Monks in heaven

I first heard about the Monks as a sophomore in high school. It was on NPR of all things. I heard a special one morning while getting a ride to school on "All Things Considered" about an obscure band from the ’60s. Their story was an interesting one: they were five ex-servicemen who had been stationed in Germany. They had gone so far with their name as to shave the tops of their heads in a monk like fashion. And if their image wasn’t weird enough, their music – a Dada-istic warping of jazz, German dancehall music, R & B and beat – matched it. From what little I had heard of it on the show, I was ashamed to have listened to anything else.

Shortly afterward, I went out and bought their reissue "Black Monk Time." Around that time I was trying my damndest to lose weight. I didn’t have the will power to change my diet, so I had to start exercising. I was too self-conscious to go jogging out in my neighborhood, so I decided to run in place inside my house. Black Monk Time made the perfect background music. As unhealthy as I was, I could only run for 5 minutes starting with "Monk Time" and finishing with "I Hate You." I did this every night for four months and lost 30 pounds.

Their heyday was in the ’60s, but they are probably more punk rock than any ’77 band. You could also peg them to the psychedelic category, but their music would be better as a soundtrack for a paranoid speed freak than for an acidhead. Comparisons can be drawn to the likes of the Doors or the Velvet Underground, but those fall short on both counts. They weren’t as pretentious as the Doors and too angry for the Velvets. They were some of the first to use fuzz bass, some of the first to utilize feedback, and probably the only band to have an electric banjo.

Being that their audience was German (there’s no way they could’ve ever made it stateside), the lyrics are minimalist with angry sounding titles like "Shut Up" and "I Hate You."

The band recorded their only album in ’65 and spent two years playing all over Germany and various parts of Europe, gigging in legendary clubs like Hamburg’s Top Ten Club, even appearing on German television. After failing to break the German pop charts, the band fizzled out and returned to their respective homes in the states.

The Monks’ sound relied heavily on rhythm, so much so that had given a name to their particular brand of Rock, "퀌_ber-beat." Utilizing the toms more than the cymbals, drummer Roger Johnston gave the sound its pounding pagan rhythms – the backbone of the sound. Unfortunately, it took time for him to be recognized as the rock ‘n’ roll legend that he is. In Johnston’s case it took over 30 years and before his death just this last November, he was working as a custodian at a Methodist Church in Minnesota.

No other drummer has the same effect on me as Roger Johnston. I still listen to the Monks every so often, and even after I’ve stopped using the Monks as exercise music, whenever I hear the boom of the opening seconds of "Monk Time" like one of Pavlov’s dogs I’d feel the need to start moving. If I can’t, I feel like biting someone, going into convulsions or foaming at the mouth – sometimes all at once. Roger Johnston, I salute you.