A Diet of Worms
(reviews of The Monks reunion gig)

The Monks' Moment, Recaptured
Review by Jon Pareles from THE NEW YORK TIMES
Monday, November 8, 1999

Jubilation greeted the American debut of the Monks, who played their first show since 1967 on Friday night. The reunited band still had the ornery ferocity that made its 1966 album, "Black Monk Time," a touchstone of contentious, aberrant rock.

The Monks were headliners at the three-night Cavestomp '99 at Westbeth Theater Center. Cavestomp resurrects obscure bands from a beloved moment in rock history: the mid-1960's, when young Americans reacted to the British Invasion by letting their hair grow, plugging in guitars and playing their own leering, hopped-up, technically deficient reaction to the British version of American rhythm-and-blues. Soon psychedelic drugs showed up to warp the music further.

With current garage-rock revivalists opening for the 1960's originals, Cavestomp showed off the contrast between newer bands adhering to primitivism - as a heartfelt return to basics or a deliberate, raucous joke - and the old bands making things up for themselves. The headliner on Saturday was the Chocolate Watchband; on Sunday, the Standells.

The Monks were radical oddballs even in the 1960s. Formed by five American G.I.'s stationed in West Germany, the band started out playing Chuck Berry and surf-rock as the Torquays, but mutated once its members left the Army. They started wearing black with nooses around their necks like string ties: they shaved tonsures into their heads. Their songs turned negative and had them shouting "I hate you with a passion, baby," chanting nonsense syllables or blurting antiwar sentiments: "We don't like the atomic bomb. Stop it, stop it!"

The band stripped down its music, discarding most melody in favor of seething chords above the unison of Roger Johnston's simple, relentless drumbeat and Eddie Shaw's bass lines. Songs pounded and oompahed, then sprouted an incongruous harmony chorus or veered into a new key. Gary Burger's lead vocals rose to reedy, discordant interjections that anticipated Pere Ubu and the Sex Pistols; he discovered feedback when he leaned his guitar against an amplifier. Larry Clark, on organ, used glissandos and clusters, blotches and swoops of sound; Dave Day scrabbled at a six-string banjo, simultaneously tinny and vicious.

At Westbeth, the Monks once again wore black shirts and nooses; their tonsures looked less startling on balding pates. Mr. Burger announced that he had wrecked his voice during rehearsals, and he sang only the lower vocal lines. Mike Fornatale, a frequent correspondent on the band's Web site, took over the higher parts, fervently reproducing the recordings with an expression of abashed incredulity.

Otherwise untouched by time or fashion, the band tore into songs from "Black Monk Time" (Infinite Zero) and an album of demos from 1965, "Five Upstart Americans" (Omplatten). Mr. Burger's lead guitar lines skidded and wailed; Mr. Clark's organ shifted between staccato chords and gusty dissonances. The music was a freshly unearthed relic and it was still sharp to the touch.

The Friday lineup also included a 15-minute set by the Third Bardo, which released "I'm Five Years Ahead of My Time" in 1967. The band's earnest manifestos - about blown minds and the dawn of tomorrow - arrived complete with buzzing, meandering lead guitar solos that were not ahead of their time, but a vivid memory of it.


CAVESTOMP! November 5-7, 1999
Review by Byron Coley from SPIN
February 2000

Westbeth Theatre Centre, New York City – The beer was two dollars. Lenny Kaye was standing by the bar. The band onstage was playing "Dirty Water." If I didn't feel like such an achy old codger, I might have imagined it was a Wednesday night at CBGB in the fall of 1976 and that the band was another bunch of boozers murdering classic '60s garage rock. But it was the fall of 1999, and the band playing "Dirty Water" was none other than the Standells, the same group (more or less) that charted with the record in November 1965. Go figure.

In the wake of Beatlemania, vast hordes of unwashed American teenagers took up musical instruments and used them as cudgels to repel mop-topped foreigners. The garage rock these kids produced had, at its best, such savage simplicity that it regularly resurfaces as a kind of mutable archetype for contemporary teen angst and aggression. The annual Cavestomp! Events, paens to this impulse, features a conglomeration of graying '60s proto-hepsters (the Standells), revisionist '70s frat monsters (the Fleshtones), style-conscious '80s power-poppers (the Vipers), and form-negating '90s raunch merchants (Dead Moon).

This year, the big draw was the return of the Monks, reunited for the first time in 33 years. Formed in Germany in 1964 by a cabal of former U.S. servicemen, the Monks produced one legendary, almost impossibly agressive LP, Black Monk Time, in 1966. Since then, the album has drifted in and out of print like a lost black whale, Yo La Tengo and the Fall have covered its songs, and the Monks have become revered as mysterious nihil-punk demigods. From where I stood, the band's closing-night set was a transcendent experience. Onstage were five grandfathers (all original members!) clad in black, with the white rope belts and tonsures of their namesakes. It seemed like they'd been frozen in time and transported by military helicopter to the room. Dave Day's insane decision to use his banjo as a lead instrument is as unparalleled today as it was in 1964.

As they surged through their set, playing the goofy dance-hall numbers that kept them alive in German army bars, as well as the incredibly dark love songs for which they're best known ("Shut Up," "I Hate You," "Complication"), a sense of disbelief filled the club. People looked at each other, silently asking "Can they be this good?" I saw such presumed unflappables as Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge and Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell standing slack-jawed, trying to figure out what it was the Monks were doing. But I don't think it's replicable. The Monks have that ineffable "it," and man, is it beautiful. Hope you were there. Even if you weren't.