Black Monk Time
The Monks were formed by five American GIs stationed in West Germany, not really the sort of collection of guys you’d expect to produce the kind of music The Monks did. They got out of the Army, but stayed on in West Germany, building a cult following. The origins of the band date back to 1963, when four of the GIs, Gary Burger (lead guitar and vocals), Larry Clark (synth), Eddie Shaw (bass) and Dave Day (rhythm guitar) joined with a German civilian called Hans and formed The Torquays, inspired by The Fireballs’ track, ‘Torquay.’ Burger and Day had been playing in an on-duty musical duo together, and they added Clark and Hans to fill out their sound. Shaw was only reluctantly admitted to the band, largely because he wasn’t a bassist. They played cover songs and a few originals to keep the GIs and Germans happy.
After finding themselves a talent manager who convinced them to stay in Germany after they got out of the Army, they added Zach Zachariah on vocals and Bob Rose on drums. But this didn’t work, their discharges came too late. So, Burger recruited Roger Johnston to play drums. They cut a single, they found a residency at a bar in Stuttgart, and it was here they morphed from a standard American rock’n’roll band into something new. The space inside the Rio Bar gave them the chance to experiment with electronics, feedback, and sound manipulation. And so their signature sound of abrasive guitars, feedback and distortion, began to emerge. They renamed themselves the Monks, though Clark wasn’t sure of this. His dad was a priest.
With a new management team, they got down to business, playing around with sound and rhythm. They got new instruments and hardware. They used a fuzz box, a wah-wah pedal, a floor tom drum, and Day began to play an electrified six-string bass, which provided them with a counter-rhythm to the bass and drums, further complicating their sound. They developed what, at first, sounded like a primitive sound, due to the use of the floor tom for drums, as well as their heavy use of hypnotic beats, further developed by the organ, and a de-emphasis of melody.
Black Monk Time is their only album, both their début and their swan song. It was recorded in Cologne, West Germany, and produced by Polydor’s in-house producer, Jimmy Bowien (who was also an opera singer in his spare time). And, it is nothing short of brilliant.
Aside from the music comprised of primitive drumming, swirling organs, squalling guitars and banjos, Burger had a voice. It was deranged, unhinged, and frantic. It was once described by a critic as ‘a yowl that was soulful in its own strangled-cat sort of way.’ Sounds about right.
Black Monk Time declares its intentions right off the bat. ‘Monk Time’ opens with a swirl of organ and a pounding rhythm section, with a distorted guitar riff. And then Burger steps up to the mic:
Alright, my name’s Gary.
Let’s go, it’s beat time, it’s hop time, it’s monk time now!
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!
James Bond, who was he?
Stop it, stop it, I don’t like it!
It’s too loud for my ears.
Pussy galore’s comin’ down and we like it.
We don’t like the atomic bomb.
Stop it, stop it, I don’t like it . . . stop it!
What’s your meaning Larry?
Ahh, you think like I think!
You’re a monk, I’m a monk, we’re all monks!
Dave, Larry, Eddie, Roger, everybody, let’s go!
It’s beat time, it’s hop time, it’s monk time now!
The song is atonal, it is off-kilter, it is utter genius. And that segues into ‘Shut Up,’ where Johnston starts off with a metronymic sound that would come to dominate German experimental music, and then a pounding beat and the organ swirls around. The band together chants the lyrics and then Burger moans, ‘Be a liar everywhere’ before the band tells him ‘Shut Up! Don’t Cry.’ We go out with this wicked little bit of Clark hitting the keyboards like he’s Ray Manzerak (who, for the record, died in 2013 in what had been West Germany).
‘Higgle-Dy Piggle-Dy’ is one of my favourite tracks, and perhaps describes the title describes the track best. The guitar hacks away, almost in the backround, the bass guitar leads the drums around by the nose, and then the organ takes over, just laying itself all over the track. I can imagine this track in 1966 just confusing the fuck out of anyone who heard it. And then Burger chants, in his off-kilter, deranged manner, ‘Higgle-dy, piggled-y’ and the band respond ‘Way down to heaven.’ Burger’s guitar solo is like him, off-kilter, though more distorted.
‘I Hate You’ might the most straight-forward track on the album, propulsed forward by the rhythm section, but then Burger shows up and takes this into the realm of the Monks, off-kilter and deranged:
Hey, well i hate you with a passion baby yeah (but call me)
Well you know my hate’s everlastin’ baby yeahyeah (but call me)
Do you, do you, do you, do you, do you, do you, do you, do you
Do you know why i hate you baby? Huh, do you know?(but call me)
Cause because you make, make me, make me hate you baby, yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah
And then Clark’s organ! And the distortion off the banjo! And the guitar!
‘Complication’ begins in a squall of distortion that wouldn’t sound out of place in the MC5 or the Stooges before the pounding beat kicks in and Johnston and Shaw’s bass chugs forward, and Burger chants, sounding kinda like Jello Biafra over a decade later:
People die for you
People will for you
Ain’t it fun for you
To their deaths for you
I’ve always seen this as a dig at military leadership and the political leadership of the US as the Vietnam War began to ramp up.
But Burger has been holding out on us. The last track on the album, in its original pressing, is ‘That’s My Girl.’ It’s a pretty standard rock song, boy meets girl, boy nearly loses girl because another guy comes along. But it’s not because, well, the Monks. Over a boppy-ish beat, propulsed by the tom and the bass guitar, the organ chugs a single note and then again and again and then Burger:
What you doin’ with that girl over there?
Well, that’s a nice girl you got
She sure looks good
I bet you’re gonna make love with her, huh?
Yeah, that’s a nice girl you got
Well, I bet you are gonna make love with her
Well, that’s a good lookin’ girl you got fella!
Hey, haven’t I seen her somewhere before?
She sure looks familiar
I can’t . . . uh . . . let me see, uh . .
That’s a nice girl!
Wait, that . . . that’s my girl you got!
You can’t have my girl!
That’s my girl!
Nobody can have my girl, she’s my girl!
Aw, you quit that! No!
I can just see the scene in a bar in West Germany somewhere, where the Monks were playing, and Burger’s girlfriend was sitting at a corner table in the darkness of the bar, and this guy comes along and tries to woo her away. And Burger notices from the stage, and this is what happens. And, of course, he sounds completely fucking insane as he sings here, and he’s that guy you always are wary of, perhaps not entirely insane, more than likely dangerous.
As for the Monks, they released this album and it more or less flopped flat on its face. The world just wasn’t ready. Polydor wouldn’t even release it in the US due to the anti-war message (seriously, did Polydor have any understanding of the world as it was in 1965-66?). The band was bummed. Management wanted them to carry on and began to push them towards more conventional sounds. It didn’t go well. The continued to play, in Europe with Jimi Hendrix, and they were slotted to tour, of all places, Vietnam, to play to American GIs. But Clark didn’t take this well, deciding that if they went, they’d be captured by the Viet Cong. And so he went home to Texas. And so that was it.
They did reunite to make their American début in 1999, 32 years later, at the Cavestomp festival. Another reunion came in Vegas in 2004, but then Johnston died after a long battle with lung cancer later that year. They carried on with a few more shows in 2006-07 in England and Germany. And then packed it in again. In 2008, Dave Day died of a massive heart attack, and Burger died in 2014 of pancreatic cancer.
But their legacy is immense, first via Krautrock and then everything from punk to hip hop. Listening to Black Monk Time today, 44 years after it was released, it still sounds vital, fresh, and is a towering statement to the genius of these guys.