Sonic Cinema: Twisted Sister
By Niki D'Andrea
Every week, we're going to be reviewing a music DVD. We kick off with Twisted Sister's The Video Years.
Twisted Sister used to scare the shit out of me. When I was 8 years-old, I would lay on my bunk bed in the dark, blasting the Under the Blade album, imagining that huge, leather-skinned monsters with oozing eyeballs were going to come creeping out of the shadows to eat me.
This was years before I realized that, in full makeup, Dee Snider looks less like a malicious metal monster and more like a bad drag version of Bette Midler. Still, as a fledgling, third-grade metal head, I thought Twisted Sister was the most exciting and dangerous band around. They're largely written off today as a by-product of the '80s hair metal heyday, but the truth is, there was a time when Twisted Sister really fucking rawked. And I still have all their early records on vinyl to prove it.
The curse of Twisted Sister is unwittingly laid out at the beginning of the Twisted Sister: The Video Years DVD (Rhino), when Dee Snider's discussing the band's first appearance on a U.K. television show. The audience wasn't giving Snider the reaction he wanted, so he started screaming that if the audience couldn't get past the makeup, he'd take it off. And he did, grabbing a bucket of makeup remover and slathering it all over his face. "Now I don't have any makeup on!" He exclaimed. "What're you gonna do now?"
The band then proceeds to tear the living shit out of the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll (But I Like It)," along with Robbo and Lemmy from Motörhead. They still got a lukewarm reaction from the crowd, but a U.K. scout for Atlantic Records saw the show and signed the band. It was the beginning of an era, and the beginning of the end. Snider wouldn't take off his makeup again until he was ordered to do so by record execs who wanted the band to move more in the direction of the commercial cock rock craze that farted all over the airwaves in the late '80s.
Unfortunately, "image" always factored too much into the Twisted Sister paradigm. In the early '80s, some metal fans were reluctant to take the band seriously because of their carnival-on-crack makeup. By the time they took the makeup off in '87, nobody was taking them seriously because they were playing metal songs about hot chicks and bullshit that every T.S. fan knew didn't fit the "real" Twisted Sister. Twisted Sister died of the same disease that's claimed the careers of almost every great arena rock band to walk off the club circuit: formula. Once a record company gets a hold of a band and says, "Produce something that sells like such-and-such is selling right now," it's over.
The DVD illustrates this point perfectly. We go from watching an exciting band with explosive energy ("You Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll," 1983) to a cool-but-cartoony band churning out metal anthems ("We're Not Gonna Take It," "I Wanna Rock," 1984) to a bunch of dudes on bikes doing power ballads and bad covers ("The Price," "Leader of the Pack," 1985) to finally, a really crappy rock band that sounded like every other crappy rock band at the time, maybe even worse ("Hot Love," 1987).
But there's more than a moral to this story. In-between the videos and insightful interviews that reveal some surprises (the guys in Twisted Sister were soap opera junkies?!), there's evidence of something else -- something that's always overlooked when people talk about Twisted Sister -- and that is the stellar musicianship.
Say what you will about the makeup and cheesy costumes (how silly will Marilyn Manson look 20 years from now?), but musically, it's hard to fuck with Twisted Sister's early albums. From the build-and-blast supernova of "What You Don't Know (Sure Can Hurt You)" (leadoff track from '82's Under the Blade) to Eddie Ojeda's scorching solo on "Like a Knife in the Back" (from the following year's You Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll), Twisted Sister displayed all the chops of bona fide rock gods, and the band's stage show was a full-throttle, sweat 'n' spit onslaught. This is all too evident from the 1984 Stay Hungry concert included on the disc, where Snider works the crowd into a chanting, head banging frenzy while the band barrels through burly tunes like "The Beast," "Burn in Hell," and "S.M.F."
Twisted Sister doesn't scare me anymore. It was a band that had its moment, a band that managed to be unique at its peak and then fizzled out trying to perpetuate that moment by getting in on the next trend. I see that more and more in the music industry these days, and frankly, that scares the shit out of me.
Next week: Heart's Dreamboat Annie DVD.