The debut LP from Lodi, NJ’s horror punk kings has been out of print for years; does it deserve a resurrection?
The Misfits released their debut LP, Walk Among Us, exactly forty years ago. But does the beginning of their myth also mark the end to the most remarkable part of their story?
Between 1978 and 1981, the Misfits released some of the most memorable work in the entire Punk Rock canon. It is possible they were the most spectacular singles bands the first generation of Punk Rock produced. That’s what I think of when I think of the Misfits. And this also comes to mind: as a live act, the Misfits were so very good that they virtually levitated. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Misfits made a deliberate effort to contradict the everyman/anti-rockstar live aspect of Punk (a pose that was largely bullshit, anyway) and chose, instead, to put on a fucking rock’n’roll show. And they pulled it off, owning each stage they stomped on and every smoky room where they clawed the air.
AUDIO: Tim Sommer interviews The Misfits on WNYU 1981
Here’s what doesn’t come to mind when I think of the Misfits: Their somewhat underwhelming debut album, Walk Among Us.
That’s not to say that Walk Among Us is not without its’ significant melodic magic, and a wad of long-lasting, cross-generational earworms. But after all those amazing singles and EP tracks, that startling brace of Punk Pop built out of an unprecedented mixture of sobbing greaser melodies, comic book approach to sex and gore, frantic Punk urgency, and relatively controlled productions, the rushed, nearly monophonic dishwasher rattle of Walk Among Us was a bunt, at best.
In some ways – and this is odd, considering how large the Misfits myth looms – I don’t think the Misfits get credit for just how fucking good they were. This could be because, in my opinion, they never made a great album. But it could also be because of their status as outliers on their home turf.
Unless you were in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s and paying some attention to the Punk Rock scene, you might not understand quite what outsiders the Misfits were. First, they were playing a form of true Punk Rock on a scene (especially prior to 1980) largely dominated by pop and garage bands, no wave artists, and new wave acts. And although some of these artists were very good indeed – the Bongos, the Offs, the Speedies, the Student Teachers, Klaus Nomi, the Contortions, Tina Peel, the Raybeats, etcetera, were all worth seeing any damn night of the week – the kind of slashing, hollering, leaping Punk Rock the Misfits played was extremely rare in the city at the time (again, this has been the subject of an extraordinary amount of revisionism, but let’s leave it at that). Even amongst the Punk acts (like the Stimulators and the Blessed) there were factors that made the Misfits, circa 1978 – ’80, outliers: First and most memorably was the profound, deeply original sense of melody.
Virtually no other Punk Rock act, on either side of the Atlantic, was attempting to attach this kind of sobbing, arching melody – the kind of thing we were more used to hearing on Tom Jones or Gene Pitney records – to Punk Rock. It was an unabashed, unapologetic return to pop romanticism, uniquely applied to Punk. (Curiously, a soon-to-come wave of Post Punk bands, like Echo & the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, the Chameleons, and Soft Cell, would soon adopt a similar post-Scott Walker romantic approach to melody).
And that leads to another outlier element: to a significant degree, the Misfits chased obscurity. Most of their releases were limited edition, or on colored vinyl, or available only through their Fiend Club, etcetera. They wanted to market themselves as exclusive. We also must consider that the band were banking on being famous enough one day that rarity would benefit them. Now, this turned out to be true, but it was a great gamble; I recall Jerry Only saying to me at the time, “I don’t understand Glenn. He would rather press up one hundred 45s and sell them for ten dollars each then press up a thousand and sell for a dollar each.
One cannot stress how peculiar this was within the environment of the American Punk Rock and New Wave scene circa 1980; even the artier bands promoted inclusion and availability. The Misfits also applied this exclusivity to their live performances. Whereas most scene bands would perform virtually weekly, the Misfits preferred to make their live performances rare events, and circa ’79 and ’80, they only played in New York City three or four times a year.
The final – and perhaps most important — outlier element to pre-Walk Among Us Misfits was the performances themselves. Again, this was the era of inclusion; in clubs throughout the New York City area, acts were presumably providing an alternative to what you would have seen at Madison Square Garden. The Misfits were having absolutely none of that. They wanted to prove that the live rendering of Punk music could equal the sort of airborne, scenery-chewing spectacle you might see at the Garden. Certainly, other Punk and punk-era bands took great care in presenting a certain look or image, but no one except the Misfits was attempting to say, “We can do what the Tubes do, what KISS do, what BÖC do. We can play Punk Rock and put on a show.” That they were doing this, generally, in small venues made it even stranger.
We shouldn’t whitewash this: When the Misfits were at their creative peak in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, they were an extremely polarizing band. Because of the extravagance of their live performances, because of their attachment to melody, and because of their embrace of exclusivity, a lot of the people on the Punk and new music scene in NYC were very vocal in their dislike for the Misfits. Now, this largely changed after 1981, possibly because the hardcore communities in D.C. and Los Angeles embraced the Misfits in a way that NYHC had not; and it certainly helped that after all those exclusive and exotic pre-album releases, the Walk Among Us album was both widely available and sonically put them in the same lower-fi league as many of the more credible hardcore heroes.
AUDIO: The Misfits at Irving Plaza NYC June 1982
Which brings us back to Walk Among Us. Virtually everything the Misfits had released up to that point had been a homerun, I mean out of this fucking world (and I’m delighted to say that I acknowledged this at the time; in 1979, in my American Underground column in Trouser Press magazine – I was all of 17 — I named “Horror Business” one of the ten best 45s of the year). But after that extraordinary run of singles and EPs, Walk Among Us was a considerable letdown. Certainly, the melodies were still there, as sky-reaching as always, a shotgun wedding of AM greaser dreams and football chants. But throughout Walk Among Us, the tempos were rushed; the guitar and drum parts graceless and always pushing the hallelujah singalong vocal melodies a little too much; and the stop/starts seemed clumsy. I was baffled. After years of being an act that prided itself on a level of professionalism and precision of presentation that isolated them from virtually every other indie act working the New York circuit, when it came time to release their first full length album, the Misfits did two things they had never done before: they pandered, and they low-balled the production.
Which is not to say there isn’t some true and lasting glory on Walk Among Us. The sheer ecstasy of the melodies of “Hatebreeders” and “20 Eyes” help you overlook the harsh, obligatory churn and atypically clumsy arrangements going on elsewhere on the LP. On the other hand, “Mommy Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight” is just pandering and seems to confirm our worst fears: after half a decade of creating glory by not giving a shit what the prevalent scene thought of them – and making magic as a result – the Misfits sought to give the kids what they wanted. Contrast anything – I mean literally anything – on Walk Among Us with “Hollywood Babylon,” recorded just a year and a half earlier. “Hollywood Babylon” is fierce and adamant, but also measured and patient; the melody unfolds, and it doesn’t sound like a fight. But everything on Walk Among Us sounds, well, like a free-for-all; there’s literally nothing here that resembles the steady, driving, intense but open arrangement on “Hollywood Babylon.” For those of us who had absolutely fallen in the thrall of the Misfits releases up to 1981’s “London Dungeon,” their 1982 debut album was a significant disappointment.
My somewhat negative contemporary assessment of Walk Among Us was not exceptionally popular or common at the time. By the time of its’ release the Misfits had become scene darlings, in near complete opposition to where they had stood as recently as mid-1980. But I tend to think that the band have come around to agreeing with me: the Walk Among Us album, as a stand-alone piece in its’ original form, is not readily available on streaming services, and latter-day compilations like Static Age, Legacy of Brutality, and most especially the 1986 Misfits album, presented the world with the pre-Walk Among Us Misfits at their hyper-melodic, ecstatic, contrarian, heavenly melodic and hellishly lyrical best.
In the 40 years since the release of Walk Among Us, the Misfits logo and iconography has become one of the most enduring and familiar in the history of rock music. It is possible that only the Ramones have sold more t-shirts to people who don’t actually own any of the artist’s records. This remarkable development testifies to the genius of Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only since 1981. But the phenomenal, absolutely unique work the Misfits released prior to Walk Among Us testifies to their genius prior to 1981.
AUDIO: The Misfits Walk Among Us (full album)