You won’t hear a single note of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in the new documentary We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! — nor, for that matter, will you hear anything else from Stay Hungry, Twisted Sister’s multi-platinum 1984 album.
That’s because the immensely compelling doc (directed by Andrew Horn, who previously directed The Nomi Song, an award-winning 2004 documentary about the late German performance artist Klaus Nomi) focuses entirely on the 10 years of toil, frustration and disappointment that preceded the outrageous New York heavy metal band’s commercial breakthrough. A legendary act in the clubs of suburban New York, Connecticut and New Jersey during the 1970s, Twisted Sister regularly played to thousands of fans a night, yet ultimately had to make their mark in the U.K. before anyone in the U.S. music industry would take them seriously.
“Andrew was taken by the Rocky-esque nature of the story,” explains Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider. “And I think that’s what makes the doc have greater appeal than to just Twisted Sister fans; it talks to a broader audience about struggle and commitment. Too many music documentaries are just like, the band gets together, they make it, they break up, and then they reconcile — that typical Behind the Music thing. And this film is anything but that!”
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, which includes hilarious and revealing interviews with Snider, Twisted Sister guitarists Jay Jay French and Eddie Ojeda, bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza and late drummer A.J. Pero (who passed away in March 2015) — as well as plenty of riotously entertaining footage from the band’s Seventies Tri-State club heyday and their embattled early-Eighties forays into the U.K. — will be released on February 19th via Music Box Films. Shortly before the film’s release, Snider spoke with Rolling Stone about the band’s tumultuous club days, how Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister may have been an angel in disguise, and Donald Trump’s recent use of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as a campaign song.
What was it like to watch your past laid out on film like that?
Well, it was weird [laughs]. I remember everything, and I know the whole story, but what really captured my attention was to watch myself … the only word I can use is ‘sour’. Like, I come in as this innocent, 20-year-old kid who has the typical rock & roll dream: “I’m gonna get in a band, we’re gonna write some songs, people are gonna like us, we’re gonna get a deal, we’re gonna be rich and famous, and life is gonna be wonderful!” And I watched myself harden and get angrier and angrier as the years went by, and we just got rejection after rejection after rejection. When I joined Twisted, I was like, “This is the band! This is the one! We’re going to go the distance!” And we did — it just took a decade [laughs]!
The film really shows how vibrant the whole Tri-State club scene was in the 1970s, but also how completely removed it was from what was happening in Manhattan at the time.
Yeah, it really was. It’s a scene that no longer exists — it died when the drinking age changed to 21. The drinking age was 18 with no photo ID required; pretty much anyone with access to a copy machine could have an ID [laughs]. Hell, that’s how I met my wife; she was 15, I was 21, and she snuck into a bar! So culturally, it was a very different time, and there was this scene going on that was just crazy. In 1977, we were making what would be like $350,000 a year in contemporary money, just from playing the clubs. Imagine you’re 22 or 23, and you’re making 350K; guys are driving around in Mercedeses; we’re buying houses! But we were just stars in this little microcosm; you went outside of it, and nobody knew you. And Twisted Sister avoided that “velvet noose” of thinking we actually were stars; we realized that we had to escape this thing, or it would be the end of us.
It must have been incredibly frustrating to watch the major labels sign all the bands out of the CBGB’s scene, while completely ignoring you.
Dude, you’re spot on! Absolutely! Record companies were going in and seeing 100 people on a Saturday at CBGB, and they’d go, “Wow, this band’s tearing it up!” And meanwhile, Twisted Sister is playing to anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 people a night, five nights a week! In 1979, we played a free show at a local amusement park in Amityville, Long Island, called Adventureland — 23,000 kids showed up to see this unsigned band, the same night that Kiss was playing to half a house at Madison Square Garden! And you wonder why I was mad at the world [laughs]! We had just done our sold-out Palladium show in New York City, 3,500 seats sold out in a matter of hours, a band with no record deal, and every record label passed — but they’re signing The The, or someone over at CBGB!
They just didn’t want anything to do with guys from Long Island who were wearing makeup and playing hard rock?
For some reason, Twisted Sister literally could not cross that bridge. There’s Manhattan, with the labels and these little clubs where bands are being signed. … And maybe it was hubris on our part, the fact that we wouldn’t go to New York. We said, “We’re not going to play some crappy club where they’re not gonna pay us any money. What do you mean it’s a ‘pay to play’? We get paid thousands of dollars to play, and we’ve got this big stage show. We’re not going to CBGB!” Maybe if we’d been willing to go do a show there, and let ourselves be seen where it was happening … So maybe our hubris did us in. Our ego was so friggin’ big, that we couldn’t bring ourselves to step down to a smaller club and play for less money, even for the right reasons, you know? We’ve gotta take some responsibility for this, maybe — I’m just realizing that now [laughs]!
Looking back, is there anything else you guys could or should have done differently?
You know, we started a glitter band when glitter was over [laughs]. Twisted Sister was a glitter band that Jay Jay had reformed; when I joined, Jay Jay was actually starting to lose the glitter elements from the early days, when they were a New York Dolls clone. And I came in, and I was like, “No! I like this stuff! I’m a rube! I want to dress like this!” [Laughs] So we carried that torch. …
When you’re young and insane, you do things — not because it’s the popular thing, or necessarily the right thing, but because it’s something you’re passionate about. So that part I don’t regret at all. I don’t regret sticking it out, I don’t regret believing in ourselves; I’m proud of all those things. My regrets come afterwards, once the band made it and I became just megalomaniacal; I let my narcissism take over and kill the goose that we’d worked so hard to make lay that golden egg. I really do blame myself. So the things I would have done differently would have been post all that stuff [in the documentary]. The rest of it? Well, it was just a crazy journey. Now, would I have taken it if I knew it was going to take that long? Probably not! If you’d said to me up front, “Listen, you’re going to make it, but you’ve gotta be in this band eight years before it happens,” I would have been like, “Yeah … I’m gonna try another band!” [Laughs] So it’s a good thing we didn’t know. Because you can get so overwhelmed by looking at the mountain you’re trying to climb, you know?
The film portrays Jay Jay as something of an inadvertent Dr. Frankenstein, and you as his monster. Can you talk a little about that dynamic?
I joined a band that was very much Jay Jay’s band. I was the new guy — and as I say in the documentary, he never even told me I was officially in the band. The words after I auditioned were, “We’ll see how it goes.” [Laughs] So I never had a feeling of stability within my own band. And when he rejected me when I first tried to write a song, I sort of went on a mission to secure my own position. Jay Jay was doing the onstage raps at first — he was fronting the band, and I would just stand there and do the singing — but I slowly realized that job security comes from being irreplaceable. So I just worked harder and harder to be an irreplaceable member of the band, eventually dominating to the point where I was the face of the band, the songwriter of the band, I wrote the videos, my girlfriend was making all the costumes. They couldn’t get rid of me, even when they wanted to!
The film doesn’t shy away from detailing some of Twisted Sister’s more boneheaded moves, like hanging Barry White in effigy onstage.
Right! When I joined the band, it was the height of disco, and rock bands couldn’t get arrested; you couldn’t get work. So to compete with this disco machine, you had to do more — you couldn’t just go up and play a song, you had to go up there and give a show. Musically, visually or verbally, you had to grab their attention somehow, and we became really, really good at doing that and surviving, and outliving disco and helping to destroy disco. …
Our original drummer in Twisted [Mel Anderson] was black, and Eddie, our guitarist, was Puerto Rican; we were city guys — well, I wasn’t — and we didn’t have a prejudiced bone in our body. Barry White just represented the evils of disco, so we’d hang him in effigy. Well, we did that in some upstate New York rural town, and the people there were screaming, “Kill the nigger!” And we’re like, “Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute! This is imagery! This is metaphor!” And they’re like, “We don’t care — as long as you kill one of ’em, we’re happy!” And we’re like, “OK, that’s gotta go!” Live and learn!
Until the film, I hadn’t realized just how important Lemmy was to the Twisted Sister story. He really went out of his way to champion you at the Wrexham Festival in Wales, and then again when you appeared on the U.K. music show The Tube.
And at the Reading Festival, and the Marquee Club! It is unexplainable. It’s 1982 — we get the Secret Records deal, and we go over to England, and that’s where we meet Lemmy at the Wrexham Festival. The Secret Records album [Under the Blade] comes out, we lose our deal, we go do The Tube, and Lemmy’s there. We go to the Marquee Club the next night, and Lemmy’s there; he walks out onstage and reunites with “Fast” Eddie Clarke, his mortal enemy, during our set. And Lemmy’s at the Reading Festival, where we’re getting pelted with everything in the place … It’s not like I’m calling him up and saying, “Hey, man!” He just shows up in the crowd, or on the stage, or playing, or introducing the band. He guides us through this very precarious time, brings us all the way to the deal with Atlantic Records, and then — it’s not like he disappears, he’s still a friend, but he’s not there like that anymore.
When we went to his memorial, you saw Slash, you saw Dave Grohl, you saw Lars Ulrich, you saw his bootmaker, you saw his drinking buddy, you saw his roadie — all of these people got up there to talk about how Lemmy touched their lives. And my wife, who is not religious, but is spiritual, she turns to me and goes, “I think Lemmy was an angel!” And I said, “What?” She said, “Well, there are angels sent to earth to help us on our journeys. They walk amongst us, and their purpose is to help us find our way.” I said, “Really? They’re going to send down a whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, speed-snorting pirate as an angel?” And she said to me, “Who else would you guys listen to? Some guy in a flowing robe with wings? Lemmy Kilmister — that’s the angel you guys are gonna listen to!”
Not that I’m a believer, but I’ve been repeating that story ever since. Because it blew me away, knowing how much he touched my life, and then to hear how he touched the lives of so many other people. And Motörhead was never that big; they never really crossed over on a massive scale. But Lemmy Kilmister’s legacy as a person is bigger than the band’s. So who am I to say that he wasn’t a denim-and-leather angel?
Last question: You shut down Paul Ryan in 2012, when he used “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as his campaign song, but Donald Trump has recently been playing it at his rallies. Does that mean you’re supporting Trump for president?
I really don’t want to talk about that, because it overshadows everything else. But I will say this: Donald Trump is a friend. And I have many friends. But I don’t have one friend, not one, that I would nominate or vote for for President [laughs]. Donald Trump is a friend, and I’m just gonna leave it like that.