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Listening to the songs on the 1966 album Black Monk Time by the Monks is a phenomenally weird, unsettling, and fascinating experience. The persistent strum of an electric banjo collides with a schizophrenic organ and driving, single-note bass lines as lead singer Gary Burger rails against the Vietnam War, girls, boys, and whatever else he hates at the moment. As the album progresses, it's hard to discern which strange sound is coming from which strange Monk, what era this music could have possibly come from, and what planet the band were on when they created it.
For many years, the Monks and their music have been barely more than legends; their limited catalog of recorded material was only available by bootleg or as a rare find at a record show. But this month, thanks to Seattle label Light in the Attic, the Monks' first and only studio album, Black Monk Time, along with an additional album of demos and singles called The Early Years 1964-1965, has been resurrected and reissued for mass consumption.
It's been over 40 years since the Monks were a band, but both lead singer Gary Burger and bassist Eddie Shaw remember the experience vividly. The group first formed as the Torquays in 1964 in Germany, where the five American GIs had been shipped for duty. They were soon discharged from the Army and began playing shows every night, frequenting the same haunts where British bands like the Beatles got their start. Soon after, they were approached by a team of German marketing executives who, in Burger's words, "decided that this band, the Torquays, would be the band that they would choose for their grando experiment."
On the phone from his home in Turtle River, Minnesota, where he serves as mayor of the 75-person town, Burger speaks humbly and fondly of his time with the Monks. "The pitch was this: They said, 'We've got a different kind of idea for you. We'd like to dress you all in black.' They told us this at the first meeting, and we had to keep it a secret."
The Torquays transformed into the Monks, playing their shows dressed in black robes, with nooses strung around their necks and the tops of their heads shaved into monks' tonsures.
"We didn't like it that much, the haircut," Burger says, laughing. "You had to shave the thing almost every day, or else you'd get a stubble like a guy gets after a day of not shaving. So we all had electric razors—it was a funny sight, you'd see us all in our room shaving our heads."
A true Minnesotan, Burger is modest about the impact of his band—"We had no idea we were creating a new movement," he insists—but the legacy of the Monks runs deep. Musicians such as Henry Rollins, Jack White, the Beastie Boys, and the Fall have cited the Monks as a major influence, and some have gone as far as to declare them the forerunners of the punk movement.
"We had no idea what we wanted to be," says Shaw, from his home near Reno, Nevada. "When you're playing so many hours every night—in a year and a half we had three days off—you have plenty of time to experiment," he explains. "We were onstage six hours a night, seven nights a week. On the quiet nights, when it gets boring inside of a club, you start doing outrageous things, and low and behold there are some new developments, some new tastes come out and some new discoveries."
"It's a lifestyle," Shaw says. "That's all you think about, that's all you do. In a way, you're living with blinders on. You don't really know what the rest of the world is doing."
Luckily for the rest of the world, the Monks were on to something when they started experimenting with new equipment and sounds. Guitarist Dave Day traded in his ax for a gut-strung electric banjo, Shaw stripped down his bass part to a single repeated note, and Burger started playing with feedback after accidentally leaving his guitar propped against an amplifier and being amazed at the sound it produced.
"One would call them happy mistakes," laughs Shaw.
Though the band no longer performs reunion shows—Day passed away last year, and drummer Roger Johnson died in 2004—the spirit of the Monks is alive and well today. Shaw wrote a memoir about his experience, Black Monk Time, in the early '90s, and director Dietmar Post created a documentary about the band called Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback in 2006. With the recent reissues, the music of the Monks will reach a whole new audience of hungry audiophiles.
"It amazes me that the beat goes on," says Burger. "It just keeps going and going; it's like this little rabbit where the batteries don't end."