"Back to Monk Time" by Aaron Poehler (copyright 1999, originally published in EYE Magazine #21, Apr/May 1999)
"It certainly isn't anything that I would have expected, but it's wonderful!"--Larry (Clark) Spangler, former keyboard player, the Monks
In the above quote, Larry is describing the remarkable recent resurgence of interest in the music of his former band the Monks, but he might well be describing the music itself, an aggressive, feedback-filled pre-punk form of rock whose unique mix of harsh tones and brutal rhythms remains as startlingly different today as it was in 1966. Back then, the band's only album wasn't even put out in the U.S., and the group quietly disbanded and vanished, seemingly remembered only by hardcore record collectors and a few scattered European fans and considered a footnote in rock history at best. Then thirty years later, something strange happened: the music started coming back.
Today the Monks' fan base is larger than ever before and growing every day with American rereleases of their music, a highly-praised book by a former member of the band, the development of a big-budget Hollywood film, and a pair of documentary projects delving into the band's history. Four of the five ex-members of the band have even reunited and played together at an early 1998 recording session.
I tracked down and interviewed all five former members of the Monks to find out how this music has found its way into the current cultural lexicon and what effects the 'Monks revival' has brought to their lives--over thirty years after they recorded it.
The story of the Monks begins at an American Army base in divided postwar Germany, where a group of GIs began playing rock and roll music together to blow off steam. The group evolved into a band called the Torquays, which worked the German circuit of clubs and dives with a repertoire of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and R&B chestnuts. The initially volatile lineup eventually solidified with Gary Burger (guitar, lead vocals), Dave Day (rhythm guitar, vocals--real surname Havlicek), Larry Clark (organ, vocals--real surname Spangler), Thomas Edward "Eddie" Shaw (bass, vocals), and Roger Johnston (drums, vocals). As the members finished up their Army stints they decided to take the band pro, but they knew they needed something different to attract attention--happily, a chance discovery led them down the road to Monk Time.
"We were practicing and I had to take a leak," recalled Gary Burger. "I laid the guitar against the amp and walked off the stage. I forgot to turn it off and the thing began to make this god-awful racket. It started off humming and then it increased in volume. Roger started hitting his drums and it sounded so right together."
Eddie Shaw remembered, "I started playing a bass on the beat and Gary looks at us like we're really getting sick, but then Larry starts doing something and Gary says, 'Hey!' and comes running back to the stage and jumps up and twangs his guitar and pretty soon we were all playing, just having fun with it. Just imagine the sound of the Titanic scraping along an iceberg. It was like discovering fire."
Though controlled feedback would soon be used on records by guitarists ranging from Eddie Phillips of the Creation to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, and Jimmy Page, the Monks-to-be had stumbled across it entirely independently, and instinctively knew that they'd found a cornerstone upon which to build something completely different.
Eddie: "We knew right then that this new sound belonged to our new world. We had discovered a whole new code."
Soon their new sound attracted a team of managers who recognized its potential; they encouraged the band to go even further in their new direction. They affirmed the group's belief in their new style, and shaped the image that would become such an intrinsic part of the band. Together, musicians and management developed the unique, dadaesque aura surrounding the band that from then on was known as the Monks. The music became uncompromising, brutally stripped down, and incredibly abrasive. Gary Burger added a fuzztone and a wah-wah pedal (then brand-new inventions) to his feedback arsenal, and when guitarist Dave Day's rhythm playing got lost in the cacophony, he was switched to amplified electric banjo, on which he churned out harshly percussive chords. The lyrics also changed: reflecting the aggressive sound they were creating, the words were of a kind previously unheard in that blissful hippie era. Songs like "Shut Up", "I Hate You", and "Complication" espoused negative emotions that would have been most unwelcome at Woodstock, while "Monk Time" questioned the military system that had brought them to Germany: "I hate the army. What army? Who cares what army? Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam?"
The band adopted an equally uncompromising style of dress, which the band members wore day and night: black suits that mimicked monasterial robes with 'neckties' made of nylon rope, each member's rope tied in a different knot. Finally, the tops of the band members' heads were shaved, creating an unforgettable image that retains its power to startle even today.
After the band recorded some demos in Ludwigsberg, their management attracted the interest of the mammoth Polydor records conglomerate, which agreed to sign the Monks. Following a stint on Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn, the band entered a studio in Cologne to record their debut album, Black Monk Time. Unsurprisingly, their shockingly loud music gave the engineers headaches, but after some experimenting with unorthodox recording methods they managed to create a reasonable facsimile of their live sound by playing all of the music live (overdubbing the lead vocals); listening to the album today, it is remarkable how clear the sound is considering the havoc the Monks were unleashing in front of the microphones.
Polydor released Black Monk Time in March 1966, along with an accompanying single of two album tracks ("Complication"/"Oh, How To Do Now"), and the Monks duly went on the road to promote the records. Their alliance with Polydor led to higher-profile gigs, opening for touring acts ranging from rock legend (even then) Bill Haley and his Comets to Brits like the Kinks, the Troggs, and Manfred Mann, but the sales figures didn't reflect the startling creativity of the music--Eddie recalls "We received our first royalty check, and it was approximately forty marks per man for the single, "Complication"--roughly ten dollars a person. According to the managers, the album had not yet paid for itself, therefore it would be awhile before we would see money from it." The American division of Polydor was stalling on releasing the album in the U.S., and the pressure on the band mounted as the powers-that-be demanded more 'commercial' material. For the second Monks single, the band recorded two new numbers that de-emphasized the apocalyptic over-beat side of their music in favor of a lighter approach. While "Cuckoo" at least retained some of the loony energy of the album, the more traditional-sounding love song "I Can't Get Over You" was a clear attempt to make the Monks more palatable to the middle-of-the-road market.
The new single and its slightly watered-down Monkmusic didn't perform significantly better, though it did hit the charts in Spain; regardless, the Monks were coming unraveled quickly. They received word that the album was not going to be picked up for American distribution, and the money began to dry up. Their managers lined up an Asian tour which included a stint in Vietnam, despite the fact that the conflict there continued to rage unabated. While Eddie tried to tell himself "that it was some kind of cosmic test [and] Vietnam was where we were supposed to go," Roger stated flatly "No way I'm gonna go to Vietnam". Lead singer Gary declared that "If we go, I'm not gonna sing any monk songs, I can tell you that…not in Vietnam. I'm not stupid. We can't go over there and sing protest songs to GIs…If the Viet Cong don't shoot us, the GIs will!"
One final Monks single was recorded and released by Polydor, but it too sold in miniscule numbers and failed to convince the record company to pick up their option on the group. The music was even softer than the previous single, and though it retains certain charms of its own it's hard not to conclude that the band had largely lost faith in their towering feedback sound. The band's management team had similar doubts and split up, and one by one the members of the band began to drop the Monk outfits, reverting to the typical fashions of the day and letting their hair grow back. The band finally broke up for good when drummer Roger flew back to the States on the eve of the planned Asian tour--in a note, he said "I can't take it any longer." And that was the end of the Monks.
Over the next several years, all of the band members worked their way back to America, resettling into more 'normal' lives with varying degrees of success and letting their adventure as the Monks pass into the past. Gary remembers, "I had basically put the Monks on the far back burner with the heat turned off. I really didn't know where anybody was except for Dave and Eddie, and we would communicate from time to time, but really the Monks weren't a major topic of conversation." Eddie agreed: "We never talked about it, we thought pretty much it'd been a failure. It was very hard to explain to people what we had done, because at the time that kind of sound was not really wanted. When I played it to a couple of people as soon as I returned from Germany, all they did was look at me like I was crazy and tell me 'That was a waste of three years.' I think the other Monks had the same experience and basically we all shut down and never showed it to anybody."
Larry joined the burgeoning corporate culture and found a much-needed stability: "I went to college, got a degree in electronics, and signed up with IBM, and I was with them for over twenty years." Dave's post-Monks life, on the other hand, was severely lacking in stability: "It was quite a failure for me, going through that, working hard, and then the band dismembering, and it just screwed up my plan, I didn't want to get onstage anymore; that was quite a shock back then. Around '68 to '70 I was back [in America] and I started playing with a buddy of mine that I met up with, and then I went back to Germany with my wife. We ended up getting divorced and all that bull and I was stranded over there for a year and a half. Finally my brother sent me some money and got me back home, and then I started from the ground up again, and then I played back here for about fifteen years every weekend." With each passing year, the Monks' adventures and their music receded further into the past and out of the memories of the ex-members. Then one day, nearly thirty years after the end of the Monks, Eddie Shaw got a call.
Mike Stax, editor and publisher of the fanzine Ugly Things., had heard a German reissue of Black Monk Time and fallen in love with the music. Stax recalls that an acquaintance "mentioned that they knew a guy that was in a band called the Monks, and that turned out to be Eddie. Through that, we got Eddie's number and I called him up. At the start he was suspicious, like 'Why do these guys want to know about this?', and then when he realized that we were really sincere about loving the music, he started to open up.'"
After being interviewed by Stax and friend Keith Patterson, Eddie called Gary to tell him the good news; Gary hung up on his old friend, thinking that he must be drunk or delusional. Mike Stax explained: "I think they kind of put the Monks to the back of their minds, like a sort of youthful indiscretion almost, because they didn't have anything to reinforce that, and then all of a sudden when I interviewed them they started hearing about all these other things, like the Fall or these other bands covering their songs. Then they realized that they'd been quite influential and that the music has really stood up, and finally they got validation, I think."
Shaw was galvanized by the interest in the band to write a personal history titled Black Monk Time with his German ex-wife Anita Klemke, who was with Shaw during the years of the Monks; the resultant book is as striking and engrossing a work in its own way as the original Black Monk Time album. Split evenly between Monks history and the blossoming love story between Shaw and Klemke, the book is described by fellow Monk Gary as "basically Eddie's view of how things happened, it isn't always mine or any of the other guys', but essentially he's probably got a good feeling there for what was happening during those days."
Indeed, all the Monks had good words for Eddie's book, despite the occasional minor dispute (Larry: "There was something that Eddie put in the book that I was upset with Dave about our girl singer, and I know from my point of view that that's not what happened, but maybe that was Eddie's perception.") and the caveat that the book is, as Gary put it, "more a love story than a rock and roll book." Shaw responds, "I wrote it that way because I couldn't turn it into a documentary of the Monks because that many people didn't know about the Monks, and just to write a Monks chronicle wouldn't have paid for the publication. So I had to write an autobiography using sort of the tricks of fiction, although it's not fictional. But I had to dramatize it, and put the love story in there to hold it together so that people who didn't know anything about the Monks would read it and then hopefully they would become curious about who the Monks were. I wrote it in six months because a movie company asked me to."
I asked Eddie to elaborate on the movie project: "There's two companies that bid on it: Dogstar (they did Mask Of Zorro and the Doors movie)--they never even heard of the Monks and they gave me a movie offer just based on the book--and Killer Films out of New York. I figured that [Killer] would give it a little bit more care, so I gave it to them. It's in the second rewrite right now. Tom Kalin, who did I Shot Andy Warhol, he's rewriting it, and the way he's doing the film as I understand it: yes, he's putting it in the viewpoint of a crazy wild love story, but it's all about the Monks and he said otherwise they wouldn't be able to sell the movie. I'm not sure how much they're going to spend, I hear it's a fairly good amount, [though] it's not as much as Dogstar was going to spend."
The other Monks are similarly excited about the movie--Larry jokingly suggested "I figure it's probably most appropriate that somebody like Tom Cruise plays me"--though as Gary notes, "The movie folks aren't involving anybody beyond Eddie, so that's kind of too bad from my point of view, but they're paying for it, they can make any damn kind of movie they want."
The publication of the book in 1994 helped to spur the much-belated American reissue of the Black Monk Time album on CD (including both non-LP singles and previously unreleased bonus tracks). Gary recalls, "a record producer by the name of Johan Kugelberg, who just basically had this thing about the Monks, wanted to rerelease it and went to great trouble to get the original masters from Polydor in Germany, and managed to release it through the Infinite Zero label, which is now, to my dismay, defunct." But never fear--Eddie says a new American reissue is on the way: "Kugelberg has secured the license to rerelease it [again] and according to him it's tentatively scheduled for release sometime in the spring." Tantalizingly, he notes that an unreleased Monks album of Ludwigsberg demos may be in the works as well: "It's a full record itself, but there are some songs there that were never released and then there are some different versions. It's rougher--as we were developing the music it was our first attempt, and then of course when Polydor became involved they wanted us to change some things for what they called marketability; [the released album] has those minor changes on it, but the Ludwigsberg tapes are very, very minimalist."
What about the possibility of a present-day reunion? It nearly took place recently, when four of the five convened at Gary Burger's studio in early 1998--Gary recounts, "Everybody [participated] except the bass player Ed Shaw, who simply couldn't be here. [Larry] had just been located, we hadn't known where he was for twenty-five years or so. It was pretty much a reunion more than a recording session, although we worked pretty hard while everybody was here." Larry Spangler allows, "I guess I was the lost Monk, so to speak. I didn't know where anybody was, I didn't know that anything was happening. Gary sent out letters all over the country to Larry Spanglers, and one of them got to me."
After that, as Roger Johnston recounts, "[Larry] came up and we just jammed together, then did some of the songs. It was a hell of a time, really. It was a little strange. We just mainly did some basic stuff, nothing really fancy. Larry hadn't played I guess for a long, long time with a band, and I'd begun to start drumming again just about a year ago, so we were just all getting the rust out."
The four ex-Monks recorded several songs written by Gary, but refuse to characterize the recordings as a 'Monks reunion album', primarily due to the absence of Eddie Shaw. Gary says, "I can't call this a Monks album. I could if all five were here participating and agreed that that's what it was, but that's not the case here. I would say these were the Monks playing Gary Burger songs." Dave Day Havlicek concurs: "We tried to make it a little bit Monk-style, but without Eddie in it and all that it didn't really turn out with the Monks sound, but it was fun doing it. Man, we sounded incredible. It was amazing." Gary says there are currently no plans to release the 'Burger-Monk' recordings: "There's other irons in the fire and I don't want to disturb those, so I'm basically just sitting on it for the time being, and will remain squatting on it until things loosen up a bit, and in the meantime we'll write more songs. I don't want to dilute the Monks' image at this point with anything that's my personal thing, and also if I had any intent to release it at all it'd be good for me to wait until that's all done. But I'm really not intending to release it at this point. Time will tell."
On the subject of a full-blown Monks reunion, the ex-members' opinions predictably vary--though not a lot. Eddie Shaw says, "I'm not against it, as long as it could be done right, and as long as we had anywhere from three to six months to rehearse. It took us a year to put together one album and it would take that long to put together something else hopefully as impressive and just to try to rush something, and throw some stuff together to go out and make a couple of quarters here and there, I don't know if it would be good for the Monks, I don't think that people who like the Monks would really appreciate it that much, and I believe that if we were going to do it it'd have to be done right."
Larry succinctly weighs in by stating "I think it'd be great to have a reunion", while Roger Johnston declares "I would be interested, it would be a challenge, to say the least. We've gotten together and tried to play some of the original Monks songs, and we could do it after a fashion--not exactly, 'cause we're all a lot older and a lot rustier, but it came out pretty good, and if we had time to practice and get it together we could probably work up an hour-and-a-half, two hour show if we had to."
The most enthusiastic member, Dave Day Havlicek, declares that "I'd love to do it, I'd love to do a reunion. I'm not over the hill on that yet. The main reason I think most of the guys don't want to do it anymore is they think we won't be as good as we was back then, and of course you can't bring back what you did thirty years ago, but if I got a six-string banjo I could go up and do the same as I did back then. It'd be no problem for me, but as a band I don't know. I'd like to do a concert if the movie comes out and the CD does, like maybe back in the Midwest, in Minnesota, or Nevada or California, it'd have to be places where the kids would come, I guess. Hell, I'd shave my head and play with the guys in a heartbeat."
Gary Burger seems to have the most realistic view, combining Dave's enthusiasm with Eddie's doubts about its feasibility: "I'm interested in doing it, a hundred percent. I guess it depends on the level of fan interest--it's gonna take that to generate the Monks to commit to the rehearsal it would take to put a show on. It'd probably take a month or two or three, who knows, to get crisp enough to really go out and do it justice. About the only thing that would make that work, I think, is an outside producer, an executive producer that would put up some money to pay for that, and that's not likely, but who knows? We'll wait and see, but it'd be very cool if it happened."
Indeed it would, but regardless, with a bounty of Monks-related projects are due for release, it seems inevitable that interest in the band will continue to grow in the near future. In addition to the feature film project, Eddie told me: "Dietmar Post is doing a documentary for German television, then there's another person here in the States, Scott McGraw, who's trying to get together the funding for an American documentary." Fans whose interest was piqued by news of the '98 'Burger-Monk' session should check out Dave Day's excellent recent solo single, "I Want The Right To Be Free"/"Don't Ha Ha", which features fellow ex-Monks Gary and Eddie, as well as his other solo records. A few lucky clubgoers even got to see Gary singing Monks songs onstage recently, according to Eddie: "I just returned from Minneapolis this last week, and when I was in Minneapolis I read a number of ads that the Monks were going to be playing with the Conquerors. I had agreed to go down and see them, and of course when I went down there I was in the dressing room and lo and behold Gary Burger was invited as well. Gary got up and sang a couple of songs, "I Hate You" and "Oh How To Do Now" and "Shut Up" or something--I declined the invitation because I was not sure if I would remember the parts, it'd been a lot of years. But anyway I was surprised to see that this audience there was totally pro-Monk in the sense that they were all watching and applauding and digging it. I just thought, 'This is really strange--these people know these songs!'"
One thing that is clear from talking to the ex-Monks is that as surprising as the Monks' resurgence is to the casual observer, to the members of the band it's downright baffling. Roger's attitude is representative as he admits that it "mystified me for a long time. Still don't understand it completely. I really don't know the attraction it has to people today. We talked it over between Dave and Gary and I and Ed, all of us, and we really don't know why it's taken this long. Well, personally I think it's because it wasn't the time for it back then, and something in this time is receptive to what we did. It certainly wasn't ready for widespread acceptance back then. It's a puzzle, but it is gratifying in a way. Now we're starting to get a few royalty checks from the publisher, and those are always welcome--a little payback after thirty years. It's been very little so far, but enough." Dave concurs, "We don't ever expect to make too much, but we still get a little bit from royalties coming in every three months, so it's really come a long way since thirty years ago."
Perhaps an experience of Larry's best illustrates the way the music they did thirty years ago continues to enrich the lives of the once and future Monks: "One time I turned on the radio here in my house, and I heard one of our Monk records being played on the radio, and I couldn't believe it. I thought I must have had my old record on the phonograph, but my phonograph was off, and yes, the Monk music was coming out of the radio. It was such a strange feeling to hear that happening."
Maybe Monk Time is here at last.
The essential tome Black Monk Time is available at your local bookstore or through Eddie Shaw's publishing company, Carson Street Publishing (205 East John Street, Carson City, NV 89701), which has also issued a book of his short stories, among other interesting literary works.
Gary Burger's studio is open to anyone looking for professional 24-track digital recording or industrial-quality video production; the facility was the site of the four-Monk reunion, and Dave Day's "I Want The Right To Be Free"/"Don't Ha Ha" single was recorded there. Contact Gary Burger Video/Audio, Route 6 Box 231, Bemidji, MN, 56601. Maybe you can talk Gary into playing you some of the 'Burger-Monk' tapes if you do an album there.
Dave Day's "I Want The Right To Be Free"/"Don't Ha Ha" single (featuring Gary and Eddie) is available direct from him, as are his other records. Dave is also selling original-design 'Black Monk Time' t-shirts, a must for any devotee. He's also friendly as all get out and nice as heck, so buy a t-shirt and a single. Write to: Dave 'Day' Havlicek, 201 Thomas Ave. SW, Renton, WA 98055.
The album Black Monk Time is currently out of print, but you might be able to find it anyway if you look hard enough and in the right stores. Otherwise, check the official Monks website (www.the-monks.com); when the disc is rereleased, it'll surely keep let us know, and in the meantime you can check out all kinds of great pictures, articles, interviews, and personal recollections relating to the Monks.
Mike Stax's excellent fanzine Ugly Things, which was so instrumental in the beginning of the Monks revival, is published infrequently but makes up for it by including information you can't get anywhere else about bands from the Creation to the Pretty Things to the Misfits. You can order back issues as well--the Monks articles appeared in issues #11 and #12. Write: Ugly Things, 3707 Fifth Ave. #145, San Diego, CA 92103.