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Misfits make a joke of hard-core punk

New York group displays a playful attitude at the Whisky

By David Chute
Herald Examiner staff writer

   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.  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.
   What's more, the Misfits' material has a strong spine of musicianship
that one doesn't pick up on right away.  You have to play their fine first
album, Misfits Walk Among Us (Ruby/Plan 9), a couple times or give them at
least 15 minutes in concert before the melodic undertow of the music comes
into focus.  In other words, it's at exactly the point where most hard-core
bands would begin to seem tiresome and repititious (because raw anger wears
out its welcome quickly) that the Misfits begin to get interesting.  They
aren't trying to get by on rage alone, but display an authentic commitment
to showmanship.
   When Misfits mastermind and lead singer Glenn Danzig declares that
screechy tunes such as "Astro Zombies" or "Night of the Living Dead" are
really heartfelt metaphors ("Everyday's a horror for me," Danzig said), we
should probably take the claim with a grain of salt.  But for me, it's
precisely this grain of salt that gives the music a special savor.  In a
pinch, for instance, you might be able to argue that a Misfits song like
"Violent World" (about an actual, infamous magazine that, at one brief low
point in the late '70s, peddled graphic photos of train wrecks and
executions) represents an authentic nightmare "vision" of modern life.  But
most of their numbers can only be interpreted as sick jokes.  "Mommy, Can I
Go Out and Kill Tonight?," for example, recalls the gruesome family vignettes
of Charles Addams while "Braineaters" has all the lip-smacking grossness of
a ghoulish playground chant:
              Brains for dinner / Brains for lunch /
              Brains for breakfast / Brains for brunch /
              Why can't we have a change of pace? /
              Why can't we have some guts?
   The Misfits rave-up at the Whisky did not (unless my ears deceived me)
include the lustful album cut, "Vampira."  But the spirit of that slinky
TV shock-theater host of the '50s -- the Elvira of her day and a star from
"Plan 9 From Outer Space" (from which the Misfits' home label, Plan 9
Records, takes its name) -- lingers on in the band's tacky macabre trappings.
The rotting letters of the Misfits' logo, for instance, are copied from
Famous Mpnsters of Filmland magazine, the bible of every horror-loving
   On the surface, the Misfits resemble both the Cramps and the earlier,
funnier incarnations of the Plasmatics in exploiting the fondess of the punk
audience for cheesy, gory horror pictures.  But it's crucial that the Misfits
look like pretend zombies: they aren't wasted, spindly real-life zombies like
some punk performers.  Under the black leather graveyard togs and the white
makeup, the Misfits have bodybuilder physiques.  And the music, which has a
core of muscular craftmanship, matches their looks.
   In one form or another, the Misfits have been around since 1977, producing
five EPs and a single, and have always had a loyal cult following.  But the
release of Misfits Walk Among Us seems to signal their real arrival.  The
word is out, apparently, because Tuesday night's crowd included Black Flag's
lead singer, Henry Rollins, who granted the Misfits an L.A. Punk Seal of
Approval by joining them on stage for final song, and funk-punk superstar
Rick James ("Superfreak").
   Hard-core punk, no matter how much longer the die-hard fans hang on, has
just about exhausted its potential as a pop-music subgenre.  Sure, an
occasional hard-core band like the Bad Brains can briefly restore the music's
angry scary conviction.  But the range of hard-core music is very narrow and,
by now, the same seething chords and phrases have been repeated so often that
they seem faintly ludicrous.  Like Black Flag, however, the Misfits have
found a way out of the hard-core dead end.  They have turned the silliness of
the hard-core pose into a joke that they share with the audience.
   The opening act substitute, Saccharine Trust -- whose underwhelming SST
EP is called Pagamicons -- plays hard-core dirges with lyrics that sound like
a pretentious high school student's notion of avant-garde poetry:
Drunk on the rug / stuck in the blood / he vomites nostalgia.