Call them proto-punk, call them avant-garde, but the American ex-pat group the Monks would have been a tiny footnote in rock music history if it wasn’t for a slow rediscovery of the group’s work. The above video is from their summer 1966 appearance on Beat Club, a live pop music show broadcast in Germany.
Enthusiastic teens bop away to the repetitive stomp of “Monk Chant,” with its tribal drums from Roger Johnston, a multi-tamborine attack, and a solo section which features both Larry Clark's manic organ and three band members attacking the strings of a prone guitar. There’s a sense that anything can happen. These guys are gleefully crazy. (On other songs, band member Dave Day Havliceck would further freak out audiences with his electric banjo.)
Neither ur-hippies nor beatniks, the guys behind the Monks were five American G.I.s who were stationed in Germany and first started a more traditional garage rock band called the Five Torquays (not to be confused with the surf band from Orange County). After one single, they dropped the cover songs and trying to ape popular trends and turned into the Monks, shaving their heads in a monastic style and dressing in monk's clothing.
Their brutal, repetitive songs and anti-Vietnam war lyrics were ahead of their time, but the latter was one of the main reasons they found it hard to break into the American market after they released Black Monk Time on Polydor Germany. That and internal conflict within the band led to the band breaking up in 1967. You can hear a lot of the Monks in the Velvet Underground, but it's hard to say one was an influence on the other. It's more like one great idea was in the air and only certain people had their antennas up.
The influence of the Monks popped up in the abrasive and hypnotic sounds of Krautrock several years later, and by the late 1980s post-punk band The Fall were covering their songs “I Hate You,” “Oh, How to Do Now,” and “Shut Up.”
Jon Spencer, Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, Genesis P. Orridge of Psychic T.V., and Stephen Malkmus of Pavement would all credit the Monks as an influence.
In 1997, their sole album was rereleased and two years later the band reunited for a New York concert to promote a retrospective compilation. In 2004, band member Roger Johnston passed from lung cancer, and after Transatlantic Feedback, a 2006 documentary on the group, several other members had passed away.
But it’s fortunate that this footage exists at all, and if curious you can check out the full gig here.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.