Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review: "We are Twisted F***ing Sister!"

Twisted Sister may have had one of the strangest rides in heavy metal history. When Stay Hungry was released in 1984, the band was on top of the world. They were the darlings of MTV for their over-the-top cartoonish videos and a target of controversy for Tipper Gore’s PMRC for the violence in those videos. But a few years and a couple of poor-performing albums later, Twisted Sister had fallen off the face of the earth.

For those who had been following the band through their tumultuous club days, that’s par for the course. As we learn in We are Twisted Fucking Sister!, they were always one of the most popular bands that no one wanted anything to do with.

The film focuses on the pre-Stay Hungry days, beginning with the formation of a very different band than the one we know by guitarist Jay Jay French in the early 1970s. Through interviews with Twisted Sister and their fans, and some rare early live footage, it traces a decade-long journey that brought us the familiar lineup and the band mainstream popularity.

That journey, at times, is of Spinal Tap proportions. The outrageousness of their antics during the Stay Hungry years was apparently nothing new, as the band shares some wild and often funny stories from the early days.

There was the time that they put Barry White on trial at their live shows and hung him in effigy in what band members thought was a protest of disco. They did the act several times before the owner of a backwater club came up to them after the show and said, “if you boys’ll hang a n—-r, you’re all right with me.” Needless to say, the stunned band members dropped the bit immediately.

Then there was the destruction tour, a run of six or seven dates one summer where the club owners encouraged them to have their fans trash the places. The first one came about as a dispute between a club owner and the landlord. The club was losing its lease, and the owner invited the Twisted Sister fans to destroy the place. They were only too happy to oblige, literally bringing the ceiling down. In other instances, the clubs were remodeling. A special case, though, is the 2001 Odyssey Club, where most of the dance scenes from Saturday Night Fever were recorded. They were transitioning from a disco to a rock club, and wanted Twisted Sister to christen the venture — and they did, by burning the original Saturday Night Fever banner, ripping down and smashing disco balls and destroying posters of John Travolta.

For all the dedication and loyalty the band inspired, though, a record deal was long in coming. While they were selling out 2,500-3,500 seat clubs in the New York/New Jersey area and getting paid $10,000 a night, few in the record industry took Twisted Sister seriously. There were a series of offers and mishaps.

They rented out the Palladium in Manhattan for a sold-out showcase where A&R reps from all of the major record companies would be in attendance. The night before the show, bassist Mark Mendoza had a grand mal seizure, and it had to be postponed. When the show finally went off a few weeks later, it was a rousing success, but instead of the A&R reps, only their secretaries were in attendance.

Twisted Sister lost one record deal that was in the works when the rep they were dealing with passed away. Another deal, with Secret Records in the U.K., resulted in the release of their debut Under the Blade. It charted in the Top 100 in its first week of release, but on the eve of what was to be Twisted Sister’s triumphant tour of Europe, the label went bankrupt. Doug Morris, the head of Atlantic Records, which would eventually release Stay Hungry, hated them so much that he once said that he would fire the next person who mentioned Twisted Sister to him.

Even Lemmy Kilmister had trouble helping the band get over, as he appeared with them on a British TV show, but vocalist Dee Snider still had to berate the crowd into joining in for their performance. It was that performance, though, that finally got them noticed by a European rep for Atlantic, Phil Carson. He signed them, not knowing Morris’ animosity toward them. When confronted with the label head’s assertion that “they suck,” Carson’s response was, “yeah, they suck, but they’ll sell a lot of records.”

That proved to be true, as Stay Hungry went triple platinum, but even that was not without controversy.

Snider and Morris argued about what the record should be, with Dee eventually caving to Morris’ insistence that he knew the best path to platinum status. In the film, Dee looks very conflicted when he discusses that conversation. Clearly, he’s happy that they sold 3.5 million records, but the look on his face also says that, perhaps, he wishes he hadn’t followed Morris’ lead.

Would things have turned out differently for the band if Dee had stood his ground? It’s impossible to say, since there were also a lot of personal issues cropping up between the members, but it’s clear that the even more commercial directions of follow-ups Come Out and Play and Love is for Suckers didn’t connect with fans, leading in part to Twisted Sister’s demise.

Outside of the band’s tumultuous story, fans will also get a taste of some early performances. The footage and sound is often rough on these early tapes, but they’re interesting. The performances feature some interesting covers of acts ranging from David Bowie to Judas Priest, and also some Twisted Sister songs that only the most hardcore fans will recognize. They also show what a dynamic force the band was on stage, and makes it even harder to understand why they struggled to get a deal.

We are Twisted Fucking Sister! provides an often fun and funny and, at times, downright perplexing glimpse into the making of one of the most recognized metal bands in the history of the genre. Though their reign at the top was short, there are probably few music fans in the world who don’t at least know Twisted Sister, and probably fewer who can’t at least sing the chorus of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

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