Music in Black &
Year of the Monks
was swinging, the Byrds soared on the wings of their
most innovative single, "Eight Miles High,"
Brian Wilson labored in the studio on a legendary
lost masterpiece and the Yardbirds fronted the mightiest
lineup in rock n roll, with Messrs. Beck and Page
on dual lead guitars. Pop Art and its bastard stepchild,
Psychedelia, were about to rule the airwaves.
from Germany there came dark rumblings that hadnt
been heard since the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930s.
Guitar and organ howled in orgiastic competition as
a thunderous tribal beat bludgeoned song structures
into strange forms. Rhythmic cadences echoed the slap
of jackboots goose-stepping down Berlins boulevards.
There were also strained and shrill vocals, eerily
reminiscent of a sputtering orator disposed of only
20 years before in the ruins of the Reich Chancellerys
that was missing were the chorus of hoarse "Sieg
Heil"s. Even then, there were aural equivalents
in a song called "Complication." The lead
singer chanted :"complication, complication"
as the backing vocalists intoned "people cry
for you, people die for you" over and over. The
effect is mesmerizing, as is the rest of the Monks
1966 debut album, "Black Monk Time."
enough, there wasnt a war criminal in sight,
just five decent, clean-cut American boys playing
rock n roll. Its taken over thirty years for
music to catch up with the ground work laid by the
Monks on their one and only album.
in the waning days of 65, the album was an anomaly.
Harsh and abrasive, the music has not only withstood
the test of time, its grown more pertinent with
every passing year. A grotesque and fantastic tale
precedes the release of "Black Monk Time,"
in 1964 by five American GIs stationed in Germany,
the Monks started off as a very traditional rock n
roll outfit. Initially called the Torquays, the band
played the standard beat music of the day. The musicians
(Gary Burger, lead guitar/vocals; Larry Clark, organ/vocals;
Dave Day, rhythm guitar/vocals; Roger Johnston, drums/vocals
and Eddie Shaw, bass/vocals) covered Chuck Berry tunes,
surf music and various songs by British Invasion artists.
the band was comprised of highly imaginative musicians.
They soon tired of the expected format and began experimenting
with their sound, focusing almost solely on rhythm.
got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing
harmonics," bassist Eddie Shaw said. "Everything
was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated
music did not come out of the blue, however. The lead
guitar player, Gary Burger, elaborated on the process.
"It probably took us a year to get the sound
right," he recalled. "We experimented all
the time. A lot of the experiments were total failures
and some of the songs we worked on were terrible.
But the ones we kept felt like they had something
special to them. And they became more defined over
of the components in this alchemy of sound was feedback.
Burger discovered feedback independently of the many
English players who have all been heralded at one
time or another as the inventor of said effect.
were practicing and I had to take a leak," Burger
said. "I laid the guitar against the amp and
walked off the stage. I forgot to turn it off and
the thing began to make this god-awful racket. It
started off humming and then it increased in volume.
Roger started hitting his drums and it sounded so
Shaw went one step further when describing that initial
bout with feedback. "Just imagine the sound of
the Titanic scraping along an iceberg," he said.
"It was like discovering fire."
Burger quickly learned to control the feedback. Wielding
a Gretsch Black Widow guitar, his lead lines were
run through an audio atom-smasher that masqueraded
as a Fender amplifier. A thick and distorted cacophony
of black sound emerged. Burger trashed the speakers
so often, however, that he had to switch to a heavy-duty
Vox Super Beatle that had a custom-made 100 watt amp.
this time, the rhythm guitar was traded in for a six
string banjo. The band wanted to sound as grating
as possible and a banjo fit the bill quite nicely.
Dave Day played this instrument, an oddity in rock
n roll. To amplify the banjo, he stuck two microphones
inside it. He chorded it like a guitar and the horse
gut strings produced strange clacking sounds. Days
frenzied attack is one of the most unique aspects
of the groups departure from conventional rock
n roll music. The slashing banjo stays on the beat
for the most part, but at times it introduces a counter-rhythm.
The effect can be quite disconcerting. Day was also
the bands original rock n roll citizen, having
been an Elvis devotee since the mid-50s.
Burger was never a flashy lead player, but he sought
levels of dementia unknown to other guitar players
of the era (except for the fretwork of Syd Barrett,
original guitarist/vocalist with the Pink Floyd).
Burgers guitar was employed in either short,
stinging riffs or abrasive chordal poundings that
dissolve into waves of feedback. A devotee of the
Gibson fuzz box, Burger painted twisted, Bosch-like
a nominee for the greatest rock n roll singer ever,
Gary Burgers vocals often crack, confirming
the confusion and fury of a young man frightened of
Vietnam and nuclear bombs. Spitting and strangling
on the lyrics, Burger conveys rage in a way no punk
vocalist has ever matched.
backbone of the unit was the drummer, Roger Johnston.
Initially a jazz influenced percussionist, he dispensed
of complex fills and adhered strictly to the beat.
This produced a primal effect, which was enhanced
by his use of huge sticks on a French-made Asba kit.
He was the bands whipping post, laying down
a thick bottom upon which they ran amok. To accentuate
the aboriginal nature of the music, Johnston rarely
used a cymbal. Whereas another percussionist would
have used a cymbal flourish, he substituted vigorous
thwacking on the tom toms.
dogged it. I wanted it to sound as raw and thumping
as possible," Johnston said in a phone interview.
Indeed it does, invoking primeval nightmares. His
drumming conjures images of Roman centurions pounding
spikes into crosses at a crucifixion.
there was Eddie Shaws bass playing. As the other
half of the rhythm section, Shaw was also initially
a jazzophile. Fortunately, he had none of the pretensions
associated with that genre of music. Shaw was a lycanthrope:
a jazz man by day, a rock n roller by night. And in
the Monks world it was always dark. Shaws
fluid bass patterns pulsate and moan, breaking down
into jagged chunks of noise. He played extremely loud,
raising legions of stigmata on ones skin. He
turned his Gibson bass and Selmer amp up until the
18" speakers rattled. The resultant bass lines
buzz and throb, snapping and popping like hells
but not least, theres the crazed fingers of
the keyboard player. Larry Clark summoned different
tones from his organ, ranging from something out of
"The Phantom of the Opera" to interstellar
delta pinging. Clarks playing was usually methodical,
anchoring the band to terra firma. He would often
introduce melody into the song during the bridge.
These melodic breaks did not last long, however. Clark
would bear down on the keys, fighting to be heard
above the guitar feedback. The resulting discord is
not unlike Booker T. Bach and Bo Diddley dropping
rhythm section, Johnston and Shaw, along with Days
propulsive banjo, insisted on lockstep syncopation.
Consequently, the music took on something akin to
modal qualities. In this regard, they anticipated
the Beatles one chord raga "Tomorrow Never
Knows" and the Butterfield Blues Bands
legendary noisefest "East-West." Both of
those songs were long thought to be harbingers in
western pop, but the Monks ushered in the repetitious
drone a half-year ahead of schedule.
and Clark stacked layers of noise on top of this modal
effect. These discordant textures added depth, giving
the lie to the simplicity of rhythmically-bound music.
The band also introduced arbitrary key changes to
the songs, producing tension. Taken altogether, the
music virtually explodes, achieving a riot of sound
that no other band was creating at that time.
of this voodoo stew, twisted songs with dadaist titles
began to coagulate; "Oh, How To Do Now,"
"Shut Up" and "Higgle-dy-Piggle-dy"
to name just a few.
CONTINUE TO PART II >>>
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