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Issue 123

Black Monk Time

The Monks (Light in the Attic, 2009)

BY Daniel Trilling in Culture Digest | 05 MAY 09

The Monks receiving their first tonsures, 1966. Courtesy: The Monks

The Monks were a short-lived American guitar group based in West Germany during the mid-1960s. In 1965 they released their only album, Black Monk Time, which wasn’t very successful, and despite touring relentlessly for several years, they never stole the hearts of more than a handful of German teeny-boppers. In that respect, they resembled countless other bands who tried and failed to emulate the success of British Merseybeat groups such as the Beatles, who cut their teeth gigging on the Hamburg music scene.

Where The Monks differed, however, is that they left behind an album of such originality that it sounds fresh even to over-burdened 21st-century ears. Black Monk Time is as much the product of the band’s managers as of the musicians themselves. Walther Niemann and Karl-H Remy were a pair of German design graduates who transformed their charges from a workmanlike rhythm and blues outfit called The 5 Torquays into a group billed as the ‘anti-Beatles’, replete with heads shaved into monks’ tonsures and a glowering stage presence (an inversion of the Fab Four’s mop top haircuts and smiley demeanour). Niemann and Remy encouraged the group to reduce their music to the barest of essentials: one riff, one drum pattern per song, with recording levels pushed into the realms of distortion and feedback. Added to the mix was the bizarre, clanking sound of an electric banjo and the wailing vocals of frontman Gary Burger, whose lyrics ranged through an angst-ridden list of topics: hate, obsession, lust. On the extended intro to album opener ‘Monk Time’, he unleashes a string of flailing invective against the Vietnam war, culminating in the outburst ‘Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam?’ (the following line, about ‘mad Vietcong’, was apparently inserted at the insistence of the rest of the band, who didn’t want to damage their chances of success back in the States).

From our vantage point, The Monks’ sound seems to anticipate several later developments in pop: the aggressive, distorted guitar stabs sound like late-1970s’ punk rock, while the relentless, metronome-like beats were a big influence on the ‘motorik’ sound of the German krautrock groups Neu! and Kraftwerk. The Monks, though, wrought a unique sort of joy from this unlikely mix. It’s in strongest evidence on ‘Oh, How to Do Now’, where a doo-wop style lyric is laid over a pulsing organ riff that builds and drops in ways more common in an acid house track than anything of its era.

Curiosities unearthed from the archives are a staple of today’s music industry. They often aim to give us a small thrill, a tinge of nostalgia or regret at the might-have-beens and dead ends of history. But Black Monk Time is different: it reveals the production-line pulse that underpins pop music. If repetition is the defining feature of the industry – the same song structure, the same melodies, trying to present themselves as fresh and exciting in a hundred different ways – then The Monks turned that vice into a virtue. It’s why, 40-odd years on, their music still has a frightening rawness.