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Danzig or Graves? The Great Misfits Debate Decoded.
Michale Graves at The Local 662 in St. Petersburg Florida
Danzig or Graves? Choose one? Why?
I was listening to a Misfits record the other day as I was driving to work. The Michale Graves era of the band, mind you. It’s funny that that distinction still must be made. Either the Graves era or the Danzig era, make a choice. Or choose both to spite the Jerry Only era, but choose wisely or the punk rock gods may smite thee. After all these years, it still seems like a perpetual contest with that band. Since when does spinning a record double as an affirmation of loyalty? Music isn’t supposed to be used to validate the credibility of one’s personal taste. But, that’s the way it has been for fans of The Misfits since the reformation of the band in 1995. Many have decided that The Misfits broke up in 1983 and any performances or recordings that don’t feature original vocalist and songwriter Glenn Danzig ought to be stricken from the band’s history. The question is not whether Danzig is better than Graves. It’s deeper than that. Danzig is practically revered as a deity, or an icon, in the punk rock universe. If there was a punk rock equivalent to Mount Rushmore, Danzig’s face would be between those of Henry Rollins and Joey Ramone. Therefore, any attempt to elevate Graves to the level of Danzig could be deemed blasphemous. An act of contrition had better follow any such attempt in the minds of the Danzig faithful. Legends are infallible. Discrediting any attribute to Danzig’s legacy is bad form. He is where he is in the punk rock history books because he earned his place. So where does leave Graves? This entire debate topic wouldn’t be worth examining if Michale Graves were not an unbelievably talented musician and songwriter, on par with at the least to Danzig himself. To better understand the debate, we have to go back to the formation of the band all the way back in 1977.
The Danzig era
As far as many diehard Misfits fans are concerned, the band only existed in its pure and relevant state from 1977 until 1983. Forget that many of these fans, or “true fiends” as they sometimes call themselves, weren’t even born when Glenn Danzig broke the band up. By 1983 the Misfits had only amassed a marginal cult following (the original Fiend Club). A reformation of the Misfits is therefore not comparable to a hypothetical reformation of The Beatles. The Beatles had millions of adoring fans at the time of their split. A Beatles reformation without John Lennon (I use Lennon as an example although any of the Beatles could prove my point) would conflict with fan’s opinions of the influence of the band because their influence was prominent during the band’s active tenure. The Misfits gained almost all of their notoriety after the band broke up. It would be fair to say that interest in the band was founded after the break up and not rejuvenated. The Misfits gained their posthumous following coincidentally with the rise of Danzig’s post Misfits career. It wasn’t until after his band Samhain changed their name to Danzig that one of Glenn’s musical projects cracked the mainstream. With mainstream attention comes back catalog attention. People took note of Metallica’s Cliff Burton and James Hetfield’s Misfits tee shirts that they wore and covers that the band played during their live shows on their own climb up the charts. Metal fans that were discovering the bluesy death metal eponymous Danzig album began to take note of his earlier work. The release of The Misfits 1985 collection “Legacy of Brutality” and “Misfits” in 1986 brought the accessibility of the music to the level of the interest in the band. The music that they had released during their active years was becoming increasingly difficult to find due to limited pressings. At this point, there had only been one era of the band. Even though Glenn Danzig spent the second half of the 1980’s distancing himself from The Misfits and punk rock, his punk credentials were beginning to place him among the royalty of punk’s progenitors. As Danzig reestablished himself as one of the premier metal acts of the late eighties, new fans of his early career were beginning to realize that they had missed something special. The fervent call for a Misfits reunion hadn’t yet peaked. It wouldn’t be until the new Misfits showed up that fans realized that the other members of the classic line-up were just as interested in continuing the legacy as they were. By the early 1990’s, the fans had been introduced to the classic line-up as the only line-up. There is a sentimental difference between replacing an active singer in an active band and resurrecting a previously defunct band with a new singer. Especially in the case of the Misfits, where there was a twelve year gap between the end of the original band and the post- Danzig Michale Graves era. This leads to an interesting phenomenon. Normally the question of authenticity in punk music revolves around the question of punk credibility. The old poser debate is expanded in the case of The Misfits. Two generations converged on the same band. To approve of the classic band was to make the correct choice. Refusing to acknowledge the reincarnated Misfits of 1995 was a show of punk maturity. To accept the new Misfits as the Misfits threatened to expose a fans youth and lack of knowledge of the genre.
The Graves era
Founding member Jerry Only and his brother, former Misfits guitarist Doyle, settled out of court with Danzig for the rights to use the Misfits name and logo for future performances and releases. So in 1995 they held auditions for a new singer after Danzig declined the position. Enter Michale Graves, a nineteen year old vocal dynamo with the stage presence of caffeine fueled insane asylum escapee. The early new Misfits’ shows featured Graves a la Danzig. He wore the signature black devil lock that Only, Doyle, and Glenn had popularized fifteen years earlier. He was playing a role, similar to the way an Elvis impersonator would don a cape and sequens before hitting the stage to cover “Jailhouse Rock.” They played the old songs and everybody had a great time. Graves’ vocal style and range was different and, dare I say, more trained than Danzig’s had been during his Misfits tenure, but that was okay. Because they were rocking out the old songs with the same stage set up and costumes, the new band was almost like an homage to the old one. It wasn’t until the new band started releasing material that was drastically different from the classic era that the fact that this was no longer Danzig’s Misfits started to sink in. “American Psycho” was released in 1997. The first album of new material since 1983’s “Earth A.D” was more of a pop metal punk fusion to contrast the band’s straight punk roots. Absent were the four letter words of the Danzig era. The new songs were more polished and better produced, but they were undeniably great. Instant Graves classics like “Dig up Her Bones” and “Shining” legitimized the new singer. Some people rejoiced and some people felt threatened. That’s the only way I can put it. Graves’ credibility changed The Misfits from a band into a pseudo political debate. The sides would be drawn and every Misfits based discussion would forever be tainted by arguments over whether or not the new band’s esteem was valid. The Danzig faithful dismissed the Graves era as being for the kids. It was too clean for them. Danzig was The Misfits, how dare this new guy try to assume his role and fill such big shoes? By the time the second full length album “Famous Monsters” was released in 1999 Graves had come into his own both vocally and stylistically. “Famous Monsters” hit the horror nail on the head. It became obvious that Graves was a great songwriter and vocalist. Whether he would continue to front The Misfits or not was beside the point, the kid had a bright future. It was rumored that Danzig himself liked the new album (“Rumored” is the operative word). Unfortunately, “Famous Monsters” would be Graves’ last album with the band. He left officially, citing tensions within the band, in 2000. Dr. Chud followed Graves off stage, and Doyle would leave in 2001 citing his disapproval of playing in a band without a real singer. Jerry Only assumed vocal duties following Graves’ departure.
Modern era and final thoughts
For thirteen years Misfits fans have been playing the blame game. It is popular to blame Jerry Only for the bands demise because he is still actively writing and performing with Dez Cadena (of Black Flag fame) and former Murphy’s Law drummer Eric Arce (classic era drummer Robo as well as the legendary Marky Ramone had toured with Jerry’s Misfits before Eric Arce joined). The modern line-up will never achieve the amount of influence or credibility of either the Danzig or Graves eras. Oddly enough, we have been left with the great Danzig or Graves debate long after both men left the band. It has even gained strength. New fans that don’t remember the Graves era and weren’t even born when Danzig fronted the band continue to chip in their two cents on who deserves accolades and who doesn’t on nearly every single misfits related post on youtube. Threads have been dedicating to answering the question once and for all, “who was the better singer?” Who keeps fueling this fire?
When Danzig broke up The Misfits in 1983, he made it clear that aside from reworking a couple of classic tunes for his new band Samhain he was done with punk. As time went on, nearly all traces of Danzig’s involvement with The Misfits vanished from his live sets. Once or twice throughout the nineties he’d play a Misfits song, but for the most part he’d moved as far away from his old band as possible. He became a celebrity in the metal scene. Aside from his cut of the merchandise royalties, The Misfits were Jerry’s band. Even with Graves as the front man, The Misfits were Jerry’s band. By the early part of the last decade, Michale Graves was busy working on a brilliant solo career and Danzig had just released the second of his Dark classical music “Paradise Lost” influenced “Black Area” albums. Graves would still incorporate Misfits songs into his sets, whether he was fronting a punk style band or performing solo with an acoustic guitar as he would often due leading up to and following his 2008 “Illusions. Live From Viretta Park” album. Then in 2005, Danzig began including half hour sets of old Misfits songs with Doyle on guitar into his tours. Even though he blatantly stated that these sets would be the closest thing to a Misfits reunion anyone would ever see, the fans loved it. Danzig shows with Doyle showed that he still loved his old songs and enough time had passed to where he could play them live again. Even Glenn Danzig gets nostalgic. So, from 2005 onward fans have been given Misfits options. Both Danzig and Graves were playing some of the old material as well as newer and equally brilliant songs from their respective Post-Misfits careers. In 2009 Graves joined Doyle’s band Gorgeous Frankenstein on stage to play four Graves era songs, then Doyle joined Danzig on stage the same night and played some classic songs. All the while, Jerry’s Misfits released a new album titled “Devil’s Rain.” What then is the point in fighting about the past when the past comes to life in three different forms? Danzig and Doyle, Graves, and Jerry are all carrying the torch in one way or another. Even Doyle’s band plays Misfits songs. I’m not incredibly keen on his newest vocalist, but Gorgeous Frankenstein and Blitzkid alum Argyle Goolsby deffinitly did the Misfits justice with his renditions.
My advice remains, if you enjoy the Misfits, listen to The Misfits. Listen to Danzig or Graves. Listen to Danzig and Graves. Listen to Samhain. Listen to Gotham Road (a Graves solo project). Punk rock is about inclusion not justifiability. 1977 and 1995 are long gone. They gave us some great music and memories, but it’s always best to live in the moment.