A true tall tale that unfolds like the Great Unwritten Cold War Rock Novel, Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback traces how a beat-crazy combo formed by five bored U.S. soldiers stationed in West Germany in 1964 evolved into an ambitious, time-sanctified art-punk project. Beginning their post-Army career as the 5 Torquays, logging up to six hours on stage per night in the post-Beatles frenzy that animated Hamburg and Heidelberg clubs, the band left cover tunes behind when they were taken under the wing of two design students-turned-admen who propelled them into a new high-concept life as the Monks: harsh, atavistic minimalism beaten out in raw rhythms; strangulated, incantatory vocals (“I hate you, but call me”); tonsures fittingly shaven into their scalps, along with robes for stage garb; and rules of off-stage comportment that insisted on “moving like a monk” while conveying “danger,” “sexy,” “hard.” The immediate results were a commercial flop of an album, a wacky attempt at collaboration with German ad czar Charles Wilp, and dissolution after two years, but a slow-growing cult of musician fans and tastemakers at last compelled a live American debut…in 1999.
The quintet of aged Monks (two of whom have died during postproduction) in Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios’s within-the-music doc regularly let astonishment creep into their reminiscences, as if they still can’t wrap their brains around the improbability of it all. Bassist Eddie Shaw is the most analytical (the band’s sound was “too little, too fast” for the era), guitarist and banjo-slapper Dave Day the most sweetly enthused over early days in GI bars or finally playing a New York show after a 32-year layoff. Among the other witnesses, most amusing are the Polydor Records exec who had to hear a Monks show from the aural safety of the sidewalk outside the club before he would sign them, and Joachim Irmler of krautrock legends Faust, who as a teen found the Monks’s German TV appearances an electrifying shock after “the other harmless bands” (e.g., the Stones and Beatles).
Sorely but perhaps cannily absent are the group’s pair of Gestalt-indebted mentor-managers; one is quoted as humbly demurring participation to stay properly in the background. But Irmler’s assertion that the band helped destroy the “tonic, dominant-subdominant superstructure” that the Beatles retained from Bach—the bastards—lends Monks all the Teutonic braggadocio it needs, while its repatriated ex-rockers are seen quietly living out their third acts (small-town mayor, church handyman). The Monks’s belatedly celebrated status as forerunners of metal, punk and industrial sounds that filled the decades after their disbanding seems not a great reward but the conceptual fulfillment of their creators, a rock und roll punchline.