Monks - Black Monk Time - Review
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critics' view

This treasure-packed classic was recorded in Köln in November 1965 and issued in March 1966. These weren’t ordinary musicians with a normal image. They were irregular players styled as monks, with überbeats that came from somewhere else entirely. As has always been the case for those positioned on the outer fringes, the group struggled to be heard beyond their German base, and often had a difficult ride of it there too. Lead singer Gary Burger: “I can’t remember that there was much response at all. The Monks were pleased that we had an album out but I don’t remember getting much feedback from fans or press at the time. I think it was ignored and quickly buried. Maybe it was too edgy for 1966. I know that there wasn’t a single sweet note in Black Monk Time and I’m glad of it to this day. We made many of our audiences nervous… I think our album did the same.”

At the time of their sole album release they were: Gary Burger (22, lead guitar, lead vocals); Lawrence Spangler (22, organ, vocals); Eddie Shaw (26, bass, vocals); Dave Havlicek (24, electric banjo, vocals) and Roger Johnston (26, drums, vocals). The five were tightly bonded with their common experiences; all were American GI’s based in Germany, and all had a keen interest in playing and creating music, as they did formally and informally before and after their army duties had ceased. A restless streak lay within them as a group – even the new English beat groups couldn’t lift them out of their boredom which had set in with the endless Chuck Berry riff-o-rama. The group themselves were always looking to add a twist to the standard template, and when they ran into a couple of art-school graduates by the names of Walther Niemann and Karl-H. Remy, fate spun them onto a new pathway. The Monks moniker was conceptualized all the way down to a set of offstage rules which meant they must always be seen in public with the trademark look of short hair with tonsures, black clothes, ropes around the neck, and an image of being hard and dangerous. Bassist Eddie Shaw: “We were the reaction to the moment – the anti-anti. As in all art forms there is a reaction and in rock and roll we might have become the first to react. That I don’t know for sure. At the time I do know that rock was not considered an art form. We became the anti-purists. There is no purity in rock music – perhaps that’s why we became known as the anti – anti’s. Actually there is no purity in art, period.” It was their new German friends and management team who introduced the electric banjo to Dave – immediately he dropped his rhythm guitar. Singer Gary Burger: “Roger’s drums and Dave’s banjo defined the Monk sound. Incredible.”

Legend has it that Monks members sang anti-war songs while they were sat in tanks, and no time was wasted in getting that across on this album, which gets off to a provocative start. On “It’s Monk Time”, the opening gambit reads: “All right, my name's Gary, let's go, it's beat time, it's hop time, it's monk time! You know we don't like the army. What army? Who cares what army? Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam?” The music was repetitive and intended to create tension. These confrontational lyrics, made all the more notable by the fact that they came from former GI’s, were in-keeping with the group’s ethos. It was a brave thing to be doing – and Burger later admitted that even he felt uneasy about putting it out there – but they were true to their conviction and time would prove them to be correct. Former US Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, writing on the management of the Vietnam War in his 1995 memoir, “In Retrospect”, said: “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” One can only surmise that Mr McNamara did not avail himself with a copy of “Black Monk Time” in ’66.

The demented excellence is omnipresent on this album, but “I Hate You” in particular hits hardest, with a screaming vocal, a slow beat drag and a depth charge organ which pummels down and dirty where no organ has been before. I'd go to church if they played the organ like that. It’s probably one of the most honest love songs ever written – boy meets girl sweet nothins’ were not for Monks. The classic “Oh How To Do Now” follows, and you get a sense of what the band was up against when you hear comments that people felt insulted that a singer could chant those same words some 30 times in a row, getting more and more frantic with the mantra. For this heinous crime against traditional musical values they were lambasted by at least one magazine reviewer at the time – although most writers just ignored them completely. “Complication” keeps up the anti-war sentiment with the most scathing intonations on the whole album: “People KILL for you… people go to their DEATH for you”. Having fun with their bewildered German audience, they throw in the odd “constipation” in amongst the “complication”. This tomfoolery works for me.

Second last in is “Blast Off!” which, not unsurprisingly by its' futuristic sound, had tentatively been titled “Space Age”. Here, in this most egalitarian of groups, all members get a chance to shine. You can add proto Silver Apples to the proto-VU, proto-krautrock and proto-punk recognitions. Bassist Eddie comments: “We all knew that we were doing a different sort of music, but as far as being a forerunner band—that was the furthest from our minds. We really weren’t thinking that. We were thinking that we were playing rock and roll with a twist, and the twist was the electric banjo, the feedback, the drums, basically not using cymbals but lots of tom toms. We had no idea that we were creating a new movement. And I’m still thinking, hey, we were just a rock and roll band that really had a lot of fun, and was able to be lucky enough—or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view—to work on the album.”

On a personal level, I worked really hard to get a hold of this album, eventually getting it imported via mailing list from Germany sometime in the 90s. “Black Monk Time” was barely a blip on the radar back then, unheard of even in those record shop tomes, preventing your local friendly dealer from uttering those immortal words “I can order it for you”. It was Mark E. Smith who pointed the way – he rarely lets you down that boy. Typically, after I struggled to get it for months, it got the full re-issue treatment a few years later and became about a quarter of the price. Kids today don’t know how easy they’ve got it. It’s now only the press of a button way. Isn’t it a pity the war mongers couldn’t make such dynamic progress?

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