R.I.P. Gary Burger of The Monks

R.I.P. Gary Burger of The Monks

Gary Burger, frontman of proto-punk garage-rock weirdos The Monks, has died from pancreatic cancer. He was 72. Burger’s death was reported by Minnesota Public Radio, in a state where one of music’s most influential iconoclasts had spent his later years quietly serving as mayor of Turtle River, downplaying his career and its lasting influence as something born out of boredom, naiveté, and experimentation—in other words, the bedrock of all great musical movements.

Burger formed The Monks in 1964 with a group of fellow Army GIs while stationed in Germany. Originally called the Five Torquays, they started off playing Chuck Berry covers and the like across the German club circuit—the same one followed by The Beatles in their formative years. Growing tired of the same old rock ’n’ roll scene, they started adding in electric banjo, guitar feedback, primitive, almost entirely cymbal-free drum beats, and repetitive chants.

Soon they met a couple of avant-garde German students who came up with a concept that would complement their increasingly odd sound: They adopted traditional black cassocks, wore nooses around their necks, and shaved their heads into traditional tonsures, becoming The Monks. Burger would later complain that maintaining the Monks look was a real pain. The audience wasn’t all that into it either, with reactions ranging from confused silences to accusations of blasphemy. 

Add to that Burger’s singing voice—a yowl that was soulful in its own strangled-cat sort of way—and songs like the sneering, life-during-wartime lullaby of “Complication” and the sardonic love song “I Hate You,” and you had a band that was destined to leave audiences who were caught up in Beatlemania feeling cold.

But as these things go, over the years, a cult worship grew around the group’s only album, Black Monk Time. With the benefit of hindsight, its repetitive, primitive stomp and caustic energy now seem like obvious missing links in the births of both krautrock and punk. It’s since been cited as an influence by dozens of artists—some of whom appeared on the 2006 tribute album, Silver Monk Time—including everyone from the Beastie Boys to Jack White to The Fall, who’s covered four of the group’s songs to date. (The Fall’s version of “I Hate You,” renamed “Black Monk Theme Part I,” rivals the original.) 

The album’s growing reputation led to it being reissued several times—most recently by Light In The Attic—and a handful of reunion shows, one of which was recorded for 2000’s Let’s Start A Beat: Live From Cavestomp. After the release of the 2006 documentary Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback, the band returned to play Germany for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Burger was elected mayor of the tiny town of Turtle River in 2006, occasionally playing with local musicians, but mostly content to look back on his other career with bemusement and modesty. “We all knew that we were doing a different sort of music, but as far as being a forerunner band—that was the furthest from our minds. We really weren’t thinking that,” he said in a 2009 interview. “We had no idea that we were creating a new movement. And I’m still thinking, hey, we were just a rock and roll band that really had a lot of fun, and was able to be lucky enough—or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view—to work on the album.” 

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