Monday, March 17, 2014

In Defense Of: the Post-Danzig Misfits (1995-2001)

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Alex Wolfgang von Frankenstein, a Brooklyn-based musician, writer, and punk aficionado. 

"I want your skull." "I remember Halloween!" "Whoa, oh oh." These are the sentiments expressed by the seminal, iconic and whatever-other-overused-adjective-you'd-care-to-apply Misfits.

When the band reformed nearly twenty years later, they were still expressing those sentiments, but this time, a ton of people hated them for it. Why? Well, two of the group's semi-original members, the muscle-bound Caiafa brothers (Jerry on bass, Paul on guitar, better known as Jerry Only and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) re-formed the band following a lengthy dispute with singer Glenn Danzig (by then well into his Rick Rubin-assisted solo career), and had the temerity to do so with a guy who kind of sounded like Glenn Danzig. His name was Michale Graves, and he later joined the Marines and became an outspoken conservative, but more on that later.

So, to recap: Famous punk band breaks up acrimoniously, re-forms with new singer, and engenders much ill will as a result. The re-formed Misfits (henceforth referred to as "Newfits") are consistently maligned as hangers-on and poseurs, while the “Oldfits” are hallowed; many of their t-shirts are sold at Hot Topic, thus ensuring Danzig will be able to continue to buy Jaguars and large piles of bricks. It's all very neat and tidy.

But actually, it's not.

First off: I love the Misfits. The last two Halloweens, I've played bass in a Misfits cover band called Teenagers From Mars. I also revere Glenn Danzig's solo work with a love bordering on the carnal. So I understand people’s loyalty to Danzig-era Misfits. But the story of the Newfits isn’t one without precedent.

Pitching this column, I brought up that Black Flag had already gone through Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, and Dez Cadena before they brought on Henry Rollins. At that claim, the estimable Jon Mann pointed out that Black Flag is typically defined by Greg Ginn's guitar, whereas the Misfits are largely a vessel for Danzig's funereal bray, a point I will concede to him.

However, for every singer-switcheroo that worked, there's one (or a dozen) that failed. The Dropkick Murphys replaced original singer Mike McColgan with Al Barr without a problem in 1998, and Pennywise has had about a million dudes on the mic, but the Dead Kennedys' attempts to replace Jello Biafra (a fool's errand if there ever was one, it must be said) have been met largely with derision. Same with Bad Brains' attempt to do the same with H.R.

We're fine tolerating singer switchover in certain instances: Dio-era Black Sabbath is beloved by some (including the aforementioned Mr. Rollins), and while a few people (me included) champion Paul Di'Anno over Bruce Dickinson, fewer even realize he was Maiden's original singer. Hell, Brian Johnson has been an excellent Bon Scott facsimile for longer than Scott was alive, much less actively in AC/DC.

All that leads me to pose this question: Why does this matter?

He apparently familiarized himself with Collection 1 prior to his audition, which is like someone auditioning for Bob Marley's spot in the Wailers after listening to Legend "a couple of times at parties."

Boil any Misfits song down. Reductionist conventional wisdom would say the elements are: Simple, occasionally-1950s-inspired chord progressions and/or riffs, catchy choruses, and lyrics drawn from the darker-if-still-kind-of-campy side of life.

Well, the Newfits offer all of those elements on 1997's American Psycho and 1999's Famous Monsters, with the added benefit of not sounding like they were recorded in Vincent Price's toilet. (That is not an exaggeration: Danzig wanted Bobby Steele's guitar solo on "Who Killed Marilyn?" to "sound like a toilet flushing.")

Apparently Jerry and Doyle's time off from Misfits was spent actually learning how to play their instruments: This and the beefed-up production are the most noticeable new elements of the Newfits' sound. (The meat of "Helena" is a series of cascading thrash riffs that wouldn't sound out of place on
Kill 'Em All.)

Thematically, the Newfits songs are a logical progression from where the band left off: They're still writing about horror movies ("Helena" is inspired by Boxing Helena, while "Pumpkinhead" is inspired by… Pumpkinhead), and they're still writing about cartoonishly “evil” shit. "Speak of the Devil"'s line, "I drink my water from a wolf's… foot… print!" still slays me; I can imagine Danzig furiously biting into that line in '79.

Plus, it's not like it was Yeats to begin with. As much as I love Danzig's whole… thing, he definitely phoned in just as much stuff as he knocked out of the park. In "Return of the Fly," he's literally just yelling the names of the characters and actors in the film, while “Ratt Fink” is basically Sesame Street starring an obscure ‘50s-car-culture cartoon character.

This all leads to Graves. He's got a lot going against him. First, he'd never listened to the Misfits before he joined. He apparently familiarized himself with Collection 1 prior to his audition, which is like someone auditioning for Bob Marley's spot in the Wailers after listening to Legend "a couple of times at parties." Then there are his political leanings: He stumped for Conservative Punk back in the mid 2000s, which the less I say about, the better. (On the plus side, he once worked at IHOP!)

All that said, the man could write a song. His in-all-likelihood self-penned Wikipedia page claims that he wrote many of the Newfits' catchiest songs, like "This Island Earth," "Saturday Night," "Fiend Club," and -- as far as I'm concerned -- the crown jewel of the Newfits: "Dig Up Her Bones." (Side Note: Good God, what a cheesy video. I apologize.)

"Dig Up Her Bones" opens with a slab of riffage dense and black as Danzig's corroded soul before launching into a chorus that was literally made to have the word "soaring" applied to it. It's even got a pre-chorus!

This leads me to my final point: I knew a kid in high school who fucking LOVED this song. He played trumpet in our school's jazz and marching bands all four years, and wasn't even remotely a punk rocker. I have no idea how he found "Dig Up Her Bones," I just know that whenever we were in a car together, he'd put it on and enthusiastically sing along.

And because of that, he was a stand-in for every kid who didn't give a shit about the Oldfits, who didn't swear a misguided oath of allegiance to Glenn Danzig. He was just a kid who loved a good song, and it's in his (and their) spirit I ask you to reconsider the Newfits.

Also, um, “Scream” is pretty sweet.

— Alex Wolfgang von Frankenstein

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Reid Attaway, In Defense Of: Ska 

Derek Hawkins, In Defense Of: Standing In the Spotlight by Dee Dee King 

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