Contemporary rock fans always like it when they discover an obscure act from the past that they can point to as a forerunner of what they're into today.
The Monks, a band of ex-GIs who achieved notoriety, if not fame, in West Germany in the mid-Sixties, are a prime example of this, and the reissue of their album — plus the DVD release of the documentary Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback — has put them back in the spotlight.
In 1965, if you were in the Army, there was no better place to be than West Germany, mostly because it wasn't Vietnam. The Torquays knew this. GIs Gary Burger, Larry Clark, Dave Day, Eddie Shaw and Roger Johnston came together in Gelnhausen, one of those German bases where there wasn't a whole lot to do unless the Russians were invading, and they weren't.
The Torquays weren't all that good, but they could play Chuck Berry and surf music, and, even better, they could back up singers. They got to tour a bit, and when they mustered out in 1965, they decided to stick together and see if they could make some money.
As it turned out, they could. In the wake of the Beatles making Germany famous as a place for rock bands to play, there were jobs all over the place, and the fact that the Torquays were American, not British, was an added advantage. Before long, they were tight enough to be playing Germany's hottest rock scene, Hamburg.
And enter the villains, although not everyone sees them like that. Walther Niemann and Karl-Heinz Remy were two former advertising students from German design schools looking for a project where they could put some of the theory they'd studied to use. One night, they walked into a Stuttgart club and heard the Torquays. Having dismissed the Rolling Stones as "baroque" and the Beatles as "stuff for grandmothers," they realized that in the primitive sound of the Torquays was the clay they could mould to fit their ideas.
Niemann and Remy knew that a visual image was important, so the new anti-Beatles had the tops of their heads shaved, wore robes, and became the Monks. The guys in the band weren't too enthusiastic about this at first, but they at least realized that nobody else was doing anything like it.
The next thing was lyrics: instead of love, hate and negation. And the music: a single beat was to pervade all the songs, which was to be keyed to a dance called "the hop." These principles were typed on sheets of paper the band had to carry with them at all times, and most important was, "You are Monks. You are not Torquays."
They cut a demo, and it found its way to Jimmy Bowien, a producer at Polydor, one of Germany's largest labels, who was impressed with Niemann and Remy and thought the Monks were a "historical turning point in pop music." He gave them a contract. To get ready to record, the Monks hit the road. Audiences hated them.
In March, 1966, they recorded an album, Black Monk Time, with a stark black cover supposedly influenced by the Soviet-era avant-gardist Konstantin Malevich. The band went on German TV when it came out, and the tape is excruciating: the band does its best, but the kids are utterly confused.
The Monks toured, but audiences remained mostly hostile. More and more of their daily management fell to their tour manager, Wolfgang Gluezczewski, as Niemann and Remy lost interest. Finally, in September, 1967, the band called it quits.
They returned to America, slammed by culture shock, to which they reacted in different ways. A couple had German wives, but the marriages didn't last. The saddest story was banjoist Dave Day, who returned to Germany with his wife, who left him shortly thereafter. He lived on the streets for a couple of years, and refused to talk about it when he finally made it back to the States.
The Monks remained unknown until they were rediscovered during the punk era, although they had influenced some of the later generation of krautrock musicians. Polydor reissued the album, which again didn't sell.
Then bassist-vocalist Eddie Shaw, who'd become a novelist, wrote a book about the band, and in 1999, they did the first of several reunion gigs. At last they seemed to be enjoying themselves, but they called it quits in 2006. Drummer Roger Johnston died shortly afterwards, and Dave Day died in 2008.
The film of The Transatlantic Feedback plays frequently on cable TV. It's kind of depressing, but it's a window on a very odd time and place. And an extremely odd band.