Library Music

Plugging the holes in your record collection with The Monks

THE MONKS, BLACK MONK TIME (1997, INFINITE ZERO; OTHER MORE RECENT BOOTLEG PRESSINGS EXIST)

At the end of 1965, Jimi Hendrix was just the guitar player for Curtis Knight and the Squires, the Velvet Underground had just given their still-damp first demo to Marianne Faithfull, the Stooges and MC5 weren't even bands yet, and the Beatles were eight months from Revolver and almost three years from "Helter Skelter." And the Monks were five ex-Army guys who started as a surf band playing base dances in Germany and then recorded one of the most untouchable albums of the 20th century: Black Monk Time, a single LP that whistled in like a meteor. They were almost without earthly precedent. Maybe the Kinks' 1964 "You Really Got Me" or James Brown's 1965 No. 1s "I Got You" or "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," because Brown was melting down his own hard new sound with the same aims as the Monks overseas: melody only as perforation in a sheet of rhythm, every instrument—guitar, keys, voice—used as percussion, every lyric dissolved of ambiguity. No poetry or harmony—just beat. The Monks called it "overbeat"; they even took every cymbal but one away from their drummer and handed him a rack of toms instead—to make a particular point during a song, he'd just have to pound extra louder. And so they would become the anti-Beatles: slaved to unrelenting caveman cadence, keys and guitar in queasy sloshing waves, all five singing in a yodeling falsetto—a post-blitzkrieg riff on the doo-wop of the past decade. They recorded Black Monk Time (for Polydor) in nightly bursts at 3 a.m. after six-hour sets in the same Hamburg clubs that burned the baby fat off the Beatles, still glowing on over-the-counter amphetamines: 12 flash-frozen originals while the Kinks/Who/Yardbirds were still shackling around old covers, grounded only in James Brown's screeeeeeeam (singer Gary's panting lead-in to theme song "Monk Time") and Lou Reed's subway sound ("I Hate You") and Booker T. Jones' most epileptic high-key acrobatics ("Complication"), some of which weren't even fully formed themselves by 1966. A year later, they blew apart before a planned set of club dates in Saigon; one member left so addled they found him living in a forest, unable to remember how to speak English. The rest came back to America, fiercely shell-shocked and bearing a legacy that nobody would be able to translate for years. At a party later, someone recognized them, even though they were out of their usual robes: "I saw you assholes. What the hell kind of music was that? I hated you, but I never forgot it. It got me pissed the first moment I heard you play."

 
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