KEXP is proud to sponsor the screening of Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback at the Northwest Film Forum starting Friday, November 7, to Thursday, November 13.
We’re giving away free tickets to the first five people who email with the subject line “Monks movie.”
review by Chris Estey
For fans of 60’s garage rock-inspired proto-punk, few bands are more worshiped than American ex-G.I.’s-in-Germany The Monks, who with their completely revolutionary sound, songs, and image are considered a holy relic of raw power. Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback is a new documentary on the band soon to be seen at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and around the country, and it is as taut, just-the-facts, and satisfying as the band’s own anti-complacency rants like “I Hate You” and “Monk Song.” The latter features the protest yet pop art lyric coupling of “Mad Viet Cong” with “James Bond” in a track that seeded all rant-and-rhythm bands from The Fugs to The Thermals, whilst featuring playing as forceful and frantic as any made by The Sonics or Bad Brains.
I mention some Pac NW bands above wholly on purpose, as one of the two primary founders of the Monks was the born-to-be-an-eternal-punk rocker Dave Day, who, along with Jimi Hendrix, is a proud son of Renton (which needs to name a street after him immediately due to his dedication, influence, and recent passing). The “Seattle as breeding ground of punk spirit” theory gets mild reinforcement by Day’s story told in this film, although drawing a line from him and Hendrix to the Telepaths and the Screamers might take a stretch. Filmmakers Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios (known as the direction-production team/now record label Play Loud!) have a bigger story to tell, but the all-too-brief glory Day experienced when he created the band that would become the Monks with (now community politician) Gary Burger, and the pain within his fall with the band from their secret fame in Germany, is at the center of this demystifying odyssey of dark music demi-gods.
The Monks started off as the rather ordinary 5 Torquays whilst the group members — Day (guitar and then electrified banjo) and Burger (vocals and guitar) joined by organist Larry Clark, drummer Roger Johnston, and bassist Eddie Shaw — were still in the service. Like most rock bands keeping the flame of the music alive in a fecundly creative and fun Germany of the early 60s, where the Beatles thrived before superstardom, music was a hard-working hobby, a means to party and play any cool current songs or hip standards they wanted to. But soon the five musicians met a couple of philosopher-publicist band managers named Karl-H. Remy and Walter Niemann, who gave the band a manifesto they lovingly and loyally lived up to: “In public you are always a Monk. Always dress in black. Hair short. Always to / always to / always to move like a Monk. Hard. Sexy. Strong. Exciting… dangerous not only on the stage but in the street.”
Even if drunken, frenetic corporate identity/PR/music critic picador Remy and quieter, paternal Niemann’s role in the band appears almost sinister or controlling, other members perceived it as the opposite; in fact, everyone involved with The Monks seems to be a collaborator in their art, be they managers or record label owners or directors, all who contributed to the aesthetic and were refreshingly neither overpowering of it nor exploited by it. Clearly, theirs is a different history than those of other Beat groups in the period; more so, the Monks were not frontman-based but egalitarian (live, they lined up in a row at the front of the stage), and their music evolved from specific player pop song virtuousity into rock aesthetic rhythmic anti-groove, using sophisticated theories of minimalism and shock to create a unified sound that both freaked out and moved audiences and listeners of their one, essential album Black Monk Time. At various times through the documentary, they are credited with founding heavy metal, techno, and, since Day pummeled his wired-up banjo on top of the drums, you might as well say they evolved roots music too (alt-country, anti-folk, et al).
Hans Joachim, founding member of avant-prog band Faust, described their Gestalt-inspired style after having his life changed by seeing the Monks live on German TV: “Beat music was based in Bach, the tonic, the subdominant, and the dominant superstructure. The Monks regaled all that and was fun too. The revolution of 1968 would have happened two years earlier if people understood them.” And if the story sounds familiar, in 1978 Malcolm McLaren would borrow liberally from this archetype for another band considered sexy, hard, and dangerous in art as well as life.
But the movie never makes such comparisons; it doesn’t even bring up how much Lou Reed must have been inspired by them when he formed the Velvet Underground (unless that was all Zeitgeist, but Reed knew Europe and the art and music scenes there fairly well). Rather, through all the well conducted and edited interviews and even the stories of how they intimidated people by looking like a religious order or of the literal and ideological clashing that culminated in a fistfight at their last show together in the 60s, the movie proves The Monks to be normal guys. “Maybe a little too normal,” as one of them says near the end. And as with other bands way ahead of their time, made up of dialectical energies and infused with not-heard-before greatness, it wasn’t meant to last very long. That’s what makes the story of the Monks both heart-breaking and heartening; entropy is inevitable, but they poured their lives into their musical performances, and that can be heard and felt to this day in ways you may not know until you see Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback.