[Today: It’s Monk time…]
Many bands – including The Kinks, The Seeds, and The Stooges – can make compelling claims to the mythical title of The First Punk Band. But none has a more interesting case for the honor than The Monks. This group of American G.I.s stayed on in Germany after their military tours were completed in the early 60’s and, as The Torquays, became one of the better-known beat bands in Hamburg. Beat music was the European equivalent of what became known as “garage rock” in the US – regional acts with a sound based on a combination of rock, R&B and skiffle. The Monks’ brand of Beat was dubbed “Hard Beat” because it featured buzzing distortion, ringing feedback, and angry lyrics. But the short, sharp melodies of their 1966 album Black Monk Time – with song titles like ‘I Hate You’ and ‘Shut Up’ – were much closer to the primal energy of what would become Punk than even The Seeds and Kinks on their nastiest days.
The Monks were probably best-known in their time for their wild look – they wore monk-like robes and had their heads shaved into monks’ tonsures, which provided a startling visual contrast to their sound. But guitarist Gary Burger, drummer Roger Johnston, bassist Eddie Shaw, organist Larry Clark, and banjo player Dave Day will be remembered in the long run for their music. Burger’s yowling vocals, Day’s electrified banjo and Clark’s wild organ runs set The Monks apart from any band before or since. In spite of their eccentricities, the group was exceedingly popular in Germany for a time, toured regularly, and often played to audiences numbering in the thousands.
Like the Ramones a decade later, The Monks were good-humored about their style (this, after all is the band that claimed ‘I Hate You’ was a love song, and wrote a tune called ‘Cuckoo’ in an effort to crack the charts) but also intensely serious about their music. “The idea that Americans were dying for a questionable reason was the catalyst that had caused us to sing ‘Monk Time'” wrote Shaw in his fascinating 1994 band bio, Black Monk Time. “It was a screaming incomprehension caused by the growing suspicion that a government may not reflect the real interests of its people.”
Black Monk Time was the first in a planned trilogy of albums that was to include Silver Monk Time and Gold Monk Time. But the band was dealt a serious blow when Polydor refused to release the album stateside, for fear that it would be too controversial. And when the album failed to chart any singles in Europe, Polydor dropped them, and it was only a matter of time before they broke up. Sounding every bit like Henry Rollins, Shaw defends The Monks sound by saying “Our message is positive because it’s true.” Listen, and The Monks shall set you free…
Listen: Monk Time
Listen: I Hate You
Watch The Monks play live on German TV, circa 1966: