The career trajectory of Twisted Sister was akin to that old rollercoaster comparison: the long, slow climb, the exhilarating ride, and the sudden halt. They toiled for a decade in the rock clubs of New York and New Jersey, they skyrocketed to fame, and before they knew it, it was all over, but for a fleeting period between the summer of 1984 and the summer of 1985, that bunch of skuzzy, poodle-headed New Yorkers in the clown makeup and the spandex were the biggest thing during the mainstream heavy metal explosion at the time, and we loved ‘em for it.
Currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance following the shocking success of the even more shockingly enjoyable Christmas album A Twisted Christmas, you can’t blame the boys for milking the renewed interest for all it’s worth, and their brand-new DVD Twisted Sister: The Video Years is tailor made for those of us who spent junior high listening to Stay Hungry our ghetto blasters and watching the classic video for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on TV repeatedly, reciting the dialogue word for word (“I carried an M16 and you carried that (gasp) that (gasp) that (gasp)...guitar”). With well over two hours of live footage, interviews, and of course, those videos, not only does the DVD boast a bevy of material for the fans, but it also allows the band members to look back on Twisted Sister’s rise and fall with refreshing frankness and good humor.
The centerpiece of the disc is the seven videos from 1983 to 1987, most notably, the clips for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock”, which brilliantly tapped into the collective consciousness of teenagers everywhere with their incessant hooks, slapstick humor, and most importantly, the performances of actor Mark Metcalf. A take-off on his infamous role as Neidermeyer in the film Animal House Metcalf plays the verbally abusive father and schoolteacher, chewing the scenery with his hilariously over-the-top monologues, (literally) spitting each line like venom, eyes bulging, veins popping, his questions of, “Whadda you wanna do with your life?” answered with three simple words (come on, you know them). Which in turn cues the entry of the band to save the day, liberating the son and the high school from the clutches of the tyrant, whose Wile E. Coyote-like attempts at revenge backfire at every turn. Such a simple concept, but so groundbreaking at the time; lead singer Dee Snider says the head of MTV was convinced the seven minute clip would flop, dismissing it as nothing more than “method acting”. How wrong he would be. One crucial error is made, though, as “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is inexplicably edited on the DVD, the opening dinner table scene and the majority of Metcalf’s dialogue going missing.
After the success of the two videos, in the opinion of bassist Mark Mendoza, the band had painted itself into a corner, with a public seeing them as nothing more than clowns, expecting laughs instead of quality music, and we can see that happen the further we go into the band’s videography. Underrated power ballad “The Price” is actually a good clip, showing a make-up free, street clothed Twisted Sister at a soundcheck, but while it effectively emphasizes song over image, the MTV kids cooled on it, as did Atlantic Records, who stopped pushing the album. The band was at a crossroads by the time the hugely anticipated follow-up Come Out and Play was released in the fall of 1985, and the band unanimously agrees that they took the worst possible direction imaginable, first with a horrible choice for lead single (an awkward cover of “Leader of the Pack”), a desperately comedic video, and a lavish, expensive zombie-themed video for “Be Chrool to Your Sceul” which was summarily banned from MTV. It was a spectacular crash and burn, the final nail in the coffin being the 1987 clip for “Hot Love”, in which both video and song shamelessly hopped on the exploding “hair metal” fad.
While Twisted Sister continues to be categorized as a hair metal band by people (“Those bands were good looking,” says French, “We looked like grandmothers”), at their best, they were much more old school, drawing heavily from glam rock, shock rock, and most crucially, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Like fellow New Yorkers Manowar, they found a strong audience in the metal-friendly UK first, and we get a very cool glimpse of the band on a raucous 1982 TV performance, playing a cover of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and Brian Robertson. Interestingly, it would be that very performance which would lead to their signing to Atlantic Records (much to the dismay of the chairman, who had rejected the band on several occasions prior!).
The real treat, though, is the original Stay Hungry Tour concert, which first aired as an MTV special and was subsequently released on videocassette the same year. Filmed in a San Bernardino airplane hangar in front of a ravenous crowd , the quintet shows just how potent a live act they were in their heyday. Annoyingly, MTV crassly interrupts the show with a pair of videos in place of the live renditions (oddly, this is where we can see a longer version of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”), but that’s actually a good thing, as we get to hear some scorching versions of more underrated songs like “Burn in Hell”, “Under the Blade”, and “Stay Hungry”. The band, all of whom were considerably older than the majority of the metal phenoms at the time, sound tight and professional, the perfect support for Snider, who puts in a dominating performance, displaying fantastic vocal range, and of course, the ability to make an audience of thousands go nuts (although Snider’s prodigious use of profanity has been sadly cut from this version). Appropriately, this videotaped concert concludes the DVD, giving us a snapshot of a band that was getting tantalizingly close to the top of that first climb, unaware of the insanity that would ensue soon after.