Perhaps Hell really is in New Jersey....
Lodi, New Jersey, to be specific, where in 1977 Glenn Danzig and friends unleashed their horror movie-themed loud and fast punk band on the world. A band that a quarter of a century later, already in its second incarnation, can boast legions of young punk fans proudly wearing black T-shirts with the logo and skulls or other horror imagery.
Stumble in somnambulance so
Pre-dawn corpses come to life
Armies of the dead survive
Armies of the hungry ones
Ripped up like shredded-wheat
Be a sort of human picnic
This ain't no love-in
This ain't no happening
This ain't no feeling in my arm
When punk burst onto the scene in the late 1970s, a number of bands were started that have endured and influenced other bands over the years. Some gained a certain musical legitimacy and cultural credibility that never would have been predicted back when it all started. At the same time, like most musical genres, there have been thousands of forgettable bands or ones that few have ever heard of. The Misfits fail in both respects. Simple straight ahead punk wrapped around lyrics inspired by cheesy and/or gory (usually both) horror movies will probably keep them out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Misfits are arguably one of the biggest cult punk bands around and probably the least well known outside of the fanbase. But the fans cross genres to include heavy metal and "goth" (in many of its permutations). They even appeal to fans of both pop punk and hardcore. And while they will never gain either musical or cultural legitimacy, the influence of the band is quite strong. Metallica has covered both "Green Hell" and "Last Caress"the later being a regular part of their concert show, often during the encore. And it's difficult to see how a band like Marilyn Manson could exist today without a band like the Misfits being there first (yes, there was Alice Cooper, too).
"Mommy...can I go out and kill tonight?"
1976 to 1978
In October (how appropriate) of 1976, Danzigwho had already been in a few local bandsand some friends formed a band that was to play all original material. It was named after Marilyn Monroe's final film, The Misfits (1961). They began practicing and were introduced to Jerry Caiafa (soon dubbed Jerry Only) the next spring. He would become a permanent member, playing bass through both incarnations of the band (1977-1983, 1995-present).
They officially began as a trio, with Manny (Martinez, who would leave the band by the end of the year) playing drums and Danzig providing vocals and keyboardsit wasn't until October that they would have a guitarist. They began rehearsing songs written by Danzig and played their first show within a month. That summer they recorded their first single, "Cough/Cool," featuring the title song and "She," a song based on Patricia (don't call me "Patty") Hearst and her involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army. They were rather jazzy (and poorly produced, something that would remain characteristic of the band 1977 to 1983) and unlike what would follow. The second song would later be recorded with guitar and the first was fortunately forgotten.
With the addition of guitarist Franché Coma and "Mr. Jim" (Catania) on drums, replacing Manny, the band began touring and playing early versions of songs that would later be recorded on vinyl (yeah: vinyl). An early non-highlight was almost opening for Devo in Toronto, Canada (Devo canceled the show).
When Mercury Records released a record under the label Blank records, they found the Misfits were already using the name. In exchange for full ownership of the name, the band was given free studio time. In January 1978, they went into the studio and recorded 17 tracks for the proposed Spinal Remains album. The album wasn't picked up so they released four of the songs on a 7" EP. This would be the beginning of a number of 7" and 12" records that began to bring the band attention. A new name for the label was chosenPlan 9, from Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s classic z movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958).
While the early work was still somewhat typical punk fare, with fast, bludgeoned power chords and Danzig's deep voice, there were some hints of the direction the band would take. "Where Eagles Dare" (apparently not based on either the 1968 film or the 1967 novel by Alistair MacLean) with its defiant growling chorus of "I ain't no goddamn son of a bitch" still has lines about a "mouthful of germicide" and a "hatpin in your retina." It also sets the musical style of taking simple and common chord changes and making them sound menacing. Like an evil Ramones twin with a nonexistent recording budget. The songs "Halloween" and "Night of the Living Dead" were also starting to get played. As well as a mean sounding cover of "Rat Fink" by Alan Sherman of "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" fame.
In late 1978, both Coma and Mr. Jim left the band (the former because of dislike of touring and the latter because of a disagreement over the horror movie direction the band was taking). New guitarist Bobby Steele would stick around for two years. In December, the "devilock" hairstyle was "created" by Only. It involved growing and pulling one's bangs down over the face like some black tail. Along with the dark, often leather, clothes, make-up, and other horror-like accessories, it became a trademark and a complement to the music/lyrics.
Hell is where you want to be
I feel the hell on you and me
I feel it every day
Hell is where you want to be
I feel the hell on you and me
It never goes away
1979 to 1981
The band continued recording and releasing EPs and making a name for itself through live shows, many of which combined the expected chaos, stave-diving, and occasional flash of violence of early punk shows with the image the group was cultivating. In one instance, they dumped grape Kool-Aid on the audience in a tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre. For one Halloween show they leapt out of coffins and began playing. Another show had them showing the film Plan 9 From Outer Space as the opening act, followed by the band bursting through the screen and launching into song. In March, they were banned by Max's Kansas City for an altercation with the audience.
That year also saw the first use of the skeleton-costumed criminal mastermind from the twelve episode serial The Crimson Ghost (1946) as a sort of mascot. It would soon become a sort of alternate logo for the band and is probably the number one image (and variations of it) used on T-shirts and other merchandise. It also saw the establishment (appropriately enough on Halloween) of the Fiend Club, a fan club run by the band to the present.
After what seemed like an obvious billing of the Misfits opening for The Damned, the group tried a failed tour of England. Damned lead singer Dave Vanian had apparently not been entirely serious when he had discussed the possibility with Only. They were added to the tour and provided equipment. The Misfits only played one show before leaving the tour complaining about money and the instruments they had been loaned. With the return tickets not for another month, they tried making the best of it by trying to book shows, a possible opening spot for The Clash being discussed (it never panned out).
While Only was sight-seeing with Beverly Ritchie (Sid Vicious' momOnly was friends with him and had been with him at a party the night before Sid's girlfriend Nancy Spungeon was found murdered), the others were supposed to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, Danzig and Steele got into a fight with some skinheads (claiming it was self-defense) and were arrested. Danzig later wrote the song "London Dungeon" about his time in jail (which was only two nights).
In September of 1980, Steele left the band, being replaced about a month later by Only's younger brother, Doyle, who would remain with the band until the recently. On Halloween, they made their first appearance on the cult favorite local variety program "The Uncle Floyd Show" (fans of the show included David Bowie and Iggy Pop), airing out of New Jersey.
In June of 1981, the band began work on what would be their only "proper" full length album released during their first incarnation. Walk Among Us would be released the following year. The album, the title of which might refer to the 1956 The Creature Walks Among Us, features a picture of the band superimposed over a still or poster from the 1959 science fiction flick The Angry Red Planet. That month Danzig recorded (entirely by himself, music and vocals) the single "Who Killed Marilyn?" which fuses questions about the nature of her death with a bizarre obsession with her deteriorating sexual organs ("Rotted corpse, sex decay/ Breasts all full of slugs/ No answer for the accident/ Her cunt has all dried up").
The band continued to tour and release songs. A November show in San Francisco, which featured an appearance of Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins was recorded and distributed through the Fiend Club. It would later be released as Evilive (though a bootleg of the show with good recording quality exists, the release offers some of the worst sound production on a nationally distributed album).
Some of the animosity that would later break the band up was beginning to show. During a set in December, Misfits fans threw cups and bottles at Bobby Steele, who then was fronting the opening band The Undead. Danzig used the chorus of a song to mock Steele (who was still at the show watching them play). It wouldn't be the first time he would do that.
With just a touch of my burning hand
I'm gonna live my life to destroy your world
Prime directive, exterminate
The whole fuckin' race
1982 to 1983
In April of 1982, while doing a song check at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, Mötley Crüe vocalist Vince Neil walked in. The band started heckling him from stage and ended up chasing him down the street after he ran (Rollins was also involved). Later that month, another drummer left the band (Arthur Googy, who had been with them since April 1980) after he and Danzig got in an argument over money at McDonald's. The band was near broke and Googy wanted a second cheeseburger. Until the breakup in 1983, three other drummers would either rehearse or play with the band, including Black Flag drummer Robo (another who left due to friction with the temperamental Danzig).
The band also met fifties late night monster movie hostess and Edward D. Wood, Jr. crony Vampira. They had recorded a song about her and she was touched and made some appearances and posed for pictures. The song"Vampirawith what seems to be a carry-over of adolescent-like lust, describes her rather well: "Two inch nails/Micro waist/With a pale white feline face/Inclination eyebrows...." The song mentions "graverobbers from outer space," the working title for Plan 9 From Outer Space, which she had a role in.
Finally Walk Among Us came out. It was (and is) classic Misfits, the sing along choruses, the horror movie imagery, the catchy chord changes, and the fast, hard barre-chording they are known for. Many of their best known songs appeared and the production was almost passable.
In October, members of the Misfits and the band Necros (along with a few fans) were arrested and accused of graverobbing in New Orleansthey were attempting to retrieve a skull from one of the aboveground crypts.
Danzig, who wrote the songs and seems to have seen himself as the auteur of the Misfits, was already thinking of a side project which he had written a few songs for (eventually this would become Samhain, his band following the breakup)at a show in June, he told Rollins that he was going to leave the band. Meanwhile they were working on what would be known as the Earth A.D./Wolf's Blood albumwhich was actually two proposed 7" releases put onto one record. Two of the songs were written for Samhain and would later be performed under that name. One, appropriately enough, was "Bloodfeast," inspired by the 1963 Herschell Gordon Lewis movie that many agree to be the first modern gore film ("And that blood's so real/ Because I just can't fake it").
Arguments within the band and the loss of Robo as drummer, led to Danzig canceling a Canadian tour. In August he began rehearsing with some possible new band members for what would be his next band. Googy was asked to fill in as drummer but when he asked to be paid up front for the annual Halloween show, Danzig said no and that he would never work with him again.
The growing friction and animosity between Danzig and other band members continued to grow and outlasted the breakup. A not untypical example concerns what the song "We are 138" was about. Possibly based on George Lucas' 1971 THX 1138, Steele and Only gave plausible explanations in July 1996 (separate interviews). Though there were some slight differences, it was generally agreed upon. Rather than simply correct them (if they were wrong), Danzig fired back four years later in an online interview with "They didn't write it, and they don't know what the fuck it's about. It's about violence."
It came to a head at the 1983 Halloween show. Then-drummer Brian "Brian Damage" Keats got drunk before the show and Doyle refused to let him play. Upset over the situation and Danzig (who had picked the new drummer), both he and Only played the show while sitting on their amps. Danzig declared it to be their last show. A recording of the show showed that the band had probably not been rehearsing much prior to that date.
Following the concert, the band members drove back home, Danzig and Brian sitting together and Doyle and Only sitting together. The pairs would never speak to each other again. The Misfits had become undead.
Hot cherry on Friday night
When the sun goes down my spine
I put an axe in my baby's head
I'm gonna end up doing time
She looks so good in red
American nightmare running scared
1983 to 1995
Like the creatures in the movies the band loves, the Misfits refused to remain dead. Plan 9 released the Earth A.D./Wolf's Blood album in December. A slight departure for the band (only slight). The horror was less supernatural and the violence more "real." Most notable was the speed. The album would be an important influence on metal bands as well as the hardcore punk movement. In May of the next year, Plan 9 released its last EP (as a solo label), Die, Die My Darling, the title (and song) "based" on a 1965 movie of the same name (also known as Fanatic). That year also saw the release of the first Samhain album.
In 1985, Danzig signed with Caroline Records, making a deal to distribute the product that had been released on Plan 9. The first record put out was Legacy of Brutality, a collection of unreleased stuff. True to form, Danzig went back and overdubbed guitar and bass, and remixed it. That same year, the animated series Jem! debuted. It was about a girl band (Jem and the Holograms) with special powers. The band had its nemesis in a group of "bad" girls band called The Misfits. Only spoke about it with the toy company that coproducing it (Hasbro Inc.). A loophole allowed them to use the name but the final season of the show had a different foil band named The Stingers (whether there is a connection is unclear).
In 1986, Danzig, through Caroline, released Collection I, a compilation of earlier material. He proposed releasing a Walk Among Us 2, made up of unreleased versions of the tracks on the album. This project was dropped and the tracks ended up on Collection II which was released in 1995. In 1987, Danzig changed the name of Samhain to Danzig (to avoid later possible royalty problems), under which he continues to record. In 1988, he released his first album under that name.
Meanwhile Only and Doyle formed a band called Kryst the Conqueror, releasing an album but never performing live. Some of the songs they wrote would later would later be reworked for the second incarnation of the Misfits. In 1988, the lawsuits began. Danzig attempted to sue Warner Brothers over royalties from a reissue of Walk Among Us. There was also a lawsuit against him by the others over the same thing. The parties settled out of court, leaving Only and Doyle able to record and perform as the Misfits ("exclusive owners of the name on a performing level") and Danzig and they shared merchandising rights. The settlement would open the door to the new version of the Misfits (something they had been already considering since the late 1980s).
Die, die, die my darling
Don't utter a single word
Die, die, die my darling
Shut your pretty mouth
I'll be seeing you again
I'll be seeing you in Hell
1995 to present
Despite the bad breakup and the lawsuit, Only and Doyle still hoped to get Danzig to sing. They visited his parents house, hoping to ask him to join (he was playing a show nearby). His mother gave them four cases of Misfits skateboard decks that had been sitting under the porch since 1987. They sold them and when they returned a few weeks later, they learned Danzig had sold the remaining cases. The night of the show, they approached his hotel room and, according to Only, knocked on the door for 15 minutes before security escorted them out. If the Misfits would rising from the grave, it would be without its former singer/songwriter.
After trying to lure Dave Vanian into the lead vocal role, they settled on Michale Graves, who would be with them through two albums before leaving. Lacking the deep death rattle voice of Danzig, the his smooth vocals turned off a good number of their fans who remained loyal to the original Misfits. Only eventually took over the vocals.
In 1996, Caroline put out the Misfits box set, a four CD collection of about 100 songs (covering just about anything that wasn't a bootleg) packaged in a black coffin and including a Fiend Club pin (problems with production and in a subsequent reissue caused many to have none or some to have more than oneI didn't get mine). The next year was the first release of new Misfits material in over a decade.
American Psycho, inspired by the title of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel was a more metalized sound, but still retained the sci-fi/horror film subject matter and catchy sing along choruses. On one hand, it brought some of the fun back that seemed to be missing from Danzig's overly serious post-Misfits releases. On the other, the almost cartoonish use of make-up and album/merchandising imagery made it difficult to swallowas if trying to follow the first act wasn't hard enough. On its own merits, the album was quite solid, if not overly inspired, and it captured the essence of the band pretty well. And, for once, a Misfits album actually had adequate production values.
They produced a couple videos and did the requisite touring, which often included Only singing "classic" Misfits songs for a portion of the show. In 1988, an Evilive II was released to fans of the Fiend Club, featuring old and new material. The next year, they released Famous Monsters, which was, really, more of the same and less. The anger in the vocals of old was still absent and, strangely, the better production actually hurts the scruffy, garage-y feeling that gave the band its "charm." Technically proficient, but ultimately weak (partly because of it). It feels like a watered down version of the band and the cartoonishness is undeniable. A sort of "Misfits by the numbers" feeling.
One of the videos produced for the album was directed by horror director George A. Romero (of Night of the Living Dead and its two sequels, among others). This was part of a deal to include two songs and the band in his upcoming film Bruiser (2000). A 12" collectible action figure of Only actually won "Action Figure of the Year" from the toy industry in 1999 and the next year VH1 named the Misfits number 91 in its "100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock." The aired segment included Alice Cooper, Rob Halford (formerly of Judas Priest), Kid Rock, and three members from Metallica all discussing the group.
The start of the next century found the band embarking on a 25th Anniversary Tour and an album of demo and unreleased tracks dating back to 1996. Friction and personality problems would eventually leave Only the only member who had actually played in the original band. He is continuing to write and perform and the Misfits (however one feels about the newer version) refuses to die.
Sweet lovely death
I am waiting for your breath
Come sweet death, one last caress
"In this 'B' film born invasion...."
Like the love of horror movies that inspires them, the band has generally been one of those things that appeals best to adolescent males who eventually grow out of it (not to denigrate fans). One can still be "cool" and "hip" as a Ramones fan, but there is something a bit disreputable (to say the least) in identifying oneself as a fan of the Misfits. The heavy, simplistic rhythms, the EC Comics and Eurogore horror movie lyrics with an odd mix of sex (which is characteristic of the latter) are just not things one often admits to. But then Edward D. Wood, Jr. ended his "career" working in softcore porn and has since gained a certain cultural respectibility....
Just how important are horror films beyond the imagery and subject matter? A look at their songs shows the following movies alluded to directly or indirectly or inspirations for songs. Those already mentioned are omitted (ones with alternate titles list the one most relevant first):
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), American Nightmare (1983), The Astro-Zombies (1969), Boxing Helena (1993), The Brain Eater (1958), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Crawling Eye/The Trollenbeg Terror (1958), Day of the Dead (1985), "Devil Doll" (a number of films exist with a similar title; it is unclear whether the song is based on any), Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Fiend Without a Face (1958), Forbidden Zone (1980) From Hell It Came (1957), The Haunting (1963), Hell Night (1981), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Horror Hotel/The City of the Dead (1960), The Hunger (1983), King Kong (1933), Lost in Space (1998, also television show 1965-1968), Mars Attacks (1996; song written for movie, was not included), Mephisto Waltz (1971), Monster from Green Hell (1958), Night of the Ghouls (1959), One Million Years B.C. (1956), Poltergeist (1982; the song is called "Shining" but has nothing to do with the Stephen King novel or either filmed version), Pumpkinhead (1988), Return of the Fly (1959), Scream 2 (1997; song written for movie, not included), Them! (1954), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), This Island Earth (1954), Twins of Evil (1971), The Wasp Woman (1960).
This is not to say that the songs are truly based on the moviesmost cases would require some "creative" explanation. But then, it is also accurate to say that the history of the horror film, particularly the 1950s through the 1980sas a wholeis all an inspiration. And all those sequels.
"I Turned into a Martian" could possibly be related to both I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)both with can and have been seen as symbolic of the Communist scare. And lines like "Not the body of a man from earth/Not the face of the one you love" and "unsuspecting human world/Inhuman in your midst" reinforce those themes as well as the stronger fear of loss of identity and certainty/reality ("I can't even recall my name"). Or not.
Other cultural references show up. Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon (largely made up of scandal, rumor, and a good deal of dubious content) is referenced in a song title (including lines like "Do the citizens kneel for sex/It's heaven cumming on her chest"). John F Kennedy appears in "Bullet," which disturbingly mixes the assassination with sex.
The letters from the band's logo were modeled on those used for Forrest J. Ackerman's magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Then there is the film Animal Room (1995, released 2000), in which the band appears.
In a more direct cultural reference, Danzig took the charges of his voice sounding like "Elvis from hell" to the logical extreme and recorded the song "American Nightmare" sounding as much like the King as possible. The guitars and music mimic earlier rock and roll (though through punk sensibilities and mediocre production). It's also the only Misfits song to include hand claps as part of the rhythm section. Supposedly the song "Violent World"with lyrics including "Pregnant mothers in Mexico give birth to a stillborn monster baby"was based on a tabloid that regularly ran similar stories. I haven't been able to corroborate that.
In the end, it's a guilty pleasure. A Halloween thing. Like a great bad movie seen late at nightonly one you can crank up and sing along to.
Brains for dinner
Brains for lunch
Brains for breakfast
Brains for brunch
Brains at every single meal
Why can't we have some guts?
Songs lyrics used above: "Night of the Living Dead," "Mommy, Can I go Out and Kill Tonight?," "Ghouls Night Out," "Astrozombies," "American Nightmare," "Die, Die, My Darling," "Last Caress," "Braineaters." The line introducing the final section is from "Teenagers from Mars."
Sources: My "legacy of brutality" started with a borrowed cassette tape of a tape of Walk Among Us (unsurprisingly the sound doesn't improve that much on CD) back in 1991 or so. Every major CD release and the box set (and booklet). www.misfitscentral.com was extremely helpful (not just with history but with figuring out what the hell Glenn is singing and probably the only reason I kept playing guitar (if you can't learn to play Misfits songs, find another instrument). www.misfits.com for some extra material on the current version of the band. I've also seen most of the films listed above. Yeah: and I still wear the T-shirts....