by Peter Sjöblom (Monk related photos and photo of Damon Jones by Damon Jones)
As Peter Sjöblom one day trods the outbacks of Youtube for unheard album rarities, he stumbles across something very, very special: an album that practically no-one knows about – not even the most hardened vinyl sharks and crate diggers. The music spellbinds him, and he decides to get in touch with Damon Jones who uploaded the album to Youtube. This is a story about record hunting, unbelievable finds and hyper obscure band Monk who made a masterpiece no-one knows exists.
Every crate digger has a dream, no matter if they admit it or not: the dream to make that Really Big Find. To find that album that steals your breath for a moment and have you silently say to yourself: ‘This can’t be true?!’
Now and then, you make a find without even knowing it. Sometimes, you don’t even have a clue what exactly it is you’ve found. Driven by instinct, you pick up the record, pay a insignificant sum for it, and bring it home. It almost feels like you’re the prince saving the fair princess from a gruesome destiny. For a charity shop album, that gruesome destiny is being left renounced and forgotten amongst Reader’s Digest editions of classical music, cash-in albums by Hawaii bands that never saw a pineapple, and dreadful 80s music never to return from the Pet Sematary of nostalgia.
I dare say that anyone who regularly – with an almost pathological urge to save the lives of albums deserving better than they got – has made a similar find. It might be a monetarily speaking valuable disc, or just an incredible good album you’ll hold close to your heart forever.
Few, and I do mean very few, can meet Damon Jones on his level.
Today a Bristol inhabitant, Jones was a Londoneer in 2005 when he found a so called acetate disc by pure chance. An acetate is a lacquer coated aluminium disc. The thin lacquer layer is very delicate, and an acetate can rarely be played more than just a few times before it’s worn out and the music gets forever buried beneath crackles and noises. Those discs weren’t produced to survive; they were used as demo discs before the more durable cassette tape and later, writable CD-Rs (and later still, computer files) made the demo distribution a lot easier. Acetates were also used for band members to bring home a rough mix of newly recorded songs from the studio to get a rough idea of what they sounded like while they were still working on a new album. A Swedish equivalent to acetates is the discs you could make in a recording booth at amusement parks. You sang something into a microphone, and for a small fee, you could get a primitive disc of your recording. Similarly, the dub plates used by DJ s at the Jamaican sound systems particularly popular during the early years of reggae were made for a play and toss away purpose.
The most remarkable thing about Damon Jones’ acetate is that it’s by a completely unknown British band called Monk (not to be confused with the legendary garage band The Monks comprising Americans doing military service in Germany). The content of Jones’ acetate is spectacular: 46 minutes of astonishingly good songs somewhere in-between psychedelia and progressive rock from the time before prog had developed into a horrendous freak of vulgar instrumental show-offs.
Although seemingly every buried recording by every completely forgotten band has been rediscovered, exhumed, remastered and reissued, Damon Jones had found something that had passed under the radar of the international archeology-minded collector cognoscenti entirely. And nobody with any possible idea of who Monk were, whatever happened to them and why the record escaped release has ever come forth.
Damon Jones posted to record collectors’ forums and got in touch with connoisseurs, but nobody would come up with any clues. After having had the secretive acetate for 15 years, he mustered the courage to play the fragile disc once more to upload it to Youtube in June 2020.
A couple of months later, I was searching for obscure private pressings on Youtube. It led me to Jones’ Monk upload. Beneath thick layers of surface noise, I heard such beauiful, spellbinding, enigmatic and self-evident music. So fulfilled. Experimental, but never contrived, tortuous or snobbish. Psychedelic, but never navel-gazing. Progressive yes, but not more than Cressida’s or Andwellas Dream’s debut albums. Rich with finely carved, melodic songs. It feels a bit like a concept album, but if that’s the case, the concept is very vague and – more important! – never gets in the way of the musical focus. The songs themselves are always at the very centre of the album.
In his comment accompanying his Youtube upload, Damon Jones told the story how he unexpectedly stumbled across the album. That, along with the music, piqued my curiousity. I got in touch with by e-mail (he was easily found) and he readily agreed to a MONO interview about his peculiar and astonishing discovery. With his pronounced British sense of dry humour, he shares everything he knows about the mysterious masterpiece that time forgot. There’s a link to the album at the end of this article. So please, put away your Rockadelic, Guerssen and Shadoks reissues for a second and give this a listen. Despite the vast amounts of crackles and skips, the musical brilliance will come through clear. This is the best album not yet reissued – and better than a lot of what has.
Before we go into the record itself, could you share with me something on your own background? Are you a dealer or a collector yourself, or just a seasoned crate digger?
– All three! I’ve been collecting records for almost thirty years and I started buying them before I had a functonal record player – I seem to recall trying to play a Utah Saints 12′ on a hi-fi system by sticking a paperclip into the cartridge in about 1994… needless to say, don’t try this at home!
– I collect a variety of genres – mainly mod/psych 45s at the moment, but also soul, funk, soundtracks, bit of jazz, post-punk, minimal synth, lounge… Records are my main hobby, so I’m usually out crate digging at car boot sales and record shops to try and find new stuff, most of which I end up trying to punt on Discogs to fund more collectible acquisitions. Mainly, this is because it’s really hard to find the obscure records I want, so I end up buying loads of other things I don’t want to get the things I do. But occasionally there are ‘Eureka’ moments which makes it worthwhile. Last year I managed to find an original copy of Mickey Finn’s ‘Garden Of My Mind’ at a car boot sale for 50p – that’s a true grail for me – and this year I picked up a slightly knackered copy of ‘I’m In A Fix’ by The Voids for £1 – so the good stuff is still out there… somewhere…
Would you like to relate how you found Monk?
– I used to live in London for about eight years, near the Oval end of Brixton road. This was actually a few hundreds metres from this rather ornate church/charity shop… where I actually managed to find a copy of Archimedes Badkar ‘II’ once for £1… and a copy of Roland Alphonso’s ‘James Bond’ Island 45 for 20p! But I digress… The nearest stretch of charity shops was in Camberwell, which is just dwn the road from Elephant and Castle. Very hit and miss, but I did score the odd bargain there, including the record we’re discussing now…
– I was out hunting for stuff around 2005 or thereabouts, and there wasn’t, as I dimly recall, anything else in this particular charity shop of interest. As I’d mentioned, I am also interested in UK lounge records, so I paused when I found a copy of a Mike Morton Congregation LP – basically cover versions of top pop hits du jour. Occasionally these LPs contain decent funky cover versions, which I’d occasionally DJ with or pick up, and as I hadn’t seen this one it piqued my interest. I’ve still got this ‘original’ sleeve, and I think all this record has going for it is ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and ‘Son Of My Father’ which would have caused me to put it back. But when I picked it up, the record didn’t feel right – it had a strange rigidity to it which caused me to remove it from the sleeve and deduce that here was something a bit unusual.
Acetates are cut thicker than normal vinyl, and smell very different, too, so my finely trained digging senses served me well there.
– I think it was priced at 80p and, to my eternal shame, I managed to get it for half price at 40p, as I pointed out to the shop assistant that it was very heavily scratched. Of course, I didn’t know what it was then, but the IBC label, the artist name, and the track titles all seemed very, very right.
– Tragically, I have still not actually found or listened to that particular Mike Morton Congregation LP yet!
– Given the lack of collectability of Mike and the Congregation’s works, I suspect that, if I hadn’t found and bought the record, it would currently be a few thousand obsidian shards buried in a landfill on the fringes of the M25. History is cruel that way.
Have you found any clues to in what part of the UK it was recorded – city, or even just an area – and any more specific idea of what year it might have been recorded? IBC Sound Recording Studios were London based, but is that simple answer? It’s obviously from the late 60s/early 70s, but would you hazard a more precise guess?
– Datewise, I’d hazard a guess of 68/69, as it really seems to have emerged from that hybrid haze betwixt psych and prog. If it was cruder, I might have suggested early seventies, but the production is so accomplished that I’m guessing it was that period. The use of organ seems highly proggy, but the tape loops, trippy FX and some of the guitar solos seem more evocative a late 60s sound. It’s also quite melodic and linear, and there are no really abrupt time signature changes or transitions that would anchor it more firmly in the prog camp.
– My knowledge of the period isn’t incredibly extensive, and I really have no idea about the record’s geographic origins. All we have to go on is that IBC label at the moment.
– The person from IBC, who I think had a website, ignored or didn’t reply to my email.
– After I shared it with him in 2013, Ian Shirley replied ‘Fuck me this is GOOD!!’ which might be something to put on a hype sticker for a future reissue. ‘Fuck Me This Is Good – Ian Shirley, Record Collector Magazine’! He said he was going to try and dig up some info, but that having a fairly generic name like ‘Monk’ made it difficult to research, which, given the absolute obscurity of the record – no further information has emerged on the internet since then – the past seven years have certainly borne out.
– I haven’t heard from Ian Shirley since then, so he has either stopped looking or is currently out in the wilds of Borneo hunting for further information on this one.
I assume your copy is the only known copy in existence, otherwise it would most likely have been reissued already given the amounts of reissues in general. Any guess how many copies that might have been produced originally? A handful?
– It may be likely mine is the only copy in existence, but let’s not rule out one or two of the band members having minty cobwebbed copies up in the attic. Let’s say six were originally made; one for each member of the band, and a fifth to shop around or to demo to the record companies.
As you pointed out previously, the production is quite elaborate, almost like a finished album intented for proper release. Of course it’s hard to speculate, but what label would you suggest would have been best suited to release the album?
– Yes, I agree that is sounds very, very polished, and the effects applied to it suggested that the project had clearly advanced beyond demo stage. I’m thinking that it would have come out on Fontana or Deram. It definitely deserves a laminated sleeve!
– As for the cover design, something monochrome and cowled, like the Sudden Death album is the first image that springs to mind, but then the album isn’t particularly heavy or doom-laden, so something lighter might be more appropriate.
– Perhaps something along the lines of the Groundhogs ‘Blues Obituary’… or the group, all dressed in monastic garb, circled around an open grave which contains a stratocaster. The image is monochrome, but the guitar is a bright red, and is burning…
Sounding as professionally recoded as the acetate does despite its typical acetate sound and the plentiful of crackles, do you think it could actually be a wellknown, or a semi-known, band which later had something released under a different name? If so, have you toyed with any ideas what band it could be?
– My tastes are currently skewed more towards psych/mod sounds and I tend to focus on the music rather than the personalities involved, so it’s difficult for me to really conceive of which outfit Monk could have been the genesis for. Definitely a possibility that this could be the beginnings of a more famous figure or group. I guess that’s what’s so interesting about the record – perhaps it forms a missing part of canonical rock history, or it could have been made by a group of individuals on the periphery of the biz who, after the album wasn’t released, drifted away from the scene to return to their day jobs as milkmen and teachers.
– Let’s assume that, having recorded this really interesting and unjustly neglected album, the group slink off to provincial obscurity, but, harbouring a lingering resentment against a seemingly tone-deaf world, reform circa 1977 as a highly belligerent punk/NWOBHM outfit called ‘Total Apocalypse’ and later morph into a successful stadium hair metal band, clean up in the US, make millions and retire to their respective Surrey mansions to live out their lives in that ”House In The Country’ they eulogise on the Monk LP.
It does sound a bit like a concept album, emphasized by the sound effects segments linking songs together. It has a slight religious bent at times, and the band name Monk would fit nicely with that notion. I was thinking that maybe it could be music from a stage production, like a local theatrical play or something. In that case, that could explain why it has a concept album vibe even if the concept is still somewhat obscure when presented on disc. Any comments?
– The band name and the ‘Jesu’ and ‘The Beast’ titles are strongly suggestive of some sort of Christian effort, and possibly a journey of redemption towards enlightenment, although the positioning of the tracks doesn’t quite align with that thesis. One thing which does strike me is that, if it’s a Christian effort, it is very light on moralising.
– I used to own this record by New Dawn, which is a very obscure UK private press with slightly psychy leanings which is actually I believe a recording of a Christian stage production.
– I do enjoy and collect some Christian records, but a major turn-off for me is that irrespective of musical proficency, they often tend to veer towards really clunky fire and brimstone moralising – bluntly ‘get with us our you’re going to hell come judgement day’. New Dawn is a supreme example of that. Monk doesn’t really have that sort of smug, spiritual blackmail exercise going on. It doesn’t seem to have any, or only a very subtle missionary undercurrent.
– One other thing to consider is that the record is, as we agree, well produced, and contains a number of tape loops/effects etc – that is the intro and ‘On So To Bed’. How easy would that be to recreate on stage in a live environment, particularly for a small and obscure group? A lot of private press stage recordings are clearly ‘live’ recordings of the actual production, and this is so polished – and has the IBC label – which strongly suggests it was a studio project at some point. If the concept was that they were taking a stage production into the studio to record it, I’d also expect that the original production would have been somewhat successful, and hence we’d be able to find out more about it.
– Listening to ‘Through An Electric Glass Darkly’, the last track on the album, the vocalist seems to be talking about the future as a potential apocalypse – ‘buried in the sand’ in Ozymandias style – and that ‘the future belongs to you and me’ which seems quite existentially empowering… then seems to be projecting our destinies towards a ‘starship in outer space’, which is more of a pulp sci-fi outlook. That said, he cautions against ‘The changes that we make’, which may allude to a higher form of reckoning that awaits. If they are a Christian group then they’re quite agile – they’re asking questions of the listener, but not explicitly, or righteously, providing what they claim are the answers – which is the way it should be done, I think.
Given the huge amount of reissues and the ever on-going interest in unreleased – not always very good! – music, have you been in touch with any reissue labels? I figure there would be a massive interest in release the album properly. After all, it’s a great album overshadowing several others ‘lost albums’ that have been issued over the years. If so, which labels have you approached?
– I’ve not approached any labels as yet, but your question and hopefully article may be a sufficient prompt to do just that! Clearly a label dedicated to psych/prog archaeology seems appropriate – an acquaintance, who also liked the LP, suggested Wah Wah or Guerssen. Guerssen particularly seems apt. I’m a great admirer of their efforts on the Wicked Lady LPs.
– If anyone has any massive interest to express, please do get in touch!
Before uploading the album to Youtube, did you play it to other people? What were their reactions?
– I recall playing it to a guy I used to work with who was a fan of Camel and Budgie who said ‘Very interesting… but I have no idea who it is….you should find out who’s playing on it!’.
– This seems to be the generic response to the record, but if you like it, I like it, Ian Shirley and this guy like it then that’s 100% positive feedback!
I guess the question needs to be asked: Have you ever considered selling the acetate?
– Yes, for the outstanding balance of my mortgage. That’s a very reasonable, low six figure sum and as I’m currently paying it off, consider this a twenty year Dutch auction!
– More earnestly, it is a bit of a peculiar object to own. As it’s so fragile, I wouldn’t want to play it, in case it is damaged further. Because it currently exists totally outside the record collecting market, or appraisal in any of the biblical guides – think Hans Pokora – do we consider it a priceless or worthless artifact? If we find out that we’re listening to John Lennon on vocals, Jimi Hendrix on bass and Rod Stewart on woodblocks, how will we reappraise it?
– I mainly collect records to try and DJ with, which gives them a bit of utility… owning the acetate and not listening to it, or sharing it more widely – as I’ve recently done on Youtube/Discogs – seems a very indulgent dead end. If the Mona Lisa had been filed away in the vaults of The Vatican for the past 700 years, would anyone care, having never seen it? Without its contents being heard it becomes a dead artifact, so it’s great that you’ve gotten in touch to discuss it to create some dialogue. Perhaps this is the beginning of the myth…
– Many of the current rereleases of obscure prog/psych LPs usually come with a generic back story – a bit like the Sudden Death LP I invoked – whereby the band is clearly extremely talented, gain a live following, catch the eye of some local producers who fund the recording of a demo, seeing them as the next big thing – but they shop it around, then it gets turned down by the majors, dreams dashed.
– The tragic romance of this narrative is very appealing, and perhaps that’s why some of the recent tide of prog/psych reissues are so enjoyable – they seem very just, in a way. Listening to things like Bulbous Creation, Wicked Lady, Sudden Death or even things that were released, but not widely admired at the time, like the Bulldog Breed LP, is a form of critical resurrection of music that it seems bizarre to have overlooked. So it may not be an explicitly Christian vinyl opera, but let’s hope that Monk’s album has a chance at a second coming.
For a Swedish version of this interview, go here!