By Evan ~ July 7th, 2009. Filed under: review.
My boss dropped a DVD on my desk yesterday as he was leaving asking if I wanted to borrow it. The cover was a macabre-looking painting of a monk holding a banjo. It read, Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback. I asked if it was simply live performance clips, or was it a full documentary. He said it was a full documentary, so I excited grabbed at it and told him I’d take good care of it and return it tomorrow. Last night was something of a lazy night, as I had a long day beginning with a morning hike through Runyon Canyon, so we watched Capote (a pretty alright flick!) followed by the Monks DVD.
My knowledge of the Monks before taking in the documentary was solid, but not exceptionally deep. Five Americans stationed in Germany in the early ’60s began playing social clubs and GI bars in and around the area in which they were living. They began as a band called The 5 Torquays, softer and more “beat” than what they would become. In the mid-60s The Monks were formed, or “created” by designers Walther Niemann and Karl-H. Remy. They were active only for a few years, recorded one album and a few singles for Polydor in Germany, and then broke up. Their music was entirely ahead of its time, and the band’s influence is immeasurable. Every krautrock band cites The Monks as being important to their own musical endeavors, and bands from The Velvet Underground to The Fall to The White Stripes owe huge debts to The Monks for creating their sound.
The documentary is very well constructed, and shed light on areas I had no idea even existed before. The biggest surprise was learning just how vast the roles of Niemann and Remy were in the creation of the band. Their vision and intentions were known long before they ever came across The 5 Torquays, and the two men went so far as to pass out “rules” for being in The Monks which included statements like, “Always to be a Monk. On Stage and In Public.” The band could only wear their robes in public and at shows, they had to keep their hair with tonsures. The designers wanted the band to appear hard, dangerous, and sexy. The duo understood the principals of advertising and design, and their effect on the public. What they envisioned — an avant-garde, minimalist, intense act that could become the anti-Beatles in Germany — they steered The Monks perfectly towards, desiring to attain the same level of success as the group to which they were a reaction. Keep in mind, this all happened before Andy Warhol had anything to do with the Velvet Underground. Unfortunately, the band’s sound was far too ahead of its time for many in Germany (especially in the Southern, more religious communities) to comprehend.
What really stuck out to me while watching the film — above the incredible live video footage of the group performing around Germany — were the decades-later filmed interviews with the original band members. Their memories of their various experiences alone would have been enough to satiate most Monks fans, but the amazing differences of opinion regarding their time as Monks, and their amazing ability to articulate those feelings — is what brings takes this documentary to a different level. The band appear complete unsentimental about what they did. Keyboardist Larry, who came home after his time in Germany to work for IBM, is rarely there throughout the film. It is no surprise to the viewer when he remarks that his experience in the Monks is in no way significant to him. I imagine, even as the interviewer tried to coax an answer out of him, telling him just how influential his sound was on generations of bands, he simply could not bring himself to feel like he’d done something successful or worthy of further discussion.
Asked if the band had a political message, or if their theme song was a protest song, only one of the five members (Gary, lead guitar/vocals) answered that it was. But he tempers that answer by saying the lead-in, “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!” featured only one line written by him, “Mad Viet Cong,” which included because he didn’t want to insult the army, which he had been a member of as recently as a year or two earlier. None of the other four band members thought their was anything political about the song. Although a few in the band expressed some anti-Vietnam sentiment, they all kept a pro-military mentality, recognizing that it had a great impact on their lives.
The idea of the Monks specialness as a band is apparent from the video clips and pictures of their time in Germany, but it appears as if they were so unique and so outside the mainstream that it could never have happened the way Niemann and Remy conceptualized it. The Monks are, at different points in the film, credited as the inventors of progressive, industrial, punk, and techno music. In 1966. They shared a bill with Hendrix in Germany, and saw his style — feedback squalls and all — as based in the blues, while they were based in rock. They were mocked at one gig by a drunk Tony Sheridan, but the band’s fans in turn mocked Sheridan. The essence of the band, their raw and brutal sound, their look and their intent, it’s all expertly depicted. The editing and composition of the documentary are both brilliant. The stories woven together by the interviews and video clips come together perfectly in a rare case of filmmakers finding a way to equal the essence of a band in their work.
Since filming completed in 2002, three of the protagonists have died. Charles Paul Wilp, who tried to convince the Monks to perform his avant-garde music for German cola advertisements, and swore he could have made them the biggest band in the world. Drummer Roger Johnston, whose post-Monks years actually made me a little sad, as he didn’t speak much of having a job but was filmed stalking around an empty church, cleaning various surfaces. Dave Day, the banjo player, who survived a year on the streets in Germany after the band’s break-up, and finally found love and happiness later in life, died of a heart attack in 2008.
Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback is a must-watch for any music fan. It was released on DVD May 5th of 2009, and can be purchased from www.playloud.org