Studios, at the time, were not equipped to play our kind of music.
– Eddie Shaw
If anything, that’s an understatement. Black Monk Time frequently seems like a dispatch from an alternative 1966 in an alternate universe. How else to explain five American soldiers stationed with the postwar occupying force in Germany, dressed all in Johnny Cash black, their heads shaved into monks’ tonsures, replacing their neckties with the coarse ropes monks used as belts (or are they nooses?), and making music that sounds like…well, like this?
The Mojo Collection recommends Black Monk Time for “the utter pre-punk impossibility of its existence,” but that doesn’t quite fit. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine any punk band performing in matching uniforms, For another, the Monks didn’t exactly pull their sounds out of thin air. The thriving subgenre of garage rock was full of bands displaying the fury and DIY simplicity of punk. The Velvet Underground had already formed two years earlier, and the raucous Detroit punk of Iggy and the Stooges and MC5 was just a few years away. Even the Beatles anticipated punk in their own Hamburg days (at the same club, no less!), covering pop standards like “Twist and Shout” and “Ain’t She Sweet” with a snarl and a sneer that seemed to mock the whole concept of pop stardom they’d soon define.
But the real problem with Mojo’s description is that the strange brew of mismatched ingredients in Black Monk Time, of anarchy and precision, exacting minimalism and untamed energy, doesn’t seem like it should happen anytime. Maybe that’s why it couldn’t last: the band fell apart not long after its release for a variety of reasons including tension over a possible tour of Vietnam – frontman Gary Burger allegedly misunderstood the famous image of the burning monk and thought the Viet Cong would burn the Monks alive!
Even the cover seems to exist unstuck in time, nothing but the words “monks” on a plain, none-more-black background, two years before the Beatles would be universally praised for their minimalist “White Album.” That fits the sparseness of the Monks’ vision, described on their website as an anti-Phil Spector “steamroller of sound,” and hammered out through mad experiments over a period of years. “If anyone wasn’t contributing towards rhythm,” says bassist Eddie Shaw, “Then it wasn’t part of the Monks sound.”
They show off their finest work right out of the gate with the furious title track. Eddie, drummer Roger Johnston, and banjo player (yes, banjo player) Dave Day pound out a martial beat. I discovered listening to it while running for a plane that it’s the perfect action-movie soundtrack, and maybe some enterprising future director will have the wisdom to lay it over a chase scene, preferably starring James Bond (“Who is he?”) Then in comes the skeletal, unhinged Gary Burger, his cracking voice ranting feverish nonsense in a street-corner stream-of-consciousness that seems to speak to all the madness of a generation that was still hiding behind a flower-power façade. (Alec Empire’s stronger, harsher vocal on his cover shows just how unique and essential Gary’s performance is to the song.) He even brings in the defining horror of the decade:
We don’t like the army, what army, who cares what army?
Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?
Mad Viet Cong!
And suddenly, dropping his persona for a shocking moment of candor (that may or may not actually be true), “My brother died in Vietnam.”
A medieval tradition of self-denial seems like a strange choice of name for a band devoted to anarchic, countercultural hedonism. But it’s still fitting for their organ-heavy sound that sometimes sounds like we’ve been transported from the club to mass, and the very Dark Ages darkness of their worldview. And Gary’s rants frequently take on the cadence of a sermon, if one you’d be more likely to hear in a snake-handling Holy Roller revival than a Gothic monastery.
And if they’ve recontextualized their namesakes, they do the same with everything they touch. On “Higgle-Dy Piggle-Dy,” Gary takes a nursery-rhyme refrain and turns it into something like a call to arms. The others respond, “Way down/To heaven/Yyahh!” a lyric I’d call blasphemous if I had any idea what it means. A song like, “I Hate You” (immortalized in the legendary, “This isn’t Nam, there are rules” scene of The Big Lebowski) takes the Silly Love Song formula that still dominated popular music and twists it inside out. And after it’s done that, it twists it around again. Over the dark, thudding beat, Gary screams out, “Hey, well, I hate you with a passion, baby!” the rest of the band chimes in, “But call me.”
The tension between Gary and his brothers in the cloth may be what makes the whole Monk mishmash hang together. Despite all the squeals and distortion, they’re incredibly disciplined players, whose steady accompaniment provides musical grounding while Gary launches himself into Cloud Cuckoo Land. He repeats his lyrics as if he’s suffering from Tourette’s or palilalia, or like he’s filling time while he thinks of what to say next: “Do you, do you, do you, do you, do you doyoudoyoudoyoudoyou know why I hate you baby? Huh, do you now?” “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!” The Monks’ discipline didn’t mean they had to sound pretty, though. They experimented with all the “mistakes” they could make with their instruments to produce screams of feedback, all but inventing noise rock.
The CD/streaming release includes a few bonus tracks, recorded when Polydor panicked after listening to the band they’d signed and demanded the Monks come up with some more commercial songs for radio play. These sessions produced one triumph with their parody of Beach-Boys style harmonizing, “I Can’t Get Over You,” as the Monks push their voices into Mickey-Mouse falsetto. But the other tracks from the Polydor sessions show just how precarious the Monks’ unique sound was. Just by nudging it a few inches towards the middle of the road, these songs make them sound almost normal, and that strips them of all their appeal. Without all the screaming, squalling noise behind him, Gary’s ramblings just sound incoherent: look at “Cuckoo,” which, depending on the line, is addressed to someone who either stole his cuckoo or is his cuckoo. He’s still playing with his trademark repetitions, but “If you didn’t take my coo-coo, then who are you, who-who?” sound less mad or maddening than just plain goofy. Polydor went against Eddie’s credo, adding plenty of instruments like horns and bells that do nothing to contribute towards they rhythm and have no place in the Monks’ sound.
Brian Eno says that not many people bought the Velvet Underground’s records, but everyone who did started their own band. Maybe that’s true for the Monks too, and maybe one of the bands who bought their record were the Velvet Underground themselves – their and Nico album the following year bears the stamp of the Monks’ noise-rock innovations. And they’re not alone – everyone from Jack White to to the Dead Kennedys to the Beastie Boys sings their praises and incorporates their influence. And that’s probably exactly where the Monks belong: in music history, but not of it. It’s nothing short of a miracle that a record like this could come together, and I’m more inclined to be thankful it happened at all than disappointed we didn’t get more of it.