Obscure 1960s rockers the Monks make comeback

Portrait of the band
Five GIs, including two from Minnesota, found success in Germany with their band, the Monks. Now, decades later, the band's music is being called a forerunner to the punk rock movement. This promotional photo was taken in January 1966.
Photo courtesy of Gary Burger

The Monks' lead singer and guitarist Gary Burger sits at a mixing console in his small home recording studio near Bemidji. He's thumbing through 40-year-old black and white promotional pictures of the band.

"There's a picture of the Monks outside the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Germany," explains Burger.

The Monks had a standing gig at the Top Ten, the same club where the Beatles had played just a few years earlier. The sober young men in the photo are dressed in black tailored suits. They've got ropes knotted around their necks. The tops of their heads are shaved bald like medieval friars.

First came the Torquays
Five discharged GIs formed the group in 1964, calling themselves the Torquays. They played songs by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and other popular artists. But by 1966, they'd transformed into the Monks and abandoned the accepted norms of rock music.
Photo courtesy of Gary Burger

The recently discharged GIs formed the group in 1964, calling themselves the Torquays. They offered German club audiences covers of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and various other artists.

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But by 1966, they'd transformed into the Monks and abandoned the accepted norms of rock music. The album "Black Monk Time," released on the German Polydor label, was different than anything done before.

The Monks threw out melody in favor of a heavy, tribal drumbeat. They replaced a guitar with the scratchy, metallic sound of an electrified banjo. They experimented with guitar fuzz and feedback. Burger incorporated strangled, venomous vocals with minimalist, often nonsensical lyrics.

In the song "Monk Time," Burger spews an angry anti-war sentiment that predates the counter-culture rock music of the late 60s.

"Alright, my name's Gary. Let's go. It's beat time. It's hop time. It's Monk time," Burger sings. "You know, we don't like the army. What army? Who cares what army? Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam? Mad Viet Cong! My brother died in Vietnam. James Bond, who is he?"

Monks haircuts
In January 1966, two German managers convinced the the Monks to shave the tops of their heads in the style of medieval priests. Their visual image also included dark, tailored clothing with ropes knotted around their necks. Musically, the Monks' sound was aggressive and minimalistic, and sometimes included angry anti-war lyrics.
Photo courtesy of Gary Burger

The in-your-face persona of the Monks was not their idea alone. A pair of German music promoters helped craft the band's image. The Monks' name and trademark haircuts were the managers' ideas. So were some of the creative elements of the Monks' sound.

The band had a grueling performance schedule. They shared German stage billing with bands like the Kinks, the Troggs and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Monks appeared frequently on a television show called "Beat Club," the German version of "American Bandstand." Burger says the Monks got a mixed reaction from audiences.

"We had some extremely hardcore fans that would come dressed like we were," said Burger. "They would have their heads shaven. They'd have the black clothing with the rope ties. And on the other hand, we had people who just loathed us. They could not stand us. It was really astonishing, and I'm convinced that a lot of our audience came to us, basically, to see a freak show."

Life as a Monk wasn't always easy. Bass guitarist Eddie Shaw says on at least one occasion, the band was attacked on stage by audience members, presumably for perceived blasphemy. Shaw says his strongest memory of being a Monk is the moment the band first got those strange haircuts.

"When we walked out on the street, the world had changed," said Shaw. "Because from that point when we walked down the sidewalk, older women would smile and wave at us like they thought we were some sort of person of spiritual authority. And then young people would look away and look down when we passed. And we just realized that the world had totally changed at that moment."

"Black Monk Time" wasn't released in the U.S. in the 60s. American record companies rejected Monk music as too radical and non-commercial. The Monks split up in 1967. Guitarist Gary Burger says he and his band mates went their separate ways and had mostly forgotten about the Monks. But in the early 90s, Burger began hearing about an underground cult following.

"My first reaction was, 'Well this can't be so,'" said Burger. "The record collectors were paying a lot of money for an original Monk album if you could find it. And they were paying up to $1,000 if you had a pristine copy."

We had some extremely hardcore fans that would come dressed like we were. They would have their heads shaven... On the other hand, we had people who just loathed us. They could not stand us.

When the Monks found out there was still interest in the group, they created their own label and released "Black Monk Time" in 1994 for the first time in the U.S. One of the group's songs was used in a soft drink commercial. Another was used in the Coen Brothers' film "The Big Lebowski."

Musicians like Mark E. Smith of the British band The Fall began covering Monk songs on albums. Jack White of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs pointed to the Monks as one of his influences. Rock critics began making a connection between the Monks 1966 album and the punk and industrial rock movements a decade later.

David Fricke is a music critic and senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine. He says through word of mouth, the Monks have become a legendary part of rock history.

"It's a story in rock and roll unlike any other, you know," said Fricke. "And the idea of five servicemen shaving the center of their heads and playing this very fierce and quite robotic beat invasion rock, there was literally no one else doing this."

Fricke says the album "Black Monk Time" could be played next to The Clash's first album released years later and a listener could hear an obvious connection.

"It's definitely rock and roll at its most basic," Fricke said. "All the curves are shaved off. Not even shaved off, they've been sliced off and thrown away. And it's genuinely punk. It's punk in the sense that it's very aggressive, it's fighting mad. And you know, in some ways they were actually more extreme than the Stones or the Pretty Things or the Animals, because it was virtually bluesless. There was no blues in this music. It was all very rigid, aggressive structure.

Interest in the Monks is growing. The band is the focus of a new documentary film called "Monks -- The Transatlantic Feedback." German filmmaker Dietmar Post co-directed the project with his wife, Lucia Palacios. Post says he first heard a tape of the Monks in Germany during the heyday of the punk movement in 1981.

"You would go to a party and you'd listen to the Clash and the Sex Pistols, and maybe Einsturzende Neubauten, the famous German industrial band, and then all of the sudden you would listen to the Monks," said Post. "And to me it made total sense. The Monks to me sounded not like a 60s band."

Gary Burger
The Monks' lead singer and guitarist Gary Burger sits at a mixing console in his home recording studio near Bemidji. Texas-born Roger Johnston also lived in Bemidji before his death in 2004.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Post's film includes old television footage and recent interviews with the band and other art and music luminaries. It also captures the band's 1999 reunion concerts in New York City. Those shows would be the last with all five members. Drummer Roger Johnston died at his home in Bemidji in 2004.

The documentary film led Dietmar Post to pull together another Monk project -- a tribute CD featuring 29 bands from around the world.

English-born musician and artist Genesis P-orridge participated in both projects. He fronts the band Psychic TV. P-orridge places the Monks somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground.

"People are recontextualizing the history of rock music because of them," said P-orridge. "There's a missing link that was completely overlooked because they were so much just in Germany. And it was just a geographical mistake. If they had managed to travel, then things would have been very different. I've always wished that the Monks had come to London to play. I think if they had moved to London they would have been incredibly successful."

The Monks will hit the stage Saturday night at Jammer's nightclub near Bemidji. Next week, they begin a European tour that includes shows in London, Zurich and Berlin.