Known today mostly as a one-hit wonder and a rock history footnote from the hair metal era, Twisted Sister's story of slow rise and rapid fall shows how fleeting fame can be.
These days Twisted Sister is remembered, if it's remembered at all, as a rock footnote, a shard of outlandish 80s MTV fodder that came and went in a flash of dry-ice-conjured smoke. The band's most famous moment arguably came in 1985, when it became one of the poster children for evil, youth-corrupting rockers—but by then, its peak had already passed.
Those who were raised in the late 70s and early 80s in New York's tristate area know Twisted Sister as the most popular, hardest working, and garish bar band in all the land.
"That's the thing people don't understand—we're not an 80s hair metal band," declared the group's founder and longstanding guitarist Jay Jay French. "We're a 70s bar band that made it in the 80s, which is a big difference in my mind."
It didn't matter whether you were a cigarette-chomping dirtbag in the thick of a sticky dance floor or a ten-year-old boy like myself bouncing around in the back of my mother's coffee-stained station wagon driving past the nightclubs that littered the New Jersey highways. Twisted Sister—or "Twisted 5ister," as the name was often stylized on marquees—was a self-made phenomenon you couldn't escape.
The story of the band is chronicled in the new doc We Are Twisted F**ing Sister, which gives the band members the kind of props they've deserved for a long time but never really received from rock historians. Their early sound has been captured, too, in Rock 'N' Roll Saviors—The Early Years, a compilation of recordings from the band's pre-fame era.
French conjured up the concept for Twisted Sister after seeing the New York Dolls multiple times in his native Manhattan, but it was more the band's' stylistic flair than their admittedly rather shitty sound.
"I had a weird infatuation with them," admits French. "I loved watching how bad they were. Now, the New York Dolls have said this about themselves over the years and any musician who went to see the Dolls at the time would say the same thing about how awful they were. Back then, if you were a fan of David Bowie or the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd or any of these bands who worked hard to be really good and then saw a band like the New York Dolls come out who could barely play three chords but looked great, you weren't going to stand there and say, 'I love the New York Dolls' just to be cool. At least I wasn't going to do that."
The Dolls inspired French—as they inspired countless other musicians back then—and he worked to create a band that looked like women, talked like men, and played like motherfuckers. He connected with a crew of New Jersey guys and secured a residency at the Mad Hatter Club in Suffolk County, Long Island, for the summer of 1973. They might have looked out of place in their dog collars and women's clothing, but it was the common ground the men in Sister shared with the crowd that got them through.
"We were blue-collar glam rock." insists French. "That's why these places in the Hamptons worked for us... My first singer in the band, Michael O'Neill, could be up onstage dressed like a girl and yell out, 'Hey fuck-O! Pass me a beer!' and people loved it because all these kids talked that way. We knew the language. The familiarity made it easy for these kids to like us."
From 1973 to 1976, the band played six nights a week, five sets a night, through numerous lineup changes. Some members were kicked out due to alcohol and drug dependency issues while others were asked to leave due to a lack of musical prowess. They finally acquired a vocalist with the requisite chops when, at the suggestion of their manager, they hooked up with a singer named Danny Snider, later known as Dee Snider.
In the early 80s, Twisted Sister continued to dominate the Long Island club scene, developing a grassroots following by printing up its own T-shirts and pressing up 45s on its own dime. The band was every bit as DIY as any hardcore punk band, and was actually signed by the British Punk label Secret Records, home to second-wave UK heavies like the Exploited and Infa-Riot. "I think the English perceived us a punk band," says French. Sister was basically unknown in Manhattan, but had a British fan base—after its 1982 debut LP Under the Blade, it went on UK TV, and scored a contract with Atlantic.
The Atlantic deal led to its popularity crossing back over the ocean. Its 1984 album, Stay Hungry, sold more than 3 million copies and contained the huge MTV hit "We're Not Gonna Take It," and it seemed after slugging it out for ten years in the shit-hole clubs of the east coast, French and company's sticktoitiveness had paid off.
But by that point the success rang somewhat hollow to French. "I never felt we won anything, frankly," he said. "Stay Hungry went platinum the week my father died, which neutralized any big celebration on my part. By the time it got to double platinum, I was already tired of the band. There was no point during that time where I sat back and said, 'We made it' because when the records went double platinum, I figured out how much I was being paid, and it came out to something like twenty-five cents an hour. It wasn't worth what we were putting ourselves through. It was different from anything I thought it was supposed to be and honestly, it hit a point where I didn't even know what 'it' was supposed to be anymore."
In the summer of 1985, the band became one of the most prominent whipping boys for the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee formed by group of Washington, DC, wives out to bring back the moral fiber of the country by condemning artists as diverse as Prince, King Diamond, and Twisted Sister for making supposedly obscene music. But even the controversy stirred by these busybodies and Snider speaking at the resulting hearings couldn't help the band's popularity from drying up.
"I was hoping the PMRC thing would legitimize us, but everyone just thought we were a big joke at that point. We couldn't even be saved by a scandal. That sucked!" chuckles French. Later that year, the band's follow-up to Stay Hungry, Come Out and Play was released to crickets. The lead single, a cover of the Shangri-La's 60s girl-group hit "Leader of the Pack" didn't match the success of "We're Not Gonna Take It," to put it mildly.
"People didn't understand that we used to play that in the bars back in the day." explains French. "We thought it was a funny thing, and everyone else thought it was this total wimp-out, sellout move." A few months after the ultra-vapid Love Is for Suckers (which was more or less a Dee Snider solo record) was issued in 1988, the band officially imploded. (It reformed in the early 2000s and is currently on its final tour after the death of drummer A. J. Perro.)
Viewed one way, Twisted Sister is a massive success story, a hardworking glam rock group who busted its asses to get the kind of fame few can achieve. But that ass-busting took a decade, and the fame flamed out in a couple short years. So I had to ask French—to paraphrase a Motörhead song title—was the chase better than the catch?
"I have looked upon the forty-some odd years of the band, and there's certainly been some great moments of joy and incredible moments of frustration and downers." he says. "Going through all the ex-members because of drugs and alcohol and firing and hiring, that was stressful. All the rejections from record labels was stressful too. We've come back in a very unique way where a lot of bands from our era didn't, and I feel lucky. In last ten years, we've played some huge festivals in Europe, and I've felt those were incredible experiences. Sometimes, the great experiences and the horrible ones all get wrapped up together. But life is just a combination of that kind of stuff. Playing the game of "what if?" is a waste of time. What happens happens... I mean, even lottery winners get depressed, right?"
We Are Twisted F**ing Sister—a documentary about the band's' early days is available for streaming on Netflix.
The dates for Twisted Sister's "Forty and Fuck It" summer tour can be found here.