Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Danzig
Why it’s daunting: Most music fans have at least a passing familiarity with punk/metal icon Glenn Danzig—either through his eponymous group’s 1993 hit, “Mother ’93,” or the ubiquitous grinning-skull logo of his most infamous band, The Misfits. But between those two projects—and the one that links them, Samhain—Danzig has produced a body of work that can be intimidating, not just because his sound and subject matter are so raw and morbid, but because his catalog is convoluted. It doesn’t help that his fans can be obsessive, to the point where getting into Danzig may seem an all-or-nothing prospect. Danzig fostered this fanaticism by shrewdly marketing his bands’ releases on his own Plan 9 Records. His Misfits Fiend Club was a stroke of genius that helped him connect with fans (and sell them shitloads of merchandise) in the ’80s, back when most punk bands preached anti-capitalism.
More controversially, Danzig has been accused of everything from fascism to Satanism (probably unjustifiably) to all-around asshole-ism (probably justifiably) during his 33-year career. And in the ’90s, he got caught in a lengthy lawsuit brought by his former bandmates, which led to his losing the right to record new material or tour under the name Misfits. The result? If you buy a new Misfits album or go to a Misfits concert or today, you’re getting a laughable, Danzig-less version of the group. In spite of these ins and outs, wandering through Danzig’s twisted world is totally worth it. Not only is the man’s bottomless voice a thing of haunted, campy awesomeness, but he’s written some of the creepiest and catchiest rock songs of all time.
Possible gateway: Misfits, Misfits
Why: Between the band’s inception in ’77 and its breakup in ’83, the Misfits became unique, and yet simultaneously one of the most derivative bands in punk history. Formed in Danzig’s hometown of Lodi, New Jersey, the group dipped its toes in the radical sounds of some of its equally legendary contemporaries: the psychobilly of The Cramps, the pop-punk of the Ramones, and the proto-goth of The Damned. Danzig also drew from such varied older influences as Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, and early Black Sabbath. On top of that, he dumped copious references to horror and science-fiction B-movies like The Astro-Zombies and Night Of The Living Dead, both of which became titles of Misfits songs. The resulting sound is spooky, silly, abrasive, and melodic at the same time, although the Misfits’ most striking feature would always be Danzig’s ghoulish, cadaverous croon.
That pipe-organ voice ties together the songs on Misfits, one of three compilations of the band’s output. The other two, Legacy Of Brutality and Collection II, are excellent, but Misfits is the best cross-section. From the early lo-fi fuzz of “Bullet” and “Hollywood Babylon” to the harsher onslaught of later tracks like “Earth A.D.” and “Wolf’s Blood,” Misfits shows that Danzig and crew could wring some variety out of their formula. Danzig would eventually become a pathological re-recorder of his own music, often stripping away others’ guitars and replacing them with his own, or even taking the drum tracks from an original and rebuilding the song from the ground up. This has led to a confusing discography that often loops back on itself and has yielded multiple versions of songs. The most extreme example of this is Static Age, an album recorded in ’78 and only partially released in dribs, drabs, and alternative takes until it finally saw a full release in ’97. Like all of the Misfits’ albums, it’s essential—but Misfits is the best, easiest way to get acquainted.
Next steps: The greatest album Danzig has ever been a part of is the Misfits’ 1982 classic Walk Among Us—and it succeeds precisely because it can’t be bothered with things like dynamics or variety. Instead, the disc is a numbing salvo of short, gore-steeped, sound-alike anthems that imagine the Ramones enlisting in the Spiders From Mars. It also propagated the Misfits’ image as Kiss-esque cartoon characters, thanks to their ghoulish makeup, leather getups, and Jerry Only’s signature “devilock” hairdo (which Danzig adopted, and weirdly enough, named a song after). The other Misfits album released during the band’s first run is technically titled Earth A.D./Wolf’s Blood—but everyone just calls it Earth A.D. It’s as indispensable as its predecessor, only for a different reason: The hooky, sing-along choruses of Walk Among Us have been replaced with a humorless menace and far more belligerent riffs. The sound is a nod toward the hardcore scene that embraced the oddball punk band, but plenty of metalheads also latched onto Earth A.D.—especially after Metallica covered “Green Hell” (as a medley with an earlier Misfits song, “Last Caress”) on the 1987 EP Garage Days Re-Revisited.
After Earth A.D., it seemed Danzig was set to go the hardcore route with his next band, Samhain. He didn’t. True, he enlisted Brian Baker and Lyle Preslar (both formerly of hardcore powerhouse Minor Threat) for the new project. But Samhain’s 1984 debut, Initium, veered left and amped up the goth undertone that had always run through Danzig’s songs. The album, while good, is definitely transitional, and Baker and Preslar quickly jumped ship. The subsequent two Samhain releases, the Unholy Passion EP and November-Coming-Fire, are the ones to get. Unholy Passion still looks back to the Misfits—even going so far as to include a cover of the earlier band’s “All Hell Breaks Loose,” retitled “All Hell”—but the disc’s five songs are a full immersion in lean, vicious death-rock. That evolution hit its peak with November-Coming-Fire, one of Danzig’s artistic triumphs. Brooding, atmospheric, and finally free of the shadow of the Misfits, it asserted Samhain as an equal to American goth legends of the ’80s like Christian Death and 45 Grave. It also contains what may as well be Danzig’s official theme song, “To Walk The Night.”
Take Samhain, add Rick Rubin, and you’ve got Danzig, the band. In 1987, the famed producer signed Danzig, who retooled the group’s lineup, wrote some sludgy (dare we say grungy?) hard-rock jams, and unleashed Danzig on the world a year later. The album instantly became a staple of the not-quite-metal scene (see also: Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction) that soon morphed into the heavier end of the alternative nation. The disc’s standout track is “Mother,” though the song didn’t become a hit until a remixed version, “Mother ’93,” was released five years later on the otherwise marginal EP, Thrall: Demonsweatlive. The group followed its reinventive debut with Danzig II: Lucifuge, a flawless slab of chunky riffs and mosh-pit-ready stompers that solidified its ungodly fusion of classic metal, howling evil, and beefcake. Things soon degenerated into half-assed industrial music—and Danzig himself began a bizarre, yet strangely intriguing solo career as a classical composer—but this is as good as Danzig the band gets.
Where not to start: As hard as it is to believe, thousands of Misfits completists will readily leap to the defense of the post-Danzig Misfits—that is, the zombified (ahem) version of the band put together by brothers Jerry Only and Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein after the two former Misfits won their lawsuit against Danzig. Don’t listen to them. The fake-Misfits’ three albums, starting with 1997’s American Psycho, pale in comparison to the band’s original output. While not bad at all, Samhain’s Live ’85-’86 and the Misfits’ Evilive just aren’t essential—and Evilive II2 features the resurrected Misfits, so it’s even less than inessential. Out of Samhain’s catalogue, the group’s posthumous album, Final Descent, is the last one you should reach for; it’s more of an odds-and-ends package padded with abandoned tracks and redubbed songs from Unholy Passion.
Depending on how much you like epic, myth-checking classical music, Danzig’s two solo albums, Black Aria and Black Aria II, are actually decent in a soundtrack-y kind of way. But they’re hardly the best entrée into the man’s work. As for Danzig the band, the seven albums beyond Lucifuge are hit-or-miss. The group’s industrial phase hit rock bottom with the abysmally boring Blackacidevil, a record on which Danzig’s most potent weapon, his voice, is pretty much processed into nothingness. But the last three albums have been a slight return to form, and this year’s sinewy Deth Red Sabaoth is actually his best work in years. Not that it should be anywhere near the top of your shopping list. (Oh, and did we mention that Danzig writes and publishes ultra-sleazy comic books on his own Verotik imprint? Yeah, don’t go there.)