7 Significant Moments in Twisted Sister's History
Band famed for 'We're Not Gonna Take It' to play last Northeast show Oct. 1 at Rock Carnival.
Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French has played thousands of shows: 9,000, by his count. Many were in New Jersey when the band he founded in 1973 was tearing up clubs -- decked out in women’s clothes and gaudy makeup -- as it clawed its way to stardom for 10 years before its success exploded when the classic rebel anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and it’s Animal House-inspired video introduced the hulking, leather-clad act to America. It’s a full-circle moment then that Twisted Sister is calling it a day in Lakewood, N.J., where it’s playing the second annual Rock Carnival at First Energy Park Saturday (Oct. 1) as its final live date in the Northeast.
TS named its final lap the Forty and F--k It Tour since 2016 marks 40 years of French, guitarist Eddie “Fingers” Ojeda and singer Dee Snider performing together. Bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza and drummer A. J. Pero rounded out the act’s seminal lineup. Sadly, Pero unexpectedly died of a heart attack in March 2015, and the quintet, which had been considering packing it in, decided after his passing that it was time. Its last U.S. date is in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Oct. 22; the final one is the Corona Northside Metal Meeting Fest in Monterrey, Mexico, on Nov. 22. Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Adrenaline Mob) is handling drums.
“I’d like to think that we’re considered one of the greatest live acts of all time, one of the greatest entertainers of all time, and that we have composed music that makes people happy,” says French when asked what he thinks the band’s legacy will be. “When I read letters that the fans send, when they tell you that your music changed their life … when you get things like that, it is so profound.”
“Profound” isn’t a word that’s used to describe “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” but it was still a watershed moment in hard rock. Although TS’ mainstream popularity was brief, it delivered a defiant song that originally shook up the establishment but has now become so beloved that the establishment embraces it, a fact that was evident when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump played it at campaign rallies. (Snider gave Trump permission to do so before asking him to stop after learning more about Trump’s politics.) In honor of Twisted Sister’s final bow, here are seven significant moments that shaped the band’s history.
1982: Twisted Sister Finally Gets Signed
TS’ membership evolved before the aforementioned lineup was completed in the early ’80s. By the time the band finally got signed, it had overpaid its dues repeatedly playing in the club circuit in the New Jersey/New York area. “If you look at the rejection letters over the years, we were too green, too blue, too pink, too red, too yellow, too loud, too soft, too much hair, not enough hair, too much spandex, not enough spandex,” recalls French.
The struggle was such an epic slog that director Andrew Horn made it the focus of his 2014 documentary, We Are Twisted F---ing Sister! It recounts rejections like Twisted being asked to play a private show, with full stage production, for just one person: a record executive who was going to check the group out during his lunch break. Twisted ponied up the dough for the venue rental and equipment, only to have the guy disappear before it finished the set. Finally, in 1982, TS landed a record deal in England on Secret Records. After the label went belly up, Atlantic Records’ London-based vice president signed the band.
“We could have given up a thousand times along the way, and people always say to me, ‘Why didn’t you give up?’ or ‘How’d you keep going?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re either so smart or really stupid,’” says French. “I don’t know which one. I’ll take credit and say that we’re that smart. We were turned down more times than a bed sheet in a whorehouse.”
1984: ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ Overtakes America
The battle wasn’t finished once the record deal was sealed. Atlantic wasn’t thrilled that an act it had previously rejected was now on its roster -- in the documentary, then-Atlantic A&R exec Jason Flom related how he was threatened with termination if he mentioned Twisted Sister. The band soldiered on by promoting its 1983 album You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll without any label support and moving 100,000 copies. French says this so impressed then-Atlantic president Doug Morris that Morris told him if he gave him the right song, Morris would make TS “the biggest band in the world.”
The song was “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” It was catchy, but what nailed its crossover was the video featuring Animal House actor Mark Metcalf reprising his apoplectic Doug Neidermeyer character. Atlantic’s parent company, Warner Bros., co-owned MTV, so Morris had it slipped into rotation. Teens rapidly adopted the anthem and turned parent album Stay Hungry platinum within six months of release. (The song has sold 1.1 million downloads, according to Nielsen Music, and the set is now triple platinum.)
“There was no question that [the video] was going to explode out of the box because of the way it was edited. It was amazing,” recalls French. “It altered everything, and it changed our lives. I’m grateful that it took as many years as it did for us to make it, because I was much older [by then] and much better equipped to handle the incendiary white hotness of what occurred.”
1985: Mr. Snider Goes to Washington
Not everyone was thrilled that Twisted Sister was riling up the youth. The violence in the video for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is slapstick, but some felt it threatened the country’s moral fiber. Activist group the Parents Music Resource Center was co-founded by future second lady Tipper Gore after she heard Prince’s “Darling Nikki” and was appalled by its lyrics. The PMRC proposed a rating system for music similar to that used in movies to warn parents of questionable content and drew up a list of songs dubbed “the Filthy Fifteen.” It included “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Dress You Up” by Madonna and "Sugar Walls” by Sheena Easton. Snider was asked to testify before the Senate committee about his music, and during his session he adamantly protested the idea of a rating system and how Gore was interpreting his lyrics, likening it to censorship.
“[Snider] explained to me that they try to diminish you as much as possible,” recounts French. “They’re up on a panel; you’re on the floor. They try to make it look the Star Chamber, and he said he was sickened by the process because, here’s Dee, who’s a rah-rah American guy … like a blue-collar supporter being treated like some sort of revolutionary guy, like a member of the Weatherman, all because he wrote a song.”
French didn’t oppose the uproar -- “We could [have used] some controversy”-- but he was bothered by the problems it spawned, such as “anti-rock laws” that were passed to keep Twisted Sister out of certain cities and Snider being arrested for obscenity due to cursing onstage in Texas. He recalls that after the latter incident, a police chief had to escort the band to town’s border to make sure it could leave because “at the town line there was the sheriff and a bunch of guys [waiting to block its exit]. It was right out of Smokey and the Bandit.”
1988: The Sisters Split Up
Despite the years it spent fighting for the spotlight, Twisted Sister’s moment was short-lived. The follow-up to Stay Hungry, 1985’s Come Out and Play, sold a fraction of what its predecessor did, and fans didn’t get the joke when the band covered The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” for the album’s lead single. Internally, things weren’t much better. In a VH1 2001 Behind the Music episode, the program attributed overexposure and Snider’s domineering presence (his earning the lion’s share of songwriting royalties created resentment, and Snider admits on camera that his ego was out of control) as factors in the acrimony that developed among the group, which officially splintered in 1988.
French doesn’t disavow the episode, but he feels it was edited to hype the animosity. “Because we don’t drink and do drugs, there was none of that good old drug and alcohol problem; there was just personal dislike,” he notes. “So when they edited it, they really made it look brutally bad.”
Frank comments like Mendoza saying about Snider, “I was gonna hospitalize the guy,” usually don’t need finessing in post-production. Still, French quips, “My joke is, if you’ve been together 40 years and don’t hate each other’s guts, your band ain’t worth shit.”
2001: Family Reunion
French was notified that Behind the Music had aired when an associate called him and said, “‘Man did you see the show ran? Holy crap, I knew you guys hated each other, but I didn’t how much you guys hated each other.’ So I thought, ‘Well, any thought that the band is going to re-form is pretty much gone.’”
But a few weeks later, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Like all other New Yorkers, French wanted to somehow lend a hand, and the opportunity appeared when metal radio personality Eddie Trunk alerted him about New York Steel, the hard-rock benefit concert Trunk was putting together to raise money for the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. Trunk knew that the band reuniting on the heels of the Behind the Music episode would sell the show out.
“I just said, ‘Screw it,’ and I called everybody up and I said, ‘Would you do a benefit for 9/11?’”says French. “And to the credit of all my band members, everybody said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is way more important than our stupid argument.’ ”
2006: The Band Puts Its Twist on Christmas
In 2004, Twisted Sister marked its studio return with Still Hungry, a re-recording of Stay Hungry that attempted to right the sonic wrongs the band felt occurred on the original album. However, it was TS’s revamping of Christmas carols that boosted its record sales. In 2006, it released A Twisted Christmas, a collection of holiday chestnuts like “Silver Bells,” “Let It Snow” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” which was a yuletide version of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
“We did not do it as a farce,” insists French. “We did it totally seriously. We wanted to make a record that people would be happy to play heavy metal bands around Christmastime.”
The album has sold 148,000 units and spawned a live Christmas show the band performed annually for several years. “At first people go, ‘Christmas album? What, are you kidding me? What are you doing doing a Christmas record.’ And I say, ‘Well, we’re all Jews, and Jews do the best Christmas music.’”
2015: Pero’s Untimely Passing
Inner-band relations were improved while the reunited band forged ahead into the next decade. However, French notes that Snider had been saying for years that he felt each would be his last since he was busy with other projects. In March 2015, Snider emailed him, saying, “‘Dude, this is really it. I’m letting you know now in 2015 I’m really not coming back in 2016,’” recalls French. He in turn called Pero -- who was touring with Adrenaline Mob -- to give him the heads-up.
It was their last conversation. “I told him at seven at night on March 19,” says French. “At 9 a.m. the next morning, I got a phone call that he had a heart attack and that he was found dead on the tour bus.”
Crushed by the loss, French played a memorial show with Adrenaline Mob the next night. Prior to the concert, he sat backstage crying in the dressing room. Sharing his grief was Portnoy, whom Pero had replaced in Adrenaline Mob. Portnoy offered to help Twisted fulfill any commitments that might be left in the wind due to Pero’s death, and French claims Pero had said that if anything ever happened to him, he would want Portnoy to replace him.
Asked if TS’ retirement will stick, French observes, “If you asked me in 1988 if I thought we’d ever play again, I would have said to you, ‘Never, ever would this band play again,’ and we did. I always hate to go ‘never,’ because there could be a benefit that needs our services or something like that. Outside of that, I don’t see a scenario where the band would play anymore. But again, you know… who knows?”