My June 2009 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 313.
OH HOW TO DO NOW
Five American boys from five different parts of the country enlist in the army and get shipped off to Germany. Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback starts with this ordinarily inconsequential fact. When Gary Burger, Larry Clark, Dave Day, Eddie Shaw and Roger Johnston are each asked why they went into the army, the answer was to get away from where they were. Gary makes sure to mention that his decision to join the army was not a patriotic one. Even though they met coincidentally and started a band, they all had pretty much the same attitude at the time. They wanted to get away from where their small towns and see something new. That attitude would naturally influence the music they would eventually make.
Life in the Army in Germany didn't involve fighting. It was a bunch of busy work. Burger recalls time spent washing his truck. His commanding officer would find some dirt under the tires and the whole thing would have to be done again. Johnston recalls weeklong preparations for President Kennedy's visit, which only ended up lasting a matter of minutes. Burger and Day got together to play music on the base after being introduced by the woman who signed out instruments for the GIs to use. After that they started playing out at German GI clubs and eventually got together the full band that would go one to be The Monks.
After being discharged from the Army the band stayed in Germany to continue playing around Germany. They were known at the time as the Torquays. The scene in Germany was thriving from the reputation of being the country that discovered the Beatles. There were lots of bands and clubs so to get shows you had to stand out. Two German artists Karl-H Remy and Walter Niemann noticed the band. They were looking for a band for a project. It was from there the Monks were born.
Not once during Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback does anyone mention punk. Black Monk Time producer Jimmy Bowien says the Monks were the precursor to Heavy Metal. Maybe. Advertiser Charles Wilp says they were early techno. Huh? But there is never a mention of them being an antecedent of punk. It seems a little odd since that seems pretty obvious. Maybe it is too obvious. The film does a great job at setting up the unique circumstances that the Monks developed under.
The ultimate reason for owning the Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback DVD is two uncut performances of the Monks playing on German TV for the Beat Club Show and Beat Beat Beat. The band performs three songs on each show. It is here that you really get to see the Monks as they were. They are performing for an odd audience of kids who don't seem to really be paying attention to the band and are almost half-heartedly dancing. The band however is playing like crazy and having a ball. They are all smiles and during close-ups Gary and Eddie both wink at the camera a couple of times. Hans-Joachim Irmler of Faust recalls having seen the Monks on TV when he was fifteen. Seeing it now is amazing. I could only imagine having seen it when it originally aired in 1966. It would have blown my mind. I have been seeing bootlegs of these shows for years so it is great to have them in a pristine version on DVD. playloud.org
Somehow the review copy of Cleveland's Screaming sent to MRR never made it to me. Fortunately former ODFx guitarist Tommy Strange remedied that by inviting a few people including me over to his house to watch it. I can't thank him enough.
Cleveland's Screaming focuses on the Cleveland and Akron, OH punk scene of the early '80s. It's very specific and excludes the more famous Cleveland punk bands of the '70s. Those bands are mentioned as a reference, but it is these lesser-known bands that get the focus here. It is a certain time and a place that was exciting and interesting. Punk bands were playing in small places throughout the country each with their own take on the music and politics. The Cleveland/ Akron view rebelled against Ronald Reagan and his politics, but was also protective of bands and audience. Spiked wristbands were not allowed in the pit and skinhead attitudes weren't tolerated.
The first reason to love Cleveland's Screaming is "off the door". I have never heard of this before and I wouldn't have believed it is there wasn't a great photograph included in the film. It must be a Cleveland/ Akron exclusive. I won't it give away the "meaning" in order to make the film more enticing. Those that were there know what I am talking about. It's just too funny.
The second reason is all the great footage of the bands. I am told that one woman videotaped a bunch of the shows and it is all her footage here. I wish I knew her name since I always want to credit camera people, especially of punk footage. The people who shoot that stuff always get forgotten when the tapes get traded and they shouldn't be. It is through this footage that you get a real sense of what it was like at one of the shows. Cleveland's Screaming includes the obligatory interviews with band members as they are now, but what they say gets the point across more because of the live footage.
Tommy Strange tells me that Cleveland's Screaming is not available on DVD because no one wanted to distribute it. How can that be possible? This is a great punk movie.
Pansy Division claims to be the first openly gay punk rock band. While that might be arguable, Pansy Division definitely put their gay sexuality out there in a very blatant way. They weren't afraid to be honest and reveal themselves. It is a rarity in most bands of any genre and always a refreshing thing to witness. Well, at least for some. I bet it still makes many others very nervous.
Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band tells the band's story. Started by Jon Ginoli after he moved to San Francisco from Peoria, IL. He was frustrated with the gay scene's emphasis on disco music and showtunes. He liked rock and punk. It began as a one-man band with Ginoli singing and playing guitar backed by a cassette tape. Bassist Chris Freeman joined the band after answering Ginoli's ad looking for musicians. Drummers were harder to come by so the film is accented by the band's frustrating attempts to secure a talented and reliable gay drummer.
Pansy Division's local popularity grew and local record labels started releasing singles by the band. They eventually signed to Lookout Records who released their first album Undressed. When Lookout's style of pop punk takes off with Green Day's popularity in the mid-'90s, Pansy Division takes off as well.
My favorite part of Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band is when the band goes to record with Steve Albini. One of the band members videotapes entering Albini's studio starting from across the street, through the front door, up the stairs, by some people hanging out, down the hall way, through a door leading down stairs to the recording studio. As someone who will never record with Steve Albini nor probably ever hang out at his studio, I was fascinated to see it. That scene and when Freeman recalls touring with Green Day. The jocks in the front would give the band the finger and Freeman asked how many girls were in the audience. After a big cheer, he said see these guys in the front with their fingers in the air, don't go out with them. Also Rob Halford appearing with Pansy Division at a San Diego gay pride show to perform their version of Judas Priest's "Breaking The Law".
There is so much to like about Pansy Division. Personally I wish the music were harder, faster, more powerful and not so pop punk. But my musical tastes aside, Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band tells an inspirational story to people of any sexual orientation. Alternative Tentacles
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will go see it.