British audiences got their first glimpse of Twisted Sister in the early 1980s
The band, from Long Island, seemed like a real-life, blue-collar New York version of Spinal Tap. They had long hair and wore make-up. They used foul and profane language. “They look like women. They play like men. They are the biggest bunch of hell-raisers to come out of the States,” the bemused presenter from TV show The Tube introduced them.
A new movie, premiering this month at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, tells the full, uncensored story of a band who, in their early days, became notorious for inviting fans on stage and then challenging them to drink until they vomited.
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, directed by Andrew Horn, is uproarious and poignant by turns – a tale of excess, egotism and absurdity. It’s a very entertaining yarn made all the more enjoyable by the fact the band’s two leading members, guitarist Jay Jay French and his arch rival, lead singer Dee Snider, have a very well-developed sense of their own absolute ridiculousness.
The Twisted Sister story starts in 1972. French, then “a hippy New York kid” by his own description, discovered the work of Lou Reed, David Bowie and the New York Dolls. French had the dream of forming “a glitter band” that would dress outrageously but that would play lean, hard rock.
The ambition of the band was to get a record deal – the reality was that Twister Sister was about to spend a decade playing in bars to raucous, drunken audiences with very short attention spans. In its heyday, the band performed up to four shows a night, six nights a week
As Horn says of his film, he wanted to show the “daily shit that you have to go through to get things done. And part of that was selling yourself to your audience and if you were playing to people who were basically there to get high or get laid, then you sold yourself as one of them. Even if you weren’t.”
At first, the Twisted Sisters (as they were known) were a cover band, playing Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin songs. They performed in giant Long Island bowling alleys to audiences of hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of drunken GIs out to have a good time. The band members stole their mothers’ clothes. They chained each other together. These were big, hairy, heterosexual men wearing pink negligées, red lipstick, hot pants and thigh-high leather boots. When they made a bit of money, they bought their own truck and made (as French puts it) “a frontal assault on the Long Island bar scene”.
There were the usual bust-ups and changes of personnel that you would expect any self-respecting rock doc to chronicle. In the mid Seventies, the band split up and then reformed.
One of the paradoxes of Twisted Sister is that the band projected an image of wild hedonism and yet its members became intensely disciplined. Founding member Jay Jay French didn’t drink.
Exasperated by his fellow musicians’ antics during the early years (falling off stage, becoming too inebriated to perform etc), he looked for replacements who shared his dedication. Enter Danny (“Dee”) Snider who, like French, preferred to perform sober. He was hired on a trial basis. (30 years later, he is still there – and still hasn’t been hired formally.)
In the late Seventies, the band declared war on disco and started hanging effigies of disco crooner Barry White at their concerts. This had a disastrous side effect. Rednecks in a rural town in upstate New York thought they were racist and became among their most enthusiastic champions. Jay Jay French was appalled. “We had not a prejudiced band in our body,” he recalls, expressing his utter disgust at seeing the band commandeered in that way.
On one occasion, the band’s followers utterly destroyed a nightclub. Promoters who were giving up the lease and hated their landlord had invited the band’s fans to wreak havoc. The walls were dismantled, the urinals ripped out. As the band members recall, at 4am the air conditioning cracked and the ceiling came down. This rampant vandalism done in their name added to the band’s reputation.
Horn, who made a doc about avant garde singer Klaus Nomi, regards Twister Sister as blue-collar performance artists.
“The thing that raises them above the level of Spinal Tap is that they are all really smart,” he says of them. “They know what is going on. They know what they are doing and they know what their effect on the audience is – and they play with this idea of being the rock band that gets stoned all the time and gets drunk and all of that. For them, it was a complete lie. They spent so much time and energy just doing what they do that they couldn’t have functioned if they had been a band like that.”
Twisted Sister had been together for years and years before they became properly famous.
The documentary is likely to come as a shock to some Twisted Sister fans who discovered the band in the 1980s – and had no idea of their many years of purgatory, toiling away is the Long Island bar scene without a record deal. They never made it anywhere near even Manhattan until their new manager finally signed them up to appear at the Palladium. What should have been the biggest gig of their career had to be cancelled when a band member fell ill. When it was rescheduled, no record company bosses appeared and they still didn’t get signed.
The “shit hole clubs,” as Dee Snider calls them, were both the making of Twisted Sister and a source of huge resentment to the band. Year after year, Snider and co played gigs in seedy Long Island bars.
They could tame any audience. Their fans would turn up at the most unprepossessing places to watch them. At one free gig, they attracted 23,000 people – an astonishing number for a band that still didn’t have a record deal.
As French acknowledges, the band members were experiencing their version of Groundhog Day. They were on a treadmill. performing concert after concert – and yet seemingly never getting anywhere near their goal.
With the growth of MTV, the band at last began to reach a following beyond the bars and clubs where they had spent so long refining their act. The band came to Britain in the early Eighties. Sounds magazine championed their music and they made their appearance on The Tube.
Their third album, Stay Hungry (1984), was a major international hit and videos were made to accompany the singles. Ironically, their success – achieved after so long – hastened yet another break-up of the band in the mid Eighties. (Inevitably, they reformed.)
Horn’s documentary is one in a long line of recent films about bands (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, History of the Eagles) There is real pathos in the story of the band’s travails. Success didn’t come easy for Twisted Sister. The film is full of interviews with managers, promoters and bar owners who look as if they are on leave from The Sopranos and with accounts of the setbacks they faced.
Not that we need to feel too sorry for French and Snider. Their fan organisation was called “the sick motherfucking friends of Twisted Sister.” On stage, they were given the opportunity to behave like demented adolescents in drag every night for year after year – and make money doing so. They had an everyman quality that other bands lacked. Their audiences identified with them all the more because they couldn’t get a record deal.
“They really are like warriors,” says Horn. “When you see them on stage, whether you like their music or not, they really put on a show.”
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! is likely to appeal both to the band’s fans and to anyone else who likes a story that comes with all the best rock doc trimmings – noise, mayhem, pathos, endless reversals and plenty of uproarious comedy.
To their detractors, Twisted Sister are a joke, to their admirers they are still “the greatest bar band in the world.”
‘We Are Fucking Twisted Sister!’ is a world premiere at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (www.idfa.nl). It is likely to be released in the UK next year
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