The Monks  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Monks are a rock and roll band, primarily active in Germany in the mid to late sixties. They reunited in 1999 and have continued to play concerts, although no new studio recordings have been made. The Monks stood out from the music of the time, and have developed a cult following amongst many musicians and music fans.

Artists to have acknowledged the Monks as an influence include Henry Rollins, the Beastie Boys and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, as well as The Fall. The latter covered both "I Hate You" and "Oh, How To Do Now" on their 1990 album Extricate (under the titles "Black Monk Theme Part I" and "Black Monk Theme Part II", respectively), as well as the song "Shut Up!" on their 1994 album Middle Class Revolt. The Fall have also covered "Higgledy-Piggledy" for the Monks tribute CD Silver Monk Time.



The Formation of The Monks

All the members were American GIs stationed in Germany in the mid-sixties. They began playing together in 1964, calling themselves the 5 Torquays. The Torquays differed little from countless other bands of the time: They covered Chuck Berry songs and played music inspired by the British beat groups. But the band experimented together musically - Gary Burger said:

"It probably took us a year to get the sound right. We experimented all the time. A lot of the experiments were total failures and some of the songs we worked on were terrible. But the ones we kept felt like they had something special to them. And they became more defined over time."

Upon their discharge from the army the band developed a distinctive musical style, and took up a distinctive name and image to go with it. The transition from their earlier, more conventional and less provocative aesthetic to the abrasive and cutting-edge sound of their "Black Monk Time" period was partly induced by the influence of "a pair of loopy existentialist visionaries" <ref>The Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time. Jim Irvin, ed. Edinburgh: Mojo Books, 2000. p. 58</ref> called Walther Niemann and Karl-H.-Remy. Remy, Student of university for design in Ulm, and Niemann, Student of Folkwang Arts Academy in Essen, "designed" the "Monks" as "Anti-Beatles": short hair with tonsures, black clothes, ropes around the neck, image of being hard and dangerous. Remy and Niemann were an instance of the post-War West German avant-garde intelligentsia impacting Anglo-Saxon pop in a manner perhaps comparable to — but more intense than — that of the Hamburg art scene on the early Beatles.

The Monks stage garb

At the beginning of 1965, Dave Day and Roger Johnston, on a whim, got their heads shaved into monks' tonsures. The rest of the band followed their lead, and to complete the image, the band took to wearing a uniform - all black, sometimes in cassocks, with nooses worn as neckties. Eddie Shaw later claimed in his band autobiography Black Monk Time that the nooses were symbolic of the metaphorical nooses that all humanity wear. His explanation exhibited a literal translation of gallows humor. The same attitude seems to be exhibited by the blunt lyrics of the band. Of course the brazen attitude toward sensitive subjects was not well met. They received confused audience reactions at concerts: One attendee attempted to strangle Gary Burger at a show in Hamburg, presumably for perceived blasphemy.

The group's sound

The band abandoned common elements of much sixties rock n roll:

  • They have very little emphasis on melody, their songs are rhythmic, rather than melodic. The rhythms are heavy and repetitive, with the drums supplying a sound often described as 'tribal'.
  • Song structures are minimal and repetitive, but do not tend to follow the standard verse-chorus-bridge patterns of a pop song.
  • The band's lyrics are dadaist and playful, yet paranoid. They combine nursery rhyme style lyrics ("higgle-dy piggle-dy") with war commentary ("Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam? Mad Vietcong! My brother died in Vietnam"; "People kill, people will for you/ People run, ain't it fun for you/ People go, to their deaths for you"), surreal interjections ("James Bond, who was he?") and paranoia about girls and love ("I hate you with a passion baby! And you know why I hate you? It's because you make me hate you baby!").
  • The vocal delivery is strangled, wailing and frantic, contrasted to deep chanting backing vocals which recall Gregorian chant.
  • Gary Burger utilises a great deal of guitar feedback and dissonance (According to Eddie Shaw's Black Monk Time, the group invented the use of audio feedback for musical purposes. This is open to debate as the Beatles had already recorded and released "I Feel Fine" by November 27, 1964. Black Monk Time wasn't recorded until November 1965 - one year later. The prevailing opinion is that "I Feel Fine" marks the earliest recorded example of the use of feedback for musical purposes.) It's been claimed by Burger that Jimi Hendrix caught their act in London and paid special attention to his use of feedback and the newly developed Gibson Fuzzbox along with the Wah-Wah Pedal.
  • Dave Day replaced his guitar with a six-string, gut-strung banjo upon which he played guitar chords. This instrument sounds much more metallic, scratchy and wiry than a standard electric guitar.

Many of these musical elements are also found in sixties New York acts like The Fugs and The Godz in particular, but also The Velvet Underground. When the Monks developed their sound, the only one of these bands who had put out any records was the Fugs; it is unclear if the Monks had actually heard the Fugs or developed their sound independently.

Because of these features, the Monks are often referenced as forerunners of the later punk movement. Template:Fact Their use of improvisation, noise and motorik rhythms (as well as their geographical location) has also led to them being cited as the godfathers of krautrock.

After the Monks

  • In 2006 play loud! productions<ref name="playloud">play loud! productions</ref> completed the documentary film monks - the transatlantic feedback in conjunction with the release of the album silver monk time - a tribute to the monks.
  • Eddie Shaw went on to play in a prog rock band called Copperhead in the 1970's and went on to become an accomplished fiction writer, who also wrote their autobiography Black Monk Time.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Monks" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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