The Monks: A 'Transatlantic' Gambit Gone Awry The Translantic Feedback, a documentary about an oddball band of American ex-GIs dressed up like monks and singing bitter songs, is out on DVD at last. Ed Ward explains the appeal of The Monks.
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The Monks: A 'Transatlantic' Gambit Gone Awry

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The Monks: A 'Transatlantic' Gambit Gone Awry

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The Monks: A 'Transatlantic' Gambit Gone Awry

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Contemporary rock fans always like it when they discover an obscure act from the past, which 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. The reissue of their album "Black Monk Time" plus the DVD release of the documentary "Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback" has put them back in the spotlight. Rock historian Ed Ward tells their story.

(Soundbite of song "Monk Time")

THE MONKS (Group): (Singing) All right, my name's Gary. Let's go, it's beat time, it's hop time, it's Monk time now! You know we don't like the army. What army? Who cares what army? Why do you kill all those kids over there in Vietnam? Mad Viet Cong. My brother died in Vietnam! James Bond, who was he? Stop it, stop it, I don't like it! It's too loud for my ears. Pussy Galore's comin' down and we like it. We don't like the atomic bomb. Stop it, stop it, I don't like it. Stop it! What's your meaning Larry? Ahh, you think like I think! You're a Monk, I'm a Monk, we're all Monks! Dave, Larry, Eddie, Roger, everybody, let's go! It's beat time, it's hop time, it's Monk time now!

ED WARD: 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 had 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.

(Soundbite of song "Complication")

THE MONKS: (Singing) Complication, Complication, Complication, Constipation! People cry, Complication, People die for you. People kill, Complication, People will for you. People run, Complication, Ain't it fun for you. People go, Complication, To their deaths for you. People cry, People cry, People die for you. People cry, People kill, People die for you. People cry, People run. People die for you. People cry, People go, People die for you�

WARD: 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, 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, producer of 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. In order to get ready to record, The Monks hit the road. Audiences hated them.

(Soundbite of song "Shut Up")

THE MONKS: (Singing) Got a reason to laugh. Got a reason to cry. Believing you're wise. And being so dumb. World is so worried. World is so worried. Be a liar everywhere. Shut up, don't cry! Be a liar everywhere. Shut up, don't cry!

WARD: March, 1966, they recorded an album, "Black Monk Time," with a stark black cover, supposedly influenced by the 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 Kraut rock musicians. Polydor reissued the album, which again didn't sell again. Bassist-vocalist Eddie Shaw, who had 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.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The documentary about The Monks is called "Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback." The reissued album is called "Black Monk Time." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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