New York horror punks the Misfits couldn’t even get arrested when they formed in 1977. But after Metallica covered “Last Caress” and “Green Hell” and Guns N’ Roses covered “Attitude” – and singer Glenn Danzig was signed by Rick Rubin and started recording as Danzig – they finally caught on.
Let's look at the band whose anthemic and melodic punk continues to have a profound influence; given the time of year we, of course, we begin with their scorching 1981 single “Halloween”.
With their horror comic look – too trashy to be considered goth – and a high-energy, melodic style of punk that sounded like the Ramones fronted by Elvis singing songs inspired by B-grade horror and sci-fi films, the Misfits cut a singular form when they appeared out of Lodi, New Jersey in 1977. Lodi, a town ‘celebrated’ by John Fogerty in the Creedence song of the same name – “Oh lord, stuck in Lodi again” – was hardly rock central, and the band didn’t even have a guitar player for the first 6 months. Their first single “Cough/Cool” was an inauspicious debut; it featured frontman Glenn Danzig leading the way on vocals and electric piano! Released on Danzig’s own imprint Blank Records, the single did afford the band a significant opportunity when Mercury Records, wanting to secure the “Blank” trademark for its own punk imprint, offered the group free studio time in exchange for the name.
The Misfits recorded what should have been their first album in January 1978 on Mercury’s dime. But interest in the band was minimal and they could not find anyone to release it. While it was eventually released in full in 1997, the album, entitled Static Age, did appear in dribs and drabs over the years; the first tracks to appear were on the 4-song EP entitled Bullet, released by the band on their new self-owned label, Plan 9 Records (named in honour of Ed Wood’s infamous 1959 science fiction horror movie Plan 9 From Outer Space). The EP was an absolute killer, and included two songs – “Bullet”, about the JFK assassination, and “Last Caress” – that would later be considered punk rock classics.
The band’s next single, 1979’s “Horror Business”, was said to be inspired by the murder of Nancy Spungeon; the group had become friendly with Sex Pistol Sid Vicious when he and Nancy moved to New York and were apparently talking to him about backing him on a proposed album that never happened. The single’s sleeve featured a skeletal figure inspired by a poster for the 1946 film serial The Crimson Ghost; the image would subsequently serve as the band’s logo and would appear on countless t-shirt’s over the years, many no doubt worn by people who had no idea that the image even represented a band.
Later in 1979, an aborted UK tour with the Damned – the Misfits seemingly got on well with some of the English punk bands; the Damned were undoubtedly a group with whom they could be seen as a well-aligned sound and image-wise, prompted the band’s first 12” release. The seven-song Beware EP featured the Bullet EP on side one, and the "Horror Business" single on side two, minus one of its two b-sides. The track “Children In Heat” was replaced by another future classic from the shelved Static Age tapes – the mighty “Last Caress”.
The band’s fourth single appeared around the same time as the EP. “Night of the Living Dead” (named of course after George Romero’s 1968 low budget classic) was another horror-punk classic. One of the single’s two b-sides, “Where Eagles Dare” (named assumedly after the Alistair MacLean WW2 novel or the 1968 film based on it), was even better - the Misfits at the awe-inspiring and anthemic best.
In August 1980 the band recorded another album that would fail to see the light of day. The intention had been to release it on their own Plan 9 label but line-up changes – guitarist Bobby Steele was replaced by new guy Doyle, who was the younger brother of the band’s perennial bass player, Jerry Only - meant a change of plans and the album was shelved. Three tracks did appear as the band’s next single, "Three Hits from Hell" in 1981, which featured the somewhat turgid “London Dungeon” on the A-side. One of the B-sides, “Ghouls Night Out” was much better.
1982 finally saw the release of a Misfits album. The newly recorded Walk Among Us featured new versions of a few songs from the 1980 unreleased album - including “I Turned Into A Martian”, “Astro Zombies” and “Skulls” – and numerous new gems, including “20 Eyes” and “All Hell Breaks Loose”. Released on the prestigious Ruby imprint of LA’s Slash label – home also to the first Gun Club album, and nearly home to Sydney’s Lipstick Killers – the album finally got the band some of the national and international attention they deserved. By now they were in thick with the new generation of American punk bands – hardcore bands like Black Flag and the Necros – and they were pulling big crowds.
Success notwithstanding, the years of grinding it out had worn the band down, and Danzig wanted to do something heavier. By the time of the release of their second and final album proper Earth A.D./Wolfs Blood, which was released at the end of 1983, the band was no more, and Danzig had moved onto his next project, a group called Samhain. The final album included some of the Misfits most enduring songs, including “Green Hell”, which was recorded in a medley with the earlier “Last Caress” by Metallica for their 1987 EP, The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, and "Die, Die My Darling" for their extended covers project Garage Inc. in 1998.
As the 80s wore and Samhain evolved into Danzig’s solo project, the Misfits' reputation grew, and several compilations appeared, combining previously released material with various unreleased tracks. Eventually, in 1996, a Misfits coffin-shaped box set was released, putting everything right with their catalogue. The box contained nearly all of the band material recorded from 1977 to 1983. Around the same time, Jerry Only and Doyle were given rights to the band’s name, and new line-ups of the Misfits have performed and recorded ever since. Members have included Marky Ramone and former Black Flag singer Dez Cadena on guitar. In 2016, after 33 years, Danzig, Jerry Only and Doyle toured together again as the Original Misfits, and, although Danzig has also reformed Samhain and started working in movies, the band’s unlikely reformation seems to be holding, and more shows have been forthcoming.
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed hearing the Misfits classic tracks; if you dig punk rock of any sort, new or old, I'd be surprised if you haven't. Now here's a reminder of what Metallica and the Gunners – and Green Day – have done with these tunes more recently.