[16 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In 1982, Twisted Sister had been playing the bar circuit in the Northeastern United States for nine years, tightening and refining its sound and amassing a sizeable local fanbase, yet no record labels wanted to have anything to do with five ugly, foul-mouthed dudes from Long Island dressed in drag who played raucous heavy rock. Never mind the fact that they were very much loved in the New York area—in 1979 they played a sold out show at the 3,000-seat capacity Palladium despite zero airplay—compared to radio-friendly rock like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon and the new wave of pop metal prettyboys, the labels could see nothing marketable in Twisted Sister. So the band set out to the UK in search of a deal, and although their label, the punk imprint Secret Records, wouldn’t last very long after signing the band, in the end it wound up being the smartest thing the guys ever did.
Recorded on a shoestring budget in a barn in rural East Sussex and overdubbed and mixed in too many English studios to mention, Under the Blade was a long, long time in the making, but Twisted Sister made it count, coming through with a hell of a debut that not only connected with British heavy metal fans, but would eventually lead to a contract with Atlantic Records, paving the way to stardom a couple years later. While 1984’s breakthrough Stay Hungry remains the band’s most famous album, ask any diehard “sick motherfucking friend of Twisted Sister”, and they’ll tell you that Under the Blade is its greatest moment on record. That statement has been rather difficult to defend as of late, as Under the Blade has been in and out of print in North America in various forms over the years, including the completely remixed US edition in 1985 on Atlantic, and a 1999 remastered version by Spitfire. The band and Eagle Rock have set out to get things right once and for all, and the end result, a terrific CD/DVD combo, turns out to be even better than we had anticipated.
That the album is a near-classic is undeniable; it remains the most ferocious of the band’s career. With all the spandex and greasepaint, not to mention singer Dee Snider’s gigantic head of peroxided hair, Twisted Sister wasn’t above poking fun at itself—looking like that you had to have a sense of humor—but what’s surprising to new listeners is just how imposing Under the Blade truly is. Sure, they have bar band roots, which they show off on the exuberant, catchy “Bad Boys (Of Rock ‘n’ Roll)”, but the fun side of Twisted Sister is set aside in favor of something a lot darker. The theatrical “What You Don’t Know (Sure Can Hurt You)” is a phenomenal album opener, Snider’s persona taking over atop a tense opening riff as he sneers, “Oh, are we irritating, oh, are we grating on your nerves? / Don’t you know that the good boys never get what they deserve”. “Run for Your Life” and “Destroyer” are thunderous exercises in doom-fueled metal, while more aggressive fare like “Sin After Sin”, “Tear It Loose”, and “Shoot ‘em Down” shift into high gear, clearly inspired by Motörhead. The title track remains the finest offering on the album, a maniacal piece of shock rock featuring an inspired performance by Snider and taut riffs by guitarists Jay Jay French and Eddie Ojeda.
For the first time ever, this North American reissue features the original UK mix, whose warmth and rawness is superior to the 1985 remix, and while it has been fully remastered, the noise levels are never cranked too high. In addition, the long out of print Ruff Cutts EP, released as a pre-album teaser by Secret, appends this 2011 reissue. Comprised of four demo recordings made in 1979, it includes blistering early versions of “What You Don’t Know”, “Shoot ‘em Down”, and “Under the Blade”, as well as the band’s notorious cover of the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”. While “Leader of the Pack” was redone in high-gloss form on 1985’s disappointing Come Out and Play, the 1979 version is a lot more charming, easier for the listener to digest as Snider sings with his mates delivering unironic backing vocals. Also, the 1979 demo “I’ll Never Grow Up, Now”, which was a bonus track on the 1985 US reissue to give the kids another teen anthem they so craved, has been wisely left off.
As great as the album is, the big surprise for fans is the accompanying DVD, as the band has unearthed the complete performance from the 1982 Reading Festival. Shot by TV cameras for people in the festival’s VIP tent, the videotape miraculously landed in Twisted Sister’s hands, and seeing it 29 years later is a revelation. From the start of the set the band is on, the music propulsive as Snider challenges the crowd, who responds by throwing everything imaginable at the band, from eggs and fruit to feces and bottles of urine. Snider is unfazed throughout, and incredibly, midway through the set the pelting is stopped as more and more people start to respond to the music. By the end, when former Motörhead mates Lemmy Kilmister and “Fast” Eddie Clarke, as well as UFO bassist Pete Way, show up for a crazed run-through of the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll”, everyone is won over. It’s a jaw-dropping performance, easily the best live Twisted Sister footage ever released, capturing the moment where the band had finally arrived.
The DVD also comes with a thoroughly entertaining documentary, as all five members of the band tell stories about the recording of the album (a local farmer said his chickens laid 30% more eggs when Mark Mendoza was recording his bass), as well as the performance at Reading and the culture shock they experienced upon their first UK visit. All too often bands and labels toss out new reissues that barely give the fans what they want, if at all, but Twisted Sister have gone above and beyond here, giving their fans with a real treat of a re-release. Under the Blade was already great, but this wonderful new version is absolutely essential.