Still Twisted: An Interview with Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister

Still Twisted: An Interview with Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister

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When Twisted Sister first assaulted the radio airwaves and MTV with their fist-pumping anthem, We’re Not Gonna Take It, for the music world at large it seemed as if the group’s seemingly meteoric rise happened overnight.

But as a new documentary film put together by Music Box Films called We Are Twisted F***ing Sister demonstrates, this over-sized heavy metal cartoon comes to life were far from an overnight sensation.

Instead, faced with endless struggles, colossal road blocks and enough obstacles to fell most bands they put it the time and the blood, sweat and tears year after year, becoming up close and personal with every dive bar and crummy club on the circuit in the process. As a collective unit, Twisted Sister embody a winning “never give up” ethos and this new documentary exhaustively charts their long road to the top.

Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French fills us in on the band’s slow burn journey to the big leagues.

Is there an underlying story the film We Are Twisted F***ing Sister tells?

Jay Jay French: Because I do keynote speeches and motivational speeches and I write a column for Inc. Magazine the focus is all about overcoming obstacles. It’s all about perseverance.

It’s an inside look at what a band goes through to get a record deal – except that most bands get their record deals pretty quickly. If you look at the big bands we all know about, the Beatles, Stones, the Who, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, AC/DC, Sabbath, that Mount Rushmore of spectacular-ness, except for The Beatles they were all signed probably within six months of getting together, a year maybe at the most.

The Beatles are known for going two years playing bars in Hamburg, Germany and I give them credit for that. They slogged through horrible eight-hour shows a night and by the way, I’m the world’s biggest Beatles fan and I’m not knocking them, except that the Beatles did it for two years and Twisted Sister did it for ten.

The film opened my eyes to how long Twisted Sister had been around before getting signed, with the formation of the band taking place in 1972.

Jay Jay French: Yeah, it was an incredible journey and I look back now and I just kind of shake my head. I talk about the struggle and the repetitiveness. There’s a lot of repetitiveness in the actual day-to day-work of a rock and roll band. So it was a singular mindset.

And frankly, there was a problem finding people with that same mindset. Rock and roll is not necessarily about discipline. I don’t know where discipline would really come into the vernacular when you ask rock and roll bands what they would need to succeed.  Most people on the outside don’t have any idea; they think it’s just sex, drugs, rock and roll and some fairy dust.  You make some sort of pact with the devil and somehow you make it. They don’t know or realize that it’s really that hard. Is it five guys that are constantly pushing and pushing and pushing? The work ethic is unknown. So what this movie does show is an extraordinary work ethic.

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The band epitomizes a “never say die” attitude in the face of adversity. You were the opposite of an overnight sensation as this film ably demonstrates.

Jay Jay French: Yeah. Eleven guys came and went during that ten year period. That’s another thing too. Occasionally with the members that are still alive, they’d say, “Hey man, that could have been me!” I don’t want to get nasty and I don’t say this to them but the answer is no, it couldn’t have been you. You didn’t have what it took.

The reason why you weren’t in the band is because you didn’t have it. If you had it you would have been in the band but you didn’t have it for whatever reason; whether it was drug problems or alcohol problems or discipline problem, they didn’t have it. So that’s what I think people don’t really get is how much business goes into it all.

And by the way, it is called the music business for a reason, you know.

Were there times in Twisted Sister’s formative years where the band was close to falling apart? What kept the band moving forward when faced with years of adversity and rejection?

Jay Jay French: There was no doubt at all until the very very last chapter in the movie where the cataclysmic bankruptcy of the first record label happened. I would say up until then we had this kind of attitude, “Go ahead, throw me an obstacle, go ahead! How bad can it get? Go ahead! Hit me again, hit me again, hit me again!”

What’s really interesting in the movie and also about the history of the band is that the dynamic of the changing realities of our search for a record deal caused us to come up with newer, better ideas all the time as we were confronted with failure.

Twisted Sister - 6So when I do my speeches, I talk about the fact that failure and processing failure and moving forward from failure is a technique which we wound up mastering without understanding it was happening at the moment because we were not intellectualizing it.

But what we were doing was we’d get a set back and we’d be upset and we’d kind of mourn it and then we’d reflect on why it didn’t happen. Then we would decide that maybe some parts of it meant there was a reason why it didn’t happen and then we’d retool the show, the band and the music and then we would reapply that new direction and try again. Now if that isn’t the hallmark of entrepreneurship, I don’t know what else is. But I say to people, “Wash, rinse and repeat.”

I will say this though, when people say, “How did you manage to stay together all those years through it all?” There was a key element to this which we explain in the movie. The bar scene we came from was unlike any other bar scene before or since. It doesn’t exist anymore either. But the drinking age was 18 and there were thousands of clubs. It supported bands who could play.

Now to a greater or lesser degree, if you were popular you made “X” amount of dollars. As time went on and we got better and better as a band, even though the big picture was to get a record deal, we were able to make a lot of money. So we were making more and more and more money. You notice, poverty was never part of our story, you understand? We were becoming bigger and bigger and bigger; it’s just that we couldn’t get out of here.

It was like we were building a bigger boat but stuck on the same lake. So the fans kept supporting us and coming out to see our shows in the clubs. So if you can imagine, you send out demos to the record labels and you start getting reflections but that night that you got a rejection, you play a bar and you played in front of 1200 screaming kids, well, you kind of felt better about yourself so the fans sustained us but we knew that was only going to be a finite period of time because the drinking age was going to 21 and the bars were gonna start to close.

If we didn’t get out of there, if some helicopter couldn’t come down to this melting ice berg and pull us out, we were gonna drown. It was a race against time; that’s really what was going on.

How did the image of the band evolve over time?

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Jay Jay French: Well, we started out at the very beginning straight as a David Bowie, New York Dolls-inspired cross dressing transvestite rock band. That’s how it started at the very very beginning and that lasted for a couple of years with the original lineup. Then when the first crack in the lineup occurred, we got a singer who was a Rod Stewart fanatic.

We kind of morphed into kind of a Faces glam band, less androgynous and cross-dressing into more of a traditional English British pop band at the time like Sweet or Slade or Rod Stewart and the Faces. And then he only lasted a couple of months although it’s kind of funny; I ran into him a couple of years ago and he swore he was in the band for a year (laughs) but it was really only nine weeks.

But the band then went through another change and after that the left, which at that point was singer No. 2, because the first singer lasted two years and the second singer lasted only nine weeks. Then I took over as the singer because I got sick of relying on other people but I can’t sing. Lou Reed was a huge influence on me so we turned into more of a Velvet Underground looking band, which was kind of a strange, weird, darker, urban kind of thing. I was trying to figure out where this would fit with the look of the band but we still weren’t doing original music.

We were doing cover material and the cover material was basically Lou Reed, Mott The HoopleIan Hunter wasn’t a great singer so I could sing those songs. My joke is my voice is so bad that God created Dylan so I could do cover material. We’d do this kind of stuff and my other guitar player, Eddie Ojeda, was in the band and Eddie had a really good voice so he could sing.

We were doing Dave Mason songs and Elvin Bishop songs and Kinks songs; these were not the kinds of songs that people think we’d be doing. Then we kind of disbanded for a couple of months because that wasn’t working out so well. My agent said to me, “You need a singer who can sing Zeppelin” and when Dee (Snider) came along he thought “I’m gonna join Twisted Sister”—he had seen Twisted Sister earlier with the original singer and saw how flamboyant we were.

He thought, “I’m gonna join this glitter rock band” and the last thing I wanted to do was be a glitter rock band at that point. I’ll tell you what I wanted, I wanted to be a rock band that was making money. That’s really what I wanted and I knew that if we did Zeppelin songs we could make money. Dee could sing Zeppelin songs perfectly so I thought that this was great. Okay, we’ll get a guy who can sing like Robert Plant and then we’ll figure it out.

Dee Snider
Dee Snider

But Dee was like, “Hey man, I can sing that stuff but I love Alice Cooper!” So he started pushing the glam aspect again and shoe-horning it in at a perfect time and I do mean a perfect time as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which then legitimized a more outrageous look.

But Dee wasn’t pretty, as we all know and so instead of being a pretty boy band like Motley Crue, and because of Dee’s look -he kind of looks like Sarah Jessica Parker dipped into a vat of acid, let’s be honest here – we morphed into this other kind of shock rock, scary rock kind of thing, something Alice Cooper-ish.

Dee was trying to be feminine but he doesn’t have a feminine look. So you see in the movie all these morphing clothing choices and they were all outrageous. For anyone to actually walk in a bar and see us and think we were gay, you have to be a caveman because we were obviously doing it to hock you, not to make you think we were gay. We didn’t think for a second that anybody would think that. We just thought that people would walk in think we were crazy and outrageous.

You described the band as a “predatory” group in the film.

Jay Jay French: We were a lethal live band, if not the best, one of the greatest live acts in the world. We learned our craft playing in the bars and we learned early on if you want to make more money you have to build up a following.

How do you build up a following? Any time you play in front of a lot of people, you need to blow them away and just be the best that you can be. So we started to really concentrate in annihilating our fellow bands. Not that we didn’t like them personally, but it’s like when two baseball teams go on the field, one of them wants to win.

They can be friends with the other guys on the other side but you want to beat them. So we started looking at it as a sporting event and less as a musical event.

So Twisted Sister became the best sporting event in rock and roll. And that attitude never ended.

So when we play shows today, when we play with Metallica or any of these bands, our job is to wipe the floor with these groups. I mean, that’s what we do. That’s the only thing that makes me happy. It’s not a musical statement; it’s truly one of victory. I want to walk off stage and know that you think you saw the greatest show on earth. There very well be a better guitar player or better singer but we’re gonna make sure you don’t think that.

So that predatory nature of the band is very unlike other bands. Bands don’t like to admit that and a lot of bands like to say it’s a brotherhood and I go, “That’s bullshit.” I am out only to make your life miserable. If I can destroy you and I can destroy the other bands, I know I put on a great show for the fans. Now, having said that, if another band said, “Well screw that, I’m gonna blow Twisted off the stage!” You know what my attitude to that? Go ahead. If you can out on a better show that we do, the fans benefit by that.

What was the big career turning point for Twisted Sister?

Jay Jay French: Well, the movie opens with a video of a performance of us on a British TV show called The Tube. That scene opens and closes the movie. The Tube was a live music show in England. That was the show and that was the tipping point between us being a New York area bar band that was gonna disappear and the band that was given a lifeline to succeed.

The confluence of circumstances, coincidences and events that led up to that very moment were so bizarre that when I do my speeches, I always tell them you don’t know on any given day the episode that will change your life. The minutiae behind what happened is so bizarre. For example, our manager talked about the fact that he ran into this executive from Atlantic Records named Phil Carson.

That guy saw the show and couldn’t believe it and the next day came down to a club, the Marquee in London, and offered us a deal.  And then had to tell the American record company president that he was signing us to which the president said, “Oh my God, I hate them! I’m not gonna sign ‘em!” So that was the quick story but there’s a deeper story underneath it.

The reason why the executive was at the TV studio was because he was with Mick Jones from Foreigner; getting an award for Mick. As he was walking down the hallway he runs into our manager who was a concert promoter in New York and knew both Mick from Foreigner and knew Phil Carson who worked with Zeppelin when our manager was a promoter.

When he mentioned the name Twisted Sister to Phil, Mick Jones said, “Twisted Sister? Oh My God, they play them on the radio in New York City all of the time.” Mick was living in New York City at the time and his band was being played on New York City FM stations.

We used to buy a ton of airtime on radio station in New York to promote our local club performances. We pioneered the idea of using that minute of airtime to play our original music with a little tag at the beginning and at the end. So if you were going through the station quickly you’d hear us played on the radio station and would assume we had a record out.

We used to buy so many commercials a weekend; we used to buy 100 spots. More than likely if you heard them you’d think we were being played on the radio station.  Well, Mick Jones thought we were played on the radio station. He said to Phil Carson, “Oh man, this band, they’re all over New York radio!” and that’s kind of what got Phil interested in paying attention to the band.

Anyhow, Phil went home; he didn’t stay to see us play that night on The Tube but he recorded the show on VCR tape. He saw the show, freaked out and the next night came down to the Marquee Club. By the way, we were offered record deals from every label that night after our appearance on The Tube.

That show was as important to us as The Ed Sullivan Show was to The Beatles. People saw the Beatles on TV and freaked out. Well, eight million people saw that show in England that night live and the reaction was immediate and we got offered record deals so that was the tipping point. Had all those confluences of events not occurred, I don’t know what would have happened. I shudder to think what would have happened. Had we not been signed at that moment, I think that our fate would have been sealed. But then again, since it did happen, we’ll never know.

What is the status of Twisted Sister as an ongoing entity in 2016?

Jay  Jay French: This year is our 40th anniversary of me, Dee and Eddie together and this is it; this is the end. We’re playing some shows and that’s it. It’s the “40 and Fuck It” tour. (laughs)

Is it bittersweet for you?

Jay Jay French: Well, I don’t know. We already ended it once before and ended it for 12 years and got back together again. The reunion lasted a lot longer than I thought it was gonna last. The reunion has gone on 13 years.

I thought the reunion would last two years so it’s really gone on a long time. We’ve accomplished an awful lot and released a lot of product. I mean the movie is coming out this year and we have a CD coming up with some live shows from back in the bar days. There’s a lot that is going on.

It’s kind of like the last five minutes of a fireworks display as far as the history of Twisted Sister is concerned. When people doubt that this is the end I tell them they shouldn’t doubt it. It is the end. I don’t foresee us playing ever again.

These dates are it but there’ll be plenty of product out there. But I think that the shelf life of the band live has reached end that’s why the tour is aptly titled.