Legacy of Brutality

The Misfits might not be what they once were, but what they were was the greatest horror-punk band ever

A couple of things happened in the late 1980s that propelled the then-disbanded horror-punk schlockmeisters the Misfits from underground obscurity in suburban New Jersey into a two-decade run as a genuine zombified pop-culture phenomenon, a B-movie-themed punk equivalent to the never-ending classic-rock reunion circuit. First, Metallica recorded cover versions of the Misfits songs "Last Caress" and "Green Hell" in 1987, introducing their fans to the earlier band's alloy of insanely catchy pop hooks, blinding hardcore speed, and pitch-black humor. (The members of Metallica had been sporting Misfits T-shirts for years in publicity and concert photos.) Then former Misfits singer Glenn Danzig released the first Danzig album in 1988, rekindling interest in the band he had led to cult notoriety a few years before.

Those two events, seemingly unrelated and fairly innocuous, marked a seismic shift for the public profile of the Misfits. The eruption of popularity that followed was nearly unprecedented for its combination of real, die-hard fanboy enthusiasm and craven commercial cynicism. In the late '80s, the band's skull logo was still a symbol of underground credibility. By the start of the '90s, it was on the verge of cliche. Now it's something else altogether, a rock 'n' roll image so iconic that it's become nearly invisible, without ever ceding its twin functions—as both a grim statement of the unholy power of the Misfits' early work and as an advertisement for the brand of mallcore lifestyle punk the latest incarnation of the band represents.

"The Misfits are the biggest underground thing of all time," says bassist and singer Jerry Only, the only original member remaining in the band's current lineup (which features Only, drummer Robo, and former Black Flag guitarist Dez Cadena). That proposition may be arguable, but another one is undeniable: The Misfits are the biggest horror-punk group of all time. That may not be saying much, considering that they're the only one, ever, as far as most people are concerned. But no other band has ever been able to capture the same brutal heaviness, self-referential wit, masterful songwriting, and sense of high camp that marked the band's earliest iteration, from 1977 to 1983. Certainly no other band has ever written about Patty Hearst, the British penal system, and teenagers from Mars.

"When that first album came out we were all in our teens," Only says, referring to the disc Static Age, which was recorded in 1978 but unreleased until 1997. "Look at what's on that album—‘Last Caress,' ‘Attitude,' ‘Hybrid Moments.' Within our first year, we made a record that, 30 years later, is still played. Not many people can say that."

Static Age was indeed a brilliant moment, as were most of the next five years. The classic songs from that period—"Die, Die My Darling," "Astro Zombies," "Where Eagles Dare," "We Are 138," "Halloween"—are all inspired pop gems, energetic anthems that simultaneously revel in and criticize the excess of the media age that was being born.

But it was a brief moment. The band's acrimonious 1983 break-up—Danzig left to form the more grandiose (and considerably less fun) Samhain, which then gradually morphed into the band Danzig—left Only and guitarist Doyle out of the spotlight. For the next 12 years, as Danzig turned into a metal beefcake star and licensed Misfits merchandise made its way into malls and suburban middle schools, Danzig and Only waged a bitter legal dispute about songwriting credits, royalties, and rights to the band name. That was finally settled in 1995, with Danzig retaining songwriting royalties worth a reported $1 million and Only getting permission to use the name.

"Today he's kicking himself in the ass, because we're doing great and he's not," Only says. "I was very happy to lose that $1 million."

A near-constant reunion tour has been underway ever since (a three-year-long 25th-anniversary tour almost slid right into an ongoing 30th-anniversary tour), and the band's released two albums of new material (1997's American Psycho and 1999's Famous Monsters). But Only's not really interested in looking back now.

"We're starting the second wave of the Misfits, rebuilding and rebirth," he says. "The old catalog, the stuff from the first lineup, is still popular. We've got about 100 songs now. And we'll release a 15-song album next summer, and maybe another one the following year, before we go out on the road again. The fans like the newer stuff. I'm less nostalgic now. I'm embracing the future, not embracing the past. The past was a pain in the ass. It's much more fun now."