Do you only need three chords and the truth? In the case of the Monks, five ex-G.I.’s and four svengalis complete the picture. The short-lived band — the uninitiated can consult the internet’s Bible — quickly flared up and fizzled out in the mid-’60s, but left an indelible impression on generations of musicians with its seminal and sole album, Black Monk Time. Celebs like Mark E. Smith of the Fall,the Beastie Boys, Jack White of the White Stripes and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead have heaped praise upon the record, thus extending its mythology. In spite of such high-profile praise and periodic reissues over the last three decades, the album has circulated mostly among die-hards because of its limited pressings. Seattle-based Light in the Attic (the fine company behind a myriad range of reissues, such as the Free Design and Rodriguez) continues to spread the gospel to yet another generation by making this album, along with a handful of latter-day cuts, available again.
A-list endorsements and decades of mythologizing invariably color a current listening of Black Monk Time. However, the Monks were unmistakably radical in contrast to their generic beat-music contemporaries. Instead of living their on-stage dreams through familiar rhythms and melodies, the Monks injected brute, mechanical speed into its beats and manic, critical energy into its anti-melodic vocals.
Black Monk Time‘s opener, “Monk Time,” exemplifies the group’s jackhammer sensibilities and absurd rage as lead vocalist Gary Burger scream-rants about Vietnam and James Bond over squeals of organ skronk. The jig-ish “Higgle-Dy-Piggle-Dy” and sluggish “I Hate You” further illustrate the band’s frequent association with proto-garage/psych/punk tendencies. For those who enjoy mapping the history of these sub-genres, Black Monk Time cohabitates fittingly with the Stooges, and The Rubble and Nuggets compilations.
What makes the Light in the Attic reissue distinct is the inclusion of post-Black Monk Time material. Particularly “Love Can Tame the Wild” and “He Went Down to the Sea” — singles from the incomplete follow-up record, Silver Monk Time — provide a fitting bookend to the Monks’ story. Products of the band’s lack of market success and its management’s indecision about next steps, these two jarringly soft and groovy songs (the song names alone conjure either images of flowing blond hair in fields of wheat or a feminine product commercial) summarize the band’s disappointing conclusion.
Along with essays on the band’s history, this reissue of Black Monk Time (paired with the label’s April 2009 compilation of proto-Monks material, aptly titled The Early Years 1964-1965) provides a comprehensive view of rawk’s favorite forgotten band.