While plenty of bands of the mid 60’s would be making noise at teen dances and local clubs all around America and playing their own brand of primitive, messy rock n’roll, very few would reach legitimate rawness of The Monks and their first and only release, Black Monk Time. Their short time together is nothing short of legend, and this incredible re-release by Light in the Attic (the German division of Polydor released the original LP) cements them as one of the all-time greats for not only their aggressive sound, but for having such high fidelity for a band of ragtags like these (seriously: as good as Rhino or Sundazed can clean up a record, they will still have a few flaws to them, and that’s great — the Monks were above the standard rent-by-the-hour local studio).
This re-issue includes the original twelve-song LP as well as four singles recorded in the years following the initial release Black Monk Time, all in pristine condition. Kicking off with an introduction to the band and their ethos is “Monk Time,” wherein lead singer Gary Burger dismisses the army, the Vietnam war, and even their own harsh and aggressive sound. Whether it’s a cowardly act to their home country or a testament to the rogue rebellion of rock and roll is up for debate (the Monks consisted of American G.I’s stationed in Germany) but it is an explosive start to the record. The audible pummeling doesn’t stop through the second track, “Shut Up,” where Burger laments the world, to which his fellow Monks comfort him with a powerful “SHUT UP, DON’T CRY!” chorus. Their original single, “Complication” sits at its center, and perfectly reflects their insistence on shout-along lyrics and stomping rhythms. The band’s reactionary chorus to Burger’s soulful wailing — which often recalls the Sonics’ Gerry Roslie — is infectious, and I dare you not to chime in on “People go / (COMPLICATION!) / TO THEIR DEATHS FOR YOU!” And though never serious about their music, the moments where the band allows themselves to be even sillier, such as on “Drunken Maria,” are all fun, quick runs to show off what little instrumental prowess the band had.
What makes the record so unique is that this is the sound of five guys who’ve come together to form a band and have fun with it. There’s no blues noodling, there’s no direct influence to draw from, and there’s no cover songs to give us a break from the gutteral wails, fuzzed-out bass, and the rhythmic scraping of a banjo in place of a rhythm guitar. That’s the key word here: rhythm. It’s very clear that a lot of these guys don’t have much instruction in their instruments — especially the messy, raw organ playing by Larry Clark. Only the bonus tracks at the end of the disc contain any sense of pop songcraft, and suggest that if these guys were to become successful in America (highly unlikely due to their risqué image of being a band dressed as Monks complete with rope ties and tonsures), who knows where they could have gone. Yet, it’s these same last tracks that are so markedly different from the original LP that it is a blessing that these particular songs did not catch on. Yes, they are more musically interesting and accessable, but they tone down the attitude of the band to a point of feeling neutered. Though “I Can’t Get Over You” is a forgettable piece of pop, it still holds up better compared to the A-side, “Cuckoo,” which is stupid to a point of annoyance. Similarly, “Love Can Tame the Wild” is an attempt at capturing the sense of psychedelia, but it is obvious that the band is not completely into this new direction for a band that knows their sound is best when they are at their most aggressive.
GRADE: B. The original LP is excellent, and there’s no doubt about that, but including some of their later singles, while a fine addition for a short record, are so different that they feel misplaced. In terms of packaging, it comes in a cardboard sleeve, and even the CD version includes a small paper sleeve for the disc, giving it the feel of an LP. However, the liner notes (written by Kevin Howes) are incomplete, as they only tell half the story. For the other half, you have to buy the companion disc, The Early Years 1964-1965, which I do not think I can justify as the CDs are $15.99 each, and $26.99 for the LP. A little absurd. Still, Howes’ notes are an excellent biographical sketch of the band, and goes right up to their reunions in the early part of the 2000’s, and it includes some excellent photos of the band. The liner notes also include a few quotes from a few famous Monks fans, including Jack White, Iggy Pop, Colin Greenwood, Jay Reatard, and Lenny Kaye (among others), which are interesting in witnessing the scope of the band’s influence, but seem a little desperate to further sell the band. Regardless of the fairly generous bonuses and extras, Black Monk Time stands in a class by itself, and a must-have for any group of kids who ever wanted to just pick up and play.