Music in Black & White
The Year of the Monks

1966. London 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.

But from Germany there came dark rumblings that hadn’t 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 Berlin’s 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 Chancellery’s garden.

All 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."

Strangely enough, there wasn’t a war criminal in sight, just five decent, clean-cut American boys playing rock n roll. It’s taken over thirty years for music to catch up with the ground work laid by the Monks on their one and only album.The Torquays

Recorded in the waning days of ‘65, the album was an anomaly. Harsh and abrasive, the music has not only withstood the test of time, it’s grown more pertinent with every passing year. A grotesque and fantastic tale precedes the release of "Black Monk Time," though.

Formed 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.

Fortunately, 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.

"We got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing harmonics," bassist Eddie Shaw said. "Everything was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated on over-beat."

The 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 time."

One 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.

"We 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 right together."

Eddie 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."

Gary 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.

Around 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. Day’s frenzied attack is one of the most unique aspects of the group’s 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 band’s original rock n roll citizen, having been an Elvis devotee since the mid-50s.

Gary 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). Burger’s 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 aural hallucinations.

Also a nominee for the greatest rock n roll singer ever, Gary Burger’s 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.

The 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 band’s 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.

"I 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.

Then there was Eddie Shaw’s 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. Shaw’s fluid bass patterns pulsate and moan, breaking down into jagged chunks of noise. He played extremely loud, raising legions of stigmata on one’s 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 hell’s own spawn.

Last, but not least, there’s 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. Clark’s 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 acid together.

The rhythm section, Johnston and Shaw, along with Day’s 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 Band’s 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.

Burger 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.

Out 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.



All contents copyrighted by the Monks ~ Designed by the Scallywag