For the most part, everyone already knows the scoop on American Psycho; after years of bitter legal disputes with Glenn Danzig, bassist Jerry Only was finally given the rights to record and perform under the Misfits name. Recruiting new drummer Dr. Chud and vocalist Michale Graves along with longtime guitarist/Only’s brother Doyle, the resurrected Misfits signed with Geffen records and released their first album in nearly a decade-and-a-half. End of history lesson.
When most of us think of the Misfits, we’re thinking of the legendary Glenn Danzig-fronted lineup that walked among us from 1977 to 1983. The band that single-handedly invented horror punk, and went on to influence a slew of heavy metal bands from Metallica to Marduk. But what about the other Misfits? In 1995, Misfits bassist Jerry Only and his brother Doyle re-activated the group sans Danzig after a protracted legal battle with the singer ended with Only retaining the ability to record and tour using the name, while he and Danzig split the merchandising rights. The brothers recruited drummer Dr. Chud and vocalist Michale Graves and set out to re-establish themselves as an active band over a decade after the Misfits’ heyday.
I’ve been listening to the Misfit’s Earth A.D. for over a decade now. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different. Sometimes I hear a bruising hardcore album. Sometimes I hear proto-thrash. I most often hear the roots of black metal. Is it a mere coincidence that Quorthon started Bathory the same year or that Slayer’s Show No Mercy was released the same month? Sure, Venom’s Welcome to Hell and Black Metal albums had already been released by the time Earth A.D. hit record store shelves. But the Misfits of Earth A.D. possessed several things that Cronos and his cohorts, or just about any of the proto-black metal bands for that matter, severely lacked.
The first of these key components is speed. I recently read in Steven Blush’s book American Hardcore that Glenn Danzig had tried to get the rest of the Misfits to play slower during the sessions. Thank goodness he wasn’t successful. To my knowledge, the blast beat hadn’t been invented yet in 1983 (Mick Harris didn’t join Napalm Death until 1985), but the blistering speed of Earth A.D. often comes close. A huge part of the album’s power comes from the reckless abandon with which the band plows through songs like “Earth A.D.” and “Demonomania”. It’s a ragged, violent speed, the kind of speed that sounds like the band is going to fly apart at the seams at any given moment. Somehow, the Misfits keep it together for the original album’s fourteen-odd minutes (reissues would include the tracks from the posthumous “Die, Die My Darling” single), but the approach lends a sense of real danger, menace and foreboding to the proceedings that would also be present on second wave Scandinavian black metal albums such as Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas or Burzum’s self titled debut.
The second element that pushes Earth A.D. over the edge is brutality. Unfortunately the word “brutal” (and every permutation thereof) has been thrown around in the heavy music world so often that it has lost nearly all of its meaning as of 2011. This is a brutal album. Primitive, barbaric, nasty. Black and death metal bands surely took a great deal of inspiration from the positively corrosive assault of songs like “Death Comes Ripping” and “Hellhound”. Danzig himself sounds like a snarling hellhound throughout Earth A.D., ready to claw his way through your speakers and “rip your face off” while the rest of the band violates their instruments in a manner that’s probably legally questionable in more than a few countries. Earth A.D. was the first Misfits recording where the aggression of the playing and production scheme matched the violence of Danzig’s lyrics. It’s a level of rubbed-raw vitriol that makes early Venom, Slayer, Celtic Frost et al sound quaint by comparison.
What about atmosphere? Earth A.D.‘s got it in spades. Granted, this probably speaks more to Spot’s ineptitude as a producer/engineer (see also: Black Flag’s Damaged) or the lack of a recording budget (probably both), than it does to any grand design by Danzig and Co. Still, the vibe of the album is pitch black and claustrophobic, it reeks of rage, hate and desperation. It’s a document of a band ready to explode and doing their damnedest to take all of us down with them. The fact that the Misfits broke up only a few months after the album was recorded (on Halloween, 1983) leads me to believe that the palpable fury bursting out of every part of Earth A.D. is much more than just for entertainment value (“and that blood’s so real / ’cause I just can’t fake it”).
If all of this doesn’t make for proto-black metal, then I don’t know what does. Add the grotesque, lovably amateurish artwork and black and white band photos, and you’ve got the blueprints for the sound, style and overall aesthetic that Darkthrone would take to the next level almost a decade later with A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Some call Earth A.D. “the speed metal bible”. I’m more inclined to think it’s the goddamn Necronomicon.
In honor of Halloween, I thought I would take a moment to divert from the regularly scheduled THKD programming. Do not attempt to adjust your monitor. I control the horizontal. I control the vertical. Now that I have your undivided attention, I want to take a moment to a talk a little about a band known as the Misfits.
For me, the Misfits are synonymous with the Halloween season and are one of my all-time favorite bands. My reputation as a Glenn Danzig fanboy is well documented. But what might not be so well-documented is that the Misfits represent my favorite phase of the man’s career. Like many folks from my generation, I was introduced to them thanks to Metallica’s “Last Caress/Green Hell” cover. That was a great version, but nothing compared to when I heard the Misfits playing their own songs for the first time. Mind officially blown. It was as if someone combined everything I loved about music into one band, and then added a visual and lyrical aesthetic that represented everything I loved about vintage horror and science fiction films. I remember buying Collection I and listening to it over and over and over again in junior high (especially “Where Eagles Dare”!). Back then, information on the Misfits was scarce (at least in the Midwest), and since Danzig famously hated talking about the band at that time (no doubt due to the legal bullshit going on between him and Only), I could only speculate about the band’s origins. I was so fucking excited to find a Misfits shirt (XL and baggy as all hell on my tall scrawny frame, just how I liked it) at my local record store, before the band’s “Crimson Ghost” logo became ubiquitous. I wore that thing until it disintegrated.
Very few bands are perfect. The Misfits were one of them. I’m not talking about the Jerry Only-fronted abomination that parades around today calling itself the Misfits. I’m talking about the band as it existed from 1977 to 1983. From songs to style to imagery, the Misfits had it all, an often duplicated but never equalled head-on collision of punk rock filth, ’50s rock catchiness and melody, gothic atmosphere and too much horror business. Glenn Danzig’s lyrics were a heady blend of twisted pop culture references, nihilism and misogyny. His backing band, consisting of bassist Jerry Only, a range of guitarists that included Only’s brother Doyle, Bobby Steele and Franche Coma, and a revolving door of drummers that put Spinal Tap to shame, created a sound that was unlike anything I’ve heard before or since. The fact that stories of alleged grave-robbing and excessive violence (the song “London Dungeon” was supposedly the result of Danzig and Steele spending the night in an English jail after a punch up with some skinheads) were part of the Misfits mythos made them even more intriguing, if such a thing were possible.
The Misfits took the innocence of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and forever corrupted it. They bathed Elvis Presley in the blood, brains and skull fragments of the Kennedy assassination. Punk rock was founded on speeding up and ripping off Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore riffs, but the Misfits brought a darkness and foreboding to the style in the same way that Black Sabbath brought it to the blues in the early ’70s. They were also better song-writers than any other punk band ever, writing some of the flat-out catchiest choruses ever put to tape (“I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch, you better think about it baby!”, “Sweet lovely death, I am waiting for your breath…”, etc.). But the band’s real area of expertise is what I refer to as “the whoah-whoah part”. The whoah-whoah part crops up in numerous Misfits songs (“Mephisto Waltz”, “I Turned into a Martian”, “Astro Zombies” and “Some Kinda Hate” to name just a few.) and is the single most infectious aspect of the band’s playbook. The level of craftsmanship the Misfits displayed was so far ahead of the curve in every aspect; it’s a fucking travesty that they continue to be left out of the punk rock history books.
The Misfits might not get the respect they deserve, but that’s beside the point. The fact that they have influenced everything from thrash to black metal to gothic rock to doom says a lot more about the band than some jag-off rock critic who refuses to acknowledge their greatness. For me personally, a lot of bands have come and gone over the years, but the Misfits sound just as exciting, vital and visceral today as they did when I heard them for the first time in 7th grade. They are total fucking anarchy by way of an alien invasion/zombie outbreak, lead by the reanimated corpses of Vampira and Marilyn Monroe. They are the soundtrack to an Autumn filled with “brown leaf vertigo / where skeletal life is known”. They are the Misfits. Beware.
Jerry Only should really be ashamed of himself at this point. When he (along with brother/guitarist Doyle) originally resurrected the Misfits name back in 1997 with the American Psycho album, I had some pretty high hopes, in spite of my undying allegiance to original Misfits singer Glenn Danzig. Michael Graves was a solid new vocalist, and the songs were catchy and heavy. Even if they didn’t touch the heights of classic Misfits material, at least they weren’t dragging the name through the mud, and I came to think of the “nu-Misfits” as an entirely separate band, allowing myself to enjoy them without worrying too much about the legacy factor.