Band of the Week: The Monks

[This is the first in a weekly series of articles in which Tacoma weekly contributor Sean Contris will elucidate on relatively obscure bands that music lovers need to know about. – Ed.]

All right, so let's get this show on the road. With a sense of giddy, childlike excitement, I begin work on what is to be my very own column discussing bands that I adore, and all you have to do, good people, is sit down, read this article, look up whatever act I discuss and proceed to have your minds blown. I thought for a little over 15 minutes on what band I should cover to introduce this thing of mine with, and the only correct answer was this: The Monks.

The Monks are one of those rare rock oddities that kicked down one too many doors in their quest for innovation that (with the exception of those open minded enough to enjoy it) ended up scaring off the public and sealing their fate as obscure, ahead of their time geniuses destined to be remembered when we all could actually wrap our minds around their music.

The Monks were harsh, they were ugly, they were mean and boy, were they angry. Formed out of Germany by a group of American GI's in the mid 1960s, the sound that The Monks created was clearly based around pop music, but destroyed the conventions of its time, focusing instead on raw primal energy, repetitive song structure, and a whole lot of distortion. Looking back on the band's incredibly small body of work, it isn't hard to see just how far ahead of the time these guys were.

Outside of the odd demo tape, The Monks’ entire discography is based around their one and only LP, "Black Monk Time"(1966, Polydor). "Black Monk Time" is an album with something of a legacy. Generally speaking, "Black Monk Time" is only a little behind the birth of garage rock, and thus serves as a strong precursor to both punk rock and noise rock. The nihilistic tone that the band toys with through much of their material is clearly a starting point for a large number of rock musicians that would follow in their wake, and the band's influence can be felt in a number of places from acts as diverse as The White Stripes, Beastie Boys, and others.

At just 29 minutes, The Monks created an album of such ferocity and aggression that the energy they were able to capture is still exhilarating today. What we are talking about here is an album that has aged perfectly. The intro track "Monk Time" is an all out aural assault set against the insane, giddy yelps of front man and guitarist Gary Burger and a bouncy structure that is on a constant upward rise, climaxing only seconds before the song reaches the finish line. "Monk Time" sets the tone for the rest of the album, and foreshadows exactly what we can expect from the rest of the 11 songs. The power of Burger's vocal range, the harsh organ provided by Larry Clark, the menacing harmonies that would later make songs such as "Shut Up," "That's My Girl" and "I Hate You" so unforgettable, the chaos that would end up devouring much of the record’s time, all are on display on "Monk Time" and damn, is it powerful.

"Monk Time" is a jaw-dropping bombshell, a swift kick in the teeth that make The Doors or The Beatles look like bands that were designed for the ears of children. One of the most noteworthy aspects on the LP is the band's use of distortion. Foreshadowing noise rock, and more importantly the coming of The Velvet Underground, The Monks’ sound was such a stark contrast to the music of the day. Many of the band's songs broke down into chaotic sections of improvised and uncontrolled noise, and the inclusion of Larry Clark's organ only added a harsh layer of atmosphere to the band's already head-spinning music.

The subject matter on "Black Monk Time" is bleak at its happiest. Sure, many of these songs are simple on a surface level but by looking deeper, it isn't hard to see how disturbing much of this material really is. "Oh, How To Do Now" reeks of sexual frustration, and borderlines on absolute desperation as Burger nearly begs a woman for sex while dressing himself up as a suave lady killer in possession of startling confidence. The entirety of "Black Monk Time" hinges on a sense of extreme sexual repression. Tracks such as "Oh How To Do Now" and "I Hate You" come from a place of demand and painful desire, and what emerges is debauchery at its finest. The Monks are vicious to the opposite sex, no pity, no nothing, where the rest of the pop music world was busy pining after a girl they had a crush on, The Monks demanded women. There is no trace of love in any of these songs, just frustration, anger and repression, creating a record that is almost entirely from the hungry and sex-starved id.

Nevertheless, The Monks are not only hung up on sex. As soldiers, the band is more than willing to rail against the trials and tribulations of the times. Noticeable references are given to Vietnam, death, and the idea of James Bond, a perfect killing machine that they cannot help but find a sort of black humor in. "Complication" is undoubtedly the most vicious song "Black Monk Time" has to offer and if anything on this record marks it as an important precursor to punk rock, it is this one. "Complication" is nothing if not unbolted fury. The Monks rail against privilege, the fortunate, ignorance and above all the politicians and citizens who treat war and death like a game to be won: “People cry/ People die for you./ People kill,/ People will for you./ People run,/ Ain't it fun for you."

Yet "Black Monk Time" isn't all bleak. What offsets it, and continues to establish "Black Monk Time" in a genre of its own, is the humor that the band incorporates into the blackness of their material. Burger's voice is so over-the-top, so energetic, so ridiculous that it becomes a hysterical centerpiece that greatly contradicts the tone that the band has spent their entire career establishing. Burger's vocals become even funnier when paired by the harmonies of the rest of the band. The backing vocals, when in comparison to Burger's overt excitement, feel nihilistic, rising in volume only to express anger and resemble a warped militaristic chanting Beach Boys. The backing vocals are ordinarily pushed to the back to recite repetitive hooks or add emphasis to Burger's already punchy delivery.

The closing track, "That's My Girl," is perhaps the most notable use of the band’s backing vocals. Reduced only to a single phrase, "Yeaaaah" the band startles the listener by uttering it in a creepy tone that only rises in menace as the song reaches its conclusion, eventually ending on something that sounds like malice. This may sound terrifying, and in all reality the voice of the rest of the band is generally off-putting, yet the bouncy structure and rhythm of the song paired with Burger's always energetic performance create an almost surreal feeling in the listener, and if you are wondering if you should laugh or cringe by the song's conclusion, you are not alone. Ordinarily, this contradiction of tone would serve to undermine the overall quality of the album. But not this time. The humor combined with the dark subject matter only serves to leave an image of The Monks laughing at the world. "Isn't it all just so damn funny?" they cry out with a desperate plea.

The Monks were never able to recapture the glory that they did with "Black Monk Time." Maybe it's because they said everything they needed to say with this, maybe it's because they had run out of laughs. Whatever the reason, "Black Monk Time" has truly stood the test of time, and has established The Monks as one of the most interesting and important rock bands to emerge from the 1960s. Now, it is up to us when we re-listen to their work to decide whether we laugh along with them or look on in horror.

Sean Contris is a student at Wilson High School. Oftentimes he comes too close to embodying the classical, and often times stereotypical, persona of a young male writer. Sean enjoys listening to a wide range of music and locking himself in his room to read sad Russian novels.


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