Growing up with an old goth for a mum, every day was Halloween and as a result, Halloween is my favourite holiday of the year, for this reason, I aim to do a Halloween related post every year. Last year I reviewed Night of the Demons. This year I thought I’d analyse one of the most Halloween inspired genres of music... Horror Punk.
Horror punk is a term used to refer to a macabre sub-genre of punk. While punk had been going in a more political direction with the emergence of bands like the Dead Kennedy's, Crass and the Subhumans. Horror punk was an apolitical genre revelling in nostalgia for 50’s rockabilly and a love of B movies. It isn’t a sub-genre that happened in one time and place but more a shared aesthetic that built up in different areas over time and still to this day remains a niche within the punk genre.
The Cramps and The Damned, Pioneers of Horror Punk
The origins of Horror Punk are firmly rooted in the rockers movement of the late 1950’s which is where youth culture really began. By the late 1970’s music and culture had changed and evolved dramatically. Punk rock in its first incarnation was in many ways a return to the original rock n roll format of short catchy songs full of energy only this time round it was louder, angrier and more rebellious. The first wave of punk bands from the UK Punk explosion gave us The Damned a band hard to pin down but the vampire image of lead singer Dave Vanian and the band's occasional darker themes would go on to influence Gothic Rock and Horror Punk. Another band to set the template for what would become Horror Punk were The Cramps heralding from California. The Cramps blended garage rock, rockabilly, surf and punk and are widely regarded as one of the main innovators of Psychobilly which largely crosses over into horror punk. The Cramps wrote 50’s rock n roll songs with b movie themes and this would become the template for many horror punk and Psychobilly bands to come.
But the band that would really epitomise Horror Punk was The Misfits, spawning from new jersey they made a huge impact on the New York punk scene. The Misfits had a stripped back, sped up rock n roll sound reminiscent of the Ramones. The thing that made The Misfits stand out though was the way they presented themselves. They adopted a theatrical look on stage, reminiscent of acts such as Kiss or Alice Cooper but with more skulls, spiders, bats, and coffins than any band before them and an image all of their own, they created the infamous Misfits Skull loosely based on the artwork from the film Serial the crimson ghost, and the Devils Lock a pointy fringe hanging over the face. The Misfits reveled in the aesthetics of B-grade horror movies like no band ever had and the term Horror Punk seemed to fit the bill nicely. Their songs were often short and simple often with only a few lyrics making a vague reference to a bodgy old horror movie with a few woah ohs thrown in for good measure and it was glorious.
The Crimson Ghost Serial Poster & The Misfits Artwork
Due to the lo-fi recordings of the bands that started the genre, the style is generally quite raw and dry. With a focus on performance over perfection. The early Misfits recordings were done live in one room on an 8 track tape machine some of these early recordings are pretty rough and have some technical issues, phasing, levels, muddiness etc but that’s also half the charm. As the years have evolved horror punk has been presented with much bigger and cleaner production values. This makes it a difficult genre to pin down the tonal qualities and production values, as the original sound was more a result of the lack of funds and lack of experience so as the bands developed so did the sound of the genre. You can read a little bit about the early misfits recordings in the link below...
Misfits Recording Sessions
An Early Misfits Song set to footage from Classic Universal Monster Movies
The Vocals in Horror Punk are usually baritone creating a dark atmosphere.The main melodic element and hook in the songs is usually vocal based so they are often positioned up the front of the mix. There is usually not a lot of reverb on vocals relying more on a natural performance with some subtle compression, in contrast to Gothic Rock which often uses a lot of Reverb creating more ethereal sounding vocals. There is an element of 50’s Doo Wop to horror punk vocals, simple melodies with a nod to classic singers such as Elvis, Bobby Darin, and Del Shannon. In fact, I was lucky enough to see The Misfits during soundcheck last time they played here and Jerry Only sang songs from that era as part of his warm up.
The guitars in Horror Punk are dirty, low, grunty and fuzzy creating a wall of noise and a backdrop for the catchy vocal hooks and often support them with simple harmonies. The guitar sound in Horror Punk is bordering on metal and as the genre evolved the guitar sound would become more metal with releases like The Misfits famous Monsters comeback album or everything Wednesday 13 has ever done. While many bands such as Necromantix or Zombie Ghost Train would go for a more fuzzy, twangy Rockabilly tone which is more on the Psychobilly side of things. Horror punk and Psychobilly are genres that cross over and intertwine with many of the same elements present in both genres. In both cases, it is quite common to hear the guitars double tracked to create texture and melody as seen in the song below.
The pulse of the songs is created with simple bass lines that lock in with the kick drum and support the guitar. The Bass is not really a distinctive feature in Horror Punk but in terms of the tone it adds to the overall mix, it is usually thick and distorted filling in the bottom end of the frequency spectrum with a dirty tone. Bass in this sort of music is simple but effective.
The original Horror Punk sound has a really prominent kick which is thick and tough sounding really driving the song with a nice low smack to the snare that really cuts through the mix. Like a lot of early punk the drums relied heavily on the overheads to fill the sound and as the years went on we would start to hear more individual miced toms, often top and bottom, with gating, compression, and reverb resulting in a much bigger drum sound. Below is an example of a huge drum sound within the Horror Punk Genre.
A Fantastic Song from the new Wednesday 13 album, Condolences...
Horror Punk has grown into a niche genre and will continue to thrive in the years to come. The marriage of Horror Aesthetics and Punk Rock is a match made in hell. While there are many bands sticking to the genre’s original style, there are many expanding on it and also taking those influences and applying them to other styles of music. We will live to see this nightmare play out for many more moons to come.
“Life’s a Grave… Dig it!” (Wednesday 13 - 2005)
If you enjoyed this article check out some of my Pinterest Boards below...
Misfits Songs Based on Movies
Wednesday 13 Songs Based on Movies
Universal Monster Movies
MIsfits Massive Come Back Single - Scream from 1999
Green Jr, J. (2013). The Misfits - This Music Leaves Stains. Scare Crow Press.
HUTCHINSON, B. (2017). The Damned - The Chaos Years. [S.l.]: LULU COM
Orshosky, W. (2015) The Damned - Don't You Wish We Were Dead. DVD