Monsters of Rock | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Music » Music Review

Monsters of Rock



American Psycho

The Misfits' comeback record, American Psycho, isn't much to speak of musically. The reanimated Jersey horror punks pay dutiful tribute to their monster mythology with titles like "Abominable Dr. Phibes," "This Island Earth," and "Day of the Dead," and their furious power chording--now underwritten by David Geffen--is bigger, brighter, and heavier than on any of their savage indie releases of the late 70s and early 80s. But without original front man and songwriter Glenn Danzig, the band is doomed to roam the earth as a headless horseman. While in concert the Misfits can still dip into Danzig's catalog of giant hooks, millennial choruses, brutal fantasy, and rollicking black humor, new recruit Michale Graves can't hold a candelabra to his full-throated roar, much less his rockabilly swing. Danzig was the power source for the band's goofball ardor: he could invest a chorus as ludicrous as "Teenagers from Mars, and we don't care!" with the soulful conviction of "Amazing Grace."

Devoid of any such singular force, American Psycho leans heavily on extramusical trappings like artwork to evoke the band's former ungodly glory. The cover features a painting of the band's primary icon, the Crimson Ghost, by none other than Basil Gogos, who during the 60s and 70s was the resident cover artist at Famous Monsters of Filmland; his lurid oils of the cinema's classic creatures were a popular feature of the fan magazine. It's an irony that won't be lost on old Misfits fans: the band's cover art and T-shirt designs were all fashioned by Danzig, drawing heavily on movie posters and horror comics of the 1950s. Like any quasi-religious cult, the Misfits knew the power of iconography; many unsuspecting citizens who've never heard the band have been exposed to shirts, stickers, posters, or even tattoos of the Crimson Ghost, a gap-toothed death's head with cold eyes staring out of deep, blackened sockets. But time and history have blunted the edge on horror, and likewise on punk.

On Danzig's sleeve for the early Misfits single "Die, Die My Darling," a man's hand raises a brandy snifter, through which the face of his beautiful blond companion is revealed as a skull. Copied from the September 1953 cover of Chamber of Thrills, it harked back to a time when gruesome comics were considered just as subversive an influence as the hip-shaking rhythms of rock 'n' roll--back when, denied the petit mort of orgasm, kids would indulge themselves in the big, splashy death of zombies, vampires, and werewolves.

A perfect visualization of the sex-death equation, the original drawing was published at a time when the comics industry was about to come under siege. According to David J. Skal's cultural history of horror, The Monster Show, horror comics were read by about ten million people in the early 50s (more than read Reader's Digest), but they had also become the target of a moralistic backlash from parents, teachers, and shrinks, chiefly Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose best-selling anticomics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), became a favorite of women's magazines.

In April 1954 Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver (who would later shift his focus from monsters to mobsters) convened a subcommittee to examine the deleterious effects of comics on the nation's youth. One of those called to testify was William Gaines, who published Tales From the Crypt and several other grisly titles (and would later shift his focus to Mad magazine). Asked if he thought one of his covers, featuring a woman's severed head, was in good taste, Gaines replied, "Yes, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood." The bluenoses won: later that year the comics industry began to police itself with a code prohibiting sex and violence, as well as "walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism."

But the link between juvenile delinquency and horror had been forged, and in 1956 Screamin' Jay Hawkins's voodoo rant "I Put a Spell on You" was considered prima facie evidence that rock 'n' roll was the devil's music. That same year, when American International Pictures launched a highly successful string of low-budget monster movies, it drew inspiration from the recent hit Rebel Without a Cause. I Was a Teen-age Werewolf (1957), one of the first films to employ rock 'n' roll on its sound track, featured Michael Landon as an ersatz James Dean whose psychiatrist uses drugs and hypnosis to suppress the boy's aggressiveness; as a result, strong shocks turn him into a snarling, slobbering predator. In one pivotal scene, Landon wanders into the high school gymnasium and spies on a lithe young thing working out on the parallel bars. When a school bell just above him explodes, the teen is transformed into his hairy alter ego. (Danzig named I Was a Teen-age Werewolf as one of his favorite horror films in a 1983 interview for the zine Flesh and Blood.)

But a funny thing happened on the road to hell: in the 60s, as the wholesome patina of the previous decade was blown apart by assassinations, war in Southeast Asia, and the sexual revolution, the idea of censoring comics came to seem almost quaint. Television brought nightly helpings of full-color gore from Vietnam; in the wake of the My Lai massacre, Tales From the Crypt looked less like a threat to the republic than a reassuring bit of nostalgia. And as young people began to discard their parents' sexual hang-ups, the sex-death equation lost some of its potency (though necking teens remained the staple victims of slasher films through the 80s).

Once the film production code began to unravel, horror broke into the artistic mainstream: Rosemary's Baby (1968) was a critical favorite, and The Exorcist (1973) was nominated for an Oscar. By 1980 no less an eminence than Stanley Kubrick was trying his hand at horror with The Shining. Stephen King, who wrote the novel Kubrick worked from, paved the way for such best-selling horror novelists as Dean Koontz and Anne Rice. And horror comics evolved into graphic novels, often adapting classic shockers by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Mary Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Rockers responded to this development in two different ways. On the one hand, the classic horror icons, long since tamed by time and Abbott and Costello, became objects of affection and high camp. This trend had its genesis in "Monster Mash," the 1962 novelty hit by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, and reached its popular apex with the Broadway musical and 1975 cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, whose music was a slick retread of old 50s sounds. But even as late as 1991 the Cramps were still working this angle with titles like Look Mom, No Head! and "Eyeball in My Martini." Five years after "Monster Mash" the Rolling Stones blazed a different trail with "Sympathy for the Devil." Since horror had become a comforting burlesque show, the only alternative was to plumb the depths of genuine evil. This idea threatened to devolve into showbiz as well--Alice Cooper and Kiss being early and obvious examples--but the emergence of wicked metalheads like Slayer, Megadeth, and Danzig's post-Misfits bands, along with goth-industrial vamps like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, showed Lucifer to be, at the very least, a more reliable muse than Bela Lugosi.

Somehow the Misfits, formed in 1976 by Danzig and bassist Jerry Only, managed to play both sides against the middle. Though their lyrics were uniformly vicious, promising all manner of rape, torture, and dismemberment, they were frequently undercut with wry jokes ("She looks so good in red," Danzig observes in "American Nightmare," after burying an ax in a lover's head). But their love of old horror movies and comics was so sincere and respectful that no one could accuse them of camping it up. And unlike the Rocky Horror crowd, they chose their cultural references from their own youth, not their parents', citing, instead of Frankenstein and Dracula, 60s gorefests like Blood Feast and Night of the Living Dead. In fact, Danzig's obsession with 60s icons like JFK ("Bullet") and Marilyn Monroe ("Who Killed Marilyn") created a vague subtext of nostalgia corrupted that gave the lie to the band's bonehead image. To cap it all off, they were genuinely intimidating motherfuckers--even at punk clubs, patrons were known to back away when the Misfits hit the stage in their black leather, face paint, and pointed "devilocks."

In 1983, after laboring in obscurity for seven years, the band split--reportedly over Danzig's rapidly expanding ego and increasingly demonic lyrics. "You have to have some responsibility for your audience," Only told the zine Jersey Beat in 1990. "You can't lead people into destruction. That's what I never liked about Glenn and the whole Satanic trip. He's dragging people down and he doesn't care as long as he's making a buck."

Only and his brother Doyle spent the better part of a decade battling Danzig in court for rights to the Misfits name. Now Only is eager to prove that the Misfits can cut it without Danzig, who he claims had them thrown out of his hotel when they approached him to rejoin the band. But the 37-year-old father of two hastens to point out that their Geffen release is free of any cursing. "The Misfits are as American as apple pie," he told Addicted to Noise. Without Danzig to oversee the art, Only turned to Gogos, whom he'd met at a horror convention in 1994. Gogos hit it off with Only and painted a T-shirt design of the Crimson Ghost dressed up as Santa Claus; the American Psycho cover is his second project for the band. Pittsburgh comic artist Doug Evil also has been collaborating with Only and writer Mike Stax on a Misfits comic book. While Only promises plenty of gore, he also describes the artwork he's seen as "like something out of Disney."

If the new child-friendly Misfits have retreated into the Rocky Horror ethic, Danzig seems equally committed to the other route. After a deal with American Recordings brought him to the fringes of the big time, he launched his own line of gruesome, erotic horror comics, Verotik. The company now has several titles, all stocked in the 18-and-over section. The eponymous star of the popular Satanika is a powerful babe with giant bat wings growing out of her head and breasts that look like they've been inflated with a bicycle pump. In the current issue, Satanika and her lover, Azza, vanquish a legion of angels sent by God to destroy them. The Verotik books are like Dr. Fredric Wertham's worst nightmare, as violent and salacious as the times permit.

Of course, in a culture inured to sex and violence, this strategy will also run its course--even Dante knew that there are only so many circles of hell. Last year, when Danzig jumped from American Recordings to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, the label's publicity staff went into overdrive to deny that their new artist was a satanist or that his record contained coded messages. "It's only rock 'n' roll," a spokeswoman assured a Las Vegas newspaper. "For 40 years people have been scandalized by it." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover and Misfits photo by Frank White.

Get our free weekly Early Warnings newsletter đź’Ś

It’s Chicago’s essential months-ahead music calendar straight to your inbox.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month â†’  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month â†’  
  Reader Radical $15/month â†’  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  â†’ 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  â†’