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The Monks: holy rockers

The hair-raising 60s rockers were cut from a different cloth than the hippies of their day, with their anti-Vietnam stance and penchant for prostitutes

Taken from the April 2009 Issue of Dazed and Confused:

“If you’re a fan of The Monks, you must have some serious emotional problems,” laughs Gary Burger down the line from his home in Minnesota. The 65-year-old Monks frontman may be joking, but there is an element of truth in his statement. For their all-too-brief existence between 1965 and 1967 the band’s primitive, yet subtly inventive, garage-rock was a sonic magnet for oddballs, wasters and prostitutes, although it rarely came anywhere close to making a commercial impact. However, their rediscovery by subsequent generations has meant that The Monks are now rightly revered for their status as trailblazers in the history of rock’n’roll. Franz Ferdinand, Radiohead and even Nirvana have professed to their fandom repeatedly, Jack White has gushed that they were “out of this galaxy” while the always unpredictable Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre once stated flatly that he didn’t “want to live in a world without The Monks”. Considering their vocal stance against the Vietnam War, it is perhaps understandable that the American quartet came together in the strict military environment of a German US army base.

All hailing from different states, Roger Johnston (drums/vocals), Eddie Shaw (bass/vocals), Dave Day (banjo/vocals), Larry Clark (organ/vocals) and Gary Burger (guitar/lead vocals), wound up being posted in the town of Gelnhausen in 1961. “Military life was so overwhelmingly structured,” explains Burger (with the air of someone who will probably never get the sound of a screaming drill sergeant out of his head.) “So, we took any chance we could to get off base and, like most 18-year-old guys, go looking for girls.” With this in mind, Burger and Day began to strum guitars together, performing at a local service bar – at first for their own amusement, but eventually for the benefit of all the local girl-hunting GIs. One night, after a set of covers and standards, they made $12 apiece (monthly pay in the army was around $85) and that little windfall spurred them on to take their music a little more seriously.

Gradually, Clark, Shaw and Johnston all joined ranks, and by 1964, they had formed The Monks’ early incarnation, The Torquays. When their army service ended, they tried to turn their Brit-beat-influenced group into a professional outfit. As time went on, however, their boredom with polite applause and musical conventions led to experiments with feedback, and they began to tone down the melodies in favour of harder, more abrasive rhythms. “If you’re playing music and people are just talking about what you’re wearing, or whatever, you’re not really going anywhere,” explains bassist Shaw. “We would use whatever sounds we could to demand the audience’s attention, so that they would look at us and think, ‘What the hell are they doing?!’” As The Torquays trekked around Germany honing their act, they encountered a couple of determined advertising executives called Karl Remy and Walter Niemann. Both were regulars at gigs and saw The Torquays as being the future of beat music. They encouraged the group to become even harder and more lyrically confrontational, moving away from the lightweight material heard blaring out of radios.

“If you’re playing music and people are just talking about what you’re wearing, or whatever, you’re not really going anywhere” – Eddie Shaw

In line with their new sound, the band re-christened themselves The Monks, and they took the name to heart. Remy and Niemann insisted that the band wore an all-black uniform of shoes, trousers, shirt, noose-like neck tie and cape. But it wasn’t until Johnston went to the barbers in early 1965 and had a monastic tonsure shaved into his head that their legend started to grow. The other members found it hysterical and quickly followed suit. It wasn’t the first time a rock’n’roll group had decided to conjure up a unique image, but it was certainly a weird departure from the era’s abundant moptops and sharply cut suits. And to top it all off, it was a garb that they committed to wear at all times, as a symbol of their imperative to become something akin to the anti-Beatles, the anti-Rolling Stones or the anti-Beach Boys.

In Germany, there was only one place that was ever going to really get The Monks – Hamburg. Its notorious Reeperbahn district was a haven for hedonism, filled with smoky bars, sweaty clubs, darkened drug dens, sailors on the rampage, hookers on the make and bands working on their chops. The niceties of European society during the 1960s rarely applied on the streets of this buzzing port town. “The Hamburg audience was pretty out there and we fitted right in,” chuckles Shaw. “You could experiment there and people loved it. The shows were packed every night. Lots of the women that came to see us were prostitutes who worked on the Reeperbahn. The Beatles had obviously made a name for themselves there, so we learned how to play 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and our crowds would sing along, but they changed the words to 'I Wanna Fuck Your Hand'.” They might have dressed that way but The Monks were far from pious and frequently indulged themselves in the vices that were available. Alcohol was the main poison, hash was not uncommon and there was the odd dabble with speed. “Roger was a little bit of a speed freak,” says Burger. “One time, we had a long car journey and he said, ‘Here, take one of these, it’ll keep you awake!” Boy, did it ever! I was good for 500 miles! There were times when he couldn’t play because he was seeing snakes and wouldn’t leave the hotel!”

“All of us had a prostitute for a girlfriend… they made us happy monks” – Gary Burger

The greatest amount of nostalgia is reserved for the ladies of the night that made up such a huge part of the group’s fanbase in Hamburg, and while Burger exercises gentlemanly discretion, the singer admits that being celibate and pure was not an objective for these particular monks. “We got to know a lot of those working girls and they were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” he adds with unmistakable respect. “They were smart, worldly and very interesting. I think at one time or another, all of us had a prostitute for a girlfriend, and they would take care of us better than anyone else we’d been with. I felt so sorry for young people when HIV/Aids started to emerge because suddenly you could die because of one night of casual sex, but it wasn’t like that in our day. We could be more promiscuous – and we were. All those relationships went a long way towards making us happy Monks.”

As much as they enjoyed it, gallivanting was a secondary pursuit compared to making music and The Monks quickly became known in Hamburg and beyond as the prime weirdos of the beat-scene. In 1966, this reputation was solidified further with the release of their one and only album on Polydor. Brimming with ragged volatility but frequently topped off with doses of dark cartoon humour, Black Monk Time made a mockery out of the growing “peace and love” dictum apparent in so much pop music at the time. From Burger’s rant on opening track “Monk Time” (“We don’t like the army / why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam? / We don’t like the atomic bomb!”), it’s clear that The Monks sought out confrontation rather than encouraging unity. That’s to say nothing of their raw, knuckle-scraping rhythms that sounded like they’d been carved out of stone. You’d think they were a bunch of Neanderthals but in actuality, they were all learned musicians who stripped everything back to the basics. “We were all from such different musical backgrounds,” explains Shaw. “I was a jazz player, Gary loved country and Dave was into Elvis, but we had to strip all that away to meet on common ground. We peeled away everything down to the beat, and built a new platform for ourselves.” Their material was deemed to be too political and provocative for an American release but it took The Monks’ gospel further across the European continent than ever before. Hardcore fans who dressed like the band began to emerge, and even the odd bit of television and radio exposure followed with the non-album single, “I Can’t Get Over You/Cuckoo”.

But confusion and anger still greeted many of their sets. On one occasion, Burger was even attacked onstage by a punter who attempted to strangle him using the singer’s own rope necktie. Nevertheless, tours began to expand across Europe, and along the way The Monks would rub shoulders with some of rock’s brightest lights, including a young Jimi Hendrix who was enjoying his first taste of fame following the release of his 1967 breakthrough “Hey Joe”. “He was always pretty quiet,” Shaw recalls. “But when he got on stage, holy Christ! The thing was, you could tell he hated the show – when he put the guitar up to his face and played it with his teeth – he wasn’t into that!”

Sadly, The Monks would rapidly come off the rails. Touring was exhausting the quintet to breaking point and fracturing their previously strong relationships. “It had to end,” continues Burger. “I weighed 120 pounds when I should have been 170. We were all unhealthy and skinny from being on the road. Dave and Larry were falling out also. At one venue, they started fighting and were rolling around on the floor.”

The rigorously preserved image of the band was also waning, while pressure from Polydor to soften the group’s sound (something that is clearly audible on the painfully wimpy 1967 single “Love Can Tame The Wild”) led to Niemann and Remy quitting their position as the guiding hand of the group. On the eve of an extensive Asian tour, which would have involved playing in war-torn Vietnam, Day quit. When attempts to replace him failed to pan out, it was all over, and The Monks swiftly returned to the US. Just as the regimentation of GI life, and then the early beat music scene had seen the Monks kick back, it was now the imposition of being a Monk that the members had grown tired of. They reformed for their first US shows in 1999 and sporadic gigs followed, but age finally caught up with them and Johnston passed away in 2004. Day died last year. Shaw is still an active player, and is at pains to point out that his musical adventures didn’t end with The Monks. “I get a lot of young people who say they love The Monks, which makes me feel good, but at the same time it makes me nervous because if people only talk about something you did 40 years ago, then it suggests you haven’t done very well since! I’m still looking for new forms. For me it’s not about being a rock’n’roller, its about the process of discovery.”