If you grew up in the ’80s, chances are you are familiar with Twisted Sister. Whether it’s the horror-show parody of glam rock makeup and clothing or the cartoonishly styled videos for their anthemic hits “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock”, Twisted Sister is one band that is hard to forget. But most people don’t know the rest of the story of Twisted Sister. Director Andrew Horn hopes to rectify that with a new 134 minute documentary entitled “We Are Twisted F***ing Sister”, which details the band’s rise through the New York club scene to rock and roll stardom. We caught up with Twisted Sister guitarist and founding member Jay Jay French ahead of the documentary’s Feb. 19th limited theatrical release for a wide ranging two-part interview. In the first part, French discusses how the documentary came about and gives more details about the band’s early club days.
Examiner: We’re talking to you today about this documentary you have coming in February, called “We Are Twisted F***ing Sister”. What made you guys decide it was time to get the story out.
Jay Jay French: It was kind of one of those unintentional confluences of coincidences. There’s a tongue twister for you! I was being interviewed by the director Andy Horn about a performance artist named Klaus Nomi, who was a German-born performance artist who mixed rock and opera in a space suit. And for some reason, Nomi opened for Twisted Sister in 1981. And the night he opened for the band, he was treated extremely rudely by our fans, to the point where it had a major shock to his career. I think he went through some major depression and stopped performing shortly after that. So the director wanted to talk to someone who was there that night who could talk about why we thought Klaus didn’t do that well. So he contacted me and I remembered the night extremely clearly and I have diaries I kept for many years. So I asked “what do you know about Twisted Sister?” And even though he was New York born, he had spent a lot of time in Berlin and he only knew that we had the one hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”. He was in my apartment so I showed him a ton of stuff and three hours later he said “this is my next movie!”
Ex: I think that’s pretty typical. Most people know “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” and you guys get hit with that label “overnight sensation” but you guys had nearly a decade of clubbing before those hits, right?
JJF: It’s a story like no other. If you look at all these band we all love, Beatles, Stones, AC/DC, Sabbath, all these bands were signed within about 12 months of getting together, with the exception of the Beatles, who spent a few years in Germany honing their craft and playing in smoky mob-owned bars and they wrote about their fingers bleeding after 8 hours a night until they got a manager and got discovered. We did that too, except we did it 5 times longer.
So this movie is a story of survival, how we overcame rejection after rejection just to get to rock and roll stardom base camp, a record deal. Because that doesn’t mean anything. It took us 10 years to get to that point and the story is so absurd and ridiculous and entertaining. Andy saw that and he said he had to make a documentary because it was like Spinal Tap times twenty. No one will ever believe this story.
Ex: You came up in the New York club scene, which from what I read was pretty rough and kind of “kill or be killed.”
JJF: It was kill or be killed. Understand, there were two New York club scenes. There was the New York City club scene, with Blondie and The Ramones and Talking Heads. There was also the Tri-State area club scene which was Long Island, Westchester, Northern New Jersey, and Staten Island. And even though you were no more than 50 miles away from Manhattan as the crow flies, you may as well have been in the Midwest.
In that time, the drinking age was 18, which means that there were 15, 16, 17 year olds in the club with phony proof, if they even bothered to card them, which means there were hundreds of thousands of kids looking for bars, so the club scene thrived. If you were in that club scene at that time, you could build a career. We knew it and understood it and we were hungry and we evolved and became one of the top tier bands of that circuit.
And it was a kill or be killed circuit. You had to blow these bands away every night so that the kids would be talking about you the next day. And our reputation was built on blowing bands away. That hasn’t changed today. We go on stage at major festivals with some of the biggest bands in the world and we go out with the goal of blowing them all off the stage. Because we developed the performance technique and discipline of the circuit. That also means we show up on time and we play what we’re supposed to play, unlike some bands today who show up late and take advantage of their fans. We never do. We are extremely disciplined and we learned that discipline in the bars by repetition and failure. We were turned down more times than the sheets in a whorehouse! Every time we got a rejection, well we were playing that night so we had to get over it. I write a column for Inc magazine which is business lessons learned through the prism of rock and roll. And one of those lessons, and this is for any business, is when faced with rejection you mourn it, you reflect on it, you retool, and you reapply. And that’s what this movie is. 10 years of those kinds of rejections and honing of our craft and evolution.
Ex: Even after you got the record deal, you had to make it in England with “I Am, I’m Me” before America noticed you.
JJF: When I say record deal, I mean the one that made it happen ,the one with Atlantic, but even before that happened we went through hell with a bunch of European labels and the English label that’s referenced specifically in the movie. It looked to be “the deal”, but it wasn’t. And that was probably our biggest roadblock because we’d been rejected for 9 years by then. So when “Under the Blade” came out and the label went bankrupt that weekend, we confronted what could have been then end. And if it had been the end at that point, none of this would be a story and no one would care. Thankfully it wasn’t. I think people will be surprised by the character of these band members and what it took to last that period of time. It’s a rock story no one expects, which is why I think it’s compelling.
Ex: After you got the big deal and the videos blew up, suddenly you went from playing bars and clubs to playing Madison Square Garden opening for Iron Maiden. How was that transition?
JJF: The band never felt the transition because, believe it or not, the bars in those days held up to 5,000 and we’d played outdoor festivals to 20,000. So the first year we toured on our album, we played bars that were smaller than the bars we played at home.
The real transition was when we hit the arenas but by that point, the band was so disciplined and so prepared that we didn’t think much about it. There was a bittersweet aspect because the day “Stay Hungry” went Platinum my dad died, so I wasn’t able to appreciate it in the moment. But 3 months later, double Platinum, triple Platinum, 6x Platinum in Canada. Then it became an amazing experience. Then my only wonder was “will this band crack under the repeat.” And the stress of repeating is the biggest problem every band has who has a major record. And the pressure of the repeat caused the fissures that eventually led to the ending of the band in 1987. If asked me in 1988 if we’d ever get back together, I would have said “never.” It had been 15 years non-stop for me. I was tired.
But when the band got back together in 2001 for a benefit, we found out the world wanted our return, which was gratifying. It’s been 13 more years of an extraordinary life and I think that’s why we’re calling it a day now this year after 40 years of me, Dee, and Eddie. It’s time to say goodbye after 9000 shows and 20 million albums. But I’m proud of our legacy and I’m proud that the story of the foundation of the band is being told now.
Click here for part 2 of our chat with Jay Jay French as he discusses Twisted Sister’s post-9/11 reunion, shares memories of the band’s late drummer AJ Pero, and talks about the band’s 40th anniversary farewell tour in 2016. “We Are Twisted F***ing Sister” will be see a limited theatrical release beginning on Feb. 19th. Participating theaters can be found here. It will be released on both physical and digital home media on Feb. 23rd.