East Coast headbangers of a certain time revere Twisted Sister. They will talk at length about the thousands of shows the band’s played in New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester before becoming a huge act nationally via MTV. When the Rock N’ Roll Heaven/Old Bridge Metal Militia benefit for Hurricane Sandy victims was announced with Anvil, Raven and The Rods appearing, rumors immediately started flying about Twisted Sister being involved. The group had reactivated itself to perform at the New York Steel benefit concert following the attacks on 9/11. They seemed to be an obvious choice for this event. Sure enough, the day before tickets went on sale, it was announced that Twisted Sister were going to perform. As a SMF, it was a thrill to be able to talk to founding member/guitarist Jay Jay French in the interview below about this special event and Twisted Sister’s 40-year history.
I’m very excited that Twisted Sister were added to the bill for this Hurricane Sandy benefit. I was planning on getting a ticket before you guys were announced as part of the lineup. How did Twisted Sister get involved?
This is actually our second Sandy benefit—we did one on Long Island in December. When I was watching the 12/12/12 benefit on tv from Madison Square Garden, I was thinking that, quite literally in our history, Twisted Sister has played every single town that has been destroyed. We are New Yorkers. We are the people affected by this. Our drummer [AJ Pero] is from Staten Island; the story of Staten Island is heartbreaking. Mark [Mendoza, bass] is from Nassau County, Dee [Snider, vocals] is from Suffolk County, Eddie’s [Ojeda, guitar] up in Rockland. His area was deeply affected. We were all affected. I’m in Manhattan above 30th Street, but Manhattan was destroyed. It was an epic storm.
Twisted Sister tries to do what we can, however we can. I’m really glad that Jonny Z contacted us and put us on the bill. 40 years ago we started as a Jersey bar band playing places on Route 17 like The Hole In The Wall before Dee joined. Then we morphed into a Long Island band but maintained our connection into Jersey, whether it was Dodd’s in Orange or Mothers up in Wayne. Later on, of course, at the Fountain Casino and then down further into the Jersey Shore. This is the legacy of the band. So we go back really deeply there and we’re proud to be playing. I hope Jonny raises a lot of money and it gets to the people.
Were you guys originally asked or did your involvement come after the show was already announced?
I think they were hoping we’d be involved so they could announce the show. I think all these bands were certainly wanting to help and to be involved, without a doubt. But I think they needed an anchor band. They felt that we were one in the same way that we accomplished that at the NY Steel show 10 years ago. But you know, these bands would’ve done it anyway. Eddie Trunk knew we were looking for something, he’s always been there for us. Eddie contacted me and said, “Here’s Jonny Z’s number, see what you can do.”
Anvil, The Rods, TT Quick and Raven will get someone like me out to the show, but Twisted Sister will get a lot more people through the door.
It’s an entertaining package. You want to try and offer a lot of really cool music by a varied group of bands. At the end of the day, it’s all about raising money and trying to help.
Besides this, what other live shows do you have planned?
We’re doing our usual seven to 10 shows a year, which mostly involves playing giant festivals around the world. We’re playing a festival in Maryland before the benefit in May. Then we go down to Texas in June, then headlining these huge festivals in Europe.
I read somewhere how you get a lot of satisfaction out of playing these festivals and proving what a great a live band Twisted Sister have always been. Looking at the lineup at the M3 Festival in Maryland, it must make you happy knowing how bad you’re going to make the other bands look.
(Laughs) There is a certain predatory aspect to the band, but we enjoy doing them. We know that kind of a performance is also what entertains the fans and makes everybody better. We don’t say to someone, “You can’t use the lights, you can’t use the P.A.” If you can knock us out, then knock us out. We’re proud that we can put on shows with the same intensity, ferocity and believability as we always have. And we’ll continue to do so until we can’t.
It must be difficult putting together a setlist. Twisted Sister have two kinds of fans. Most of them want to hear songs from Stay Hungry, then there’s a large amount of people, like me, who are into the Under The Blade era.
It is hard. We can’t do four hours, so we have to pick the best 15 or so songs. People always say, “Why don’t you do new material?” If you play new material, that means you’re taking some standard out. More people are going to be upset over the removal of a standard than will be made happy by a new song. Most people, when they hear a new song, go to the bathroom or buy a beer, anyway.
So if I had to take out “Under The Blade” or “Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll” or “Destroyer” or “Shoot ‘Em Down” or “Stay Hungry” or “The Kids Are Back” and put something else in, you may not be that happy. So we try to play the songs that we see are requested. We have the record labels tell us what songs are downloaded the most so then we can assume that’s the percentage of choice that people want. Occasionally, people will ask for more obscure songs. We also have to temper that with the fact that the general audience may not know it. We do have anthems that we must play. I mean, we have to play “Under The Blade” every night, “Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “I Wanna Rock.” If we didn’t do these songs, we would really be under servicing our fanbase.
With that in mind, do you have anything special lined up for the New Jersey show?
I think we’re doing a 50-minute set. Shorter than usual because there are so many bands. So we’re gonna do 10 songs. That creates even more of a situation where we have to hit ‘em with bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye.
In March of 1973, Twisted Sister played their very first shows at a place called the Satellite Lounge in Cookstown, NJ. What kind of memories does that bring up and what material were you playing back then?
First of all, that was a different group. The only thing in common with that band is me. That was a learning curve and three years of insanity with a bunch of idiotic individuals who taught me what not to look for in people. We were a copy band, plain and simple. We played Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Rolling Stones songs if my memory serves me. We may have played an Alice Cooper song or two. At the Satellite Lounge, we played six sets a night—9 p.m., 10 p.m., 11 p.m., 12 a.m., 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. 40 minutes on, 20 off. We didn’t have enough songs so we repeated the first two sets for the last two sets. There was nobody in the room, maybe 30 or 40 people.
The Satellite Lounge was a massive converted bowling alley and we were dressed in full transvestite gear. This was the first time I was dressed up like a female impersonator. I was kind of throwing up backstage thinking, “Oh my God, am I going to get killed?” But there weren’t many people in the audience, so that was OK on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. Friday and Saturday night was “show band” night. The first weekend was Little Anthony And The Imperials.
So we went on at 9, 10, and 11, then Little Anthony went on at 12 and 1. Then we went back on at 2 and 3, ending [at] about 4 a.m. That was fairly standard for the bar scene back in the day. Down in Atlantic City, there was a club that you played until 6:40 in the morning. That club would close at 7 a.m. and another club would open up the street. Whoever could still stand would stumble up to that club.
It was a different time. Remember, the drinking age was different back then and the clubs were much larger. It was a whole different scene. The name of the band was the same but everything was so different. The name was out there 40 years ago, but the guys in the current lineup defines this band. Dee, Eddie and myself have been together 37 years. Mark came in a few years later and AJ a few years after that. So the core of the band—of the functioning band—is 37 years old, which is pretty scary.
There aren’t too many people who make it through 37 years of marriage.
This is true. When Twisted Sister started, Richard Nixon was president and Watergate hadn’t even happened yet. Gasoline was, I think, 29 cents a gallon. Hotel rooms were $19.95 a night. Truck rental was $25 a week. Our house rental as a band was $300 a month and the electric bill was $10 a month. You could make $150 a night, $900 a week, and actually have a functioning business. That doesn’t exist, as you know. It’s insane to think about those kind of numbers.
Bands playing that circuit could make a lot more money doing covers than most national touring acts playing their own originals.
Yeah, that was the really strange aspect of it. The more successful bands were able to live a quasi-rock star life. I think we were smart. The key difference for Twisted Sister was that we never felt that was a means to an end. We always thought there was a larger target out there. We were just using this to learn our craft and to finance it. We never thought, “Hey man, let’s just buy a big house or buy a car and take the money and run.” It was always, “Let’s reinvest on demos and reinvest on the stage show.”
If you asked bands in those days what they thought of Twisted Sister, it was always that we looked larger than life. That’s because we reinvested all of our money. Bands like Rat Race Choir, The Good Rats, Crystal Ship, Baby or Southern Cross, they were all good bands, but I don’t think they had a larger vision in their heads. I think they kind of lived for the day. I’m still friends with many of them. But the only two bands that really got out were Zebra and Twisted, and then at the end of the day, Twisted was the only band left standing.
I have a lot of live tapes of Twisted from the period of 1979 to ‘82. The setlist was always changing with different cover tunes and new originals. You guys were playing so many shows, when did you have time to rehearse new material?
We worked six days a week. We would play four or five days, sleep one day, then rehearse the next day. So we’d usually sleep on a Sunday and that would be it. And we were always tired because it was so draining. Even when we were down to four nights a week, on Sunday we’d catch our breath, then the next day we were back in the studio working on demos or cover material to try and keep the show as fresh as possible.
What can you tell us about the documentary that’s in the works about Twisted Sister’s club days?
I think it really documents our story and how hard it was for us to make it, plus how unique the time was. I think it’s a fascinating story to tell. I don’t think people know it. Certainly when the band exploded and became famous, the people in the Tri-State Area knew us in a very different way than the people around the world. They knew us as a real hard-working bar band, not some video goofball band. Let’s face it, as much as we took advantage of the worldwide success of that cartoon-like image, we would spend the rest of our life living it down. That’s been the hard part. We were dressed like that to call attention to ourselves but we were just a kick-ass bar band in the purest sense
I will regularly play people those live tapes and they’re stunned at how heavy the band was in that era. Songs like “Destroyer,” “Tear It Loose” and “Under The Blade” are just as heavy as anything out there today.
“Tear It Loose” is as thrash as anybody got. We’ll play death metal, black metal and thrash metal festivals in Europe because so many of those bands fell in love with Under The Blade and the underground tapes from 1979 and ‘80. They worship the band. Dimmu Borgir and all these other kinds of groups. It’s an honor that they acknowledge us. We aren’t a death metal band, obviously, but we are an intense metal band. I try to explain to people that the band is like an iceberg—you see the surface on stage, but what’s under the surface is 90 percent of it, and that’s what makes us great.
There’s a Facebook page dedicated specifically to the Twisted Sister era in the clubs. People are posting their old photos and flyers, it’s really cool. There’s so much great stuff from that period. Someone gave me a bootleg DVD from 1980 of your Disco Sucks rally at the 2001 Club in Brooklyn where they filmed Saturday Night Fever. You guys are smashing disco albums on stage and the crowd is causing mayhem.
There was a lot of theater going on, which a lot of people are not aware of. I think the documentary will show the theater involved. The art of entertainment was something we learned in the bars. We learned it very well and we exercise it at these festivals. The promoters go, “We have a great band that we know is going to entertain 80,000 people, they’re gonna love it.” So that’s what we do for a living.
There have been some great archival releases the past few years. The Live At North Stage DVD and Under The Blade reissue with a DVD from the Reading Festival in 1982 are things I’ve wanted for years. The quality is great. Do you have any more archival releases planned?
When we find it, we put it out. We knew North Stage existed, but we didn’t know the quality of it because we kept seeing 3rd and 4th generation versions. We located it in a basement under a lot of other stuff that we didn’t know existed. Then, bang, there was North Stage, and it was pristine. We have a lot of stuff but nothing of that quality, which is mind-blowing. I’ve got tons of stuff from the Gemini in Yorktown Heights. We don’t have stuff from Speaks on Long Island or L’Amour in Brooklyn. It is a crime, considering how much time we spent there. That would have been phenomenal. I’ve got nothing from Detroit in Port Chester, which is also a shame. Nothing from Hammerheads in Islip or the Mad Hatter in Stony Brook. But we do have a lot of other audio stuff. These days, because such little money is actually spent on this, we’re thinking about setting up our own channel. We can just put stuff up there for people to enjoy and not necessarily charge them. Hopefully time will bring more stuff out.
Since vinyl has made such a resurgence, I know a lot of people would love to buy one of those WBAB radio broadcasts as a gatefold double album.
We’ve also talked about that, too. The label we deal with, Eagle Rock, know they have to print a minimum of 5,000 or 10,000 copies, so it becomes a business proposition. But we know vinyl is coming back. All our albums are available on vinyl in Europe. They chose not to release them here and they should because I think there’s a demand for it.
You could easily sell 10,000 copies of a vintage 1982 show in Europe alone.
They released Under The Blade as a gatefold double album over there and it’s beautiful. I was stunned when I saw it.
Have you ever considered putting out a comedy album comprised of Dee’s greatest stage raps?
(Laughs) There’s another person who doesn’t get the credit he deserves, right? I think I stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest frontman in the music industry. I really do. I wouldn’t take Ozzy or David Lee Roth over him. I wouldn’t take any of these guys. Nobody! Nobody dedicates themselves at the same level of professionalism. Or is as funny! He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, which is a shame. The band doesn’t get the credit it deserves, in general.
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