Shock rockers Twisted Sister will forever be known for Dee Snider's confrontational personality, their outrageous costumes, and the chart-topping anthems "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock." The band's multi-platinum 1984 album, Stay Hungry, made them one of the biggest rock sensations of the 1980s, which was vindication after the group had duked it out in the clubs for more than a decade prior. They were a true example of the power of perseverance. The "overnight success" of Snider, original member/guitarist Jay Jay French, guitarist Eddie Ojeda, bassist Mark Mendoza, and the late drummer AJ Pero took longer than most people knew.
Director Andrew Horn recently unleashed a documentary profile of the glam agitators called We Are Twisted F**king Sister, which chronicles the band's slow rise. They began life in December 1972 as a New Jersey-based cover band called Silver Star featuring French, developed with the acquisition of songwriting frontman Snider and guitarist Ojeda in 1976, and landed the subsequent, long-awaited record deal in 1982 after the Snider lineup performed more than 2000 shows together.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Snider’s arrival and the band’s current farewell tour, we spoke with Jay Jay French, who shared some wild and shocking facts about the pink-powered rock quintet.
1. A MURDER ALMOST TOOK PLACE BACKSTAGE.
During the original incarnation of the band, they were playing a gig in Adams, Massachusetts in December 1974 when a drunken roadie told singer Michael "Valentine" O'Neill that he felt disrespected by bass player Kenny Neill. Also inebriated, the frontman went looking for the bassist but found their drummer, Mell "Starr" Anderson, who told him to shut up. Heated words were exchanged, and Valentine—who had brought a rifle along so that he could go hunting in western Massachusetts—grabbed the weapon after the drummer said, "Michael, what are you gonna do? Kill me?"
"It was at that moment when I walked into the room and saw him standing with the gun aimed at Mel," guitarist Jay Jay French tells mental_floss. "I said to myself, 'Oh my God, he's going to kill him. He's really going to kill him.' Listen, to Michael's credit and to the credit of everybody, he obviously didn't do anything. He threw the gun down, then they started fighting. Michael was so drunk he could've pulled the trigger and it could've been a disaster. And he did not. Then the roadie who instigated the affair screamed, 'I broke up Twisted Sister!' And ran out of the club and started running back to New Jersey barefoot. It was freezing cold. He was obviously drunk and high. We piled into our cars and caught up to him two miles down the road and brought him back."
2. FANS DEMOLISHED FOUR CLUBS AT THE BAND'S REQUEST.
Twisted Sister played on the last night that Hammerheads, a rock club on Long Island, was going to be open. As French recalls: "The club owner said, 'By the way, we're closing tonight. I hate the landlord, and I don't really care what you tell people. Tell them to smash up the club.' It only further enhanced the band's crazy reputation, right?"
At the gig either Dee or Jay Jay (or both) told the crowd that it was the last night and to take everything. "People went to the bathrooms and took the stalls and the fire alarms," says French. "I thought that they would take little pieces of the wall. I didn't think they were going to actually remove the structural foundation of the building." They even brought down the false ceiling and caused the plumbing to burst and leak. The crew waded through the water to retrieve the band's gear.
Word spread about the unrehearsed demolition, and later three other New York and New Jersey club owners asked them to do the same at the 2001 Odyssey (where John Travolta's famous dance in Saturday Night Fever was filmed), the Soap Factory, and Emmett's Inn. At 2001, weapons were confiscated from fans who went through metal detectors. Wallpaper at the Soap Factory was torn off the walls, which were pure sheetrock—some of which came down, too. "But in no case did a club owner come to us and state any kind of disappointment that the room was destroyed any more than he wanted it to be, which I think is funny," says French.
3. A MEMBER WAS THREATENED WITH VIOLENCE OVER A BUSINESS DISPUTE.
According to French, after Twisted Sister recorded their self-released single "Under The Blade," the owner of Electric Lady Studios became angry because part of their production deal with producer Eddie Kramer included the clause that if the band got a deal, they had to pay four times the studio rate. Even though the band used the single as a promotional item, the studio owner bought a copy at a Sam Goody store in the spring of 1982, so he demanded $24,000 and reportedly threatened French with bodily harm if he didn't pay up.
"I was threatened directly by the owner," French states. "Then my manager, Mark Puma, and I called some club owner guys who he knew knew the right kind of people to call. Phone calls were made, conversations were had, which I was not privy to, but I was told that $10,000 would clear it. We were told that, out of respect, we should pay this. Out of respect? You mean out of desire to not have my knees broken? Okay. So we did."
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4. THE BAND HUNG AN EFFIGY OF BARRY WHITE ONSTAGE.
Twisted Sister and their fans loathed disco. At one point in the late '70s, frequent onstage chants of "Disco Sucks" were echoed by the audience while the group often displayed "Disco Sucks" banners onstage. But then they decided to take things to the next level by hanging an effigy of singer Barry White onstage and beating it to show their disdain for his music. They were very naive because they did not consider the wider racial implications of their actions. When one club owner in particular shared his positive views on lynching, the band was appalled.
"That scared us and taught us a lesson," says French. "We were bored to death in the bars and looking for things to do, things to say, and things to make people react. We fell prey to the mentality of crowd manipulations. After [the club owner] said that to us, not only did we stop doing it, but we also never played that room again. We didn't want to be associated with a guy like that."
5. AS A TEENAGER, JAY JAY FRENCH DROVE HIS NEIGHBORS CRAZY.
After buying his first big amp stack in 1969, French opened his windows and cranked his guitar loud and proud. Soon a neighbor was banging on his door. When she confronted him, she said she could hear him on 88th and Columbus. "I said, 'You live four blocks away? And you heard my guitar? Okay.'" he recalls. "And I slammed the door on her."
At another time, French took his amp and guitar to the roof and blasted all across the West Side of Manhattan while doing windmills. After trying to gesture to him to turn it down, and getting a middle finger in return, a neighbor in a penthouse two blocks away called the cops, who came up to the roof. "They basically said, 'Put the guitar down, and step away from the guitar,'" French recalls with amusement. "The guitar was reverberating all over the buildings. It was pretty funny."
6. SOMEONE ONCE SET THEIR TRUCK ON FIRE.
After renting trucks for a long time, Twisted Sister finally bought one, but they only had it for one day. They were playing their favorite club, Speaks, on Long Island in early 1978 when, mid-set, someone yelled, "Your truck's on fire!" They opened the door behind the stage to see their vehicle completely engulfed in flames. French recalls it was so hot that it was melting the adjacent truck belonging to another band. Luckily it did not explode and no one was hurt.
Two years later, he received a revelation about that night. The ex-wife of the son of a rival club owner walked up to him while he was playing Pac-Man at a bar in Westchester. "She said, 'I know about your truck being destroyed,'" French explains. "'You know your truck that was set on fire on Long Island a couple of years ago? That was my husband who did that. His dad told him to go do it.'"
French acknowledges that it was hearsay and speculation, but "it kind of made sense" given that this was the son of the racist club owner who liked their Barry White stunt. "It makes total sense now that it was done on purpose because the band stopped playing the venue [and cost them revenue]. The loop was closed, but I can't prove it."
7. THE HEAD OF THEIR RECORD LABEL HATED THEM. AT LEAST AT FIRST.
Twisted Sister were never critical darlings. Nor did the major labels like them. The list of reasons why record labels would not sign them included everything from the color of their pants to "been done before," but "there was never any acknowledgment that the band was super popular," says French.
When Atlantic Records' then-president Doug Morris found out that Phil Carson, the label's London-based senior vice president, had signed Twisted Sister during Christmas week of 1982, he was incensed. A&R man Jason Flom had been championing them for years to no avail. But after the band's second album (and Atlantic debut) You Can't Stop Rock 'n Roll sold 100,000 copies in 1983 with no label support, just constant touring, Morris called French into his office.
"He apologized to me," French says. The guitarist says that the label chief revealed to him that Warner Music and American Express owned MTV at that point. "He said, 'You make the right record and the right video and I'll make you the biggest band in the world.' I didn't buy it at all. What signaled that he wasn't full of it was that he hired [producer] Tom Werman, the hottest guy in town [for Stay Hungry]. He put his money where his mouth is."
8. EVEN AS A LARGE CLUB DRAW, THE BAND LIVED NEAR THE POVERTY LEVEL FOR MANY YEARS.
Even though at the height of their pre-fame club popularity Twisted Sister could draw anywhere from 2000 to 3500 people to a gig, the group did not live large like other local stars. They put all their money back into the band. "I think our best year was $12,000 each in the bars because all the money went to the show, the equipment, demos, and the crew," French explains. "So we lived on near-poverty level wages the whole time because we understood that you had to put the money back in. With other bands, some guys bought houses and cars, we didn't. We took the least amount of money you could take to get by, and all the rest was invested. While we were definitely able to earn good money to keep the business going, that was never the key."
9. DESPITE ALL THE CRAZINESS AROUND THEM, THE BAND WAS SOBER.
A majority of Twisted Sister's members do not drink and none do drugs, and nobody ever drank to excess. They were laser focused on their music and achieving success. "We lost a lot of ex-members who did party and found it a very inhospitable place to work," French admits. "We were not a hospitable band if you partied. We were so straight that if you were f**ked up, you were out of the band."
The guitarist recalls that when the band held drinking contests onstage (to the point that some contestants got sick) in the late '70s, he had no idea how much booze he had been handing out. At one point, "The bartender said, 'I think you've handed out enough to kill somebody,'" he recalls. "I didn't know how much was enough to trash somebody. I had no idea."
10. DEE SNIDER WAS ARRESTED FOR OBSCENITY IN 1984.
The group was playing a show in Amarillo, Texas. They were a bar band that originally played to college-aged audiences, but with their platinum success in the summer of 1984 graduated to playing amphitheaters and arenas. Their poppy hit songs of that year belied the darker nature of their other material.
"Before I realized it, there was a large body of elementary school kids who were coming down with their parents to see that fun band," Snider told me for a Goldmine magazine interview in 1999. "I was still doing the same show that we were doing in biker bars in 1979." At one point, he cursed out a fan who was starting trouble. "This mother’s jaw hit the floor, and then she went and pressed charges."
Snider was arrested after the show, but the charges were dropped. "We, at the time, thought it was not a good thing to make a big issue out of it," the singer said. "In retrospect, I think we should have. The ACLU wanted to step in. Basically we just paid the minimal fine and the charges were dropped. It was disorderly conduct and abusive language, or something like that, whatever that means."
11. THE BAND CREATED A ZOMBIE VIDEO THAT WAS BANNED.
The group became a multiplatinum success in 1984 through two humorous videos starring Animal House actor Mark Metcalf ("We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock"), and the debut single for their fourth studio album, 1985's Come Out And Play, was their cover of The Shangri-Las' tune "Leader Of The Pack," another upbeat and commercial track. While the album quickly achieved gold status with 500,000 copies sold, the band began losing momentum in late 1985/early 1986, so they did an about-face with the next video clip for the '50s-sounding single "Be Chrool To Your Scuel," a song that featured Alice Cooper, Brian Setzer, Billy Joel, and Clarence Clemons.
For the video, the band unleashed a tale of a teacher who daydreams that he and his fellow educators turn into Twisted Sister and preside over a school full of zombies. The clip—which featured fellow shock rocker Cooper, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, gory makeup guru Tom Savini, and reportedly a young Luke Perry (if you can spot him beneath his undead look)—was gruesomely funny but too graphic for MTV. The cable network subsequently banned it, which is unfortunate because it could have re-established Twisted Sister as an edgy band and less of a novelty at the time. True fans, however, knew the real deal.
12. FRENCH IS A BUSINESS COLUMNIST AND MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER.
For the last year, French has been penning a business column for Inc., in which he often relates anecdotes about his crazy 40-plus years in Twisted Sister as prime examples of what to do—and what not to do—in business. He also does business motivational speaking and keynote addresses. He usually asks his audiences how many have graduated college and how many have business degrees.
Then: "How many of you find it ironic that you take advice from a drug addict, misogynistic, wife beating, former heavy metal rock 'n roll star and high school dropout?" he jokes. "And they all start laughing. I say, 'You guys missed a party, and I'm telling you about business.' It's ironic, but it's what makes it interesting and funny because I've been successful for 40 years. Nothing replaces that, and if you can articulate your experiences, then you have a narrative."