Eddie Shaw was in the US Army stationed in Germany during the mid-1960s. Shaw was part of an artillery battalion and along with four other GIs formed one of the more novel and influential rock bands in modern history, The Monks.
The band had a multi-faceted weirdness that included the unusual instrumentation mix of hard-driving drums, banjo, bass, guitar and organ. In rock history the band is noted for its use of sonic dissonance and edgy social commentary. The band members dressed like monks to include black robes and clothing, white rope ties reminiscent of a cleric’s collar and tonsure haircuts. The influence of the band that played the trendiest clubs in Hamburg’s Rieperbahn during a seminal time in modern music is an acknowledged and important part of the punk rock gene pool. Eddie Shaw was the band’s bass player and graduated from Carson City High School.
Andy Harrison chats with Eddie Shaw.
“I grew up in Carson City. When I was in high school, when I was 15 years old, I was a member of the Carson City High school band under the jazz band, which was five guys. That was Paul Brown and people like that. We were playing Dixieland. My first professional engagement was at the Nugget, the Carson City Nugget. I was 15. We were on the big stage behind the regular stage in a smaller room. Wayne Newton was on the front stage. He was 12. That was where I began my first professional engagement.”
Eddie played the trumpet and studied Miles Davis and other contemporary jazz artists and practiced to play their music. After graduating from Carson High, he worked around the region as a musician, but the conflict in Vietnam was on and so was the draft. Shaw chose to enlist so he could then pick his military job. He chose music. He took a basic music skills test and ended up in the Sixth US Army Band in Fort Ord, south of San Francisco.
Being in the army band was cool, but Shaw says he was young and intent to experience the world beyond the familiar regional confines of northern Nevada and California. He decided to leave the band for a billet in the Sixth Field Artillery Regiment based in Germany. Shaw happened into the service club on the army base one day where a couple guys were playing guitars and singing.
Shaw says he initially regretted the decision to leave the army band back at Fort Ord.
“I walked into the service club one day and I saw these two guys playing their guitars, and they were just doing three chords, you know, Chuck Berry stuff, Elvis stuff, and I thought about it,” Shaw said. “Then I went and bought a bass in downtown Gelnhausen and brought it home and practiced the three chords, which took about 15 minutes. The next day I went down, and they were in there, and I say, ‘you guys need a bass player?”
Shaw said some of the other players more rooted in country music resisted forming a band with him because his playing was centered on jazz, but the band they called the Torquays began to attract big crowds in rough GI bars. Shaw describes terrible brawls in the audience and an organ player who would bring a gas mask for when the military police would disperse the crowd with tear gas.
The Torquays played mostly cover songs and would sign contracts to play the same club for one month at a time, six-hour shows, six nights a week. The group’s instrumentation was unusual and included an organ and six string banjo along with bass, drums and guitar. Shaw says the boredom of playing for six hours at a time spurred innovation. When the band members would see too many people talking, they began to use feedback from the guitar and PA amplifiers to regain the audience’s attention.
“One way you can get people’s attention is just to blast,” Shaw said. “The guitar starts howling and everything else, and you watch everybody. That was our learning process. Because in that process, as we worked every night, we could see that if people are talking, it’s no good. If people are watching you and have these puzzled looks on their faces and are looking at each other like what are they doing up there, then you know you’re being successful?”
The Torquays became The Monks and continued to use feedback and other dissonant sounds in their performances, possibly the first modern-era rock band to do so. In the early days of the Torquays, Shaw describes segregated audiences. There would be a teenage audience early in the evening, and then from roughly 7:00 p.m. to midnight, the audience would be white GIs and their girlfriends. After midnight, the audience would be black. An agent noticed the band while playing a gig in Stuttgart, and the Monks were born.
The agent was also an ad man for Volkswagen and devised the monk shtick. Shaw says there was more to becoming The Monks than wearing an outfit. They were a musically disparate group of players who had to forget everything to become something new. Sometime in 1965 their agent landed them a month at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, the club where the Beatles had become famous. When they dressed in their monk outfits, German people treated them with the reverence they would extend to actual monks.
“When you’re dressed that way, nobody will … kids won’t give you eye contact. If you talk to a kid, they look down. They’ll just look around, but they won’t look at you. You find that the old ladies like you until you say a couple of choice words and have a shot of scotch,” Shaw said.
The Monks were popular in the northern part of Germany and less popular in the Catholic southern part of the country. Shaw said the band was once attacked in a bar near Munich for being blasphemous.
The Monks recorded an album on the Polydor label, Black Monk Time. The vinyl disc was effectively banned in the United States at the time of its release for its artistic irreverence and criticism of the war in Vietnam and more. Shaw said the songs made it to America in 1973 when the all-female band known as the Lunatics recorded and released the songs of the Monks.
During their heyday the Monks shared the stage with Jimmy Hendrix and the Kinks, but crowds began to thin over time. The Monks were scheduled to play a gig in Vietnam, but when another band was attacked with a hand grenade while onstage in the war-ravaged country, Shaw said the band members went their separate ways. Shaw caught a ship to New Orleans and then a bus to Carson City.
One of the band members became homeless for a while. Shaw worked various jobs and has played some music in a jazz combo. In 1994, Shaw wrote a memoir about his time in The Monks with his ex-wife Anita Klemke titled Black Monk Time.
In 1999, the Monks got together for a series of six reunion shows.
“The place was full, packed,” Shaw said of the first reunion gig in 1999. “When we were playing, people were singing the songs. They knew all the words.”
The reunited band played a series of gigs in the US and Europe.
“In Barcelona we played and everybody showed up dressed as monks and nuns. It was wild. That was a wild weekend. We played Las Vegas and Switzerland and Austria, Berlin, Frankfurt, London … all of a sudden we felt like we’re somebody.”
Interest in The Monks continued into the new millennium. In 2017, Third Man Records released The Monk’s Hamburg Recordings 1967.