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Misfits risen

Hard-gore originators return with a box-set treatment

by Carly Carioli

["Misfits"] The Misfits weren't the first rock-and-rollers to hang skulls from their instruments and climb out of coffins on stage: that would be Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Neither were they the first to write a song ("Skulls") about decapitating little girls and putting their heads up on the wall: that would be rockabilly sicko Hasil Adkins ("No More Hot Dogs"). They weren't even the first punks to write songs about tabloid headlines; the Cramps beat them to it, and Billy Lee Riley ("Flying Saucers Rock and Roll") beat the punks by about 20 years.

So if so many of the elements associated with the Misfits were so second-hand, just why the hell are these guys the biggest post-mortem "cult" success story of 'em all? Thirteen years after the band called it quits, Caroline Records is capping off its re-release of their output (most were originally on their own Plan 9 Records, a pioneer in DIY distribution) with a four-CD Box Set in a first pressing of 50,000. That was enough to convince Misfits co-founding guitarist Jerry Only that even without Glenn Danzig -- the Misfits' distinctive voice and sole songwriter (who's got better things to do these days, like composing minimalist industrial metal for The X-Files) -- the time was ripe for the band to re-form. All due to the way the Misfits' teenage UFO rock-and-roll-monster routine has become a coming-of-age ritual for new generations of morbid, disaffected punks, metalheads, alterna-rats, and lingering goths.

Why? Although the Misfits didn't invent the connections among cartoonish violence, '50s B-movie camp, and rock and roll, they embodied those connections with enough theatrical macabre and sheer lividness as to make them one of punk's definitive mutations. Like Screaming Jay, they're an affirmation of all the voodoo anyone ever claimed was at the heart of rock and roll's primitive attraction. And because -- as White Zombie, Rocket from the Crypt, and a host of others who've used the Misfits as an aesthetic touchstone can attest -- sometimes a song about teenagers from outer space is just the coolest fucking thing on Earth.

Box Set documents the Misfits' transformation from their earliest, guitar-less recordings (the ultra-rare 1977 single "Cough/Cool" b/w "She," both gothic film noir nightmare convulsions with keyboards zapped through a fuzzbox) into a four-chord juggernaut bristling with enough atomic-age pop-culture schlock to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and finally into their waning days as a middling hardcore band with a spooky look and gore-soaked lyrics. Most of Box Set has already been re-released on CD by Caroline. Clocking in at 104 songs, it's a bit repetitive (does anyone really need five versions of "Where Eagles Dare"?), and there are a few sloppy remixes. But every song they've released is represented, even if the set omits their most coveted (and still available) album, Walk Among Us (recorded in 1982 for the Slash spinoff Ruby; neither Caroline nor the band owns the rights to it). And the coffin-shaped box, complete with fake-wood finish, is a nice touch.

Danzig's favorite trick was a simple one, but unbelievably potent. He played Dion and Paul Anka and Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers as the demon spawn they should have been, backed by nasty, fuzz-ragged, all-downstroke riffage. Although often overshadowed in their live performances -- which could verge on total chaos -- Danzig's falsetto croon was one of the more accomplished in punk rock. And he used it to lure his listeners into a world falling apart at its celluloid seams: Marilyn Monroe dead in her hotel room ("Who Killed Marilyn?"); smiling, regal JFK with a slug in his head ("Bullet"); Elvis and Patty Hearst toting machine guns as poster children for misunderstood rebels everywhere ("American Nightmare" and "She," respectively).

Beginning with their legendary "Horror Business" single in 1979, Danzig added a little arsenic to his voice, and the 'Fits sifted though Hollywood's dumpsters to create a string of trailer-trash classics. Drive-in atrocities screamed back to life in paeans to flicks like Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Fly; they were steeped in Grand Guignol blood and gore, with vampire hookers and adolescent ids running amok. Earlier songs like "Attitude" and "Last Caress" ("I got something to say/I raped your mother today/And it doesn't matter much to me/As long as she's spread") were merely offensive, though somehow made more insidious by their simplicity and teen-idol catchiness. But at their best, on songs like "Children in Heat," "Where Eagles Dare," and "Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?", the Misfits conjured up fragments of pissed-off humanity via the monstrously alien. There's the simple group refrain "We don't care!" in "Teenagers from Mars," and the laughable but apocalyptically ferocious fucked-up kid who wants the whole world dead in "Astro Zombies." Detachment and delinquency are still the currency of adolescence; but you'd hope the remaining Misfits would have enough sense to stay dead. Still, you realize it's entirely fitting if they don't.

The Misfits -- without Glenn Danzig -- play the Middle East downstairs on May 5.

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