Rewind: Black Monk Time By The Monks
With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here we look back at the The Monks’s groundbreaking yet somewhat forgotten debut, which turns 50 years old this week.
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What is Black Monk Time?
Alright, my name’s Gary. Let’s go, it’s beat time, it’s hop time, it’s monk time now!
Released a half-century ago, in March of 1966, Black Monk Time marks the sole release from those criminally obscure and devoutly disruptive expat proto-punks known as The Monks. All American by birth, the freakish five-piece found themselves stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War, first coming together as a band on base and later deciding to stick around and give Hamburg a try.
Though cutting-edge and tremendously groundbreaking, this entirely original effort made no impact upon its initial release. But the story of The Monks is one of both bad luck and of good luck. Hell, that their visionary genius was lost in time until fairly recently is unfortunate. And sure, it’s a damn shame they only put out one record. But that five like-minded, forward-thinking military men would find each other while serving abroad and go on to create some of the most powerful, ahead-of-its-time music of the ‘60s is near unbelievable.
What’s more, though the record is of course dated to a degree, it still manages to forcefully exhibit the manic mentality that set it apart from most everything proceeding it in the age of flower power. While other bands would soon unknowingly pick up where The Monks left off, there’s no denying these robed rebels pioneering credit. They preached punk and even krautrock before anyone else. They played entirely by their own rules.
What does it sound like?
“We got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing harmonics,” Monks bassist Eddie Shaw once said of their magic formula. “Everything was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated on over-beat.” When listening to Black Monk Time, the band’s predominantly percussive nature proves immediately apparent. There’s the stomping, the hard strumming of banjo and guitar, the repetitive bass lines and equally repetitive drums. It’s music befitting of ex-GIs with a taste for counterculture, reminiscent of a mad goose marching toward hell.
In but two minutes and twenty-two seconds, standout cut “Complication” offers a characteristically concise summation of The Monks’ sound, prominently featuring not only their rhythmic foundations but also their dark guiding undertones and the uncontrollable sonic explosions that punctuate their work. A fuzzy guitar riddled with feedback leads the charge and as the regimented strumming builds upon itself, morbid lyrics are delivered with an unsettling hint of deranged, cynical joy in a something between a bark and a yelp. “People cry / People die for you / People kill / Yeah they will for you / People go / To their deaths for you,” sings frontman Gary Burger. omething’s gotta give and eventually it does as a distorted, wildly frantic organ erupts into a solo. It’s the musical equivalent of an orgasm.
“Complication” proves entirely representative of Black Monk Time, both in terms of sonics and subject matter. It’s a record that often feels like the musical manifestation of erratic anxiety but there are also moments of genuine comedic brilliance, dark though they may be. To listen to Black Monk Time is to hear the crazed paranoia and confusion surrounding the conflict in Vietnam from a band of ex-soldiers with a penchant for biting wit.
Why should I care?
While Black Monk Time may not have changed the world, it’s easy to imagine how it could have. It firmly establishes The Monks as the definitive precursor to bands like The Stooges, The Doors and even The Velvet Underground. Unbeknownst to the punk scene to come, the genre’s barebones, percussive approach coupled with repetitive and frenzied lyrics was first developed by The Monks. Moreover, it stands in stark contrast to the popular baroque inclinations of the time, championed by the likes of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. In the year of Pet Sounds and Revolver, Black Monk Time stood alone.
But The Monks were originals from the beginning, encouraged by German ad-executives Walther Niemann and Karl Remy, a pair of “existential visionaries” who aided them in becoming the very antithesis of The Beatles. Consider their very image: where the florally dressed Fab Four had long hair, these ferocious five clad in dark robes had practically none. What’s more, they broached sensitive subject matter with an unmatched stripped-down vigor, confronting the fears plaguing the age head-on and without compromise while others sang of peace and love. They dedicated themselves to this vision with military resolve. No corners were cut, no head left unshaved.
Additionally, The Monks would lay the foundation for krautrock, a predominantly German genre of enormous importance that would go on to influence countless musicians (from David Bowie to Radiohead) and ultimately evolve into the first iteration of electronic music as we understand it today. Repetition coupled with their intense commitment to rhythm over melody makes it easy to see how a bands like Kraftwerk, Can and Neu! almost certainly drew from The Monks. And yet somehow, for all of Black Monk Time’s radical experimentation, it remains wholly accessible.
Where can I hear more?
Unfortunately for fans of Black Monk Time, The Monks would never put out a follow-up record due to their lack of commercial viability. That said, those craving more can take solace in The Early Years 1964-1965, a record that displays The Monks working to crystalize their then one-of-a-kind sound. But where only a handful of artists might claim to have created an entirely new kind of genre or form, The Monks are able to take credit for two.
Consider The Stooges, an iconic proto-punk band lead by Iggy Pop widely thought to be the originators of the punk sound. On their 1969 self-titled debut, one might hear the same sort of percussive intensity on tracks like “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Later, Devo would echo The Monks on tracks like “Triumph Of The Will” from 1979’s Duty Now For The Future, laying biting and goofy yet witty commentary over primitive and simplistic drum lines you won’t soon forget.
And as mentioned earlier, The Monks’ sonic stylings might be found in krautrock as well. OnC an’s 1969 debut album, Monster Movie, for instance, tracks like “You Doo Right” feature the same sort of anxious build as is heard on “Complication,” enhanced by similarly half-yelped, half-barked vocals. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk would master The Monks’ defining rhythmic repetition on records like Autobahn (1973) and Trans-Europe Express (1977).
Though once forgotten, these robed game changers are a must for anyone with an interest in the early genre iterations of punk, krautrock and even electronic. Put it this way: for a revolutionary time, make it Black Monk Time.
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