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Music

How Misfits established the horror punk subgenre

Hack the heads off little girls and Put ’em on my wall – Misfits ‘Skulls’

Before Slipknot, before Marylin Manson, even before GG Allin, there was Misfits. Almost singlehandedly, they established the horror punk genre, and along with bands such as The Damned, The Cramps and T.S.O.L., they paved the way for a blistering musical style and, more significantly, a stark aesthetic that worked to augment the musical content. They showed that music didn’t have to be just music; it could be so much more.

This parallel nature of their sound and artistic vision marked them out from the majority of their peers, and in terms of aesthetic, they went further than The Damned and The Cramps — and many would argue that their music did too. Without the band’s pioneering steps, many of the more modern shock rockers would not have had a platform to operate. We could wave goodbye to Slipknot and even Norwegian black metal as a whole.

The music of Misfits was not straight up and down punk, similarly, artistically, to how The Cramps weren’t just another rockabilly band. They took the formula, and by mixing in their own personalities and creative vision, created something new, something visceral and something that many have tried and failed to imitate. They weren’t the first band to adopt on-stage personas and costumes by any means, but the way that they did it has cemented them as a truly iconic act. Formed in Lodi, New Jersey, in 1977, it was under the direction of frontman Glenn Danzig that the band started to truly establish the ethos that we know them for today.

Taking their name from Marylin Monroe’s final film, the 1961 effort The Misfits, they became inspired by the burgeoning punk movement. From there, the band played their first two show’s at New York’s iconic CBGB venue in the summer of 1977, and in early 1978, they released their seminal first record, Static Age.

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Following the sessions for Static Age, the band enacted a shift in their songwriting and appearance. Danzig began writing songs inspired by B-movie horrors and science fiction and TV serials of the same quality, ranging from the 1950s right the way to the ’70s. It was this that helped to instil the band with that campy blend of horror that The Cramps were also characterised by. Even after Danzig’s departure, the band would carry on using these themes, but they became even more punishing.

As well as Danzig painting skeletal patterns on his performance clothing, bassist Jerry Only started applying black makeup around his eyes and styling his hair in a long point which hung down from his forehead between his eyes, all the way down to his chin. Apart from the band’s logo, this is undoubtedly the band’s most culturally significant facet. 

A concept taken from Eddie Munster’s hairstyle, it became known as the ‘devilock’. This was the final part of the puzzle, and after Danzig and Only’s brother Doyle, the band’s guitarist, adopted the style, the band had a unified image. Furthermore, taking this inspiration from The Munsters, they were now tied to the realm of horror ad infinitum. Quickly the new style, musically and aesthetically, would become hailed as horror punk.

Aside from the straight-up punk elements, in creating this new subgenre, at different points over the course of their long and winding career, they drew on psychobilly, heavy metal, 1950s rock and roll and rockabilly. In this sense, you can also argue that the many flecks of ’50s rock that their music carried also helped to establish their inherent B-movie quality. One might even say that, in some ways, Misfits were a pastiche, but one that worked very, very well.

Misfits, 1980. (Credit: ZedBlix)

Then there were the elements outside of the music that helped to cultivate their image as the ultimate horror punk band. Aside from all the fighting at shows, fighting with skinheads in London and run-ins with the law, one incident occurred in September 1982. One night, whilst taking a break from the tour with early hardcore band The Necros, the band were arrested in New Orleans over charges of grave robbing.

Whilst facts about this incident are scarce, it is believed that the band were attempting to locate the grave of famed voodoo practitioner and occultist Marie Laveau. They managed to bail themselves out of jail and skipped their court date to drive to their next show in Florida. If this is not enough to convince you that Misfits are the ultimate horror punk band, I don’t know what is. 

Ultimately, they practised what they preached. Next time you’re thinking about casting off Misfits as being a campy pastiche, heed this fact, and then also think just how bleak Glenn Danzig‘s solo work is. This episode was probably just the result of the intrigue of young adulthood, but it was nonetheless reflective of the band’s ethos and the one that would continue to grow. 

A cultural institution, Misfits are horror punk pioneers.