Most forms of music progress logically, like a building under construction. Before anything else, there must be a foundation. This determines how large the building can be before it topples: a building that is too tall, too heavy, or too wide for its foundation will crumble and, becoming rubble, cease to be a building. In the building's foundation, then, its dimensions, limitations, and ultimate demise are apparent. Music also has it's foundations. These foundations are laid by the true originals (or true geniuses or true drug addicts or what have you) of the medium, musicians smart enough (or dumb enough or crazy enough) to come up with something new. In the works of those musicians there are inherent ideas that are never fully realized by their originators. It is from those ideas that we can see the fall of the building. Beethoven made Mahler inevitable, Charlie Parker made Ornette Coleman inevitable, and Elvis made the Sex Pistols inevitable. The glitch in the theory is the monks. Nothing makes them inevitable, and they don't make anything inevitable. They are the Alpha and the Omega of their own creation. A catch-phrase description like "true originals" sounds ridiculous when discussing them. If you told a Monk that he was a "true original" he probably wouldn't even blink at you. And he shouldn't. It would be like telling the elephant that he had big ears while a lion dangles from his tusk. The Monks are the first free-floating building in the history of rock 'n' roll: they are self-contained, standing on nothing and ending, by their own design, at the first floor.

The Monks were Gary Burger (guitar, lead vocals), Dave Day (electrified banjo, vocals), Larry Clark (organ, vocals), Eddie Shaw (bass, vocals) and Roger Johnston (drums, vocals). They were five American ex-servicemen who met in post-war Germany, which makes sense because you'd have to have a German severity to write this music and a military training to play it. In 1966, they came out with an album called Black Monk Time. Go buy it now, if you haven't already: it features the tightest, loudest, heaviest music ever put on record, then or now or ever, most likely. You should own the album if for no other reason than to have the outer limits of rock n' roll at your disposal, ready to be played and gawked at. Monkmusik definitely has an effect on one's mental well being, for better or for worse. The day I first heard Black Monk Time (summer of '97 in Will Shade's kitchen somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Appalachia) I wrecked my car.

Ironically, the Monks evolved out of a good time surf band called The Five Torquays. The Torquays revolved around guitarists Burger and Day, and personnel shifted over a few years, eventually solidifying in 1964 (the final addition being expert tom thwacker Roger Johnston) with a line-up that would become the Monks. 1965 saw the recording and release of the Torquay's only 45, "Boys Are Boys" b/w "There She Walks" ("Boys Are Boys" survived the Torquays, albeit in a much grizzlier form, and is the third track on Black Monk Time). More importantly, '65 also saw their switch from being an off-beat band to channeling chaos as the Monks, the band's new moniker. By the end of the year, Johnston had begun playing his cymbal lines and accents on his tom-toms; Clark, who was playing the bulk of the solos in their repertoire, had done away with melody as a guiding influence; Day had eschewed the six-string guitar in favor of the six-string banjo; and Burger played what few notes he deemed necessary through fuzz boxes (and doing it so loudly that he went through twelve of them before the band's demise). And Shaw played whatever the hell he felt like. It is also worth mentioning that to promote their pious and humble new image, they had shaved tonsures into the tops of their heads and were wearing black clothing with rope ties. Needless to say, Germany was surprised.

The backbone of the Monks' music is in Roger's drumming. The thudding of his omnipresent toms is constantly accenting and coloring his sharp snare work and sparse use of cymbals. He is always in control. It sometimes sounds as if he is directing the band, which is a rhythmic experiment in itself, from the rear. Dave, whose banjo is exclusively rhythmic, usually takes his cues from Roger's snare, often playing at twice the drummer's speed. The hollow, mad clacking sound of Dave's banjo is at times evocative of a locomotive that has dropped its cars and cargo in favor of a faster pace. Playing somewhere in between the two is Eddie's overdriven bass seeking to put everything into some kind of harmonic perspective. Gary and larry play what might be viewed as the "melody" of the song as well as the solos. Gary's soloing technique is to rip sheets of feedback out of his guitar, which yammers and howls in protest, before slapping it back into the framework of the, er . . . "groove." Larry usually skitters across the keyboard allowing occasional glimpses of fat cathedral-esque tone. His infrequent chords show the kind of caterwaul his organ would actually be capable of, if he slowed down long enough. The overall effect is maddening. It is without a doubt the most uncompromising stuff ever to call itself rock 'n' roll.

The Monks released two more singles before breaking up in 1967 amidst a haze of infighting and weirdness. Both of these singles are included in the re-issue of Black Monk Time and bear some mention. The first, "I Can't Get Over You" b/w "Cuckoo," was their biggest commercial success, and though both sides of it are admittedly more tame than Black Monk Time, the 45 still bears strong traces of pure monkdom. The idea that "Cuckoo" might actually turn up on a German oldies station is positively psychedelic in its twisted absurdity.

Twistedly absurd in a less listen-able way was their next 45 "Love Can Tame The Wild" b/w "He Went Down To The Sea." This 7" was the monks' shot at pop, and it was a miss. Neither tune has dated very well, though they are still interesting simply because it shows the Monks attempting some very unmonkly material (Eddie Shaw on trumpet!)

Disputes over the direction of their music left the band in pieces, which slowly drifted back to the States. They're still around, somewhere, secure in the knowledge that they have already accomplished what we laymen can only dream about attempting. Contained in this site is the story of rock 'n' roll's first, and last, monastic order.


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