Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2020 | 10 minutes (2,607 words)
The Misfits have carved a niche in punk rock history. Their 1982 song “Skulls” has everything that defined them: the breakneck tempo, blocky rhythm chords, and the cartoon monster lyric. “Demon I am and face I peel,” songwriter and frontman Glenn Danzig sings.
See your skin turned inside out, ‘cause
Gotta have you on my wall
Gotta have you on my wall, ‘cause
I want your skulls
I need your skulls
As punk rock music with B-movie horror film lyrics, the Misfits are immediately understandable. The music suits a mosh pit as much as a Spotify Halloween playlist. The original incarnation of the band, which lasted from 1977 to 1983, helped establish the “horror punk” genre. “Skulls” appears on Walk Among Us, one of only two full-length albums released by the Misfits during those first five years, and the album is generally considered a classic. With 13 songs clocking in at a total of 25 minutes, it’s punk through-and-through: no time is wasted on bridges and guitar solos.
Walk Among Us was actually the Misfit’s third attempt at a debut album. The first was recorded before the group’s direction and personnel had gelled, to the extent that the latter was ever going to happen. The second attempt, 1980’s 12 Hits From Hell, was shelved by the band, even though all of the band’s visual, lyrical, and musical elements were already in place.
The story of 12 Hits From Hell is one of betrayal, ego, resentment, and inspiration. As the blueprint for the band’s career, the band cannibalized it for singles and half of what became their official debut. Slated for a proper release by Caroline Records in 2001, it was pulled after Danzig and another original member made several complaints. However, some promo copies were already distributed, and the album was immediately bootlegged from those. Bobby Steele, the band’s guitarist at the time of 12 Hits recorded his own version of the album with his group The Undead, streaming it from their website in 2007, largely to counter rumors of his bad guitar playing on the original. 12 Hits From Hell is perhaps the most shining example of our misconceptions about popular music: that bands and the albums they make are generally unchangeable. The familial nature of a band is more wish than reality. Membership is often fluid, and in the Misfits’ case that revolving door spins at a blurring pace. Albums aren’t static entities, either. They’re constantly tinkered with through remixes and, as is the vogue now, “remastering.” Danzig routinely adds guitars and vocals to old Misfits tracks. The 2001 mix of 12 Hits, although taken from the original master tapes, is significantly cleaner than any muddy Misfits offerings from the early 1980s, but even that is little more than helpful revisionism.
If you go down Misfits rabbit holes online, expect to see quite a bit of white font on a black background, and view a lengthy list of deputized drummers. It’s a thicket of unintended hilarity and ill will.
Danzig was born Glenn Allen Anzalone in Lodi, New Jersey in 1955. He skipped school, read comic books, and devoured Elvis records. In the late 1960s, his brother, a roadie, turned him on to heavy rock bands like Blue Cheer, and Danzig’s fate was sealed when he bought Black Sabbath’s debut. The New York punk scene further sharpened his taste. “I never liked any bands like Foreigner or Journey or any of that crap. That crap sucks!” he told Metal Edge magazine. “That’s why I started a punk band ― to destroy that music.”
The Misfits formed in early 1977. Danzig asked Jerry Caiafa, who had just received a bass guitar for Christmas, to join. There was no guitar, and Danzig played keyboard. The band debuted at famed Manhattan underground club CBGB. Their first single, “Cough/Cool,” was released on their own label, Blank Records, shortly thereafter. Caiafa’s name was misspelled on the sleeve, so he requested to be credited in the future as “Jerry, only Jerry.” From then on his stage name was Jerry Only.
“That summer, we were hanging out at CBGB,” Only remembered. “We saw the Ramones there and thought, ‘Hey, if we want to be on the cutting edge of this whole thing, we really need a guitar player.‘” A guitarist was hired; the drummer was replaced.
Mercury Records offered the band 30 hours of studio time in exchange for use of the Blank Records name, and the Misfits recorded Static Age, their supposed debut. That album wouldn’t see release until 1996, because record labels passed on signing the group.
“This band was created on identity,” Only told Metal Hammer. “It took us one 45-inch to figure that out. I’m not overly proud of it but I don’t regret ‘Cough/Cool’ — it was us trying to fit in to the New York beatnik scene, but we didn’t fit in. We’re the Misfits. We don’t belong anywhere. …. We did Static Age with basically no money and some fuckin’ attitude. It wasn’t record company bullshit. It was real. We came up with something and we didn’t compromise.”
Danzig doubled down on the band’s horror movie identity. A skull image from the 1946 film serial The Crimson Ghost was appropriated. It first appeared on a poster promoting a Misfits gig at Max’s Kansas City in March 1979, and later on the cover of their Horror Business EP, released in June. (This is the first Misfits recording to feature guitarist Steele, born Robert Charles Kaufhold, who got the group banned from Max’s after throwing a glass into the crowd, causing injury. He also once threw up on John Lennon.)
In 1980, the band replaced the drummer again. The new sticks man was Joseph McGuckin, using the stage name Arthur Googy. This is the lineup — Danzig, Only, Steele, and Googey — that entered Master Sound Productions on August 7th, 1980 to record 12 Hits From Hell. They recorded most of the twelve songs in one take, with the exception of “London Dungeon,” which required two. The track listing is a Misfit’s horror punk manifesto, with songs like: “Halloween,” “Vampira,” “Horror Hotel,” “Ghouls Night Out,” and “Astro Zombies.”
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Unbeknownst to Steele, Only’s brother, Doyle Caiafa, was also recording guitar parts for the album separately. Although it’s impossible to say why, the reason could have something to do with nepotism, Steele’s difficult behavior, or his relative lack of musical ability, or possibly a combination of all three. The teenaged Doyle would join the band in October under the moniker Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, replacing Steele.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, 12 Hits From Hell was scrapped. “London Dungeon,” “Horror Hotel,” and “Ghouls Night Out” were issued in 1981 on a shrunken down EP version called 3 Hits From Hell. “Halloween” and “Halloween II” were released as a single that Halloween. The rest of the session was used as a demo to secure a contract with Slash imprint Ruby Records, who issued Walk Among Us. It’s very confusing.
“I.R.S. [Records] heard that we were doing the record and approached us about putting [Walk Among Us] out through them,” Danzig later said. “And then we got a call and a letter from Slash Records saying they wanted to release it and that we should not do the deal with I.R.S. because I.R.S., they felt, were terrible and wouldn’t pay us. While if we did the deal with Slash it would ensue that we would be paid. But in the end, it was all bullshit anyway.”
Walk Among Us shares almost half its track listing with 12 Hits From Hell: “I Turned Into a Martian,” “Vampira,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Skulls,” “Violent World,” and “Astro Zombies.”
By this time, the band was getting by on pure persistence. The hardcore scene wasn’t really into schlocky pop culture references about horror movies, aliens, and skulls. By 1981, Misfits “were considered a dead band,” remembered Necros guitarist Andy Wendler in American Hardcore. “Hardcore was so real, and these guys had this ghoulish imagery.” The group embarked on a national tour to support the album.
“The Misfits, a flamboyant foursome from New York who growled their way through a tight and infectious set at the Whisky on Tuesday, make the morbid nihilism of hard-core punk seem playful and ingratiating,” David Chute wrote for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on April 15, 1982.
Mind you, the obligatory buzz-saw drone of noise and rage the band churns out doesn’t sound ironic. But since both the costumes of the players and the lyrics of their best songs are borrowed from the grisliest schlock horror movies, the boyish dress-up games and gleeful grossouts suggest a refreshing larkish attitude toward the standard pose of hard core.
Danzig didn’t like the direction taken on the following year’s Earth A.D./Wolf’s Blood. The music traded its Ramone’s feel for a harder edge, and the lyrical themes took tongue out of cheek.
“It started getting too crazy with Earth A.D.,” Danzig remembered. “The concepts started becoming too brutal and violent. It was less about fiction and more about the real world, the past, present, and future. I think a lot of people got freaked out by that.” Danzig hired a new drummer, but he himself quit the band just before Halloween, 1983.
For most punk bands from that era — whose life-spans were as short as their songs — this would have been the end of things. The Caiafa brothers moved back home and worked in their father’s machine shop. Danzig formed another band, Samhain. The breakup of the Misfits was another unheralded demise of a band from a tempestuous underground scene. Black Flag, who had formed the year before Misfits, only existed until 1986. Minor Threat only made it three years. But, as sometimes happens, the group was resurrected by their own cultural relevance.
Danzig helped put together the Misfits compilation Legacy of Brutality in 1985. The album contained previously unreleased tracks, including many from Static Age. For the release, Danzig re-recorded various instruments without consulting his former bandmates. Based on the band’s ensuing legal battles, unilateralism generally doesn’t promote unit cohesion. Divas do their best work alone.
Around the same time, better-known groups acknowledged the Misfits’ influence. Henry Rollins from Black Flag was always an unabashed fan, having appeared onstage with them a few times and gotten two Misfits skull logo tattoos. In the studio, Guns ‘N Roses covered them once; Metallica two times. My Morning Jacket, Superchunk, and NOFX have all recorded their version of Misfits songs.
This profitable renewed interest in the band led to a string of lawsuits between Only and Danzig over royalties and use of the name and logo, and merchandise rights. In 1995, Only created a new version of the Misfits without Danzig, who dismissed them. (“The Misfits broke up,” he later told the New York Times.) In 1996, Caroline Records issued Static Age for the first time since its recording in 1978, along with most of the Danzig-era Misfits material in an eponymous coffin-shaped box set. Walk Among Us didn’t appear. Slash Records still owned it.
Having done well releasing various Misfits compilations, Caroline decided it was time to capitalize on the band’s early languishing material, and readied an official release for 12 Hits From Hell slated for Halloween, 2001. They remixed the album from the original master tapes, and, to appeal to completists, planned to include the alternate take of the song “London Dungeon.” The project was abruptly canceled after thousands of promo copies were distributed. Caroline destroyed the CDs and promotional materials still in their possession. In their original cancellation letter, the label blamed it on “an inferior mastering error.” Bootleg CDs and vinyl versions of the album quickly became available.
“We were unsatisfied with the mix,” Only said, “it should eventually be corrected.“
After initially claiming his objections were over wrongly credited photos, Danzig offered a different take. “The reason [12 Hits] didn’t come out was that was not a real CD,“ he told Circus magazine in 2004. “That was something that Bobby Steele went in and did on his own. He went in and re-recorded stuff. Bobby and somebody at Caroline did that. Actually, that is one of the only times Jerry Only and I got together and agreed on something. That was not a real Misfits release.“ In fact, Steele had nothing to do with it.
“Caroline has never cooperated with me in anything, going so far as rejecting the live recordings that I own — so why would they suddenly decide to work with me?“ Steele responded. “Glenn and Jerry have constantly told people that I was fired for playing poorly on the original 12 Hits session, and the real reason they don’t want it out is because it exposes that lie. It seems more than a coincidence to me that 12 Hits was remixed shortly after [my band] The Undead received rave press for our debut European tour. It’s obvious that Caroline was trying to cash in on the fact that the European press was saying that the real essence of the Misfits sound was in The Undead.”
Caroline Records added to the confusion. “The version that was withdrawn was not pleasing to the Misfits because this was a false remix and not a representation of the band’s authentic sound as it had two guitars in the mix,” the label wrote in an email to a fan. “The Misfits never had two guitarists.” While technically true, many Misfits recordings have at least two guitars because of overdubbing, and several songs from the original 12 Hits sessions (featuring both Steele and Doyle on guitar) were issued in the early 80s. It’s an odd argument. The most obvious reason why the album was pulled is because of Steele’s appearance on it.
Apparently, Steele didn’t fully recover from the insult. In 2007, he announced that The Undead had recorded their own version of 12 Hits From Hell, and made it available to stream from their website. Steele described it as “an homage to one of the best songwriters in punk, Glenn Danzig.”
In 2016, Only told Rolling Stone that he, Danzig, and Doyle were reuniting on stage for the first time in 33 years. The decision was made partly to avoid continued litigation. “We went in there wanting to cut each other’s throats,” Only said. “It was turning into another court battle and it turned into a reunion. We walked out the door knowing we were going to play together. It’s a very cool thing.” At the time of the Rolling Stone reunion article, a drummer for the group had yet to be announced.
“Successful punk rock bands, not unlike bands in other genres, start out as musicians, but end up as business entities in the music industry, which inherently involves earning merchandise revenue,” a New York legal firm wrote about the various Misfits disputes. “Entering into agreements that outline ownership of trademarks, names, and logos from the outset may feel too corporate for musicians rebelling against the establishment, but it is much easier to think about a band’s future after a split-up in the beginning while everyone is getting along.”
Rare indeed is the musician who also has a good head for business. The Misfits managed to brand themselves in a way that guaranteed a career beyond the natural life of the band, but have gotten in their own way time and again when capitalizing on it. The logo and genre they created helped bring them back from the dead, and will no doubt outlive them.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Steven Cohen