Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
OVERRATED, VOLUME THREE : THE MONKS….Not to be a nattering nabob of negativity all the time, but there’s something cathartic about purging all the hostility and frustration that’s built up over the years watching mediocrity rewarded and brilliance ignored. As my shrink Dr. Melfi keeps telling me, “give voice to your pent-up anger, speak truth to power”. I’m trying, doctor!! That brings me to the third installment of our “overrated” series, starring the POP GROUP, the DICTATORS, and now, those crrrrazy 60s GIs “on the loose” in Germany, THE MONKS. Wow, these guys were cuckoo! I mean, totally bats! They shaved their heads like real Monks and everything, and said controversial stuff about the Vietnam war! Not just crrrazy, but bold too! Yeah, to be fair, the MONKS are not quite as egregious on the musical front – I gave “Black Monk Time” two more complete spins over the past weekend to see if I could spare them the guillotine, but in the end, despite some flashes of talent, I gotta conclude that these guys were about as dangerous and ingenious as Jello Biafra. Aw christ, I almost forgot the caveats I have to throw out there before the “Monks hillbilly jihad” tracks me down:

A.) There’s no accounting for taste, and
B.) My opinions are just that, opinions. Yours are equally valid and defensible.

Let’s establish front and center that, kidding aside, the MONKS’ back story is one of the more interesting angles around – musically-inclined American GIs stationed in Germany who, out of boredom, start a band for their own amusement and go a little bonkers in the process -- but to pump & milk a legend on that alone would be a huge mistake. I’ve found most Monks praise continues to be centered on their story, not their sound. “Black Monk Time”, their one and only true LP, came out in 1966, and there are certainly some forward-thinking nods to sonic experimentation in the mix. "We got rid of melody. We substituted dissonance and clashing harmonics," bassist Eddie Shaw said, quoted in a Perfect Sound Forever feature on the band. "Everything was rhythmically oriented. Bam, bam, bam. We concentrated on over-beat". Great, mission accomplished – the dissonant production is ahead of its time. But the songs? Are they really worth listening to over and over? Other than the dynamic “Shut Up” and the kinda fun “We Do Wie Du”, I honestly don’t think there’s a lot of there there. The hoarse shouting and falsetto yodeling of the vocalist is absolutely grating when combined with deliberately nonsensical lyrics and rhymes – sort of a “look at me, I’m a nutty madman” posturing that is incredibly calculated and wears poorly on repeated listens. It’s kind of like the difference between OS MUTANTES and the MOTHERS OF INVENTION; the former paid as much attention to their harmonics and melodies as they did their experimentation, and when they started venturing off the deep end, they were pushing boundaries that could always be snapped back into shape as the song itself demanded. The latter, who I believe the Monks resemble more approach-wise, were more about flipping the bird and making a statement about what freaks they were, and their music suffered accordingly for this lack of seriousness and craft. With “Black Monk Time” it’s kind of a frustrating cycle: you plop the record on, hear this terrific production, golden farfisa and thudding bass, and you end up 40 minutes later with – this? This wet noodle of a record? I can’t help but do some back-of-the-envelope math. Hmm, let’s see here: MONKS + undue hype = OVERRATED!