Dee Snider's neck veins bulge as he emits an evil chuckle. The ringlet-haired Twisted Sister frontman is trying to regale fans at the Rock & Blues Custom Show in Derbyshire with the story behind one of Twisted Sister’s biggest hits, but he’s hit a memory block.
“What was the name of that fucking asshole?” he enquires of nearby Jay Jay French. Fortunately, the grinning guitarist recalls the tale’s protagonist only too well. “Rob Dickins… that’s heavy on the ‘dick’,” glares Snider with theatrical venom. Given his colourful garb and painted face, not to mention the crowd’s cheering of every exaggerated syllable, the singer’s malevolence could be pantomime-like. However, something in the tone of Dee’s voice is just a little too disturbing.
Snider tells the crowd: “When we first played We’re Not Gonna Take It to Rob Dickins, the boss of our record company at the time, he didn’t think it would be successful. What a fucking asshole – it was a Top Ten hit all over the world. Maybe it didn’t sound enough like Kajagoogoo?”
We’re Not Gonna Take It turned Twisted Sister into megastars in their United States homeland. The Stay Hungry album from which it was lifted eventually sold six million copies worldwide, fuelled by the group’s charismatic videos. However, as you’ll have gathered, their relationship with Atlantic Records was often strained, Snider slamming the US company’s refusal to make the previous album’s I Am (I’m Me) a single as “another brilliant record company decision”; it was the band’s biggest UK single, reaching number 18 in the charts.
It was Atlantic that put forward the name of long-time Cheap Trick/Ted Nugent/Blue Öyster Cult/Molly Hatchet collaborator Tom Werman to produce Stay Hungry. The band maintain that the idea backfired, alleging that Werman told them its songs weren’t good enough and even tried to persuade them to record cover versions instead.
Though they hid the scars extremely well, Twisted Sister were in the process of unravelling at the time of the birth of Stay Hungry. Vanity on the part of Snider and jealously from French, guitarist Eddie ‘Fingers’ Ojeda, bassist Mark ‘The Animal’ Mendoza and drummer AJ Pero were eating away at their very foundations. The group would manage just two further studio albums – Come Out And Play (1985) and Love Is For Suckers (1987) – plus a solitary five-date UK tour in-between.Twisted Sister went their separate ways shortly afterward, bitter acrimony keeping Snider and French apart until a misdirected gold disc for You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll, the preceding album to Stay Hungry, accidentally got them talking again in 1996. Indeed, during a VH1 Behind The Music special on the band, Mendoza admitted that he’d actually wanted to see Snider dead.
Now fully reconciled, the fivesome have gigged in America and on the Continent, though almost two decades had slipped by since they trod the boards in the UK. Snider and company seem genuinely regretful of the lost years.
“Promoters in the UK said nobody wanted us here,” Dee informs a sold-out Astoria Theatre in London the night after the Rock & Blues Custom Show. “The ones that turned us down can suck my dick. In fact, there’s the deal – if they suck all our dicks then we’ll come back.”
A concerned Mendoza enquires whether said booking agents are male or female, and Snider quips: “Just close your eyes. Pretend you’re in prison.” All joking aside, how much longer this reunion might last has yet to be decided. Indeed, you may even have already missed your final fix of Twisted Sister.
But there’s also some good news. In perhaps the most intriguing development of all, the group’s disappointment at the production of Stay Hungry has manifested itself in a 20th Anniversary re-recording of the disc, overseen byMendoza. Titled Still Hungry, the expanded edition contains revised takes of the original 10 tracks, plus bonus material.
Twisted Sister had their work cut out, following the success of their first major label album, 1983’s You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll (an independent debut called Under The Blade, on Secret Records, had introduced them to the world 12 months earlier). After a decade’s worth of gigs on the East Coast’s Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the band’s critically acclaimed raids upon the UK snagged them a deal with Atlantic, despite American label boss Doug Morris calling the band “the worst fucking piece of shit in the world”.
A self-financed appearance on British TV show The Tube had sealed the deal, a modest $60,000 being allocated for them to make …Rock ’N’ Roll. However, when the recordings came in at $4,500 over budget, Atlantic vowed to sit on record in the States till the group generated the shortfall themselves.
In the UK it was far different, I Am (I’m Me), The Kids Are Back and the title track all became hit singles, and the band made a triumphant appearance at Monsters Of Rock in 1983. So ’til the thumbs-down from Dickins for We’re Not Gonna Take It, hopes had been high that this run would continue. Everyone agreed that the sessions for the next album, which took place on the East and West Coasts of America during February and March 1984, were crucial to the band’s future.At the time, Dee Snider admitted that Tom Werman hadn’t topped the band’s wish list of producers, despite his reputation for working on Mötley Crüe’s Shout At The Devil. (He would also guide Dokken, Poison, Lita Ford and Stryper, among others.
Confides French: “I think our first choice for Stay Hungry had been Bob Ezrin [Alice Cooper/Kiss/Pink Floyd] but he was unavailable. Failing that we wanted Mack or Roy Thomas Baker [Queen]. The idea of using Tom came from Doug Morris. We were finally starting to get some respect from Atlantic after we sold 100,000 copies of You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll, and in the Christmas week of 1983 Doug told me he had been mistaken about us. He said: ‘Next year I’m gonna make you one of the biggest bands in the world‘.So he wanted us to go with the hot guy.”
Snider is adamant that not only was Tom Werman the wrong guy, but that the album would have exploded no matter who had been behind the console. “We’d have been as huge as we became, no matter what,” he believes. “Using some pop producer was not the key to having a hit record. Tom told me that he worked with us for the money. At least he was honest. The sickening part is that the guy still gets royalties from us.”
When Werman heard that the band were re-recording Stay Hungry, he got his retaliation in early, instigating a bitter internet squabble with the comment: ‘It’s harder to make a hit record with a band like Twisted Sister than with a band like The Eagles, because The Eagles know what they’re doing‘. In a web posting, Snider retaliated: ‘Werman should shut the fuck up before I fuck him up’.
Only marginally more diplomatically, French responds: “I say it’s harder to have an album produced by Tom Werman that’s successful than one that’s not. You may not believe this, but Tom and I are still friends. He’s trying to discredit our talent, but great songs will always be great songs, and that’s what we had. Truth be told, he wasn’t even at the sessions for most of the time. He constantly fought with Dee, and it was the engineer [Geoff Workman] who essentially produced the album.”
‘Animal’ Mendoza was another notable absentee. Snider: “On You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll, Mark was in the studio so much that he was credited with assisting [producer] Stuart Epps. He’d sat side by side with Pete Way [the UFO bassist who produced Under The Blade]. He’d have sat side by side with someone of Max Norman’s stature, but when he heard we were using Tom Werman he was mortified, and refused to be around beyond playing the bass and doing his job.”
Werman accuses the band of revising history, claiming that they were perfectly happy at the time with his work. This theory is given credence by Snider’s 1984 proclamation that the album was “a classic Twisted Sister effort, hard and fast, and full of anthemic power”. Jay Jay objects, however.
“We never liked the way that Stay Hungry sounded,” he insists. “It was so anaemic. In fact, none of our records sounded all that great to me. They had to be thinner than we’d have liked in order to get on the airwaves. It worked for radio, but just wasn’t representative of the band we were.”
Being native New Yorkers, the quintet had begun work contentedly at the Record Plant, but while they were laying down the framework of the song Burn In Hell there was a fire (according to French; Werman insists the story is untrue). Switching to Cherokee Studios on the other side of the country, they felt less comfortable, despite the hotter weather. Indeed, Snider later told an interviewer that sandbags were piled up behind the door to exclude “all that wimpy LA nonsense”. But city culture was the least of their problems.
“There was huge friction between us and Tom,” relates Jay Jay. “He drank, we didn’t. He was the rock star, we weren’t. We would show up to work at noon and he’d roll in whenever he felt like it. And the fact that this producer nixed pretty much everything we had – including We’re Not Gonna Take It, I Wanna Rock and The Price – to bring in covers says everything about his ability to chose a hit song.”
Snider picks up the theme, the anger growing as he speaks: “I spent my days in the studio fighting with Werman, trying to keep some semblance of who we were. I had to beg him to include those songs. On the first day he brought in Saxon’s Strong Arm Of The Law and Princess Of The Night and told us we should record them instead. I replied: ‘Yeah, they’re great songs – I heard them last week when we did a show with Saxon‘. He thought that because nobody in America knew them, we could get away with recording them.”
Finishing touches were added to the record at a studio owned by Quincy Jones. “Michael Jackson’s Thriller was recorded there and was still on the charts, and the engineers gave us all sorts of fascinating stories about Michael,” grins French – but his overriding recollection of the record’s completion is a final playback session. “When we heard the finished versions of I Wanna Rock and We’re Not Gonna Take It, Geoff Workman said he’d stake his reputation that Stay Hungry would sell at least two million copies.”
Climate-wise, with Van Halen (1984), Iron Maiden (Powerslave), The Scorpions (Love At First Sting), ZZ Top (Eliminator) and the reunited Deep Purple (Perfect Strangers) all scoring huge hits that year, there would never be a better window of opportunity for an album like Stay Hungry.
“We knew that,” nods Jay Jay. “But when the record was finished I didn’t think to myself: ‘Wow, that’s 20 steps ahead of what we’ve done’. I still believe that You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll was the better record of the two. But I knew that the force of the movement would make it happen. Every record label seemed to have their own hair-metal band lined up like jets on the runway. Every month a different jet would head off and strike its target. We were in the right place at the right time, with the most dynamic frontman around. There were so much hairspray above Los Angeles in 1984 it was pretty intoxicating.”
So given the fact that the band’s big breakthrough had come in the UK, there was much shock that Stay Hungry failed to match the British sales of You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll.
“The biggest record of the band’s career flopped in England,” confirms Jay Jay. “The single [We’re Not Gonna Take It] was nowhere near as big as I Am (I’m Me) [numbers 58 and 18 respectively]. It went double platinum in the States, and we sold so many records in Sweden that we received a plaque that had previously been awarded to Michael Jackson and ABBA. After our previous year’s appearance at Donington, you’d have expected Twisted Sister to have played Wembley Arena on that tour, but the sales didn’t warrant it, so we decided to play Hammersmith Odeon instead.”
According to Snider, Rob Dickins’s vehement opposition to We’re Not Gonna Take It extended to vetoing an advance mail-out of the new single to journalists and radio stations.
“The envelopes were addressed and stuffed when the postage bill landed on his desk,” he relates. “It was probably about £10,000, but pound for pound he’d have got his money back. When the record came out, nobody here [in the UK] knew about it. I was doing interviews and being told the band’s time had passed, but all over the world it was a hit. In Sweden on a promotional tour I was picked up by a limo and taken to the presidential suite of the best hotel.
"The record was exploding; I was signing autographs for Björn Borg and the King and Queen of Sweden. The next day in England, there’s a cab to the bed and breakfast I’m staying in, I did a depressing series of interviews and then had the weekend off. So I called Sweden to ask if they’d have me back. When I got back over there, I was a god again.”
Another important factor to consider was the growing tension between Dee Snider and the rest of the group. What’s commonly overlooked is that Twisted Sister had existed for three hard years before Snider joined them in 1976. Speaking to Classic Rock last February, Snider acknowledged that his appointment was unusual, stating: “Jay Jay never [even] told me I was in the band. He just said we’d give it a try, and that I should remember he owned the band’s name. To a certain extent, I was alienated.” Nevertheless, Dee gradually took over the group, becoming their focal point, songwriter and main spokesperson.
“It caused problems,” Snider stated in the same article. “I’d taken my cue from Alice Cooper: if they [the other band members] ran around, I ran around more. The guys were solid musicians, but none of them was Eddie Van Halen, and I was the creative force. Jay Jay even accused me of calling every magazine in the world and telling them to print pictures of me, not the band. I looked at him in disbelief – I couldn’t have done that, even if I’d wanted to.”
By the group’s final days, Eddie Ojeda had been ousted with French, claiming “Dee wanted a supergroup of Yngwie Malmsteens”. When it came, the ending was ugly in the extreme. “Dee even tried to fire me,” added Jay Jay. “He then got up, smashed the table and said: ‘I fought for the power, I’ve got the power and I’m never gonna give it up‘. I prayed for ticket sales to bomb – and they did, everywhere. I was happy to see the fucking thing die.”
Twenty years later, when asked to reappraise the contents of Stay Hungry track- by-track, Dee and Jay Jay respond very differently indeed. French gazes for a while at my vinyl copy of the record, lost in thought.
“You know what?” he says finally, for once almost lost for words. “The band was starting to disintegrate – the rot set in and it never got better. So I don’t feel particularly comfortable trying to talk you through those songs.”
You’d expect Snider, who wrote all the words and music, to have far more to say, and you’d be correct in that assumption, but the memories that the album conjures up are equally mixed. Snider once told me: “With We’re Not Gonna Take It, I was singing about my father and schooldays, but it was also about Jay Jay. Certain things that had gone on had made him into another authority figure.”
He now adds: “At this point I was starting to spend a lot of time on my own. I had a vision, and I pursued it so ruthlessly that I didn’t see the cracks. I just didn’t notice that Mendoza wasn’t rooming with me any more. Some of the guys liked to party and I never did, so we didn’t hang out as much. As my celebrity started to take off, the band were relegated to sideman status – though you must believe that wasn’t my intention. There are a lot of things that I wish I’d done differently. I admit that I was pretty maniacal.”
The entire Stay Hungry album had actually been written during the You Can’t Stop Rock ’N’ Roll sessions at Sol Studios in Reading, Berkshire, owned by Jimmy Page. Being away from loved ones placed everyone under an extra degree of pressure, though it enabled Twisted Sister to pursue their goal.
“It was a great time for the band, but sometimes a very lonely one,” explains Dee now. “I didn’t have the money to fly my wife and child in to be with me, so I wrote The Price about the way I was feeling. It came to me in the bathroom at Jimmy Page’s studio; it was the only place that Satan wouldn’t be hanging out. Did you have enough pentagrams on the wall there, Jimmy?”
Snider had written the chorus of We’re Not Gonna Take It in 1980, during the band’s club-band days. He’d also been opposed to including Horror-Teria (The Beginning) on the album as it had been intended for a rock-opera he was working on (“Don’t worry, it’ll never see the light of day,” he now grins). Werman also persuaded the band to record Don’t Let Me Down, having earmarked it as the album’s first single. Dee also chuckles heartily at the recollection that Atlantic preferred Burn In Hell.
It was only the intervention of Marty Callner, who’d directed videos for The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benatar among others, that swung things for We’re Not Gonna Take It.“Marty sent Doug Morris a telegram,” explains Snider. “It said: ‘Working on the first single, We’re Not Gonna Take It. Stop. This one’s going straight to the top. Stop. Marty’. When the company saw that money was being spent, they had no choice but to do things our way.”
The record’s title track was dedicated to and inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1976 movie of the same name. Indeed, Twisted later sent Arnie a platinum disc for Stay Hungry, and performed at a political rally on his behalf last year. “I’ve admired Arnold since his bodybuilding days,” comments Dee. “He said he wanted to become the world’s greatest bodybuilder, a famous Hollywood actor, a millionaire businessman and always planned on going into politics. He made these goals a reality.” Arnie also adopted We’re Not Gonna Take It as his official song when he campaigned – successfully – to become governor of California.
S.M.F. was, of course, an acronym for ‘Sick Motherfucker’, which Snider penned as a tribute to the loyalty of the fans. “I should’ve written it years earlier,” he says. “It was about them, and for them.”
It’s a little-known fact that during the early 1980s MTV was owned by American Express and Time-Warner, the latter the parent company of Atlantic Records. So Twisted Sister’s videos received saturation coverage. It also helped that the promos for We’re Not Gonna Take It and I Wanna Rock were masterclasses in kitsch. The idea of casting Mark Metcalf as his National Lampoon’s Animal House character Douglas C Neidermeyer was nothing less than inspired.
Who could forget the militaristic father bullying his son (“Whaddya wanna do with your life?”), or the way said teenager blasts his oppressor clean through the window with a simple guitar strum and a snarl of: “I wanna rock”? The notion of the fat kid getting his revenge on Neidermeyer, who transforms himself into a schoolmaster, was the perfect vehicle for the band’s message of personal freedom, effortlessly tapping into the youthful angst and confusion that every adolescent has felt. French is happy to give all the credit to Snider.
“Dee is a visionary,” says the guitarist. “For several years his ideas were totally in tune with the masses. He and Marty Callner pretty much wrote the storyboards.”
Neither French nor Snider will admit to a shred of embarrassment at the cheese factor of Neidermeyer blowing himself up with grenades, falling through the floor and being covered in cement.
“Ratt had a floor collapsing in their Round And Round video,” shrugs Jay Jay, “so if you think about it, everything silly was up for grabs. There were a lot of lame-ass videos in the 80s, but ours were pretty sophisticated. They’ve stood the test of time; the only real problem with their silliness being that Twisted Sister was a heavy band. That’s a misconception that we still sometimes have to overcome.
“I’m still incredibly proud of the videos, but by the time they went on to heavy rotation at MTV the band had stopped talking to each other,” adds French sadly. “We were operating on auto-pilot. And it only got worse. So it was important for us to go back and re-record the album as friends.”
As well as a sonic facelift, Stay Hungry has received a visual overhaul. As French explains, the original artwork of a lone Snider gnawing at a bone only inflamed the politics of a group already frustrated by the attention the singer was receiving.
“The photo that appears on the back of the record – the band without make-up – was supposed to be used on the front,” he states. “The idea, which came from Mark Mendoza, was that behind each of us, there would be a ghosted image of that guy in make-up. We were in this dilapidated warehouse, with no food to eat and dreaming of becoming rock stars. But at the shoot a lightbulb got in the way, and this was in the days before Photoshop.
“That was just issue one,” he adds. “So Dee and [photographer] Mark Weiss did the famous bone shot, and that got used instead. In Dee’s mind he had become the sole image of what the band was. It became symbolic of the beginning and the end of the band.”
Twisted Sister’s decision to disassemble their biggest-selling album and piece it together again, Frankenstein-like, is a bold one.
“When we got back together, we had 20 years of perspective,” French reflects. “We thought: ‘God, this record sounds terrible. It would be so great to re-record it’. Our initial plan was to slap a new version of Stay Hungry on to the back of a DVD, but once we got into the project it became more and more important.”
So what would Twisted Sister say to those who accuse them of messing with history; tampering unnecessarily with a product that’s already legendary in its sphere? Not a lot after one has removed the expletives, it would seem.
“We’re the artists – we want to reinterpret it. The original’s still out there to be bought,” responds French, seemingly taken off guard by the question. “A lot of people criticised Let It Be… Naked [a 2003 edition of The Beatles’ farewell from 1969 stripped of producer Phil Spector’s orchestrations and choirs]. This is Twisted Sister’s Let It Be… Fuller, or even our Let It Be… Less Nauseating. To me, the original Stay Hungry is just unlistenable.”
“We didn’t do this for anybody but ourselves,” agrees Snider. “We don’t think it’ll sell millions of copies or reactivate our career. The songs and arrangements are also pretty much the same; what’s different about Still Hungry is the attack.”
The accompanying DVD attempts to explain the decision to return in 1999, over 10 years after they split up. “You think it was easy to reunite this band? It was not,” Snider told a rapt Astoria during the band’s summer visit. “How tense was the first rehearsal? ‘Animal’ was carrying a gun, I swear to God.” In fact, the first Twisted Sister performance in 13 years was a spontaneous, three-song affair at a party to honour A&R man Jason Flom, just about the only person at Atlantic in the US to have taken the group seriously at the start.
“In the year 2001 the five of us still hadn’t been in a room together again,” relates French. “We agreed to play for Jason, but in usual Twisted Sister fashion a band member didn’t make it to our only rehearsal. So we ran things through in a kitchen half-an-hour beforehand – if you’d told me it would work out like that, I’d have said you were out of your mind.”
Just 150 people witnessed this event, but although the band wore jeans and T- shirts they still brought the house down. Scenes of them jamming I Wanna Rock with Kid Rock, ex-Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray are included on the DVD, plus footage from a higher-profile spot at the Hammerstein Ballroom show of 2001 that raised funds for dependants of New York fire-fighters lost in the Twin Towers terror strikes. Clearing out the vaults, the DVD also shows TS playing before US troops in Korea. As French quite rightly points out, the fact that the quintet are performing better than ever before validates the re- ploughing of old furrows.
“We’re going to great pains to freeze a moment in time,” he stresses. “Twisted Sister is iconic for a specific era, it’s something we’re very proud of. Maybe it’s good that we imploded when we did, because we didn’t get burnt out and tired like so many other bands. You’ll hear that on these heavier new versions of the songs.”
When it became evident that Still Hungry was destined to become what French calls “a stand-alone CD”, extra audio material was added. To that end, Never Say Never and Blastin’ Fast & Loud – both abandoned at Werman’s insistence during the original Stay Hungry sessions, but posthumously pieced together for the 1999 Club Daze Revisited anthology – are among the material that’s been exhumed. Both had lain in the vaults until the newly reunited group went back to complete them.
As well as cutting Heroes Are Hard To Find from the soundtrack of Snider’s 98 movie Strangeland, they’ve recorded new versions of Come Back, You Know I Cry, Rock ’N’ Roll Saviours and Plastic Money – all material performed countless times in the East Coast fleapits, though never available ’til now in studio form. “We’re re-using the Club Daze… versions,” explains Jay Jay. “We could have re-done them from scratch, but the original drum tracks from 1984 still existed. It would have been way too expensive to rip those out and graft everything back on.”
Discussing the long-term future of Twisted Sister is when ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ begin to surface. Before last summer’s festival appearances in Sweden and Germany it had been stressed that the reunion was only likely to last for a year. But 12 months later, the quintet spread their wings further to include shows in the UK. So what gives? The answer is complex.
The type of show they prefer to stage costs money, so they’ve also taken to playing smaller-scale gigs in street clothes under the name of Bent Brother (think about it). Obviously, however, it’s the full make-up time-warp experience that the fans crave. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the band don’t generate enough money from their reunion endeavours to live for the other 10 months of the year – since they broke up, Mendoza has worked in law enforcement, Ojeda and Pero both have regular employment, French runs an artist management company and Snider’s House Of Hair radio show is syndicated to 170 stations across the States – so nobody is under the delusion that they can just pick up where they left off with Love Is For Suckers.(although it should be pointed out that the album doesn’t feature Pero, who’d been replaced by Joe Franco).
“There’s a plan to take us through the next two years,” reveals Jay Jay carefully. “We still don’t play too much, because our responsibilities only allow us to work at weekends. Last year we did 15 shows, this time it’s 18. Next year we’re committed to just one show, headlining the Bang Your Head Festival in Germany. We’ll continue if the size of the venues are right and the money makes sense.”
“We’re talking about [doing this again] next year, but unless certain things change then I don’t want to do this any more,” Snider tells me, away from the rest of the band in an Astoria dressing room. “I’ve been doing really well for myself in radio and TV, voiceovers for commercials. In the UK people probably thought I’d died, but in the US Dee Snider has become quite a brand name. Coming back to Twisted Sister was not an economic thing; more of a cut in pay. But the band had ended on a very bad note and it was all about closure.”
Given the admittedly cagey positivism of Jay Jay French and the sheer enjoyment that the entire band seem to exude while they’re on the boards, Dee’s comments are a little shocking.
“The 90 minutes on stage is magic, but the logistics are horrible,” Snider elaborates. “We’re not making the kind of money to allow for the Bon Jovi or Aerosmith approach to rock’n’roll. We’re like weekend warriors. When the plane flights aren’t first class and there’s no air conditioning in the ground transportation, then I just think: ‘Why the fuck am I doing this?’. I’ve told the management, fix it or I ain’t doing it [next year]. It doesn’t have to be private jets, just a modicum of comfort. If the money’s not there to do it properly, why would we do so again?”
Strong words. But if those hiccoughs get to be ironed out, how much longer does Dee think Twisted Sister could keep going?
“I don’t wanna do it,” he says flatly. “I don’t need this for my ego. I’ll be 50 next year; do I think I can do it then? Yeah. Do I think I could do it at 60? Hopefully. But I don’t wanna find out the hard way. I wanna leave people with great memories of us – jaws on the floor. That’s what I hope we’ve been doing on these dates.”
This was published in Classic Rock issue 73