The world must know. The world simply must know, must be shaken by the shoulders until it collectively acknowledges that something like the Monks can exist. That there can be such a thing as “avant-garde garage rock,” and that it can be played by active American G.I.’s increasingly alienated with the army. It needs to know, fifty years to the calendar month after the release of their only album.
Ten years back there was in fact a small surge in interest around the Monks. A documentary was made, a tribute album was put out featuring the (International) Noise Conspiracy, the Fall, and a few other recognized inheritors of the garage rock sound. In 1999 the Monks reunited and played some shows. Then in 2014 Gary Burger, their vocalist and the only one who ever ascribed any political significance to the group’s Vietnam lyrics, passed away.
It may be tragically safe to say that the Monks have never gotten the past due recognition that has rightfully come to so many other “proto-punk” bands years after disbanding – bands like the MC5 or Death. This may be a curse or a blessing. There’s no doubt that garage rock bands of the era had a profound impact on the bands that would emerge as “punk,” but the unfortunate upshot of this well-worn timeline is that there is now a risk of viewing the “proto” ancestors through a rather narrow or incomplete lens.
Certainly, what they held in common with what we later call punk was a desire to “freak out” people in a way that was couched in confrontation rather than the wistful romanticism we’ve come to associate with the Sixties. (Not that said romanticism doesn’t always have a place, even to a limited degree in the Monks’ own music.)
1966 was a turning point for American garage rock. The “British invasion” (the Beatles of course, but also a whole host of beat bands that followed them) had egged on a great many surf rock or hot rod groups to shift their sound toward something more raw and untempered, which we easily identify today. The same year was when ? and the Mysterians sold a million copies of “96 Tears,” when the Count Five released “Psychotic Reaction” and the Remains opened up for the Beatles on their U.S. tour. All of this paved the way for the explosion in psychedelia that was to decisively grip rock right around the time of what we call “the Summer of Love.”
(An aside: one wonders if groups like the Monks would receive more recognition today if there weren’t such a needless opposition constructed between psychedelic music and punk. Again, the “proto-punk” narrative sells us short. If most of today’s punks actually listened to the “hippy shit” with the same standard they bring to early punk rock they might actually find something interesting, something that might have prevented so many purist punk musicians from becoming as insular as they are.)
There may be something to the fact that the Monks were both part of this and removed from it. As I said above, all the members were soldiers in the U.S. Army, and were at the time stationed in Hamburg, Germany – incubator of the “British invasion” sound. The two German artists-cum-managers that are credited with conceptualizing the Monks – Walther Niemann and Karl-H. Remy – conceived of the group as a kind of “anti-Beatles.” And the music is certainly that:
Niemann and Remy certainly deserve credit, though not all of it. It was members Dave Day and Roger Johnston’s ideas to get monk’s tonsure haircuts. Burger later claimed that the Monks’ “uniform” – not just the tonsures but the all black clothing and nooses worn as neckties – were Niemann and Remy’s idea. Other members recall it differently. Bass player Eddie Shaw, who would later write the band’s biography, paints the look in an existential light, claiming the nooses were representative of the noose that all of humanity was wearing. Clunky, but apt.
This look, and the fact that the band infused such abrasive take on “sensitive topics” into their lyrics and sound, made them for a short while les enfants terribles of the Hamburg scene. Apparently, some audience members stormed out of their shows, and at least one physically attacked the band for “blasphemy.”
All of this added up to a band that was experimenting with both their sound and themselves, resulting in an honesty that was in diametric opposition to the straight-laced, cocksure optimism American society was struggling to clutch to. Listen to those appropriately wailed lyrics:
Alright, my name's Gary
Let's go, it's beat time
It's hop time, it's monk time now
You know we don't like the 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 was he?
Stop it, stop it, I don't like it!
It's too loud for my ears.
Pussy galore's comin' down and we like it.
We don't like the atomic bomb.
Stop it, stop it, I don't like it . . . stop it!
What's your meaning Larry?
Ahh, you think like I think!
You're a monk, I'm a monk, we're all monks!
Dave, Larry, Eddie, Roger, everybody, let's go!
It's beat time, it's hop time, it's monk time now!
There is a kind of unhinged neurosis in there, as evidenced by the schizoid back-and-forth coming from Gary: a split consciousness torn between an irreverent middle finger to the army and the emotional blackmail of “my brother died in Vietnam,” the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation and the desire to lose one’s senses in sex objects.
There may be something telling here. Gary’s declarations are clearly tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps they were also an exaggerated version of the confusion felt by the soldiers themselves that made up the band. In this light Burger’s lyrics – and the band’s music, no matter what other former members might say – aren’t just an absurdist send-up of American life. They’re a kind of straitjacketed shriek squeezing out from the growing fractures in the American psyche. It wouldn’t take more than a year or so (right around the time the psychedelics took hold in music) for that kind of horror and anger among soldiers to explode into an outright rebellion that would prove decisive in crippling the American war effort.
The world needs to know. It needs to know, in its own current shell-shocked-ness, that there is something crucial in letting fly the madness we’re all told to stuff down. Sometimes our social survival depends on it. It also makes for art that’s the opposite of anodyne and disrupts boring accepted half-truths.