Heavy Metal is far down on my list of often-listened to genres of music. Despite this, I recently watched a documentary on the band Twisted Sister called, appropriately enough, We Are Twisted F###ing Sister. For those who don’t know (also for those who unfortunately do know) Twisted Sister had a brief flash of success in the mid-80’s playing what is now affectionately known as ‘hair metal’. Hair metal was terrible. Everyone had ‘big’ hair in the 80’s, and the metal bands weren’t immune to this. Hair metal became a juggernaut that became more about looks (this was MTV’s heyday) than about the, you know, metal aspect of the music. Hair metal became so commercialized that metal had to go completely underground for over a decade…in fact, metal might still be the ‘we don’t speak of that genre in this house’ style of music.
Let’s not label critiques as generalizations though, we’re talking about Twisted Sister here. There’s always more to any story, and this was an intriguing documentary about, primarily, the early years of Twisted Sister, before record label success came calling. The band started in 1972 as a glam band a la Bowie, T. Rex, or Lou Reed. Singer (and most recognizable member) Dee Snider joined in 1976, and shortly thereafter took control of all songwriting duties. They kept the glam fashion look for years, even taking it to extreme lengths with straight-up dresses and halter tops. The goal visually was to shock and even repulse, while the goal musically was to be tight, loud, and flashy.
That’s the thing most people forget. 1970’s glam was often loud, edgy, and flash. It’s really of little surprise, to those who follow such things as musical evolutions, that the musical aspects would get louder, faster, and heavier. Aside from Twisted Sister, Motley Crue were also ostensibly a Glam group while they were developing. There were others, of lesser stature in the late 70’s, but eventually, the glam turned to metal, and I dropped off. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a good metal album is just what is needed, but I’ve always had issues with metal being so treble-heavy and lacking in backbeat. That doesn’t mean the rhythm section of a metal band can’t play, to the contrary, they’re talented musicians, as are all those in metal bands. I hold most people who can play metal in high regard, because to play accurately and at that speed takes knowledge and practice. I digress. What backbeat exists, in most recorded metal music, is usually buried deep in the mix somewhere. Maybe that’s why I connected more with groups like Living Colour, who managed to balance the guitars with beats, or with groups like Iron Maiden, who were much more ‘Progressive Rock’ metal than ‘hard, fast, loud’ metal. Metal is always best enjoyed at extreme volumes, in an enclosed space, with 500 or more of your closest friends. I’m talking the live experience.
And that’s what the Twisted Sister documentary gives you, a ton of archival footage of them playing live. I’ve heard their records (well, their first 3 at any rate) and they’re definitely metal, but the records sound thin and aggressive. The glam elements have been completely stripped away, leaving only an angry, speed-infused attitude. Glam always had a very tongue in cheek vibe to lyrics and delivery, something metal misinterpreted as unrequited sexual tension and anger. It’s great if you’re a pubescent 14 year old boy with angst, maaaaan, but as a repeated listening experience, it doesn’t hold up. Contrary to this recorded lack of punch, some of the documentary footage of Sister playing live makes me wish I could have been at some of their gigs. For much of their pre-record contract life, they played a very small tri-state area of NY, NJ, and Connecticut. Very rarely did they venture into Manhattan, instead focusing on Long Island and other NY ‘outskirts’. Their music, by its nature, wasn’t cool, so staying in the suburbs and playing to bored (yet very loyal) teenagers five nights a week for ten years turned them into a ferocious, well-oiled live act. They were one of the first rock bands to openly rail against disco music, even going so far as to play in clubs that had turned from discos into rock venues. They were the first rock band to play the club 2001 Odyssey, which was where Travolta’s famous dance scene in Saturday Night Fever was filmed, and were even allowed to demolish the place as a testament to ‘out with the old, in with the new’, for which they will have my eternal gratitude. As is well known to most, I hate disco. Twisted Sister played to their fans, for their fans, and eventually, someone took notice. Even if a record label hadn’t noticed, at their height, they were making roughly 10 grand a night, and were the biggest live draw in the rock clubs of the day. But they were smart enough to know that, like disco before them, this new breed of rock they were playing had a limited shelf life. As fans grow up and stylistic tastes change, the bands have to be ‘taken care of’ beyond having to play live (although live music is still where most musicians make their income). The record contract is supposed to be the union card for dedicated, working musicians. And despite most musicians being in a ‘union’, it hardly ever works out that way.
When they hit MTV with “We’re Not Gonna Take It“, from their album Stay Hungry, bands like Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, and Motley Crue had already paved the way for loud, visual rock n roll. TS, having kept their odd glam garments, fit in with the new visual channel perfectly. So what happened? Who knows. Fate, as mentioned often on this very blog, is a fickle thing. Those who liked their MTV hit might have aged out of teen-angst metal, or just found their follow-up album Come Out And Play lacking in the same metal vibe of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (I’m of the opinion that come out and play tried to keep the attitude but tried to water down the sound, to appeal to ‘new’ fans. That rarely ever turns out well in the long term). For whatever the reason, by the end of 1986, the ‘classic’ version of TS, after having endured a decade-plus of playing in clubs to the same loyal fan base, called it a day (although they didn’t officially announce this until early 1988). Some bands have the management, the label backing, the writing chops, the live act, to sustain a long-term career. Some aren’t meant to reach for the brass ring. Some reach for it, and touch it for only a very brief instant before gravity brings them back to earth. Twisted Sister were one such band, but one that’s still remembered today for, if nothing else, an odd, unique look and a loud, bratty attitude. I think if more people had been able to see their live shows, who knows? They might have had a longer career. As is, they still tour occasionally (what old band doesn’t?), and maybe if they come to town again, I’ll be in the audience. Maybe I’ll see you in the pit.