinks’ Face To Face. In its own unique way, it ranks among those monumental achievements. Yes, it’s that good.

The Monks met as GIs stationed in Germany at the height of the Cold War. They stuck around after their discharge, playing in dives for drunk, rowdy patrons as The 5 Torquays. Their odd German managers had avant-garde leanings, and they had in mind not just a name change but a new image and attitude. The band embraced this rebranding, which turned them into the anti-beat group. They eschewed moptop haircuts and mod suits, dressing instead in black uniforms with short white ropes around the neck, their heads shaved into clerical tonsures. There was, however, no gimmick to the music, which focused on rhythm instead of melody. Miles away from home, they worked on their sound in virtual isolation.

The Monks confused audiences, who loved or hated them in equal measure. They made no compromises, but the music wasn’t there for shock value, not if you got their beat. Monk Time, which opens the album, welcomes us to the brotherhood as Gary Burger’s insane voice cries, “You’re a monk! I’m a monk! We’re all monks!” Weird, coming after a diatribe against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and James Bond, but a world gone mad deserves mad music. This is an initiation that demands a shift in perception, and you must embrace the sound: a hopping tom-tom beat, an insistent guitar riff, a walking bass, a cheap organ telegraphing a note, and a raspy electrified banjo. This is Monkland, and if you find yourself singing along with the chorus, you’re a brother. 

The theme of global madness is consistent throughout the album. Songs like Shut Up and Complication make evident the concern of young men who’ve witnessed, first-hand, the threat of mass annihilation through a senseless nuclear build-up and the escalation of war. The latter has the rhythm of soldiers in lockstep, chanting as the last remnants of individuality fade behind. They sing, “People kill, people die for you”, sounding like bad news knocking at your door.

The songs aren’t meant to be a bummer; they’re tempered by black humor and a sense of detachment that could put off an audience. The album offers lighter fare in tracks like Boy Are Boys And Girls Are Choice, which sounds like a perverted hootenanny. Oh, How To Do Now sounds like DEVO ten years ahead of time with its jerky rhythm, trance chant, and tonal shifts. There’s a nursery-rhyme quality in songs like Higgle-Dy-Piggle-Dy, We Do Wie Do, and Cuckoo, the latter appearing as an extra in the CD reissues. Altogether, they are like Dr. Seuss for the mentally unstable.

The musicianship is top-notch. The Monks’ signature sound relies on Dave Days’ electrified banjo, which on most songs is percussive, working with the drums or producing a counter-rhythm. The organ, played by Larry Clark, delves into some eerie soundscapes. The Monks discovered feedback by accident and quickly learned to work it into the structure of the song. Far from showing off, they use it sparingly in songs like Love Came Tumbling Down or Blast Off. By far, the most unique sound is Gary Burger’s wild voice, which can be ironic, heartfelt or joking, sometimes mutating in the middle of a song from carnival barker to village idiot.

Poor record sales, in-fighting, and the drudgery of constant touring pulled the brotherhood apart. Singles recorded after Black Monk Time suggest that the band could have continued to produce great albums, but it was not to be. The last straw came when the band was booked for a potentially dangerous tour across war-torn Vietnam. It was aborted when Gary Burger and drummer Roger Johnston resigned. Fed up with the music business and each other, they all went back to an anonymity that lasted over thirty years.

Black Monk Time became a prized item among collectors. Its popularity really took off in the early 90s with the first CD reissues. It was such a momentous surge that The Monks took stock and reunited in 1999 to bask in the acclaim. Numerous punk and alternative bands have acknowledged their influence, and the band continues to gain new fans, a phenomenon that prompted the attention of filmmakers Lucia Palacios and Dietmar Post, who produced a documentary of The Monks’ strange career titled The Transatlantic Feedback (2009).

Provocative and visionary, Black Monk Time is no quaint 60s artifact; it’s a great album that every serious rock ‘n’ roll collector must own.