I came across this video on the recommendation of a friend of a friend, and as quirky as it seems when you first click play, there’s an urgency and an animal primacy to the music that belies the sweaters and the bobby socks of 1965.
I had never heard of The Monks before this video started rolling; a google search of the blogs and sites I read turned up one reference on Pitchfork, but P-fork writes about a lot of stuff that flies right over my head (in fact I am apparently a sort of anti-Pitchfork). So I had some learning to do.
The Monks were five G.I.s stationed in Germany in the ’60s who started making music together, as many young men are wont to do when they are away from their women and stuck on base. At first their tunes were pretty standard covers of Chuck Berry, surf music, or original melodic pop a la The Beatles — but then they started experimenting with feedback and the kinds of beats that sounded more like a prototype of punk than a clean cut quintet.
Originally called the Torquays, they soon wholeheartedly adopted the name of The Monks, and they even had “a look” that has not, to my knowledge, been back in fashion since, oh, 1457. The tonsure (as that stunning bit of shaved baldery is called), the cassock, the rosary. Hot.
But the music — the music is intriguing to me, and has quite a cult following to this day, mostly through word of mouth and friends saying, “Man, you gotta hear these guys.” And it’s easy to see why – the tribal pulsating beats, the dadaist lyrics, the attitude — they’ve may have more in common with Nirvana than other acts of their own era. Even where standard sounds of the time show through in their music, there’s still an undercurrent of fresh inventiveness that delights me. Some of their music reminds me of what The Doors were just starting to do on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Monks recorded one album in November 1965 (Black Monk Time) and then essentially vanished (other than some reunion shows in ’99 and one member who is now mayor of Turtle River, MN).
Their songs have been covered by everyone from the Dead Kennedys to Jon Spencer, the 220.127.116.11.s to Manchester Brit-band The Fall. There’s currently a very interesting documentary project called Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback and if you like it even rawer, you can also buy their 1965 demo recordings, all through the Berlin-based label Play Loud! Definitely a fascinating and fun one to add to your collection.