Twisted Sister’s Jay Jay French in depth on the band history; the failure, success, their fan base, Dee Snider, Metallica, the PMRC & why they won’t release a new record.
By: Rock Man
I was 14 years old when I discovered Twisted Sister. The year was 1984 and I had just recently started developing an interest in music. It didn’t take long to realise there was something invigorating about the sounds of hard rock and heavy metal. Bands such as Van Halen and Quiet Riot became very popular on my cassette player. Then one day out of nowhere I heard this song playing on the radio, it was a song about standing up for yourself and not taking anyone’s crap. That song was We’re Not Gonna Take It and it would become a metal icon, an anthem that would speak to generation after generation. That was my introduction to Twisted Sister. Of course, not long after I would see them on MTV with their outrageous costumes and make up and the deal was done, I would forever be a fan. Given that, it is hardly a surprise I also gravitated towards bands like Kiss, Motley Crue and W.A.S.P. Their album of that year, Stay Hungry, is still to this day one of the all time greatest heavy metal albums I have heard and takes me back to those fond days every time I put it on. My two favourite member were singer Dee Snider and guitarist Jay Jay French. Recently the opportunity to speak with Jay Jay was presented to me, so over the course of our chat I asked him about his thoughts on the band’s career, Metallica, Sevendust and the Stay Hungry album amongst other things.
Rock Man: Congratulations on what has been a successful career in the music industry. AC/DC famously once said “It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock N’ Roll”, that was certainly the case for Twisted Sister wasn’t it?
Jay Jay French: You know, that is our theme song. We come on stage to that, it is more or less our motto. When people ask me questions about distinguishing us and our careers with a lot of theses famous other bands I will say this: if you take The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Zep, Floyd, Kinks, Queen, Sabbath, AC/DC, all these really legendary bands, Judas Priest, all these amazing groups that have been around forever, the difference between us and all of them is I don’t know if any of them would have lasted the ten years it took us to get our record deal. All these other bands got their record deal relatively quickly, you can make a case that The Beatles worked in Hamburg for a couple of years but we trudged around for ten solid years in the bars and I think that distinguishes us from the rest of the pack and I really defy any of them to last through the crap that we went through. In fact it defines the band, the history of the ten years prior to the signing really defines who we are, it is not what came afterwards it is really what happened on the way up.
RM: I always felt that Twisted Sister gave off the impression that they were a pack of wolves, a brotherhood. Now like any brothers, there are times when you will disagree and those disagreements are well documented, but was this sense of brotherhood or gang mentality the band’s biggest strength?
JJF: Well there is a cliché in sports about what happens between the lines, meaning that when you are on the playing field that is really where it counts, and that is where it counts for us. I think when we are on the stage and performing we rely on each other like a brotherhood, I think you could say that. But I think you could say with all these bands I just mentioned that have been around forever, there really comes a point when you look around at who is on stage with you and you say “Wow! These are the guys who have to back me up if I am having a bad night, these are the guys I depend on to deliver every time” so whatever way you want to describe it, brotherhood, family, certainly is the correct description of working organizations that function at a very high level on demand. Because you are on stage at a stage time, you have to deliver at that time, you have to depend on other people who are with you that they are going to be able to turn it on at that moment in time and there aren’t many bands that can do that at the level we are at this point.
RM: Back in the 70s many bands got signed on the back of their live reputation and Twisted Sister had a very strong reputation in that sense. What made going to see Twisted Sister play such a memorable experience?
JJF: Well the band really put out an enormous amount of energy and really created hysteria amongst its fans, which we worked really hard to develop an ability to do and the problem was that the record labels did not particularly like us so they kept on coming up with reasons not to sign the band. Even though the band was the biggest band playing in the area we were playing in, the Tri-State New York area. The Tri-State area by the way is defined as New York, Connecticut and New Jersey for those of you who are not aware of what the Tri-State area means, it is the most populated area in the United States and back when the drinking age was 18 there was thousands of clubs and you could play these clubs and we were the kings of them. We worked our way to the top level and we were the biggest drawing band and we were playing five nights a week probably within a 50 mile radius of New York and causing hysteria in the bars. But yet with all of that great reputation we could not get a record deal because the record labels just refused to acknowledge the band was good, they just could not believe that a local band was good and several years went by and the excuse was “Well no one else signed them so how good can they be”. So that was a frustrating element of the band’s development.
RM: A lot of bands talk about “Failure isn’t an option, we have to be successful”. Was that a driving factor for the band in the early days?
JJF: Well it was but failure happened all the time and all failure does is make you stronger with all the clichés that come with it. But because we were constantly turned down, you know, we were turned down more times that a sheet in a whorehouse, and because we were rejected so much it constantly forced us to revaluate who we were and what we were trying to do and make us better. Because after a while we had to become our own record company, our own merchandise company, so you learn along the way, so failure was constant in our career. The question is how you respond to failure or how you respond to crisis is really the best way to put it. How you respond to it is the key to success and I say to people when people say to me “Well, you guys have developed a thick skin and you developed a lot of character” I say “Well, I do not think we develop character, I think crisis exposes character, you see who you really are when the chips are down and you see what you can really deliver”, and that is what I am most proud of.
RM: I have heard various band members talk about the difficulties of getting the band signed back in the day. Those times must have seemed brutal and never ending?
JJF: They were brutal and never ending. But the one thing we did have was an enormous fan base that kept us, you know, if you deal with the rejection in the morning and then at night you can go play in front of 5,000 people and sell out a club it is certainly better than playing to nobody. So we were always validated by our fan base and we knew we were on to something, we just figured people just get it, so it kept us energized over the years and as the rejections piled up and the difficulties got more intense it made us more obsessed as far as giving us a reason to move on and give us drive. There is a movie coming out shortly and the movie is called Twisted Fucking Sister and the movie is a documentary about the first ten years of the band.
RM: You eventually got signed to Atlantic Records, but by their own admission they hated you. What a bizarre situation to be in where the president of the company does not want you on his label but you are.
JJF: Yeah we were signed in a different country, so we were signed by a different division of the label. The American label president had already said we were the worst band out there and that he hated the band and he had threatened his A&R crew in New York about two weeks before the band was signed in Europe. He made a statement at an A&R meeting that the next person who mentions the name Twisted Sister will be fired. But that is not really the greatest atmosphere to sign with a label.
RM: I think it is fair to say that throughout your time there they sabotaged your career. How do you deal with something like that?
JJF: Well let’s be clear about this. First of all they did not want to sign the band but when the band was signed it was signed in England, and the band signed an awful deal. You take your worst record deal and multiply it by ten. We signed it because we were so desperate to have a deal and then we went off and had a hit record in England. So we justified our existence in England but the American label really did not want to acknowledge it and we came back to America and basically toured the States for a year with next to no support from the record label. To the credit of the record label’s president, Doug Morris, who was not a fan of the band, what happened was I had a meeting with Doug about a year after the band was signed, the band was signed in December of 1982 and in December of 1983 I was doing some press at the New York office and I ran into Doug Morris and he took me into his office and he said to me “Do you know what I think of your band?” and I said “Yeah I know we are not on your Christmas list” and he started reading me all of these telexes. Now remember this was 1983 there was no fax machines back then okay, or cell phones or Twitter. And he was reading me these telexes, which are like telegrams from all around the United States from various record promotion men that worked for Atlantic saying that we had played shows in various cities and how come the label has not shown any support for the band. Bottom line is he said to me “You have sold 100,000 records without me spending any money and I was wrong”. He said he made a mistake and next year I am going to make you the biggest band in the world, now when you hear that someone is going to make you a big band your initial reaction is “Oh my God I made it, I made it” but we were so cynical when he said those words to me I did not believe him at all. I just went “Oh thanks a lot” and walked out of the room just thinking just another BS statement form a record company executive. But in truth he hired the hottest producer at the time, Tom Werman and most people do not know that MTV back in those days, those early days was owned by Warner Music which owned Atlantic Records, in a partnership with American Express and Warners who made a video that was any good got a lot of exposure on MTV. So the timing was right, so for all the years our timing was wrong our timing was right, we came out with the right video and the right record at the right time.
RM: Which brings us to one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time Stay Hungry. Like many others, this album shaped and influenced my musical direction. 2014 is the 30th anniversary of this iconic record, does the band have anything special planned to celebrate this milestone?
JJF: We just take a lot of ibuprofen. Well, you know, considering the fact that the band disbanded back in 1987 as a live band for thirteen years and I did not think the band would ever play again, the fact that the band reunited eleven years ago and is now one of the biggest concert draws in the world is extraordinary enough. You know, we already went through the 25th anniversary of Stay Hungry five years ago and released a special double CD with a lot of bonus tracks on it and this year there is nothing special. I know we are playing dates and we are going to play the bulk of the album on those dates, we are only playing about ten dates a year but there is really nothing else. We were going to SACD (Super Audio CD) release but they could not find any more bonus tracks to do it so unfortunately that did not happen, which is unfortunate because it should come up in high quality vinyl. The label has never shown the band the respect that it shows other bands but that is something we learned to live with over the years with Warner Music and Rhino. It is unfortunate that they have never truly understood the impact, but the impact is worldwide, we currently can play 33 countries and headline 33 countries. I would love to get back to Australia, I absolutely loved Australia, I absolutely loved playing there, but we have not been able to put together any type of promotion package that makes sense. As you know it costs a couple of dollars to get down to that part of the world. It is unfortunate because I think we have a lot of fans down there.
RM: During the tour for the Stay Hungry album you were supported by a young Metallica. Were the signs there at such an early stage of what they would become?
JJF: Well that was even earlier than that, we played with Metallica in 1983 during You Can’t Stop Rock N’ Roll and Under The Blade, so it goes back further. We did, I think, seven or eight shows with them in Europe and when they opened for us in a bar in New York in ‘82, I believe, December of ‘82 I think it was and I thought they were okay, you know, at the time. I went “Okay that is a new trend in music”, we did our thing they did their thing and then we preceded to play a bunch of dates with them in Europe and they had a very dedicated [following], you could see their following, the dedication amongst their fans was equally as enthusiastic and supportive as ours. So you kind of said to yourself “Wow! They have got diehard fans here and they are developing a cult following” so I think if you came from our history of cult following you can recognise another band’s you go “Wow, that is a cult following, that is big”.
RM: Every band hopes to find a charismatic, hard working, energetic frontman like Dee Snider. There must have been times when you thought you had struck gold, can you share your thoughts on him and his contribution to the band.
JJF: He is certainly, I think, one of the most underrated frontmen. I do not think he gets the respect he deserves. I think he is better that David Lee Roth and no question better than Ozzy, I mean he is better than all of them. In terms of an entertainer he is more responsible; he understands what he is supposed to do better than these other bands and that is really an important factor, he really gets what you are supposed to do as a singer, as being an entertainer and he takes his job very seriously. He does his vocal exercises every day for like two hours before he goes on stage, he has done this from the day I met him and he has always taken a very professional approach to the fact that “I am a performer and I get paid to perform and I am going to be on that stage at this time and I am going to deliver”. I mean how many frontmen just do not do it? They take their audience for granted, he does not take his audience for granted, so he works really hard at what he does.Hhe wrote some great, great songs although he has not written, by his own admission except for the song 30, he has not really written a song in about 20 years. I think he just decided he did not have anything to say anymore, I believe that is what he has said in interviews. But when I am on stage with him I do not think there is a better frontman out there, that is just my opinion, I just do not see a better frontman than Dee.
RM: I know that in the past Dee has been very strong on having no desire to record a new album and try and regain past glories, is that still the band’s position today?
JJF: Well there is no point recording I think that is an old school idea. Why? No one buys it. I mean no one is yet to make a case for any reason to record, I do not see any reason in the world to record. The fans who come see you do not care, they claim they care but they do not really care because if you think about it, if you take an average set list 15 to 20 songs, those songs are off the albums everybody bought. Now if you could actually tell the fans we are going to play a new song today but we are going to take this other one out to play it, what do you think they are going to vote for? If I said “Here is a new song but we are not going to play Burn In Hell”, “Here is a new song but we are not going to play Under The Blade”, “Here is a new song but we are not going to play We’re Not Gonna Take It” that would not go over too well. So the point is we do not tour, you have nothing to promote and nobody buys it and nobody listens to it, so it is contrary to any logic whatsoever that it matters. Now it only matters if you care that it matters, so if you want to write the stuff because you feel you have a need to express it then you write it and record it. Dee has not written a song in 20 years he has no need to express it and so therefore we do not do it and we do not play enough for it to matter, since we only play one show in one country every couple of years. It is not like people say “Wow man! When is the new tour coming? I saw you on the last tour”. We do not get a chance to play that often, so I just think for bands like Kiss and Judas Priest and all these bands who make all these new records that nobody buys, when I say “nobody buys” I mean in their heyday bands are selling 2 or 3 million copies now they are selling 100,000 records, alright? If you are touring it may make some sense, I just do not see the logic behind it. We are happy playing these 17 songs and we are a great live act and we do them really well. Does anybody care if AC/DC makes a new record? I mean they have made the same record for the last 30 years. AC/DC is one of my all time favourite bands, all time, they are one of the only bands I will stand up for two hours to watch, but if I see them do you think I want to hear a new record? Of course not.
RM: During the 1980s you were active in your support against the PMRC and their censorship agenda. Looking back on that what do you recall and all these years later do you think they achieved their goal?
JJF: I do not know. I do not think it was worth anything, I thought it was a waste of time from everybody’s part, whether it helped or hurt, it is impossible. People ask me about this all the time, I really thought that the whole thing was just a political circus and it had no relevance and it had no impact one way or the other. I do not think it changed anything. I mean, if you think about the records they objected to back then and look at what is out now and the videos out now it is such a joke. If you think about the way time evolves, alright, I will give you an example of long term, just how the world changes. Elvis was the most dangerous thing on Earth and he winds up in Vegas, Chuck Berry was like the Devil in a black man and winds up being the theme song for John McCain’s campaign, you know, Johnny B. Goode. I mean, you give it enough time it becomes less dangerous, our videos and our music and our image at the time, “Oh my God!” how horrible, how shocking, now it would not raise an eyebrow anywhere. So it kind of like makes the whole thing kind of silly if you really look at it, the whole thing was a huge waste of time and I do not think it did anything. I think it hurt our reputation only because Dee went up to congress and said “I am really a nice guy and I love my wife and I do not do drugs” and I went “Oh that is a great way to destroy your reputation”[laughs], you know, tell people that you are straight. We were warned about that because the band was a straight band, we did not drink, we did not do drugs, we were warned by our record label and management “Do not say that, you will destroy your reputation!”. It is the only business in the world where being straight hurts you, which I think is kind of ridiculous but it is true. We had to keep all that quiet because our reputation was we are crazy, we are nuts and we were, we were really obsessed with making it but in terms of partying, we never partied ever – ever! People ask me about it all the time and it never happened. Never. It just never did. The band worked too hard, you know, getting high never happened, never drank, never did drugs, we were completely against that, I never hung out with musicians who did that, I mean, I am heavily anti-drugs. I have only had five beers in my life [and] I have never understood alcohol consumption nor did I understand drug consumption when it comes to destroying your ability to be able to perform. If you are a professional entertainer someone is paying their hard earned money to see you put on a great show, how dare you not put on a great show? When I hear bands go on late, take their audience for granted, stoned out, I am like you call yourself professional? You get no respect from me.
RM: I want to take the time to say thank you for the incredible work you did with Sevendust early on in their career. They have gone on to become a massive force in metal music, have they exceeded your expectations?
JJF: Well unfortunately after they left me they never regained what they had. Their best records were done through me, their best music was done through me. I managed their career in a very effective way. Unfortunately they took some strange turns and changed people and changed management many times and never regained their initial impact. They have a new record out which I understand is an acoustic record and I give them credit for it, but they never, and they admit it they told me so themselves, they said we should have never parted ways because they never kind of reclaimed what they had when it all started. They were brilliant in the beginning but unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss the elements of why things fell apart for them, but they had the capability of being a great, great band and unfortunately they did not live up to the expectation I had for them because I saw in them qualities that were fantastic. Part of the problem was their record label, TVT, was run by a record company president that just had no idea how to handle a band like that and that was a big problem. And then I think other things got in the way of the band’s success and they never reclaimed what got them there in 1997/98/99. I had them from the first album, you know, for the first three/four records was done in my production company and that was the highlight of what they did and then they kind of like lost their way. I understand they are still great live and I wish them the best because they are great but unfortunately they really did not reach the potential I saw that they were capable of.
RM: A few years ago you were involved with The Pinkburst Project. Can you tell me a little about that and anything that has happened since in relation to that foundation?
JJF: Well Pinkburst Project is a project that brings awareness to Uveitis which is an eye disease which is the leading cause of blindness in girls in America. It is not curable but it is preventable, actually it is not curable but it is controllable. It is not preventable but the thing is, if you can recognise the disease in your child at a young enough age you can prevent permanent damage to the eye. My daughter has the disease, she was diagnosed at age six, she still has it, she is 20 years old. For some people it burns itself out after a while, it is like Arthritis of the eyes, which is your eyes are attacked by your own body thinking there is something wrong with it and what it does is white blood cells attach themselves to the uvea which is the middle lens of the eye. Actually it causes blindness if you do not get rid of the cells, getting rid of the cells is a real problem because the drugs you have to take to get rid of the cells are very heavy Immunosuppressive drugs and/or eye drops which can also cause Cataracts, so you are really stuck between a rock and a hard place. And let’s just say because my daughter is the patient of the leading specialist in the world on Uveitis, her eyesight has been maintained and she is fine today. Although she does take an enormous amount of drugs, the idea of the Pinkburst Project was to bring awareness to this disease, to bring awareness that if you have a child, especially a girl and you have not had her eyes checked by the age of six/seven, have her eyes checked. Chances are she does not have Uveitis, but if she does early detection will lead to controlling it before it does too much damage and permanent damage to the eyes. So we are moving forward and Twisted Sister has just agreed to do another benefit for the Uveitis Foundation which is going to happen later on this year. The Doctor, Steven Foster is based out of Massachusetts he runs a hospital called MERSI which stands for the Massachusetts Eye Research and Surgery Institution, the organization is the Ocular Immunology and Uveitis Foundation and it has to do with eye diseases that are affected by a breakdown in the immune system like Arthritis in a way. So we are still very active in bringing awareness and I will be hosting their annual benefit.
RM: How do you think the pages of rock history will remember Twisted Sister?
JJF: Oh man, I do not know. I am yet to figure that out. I do not know what the band’s long term impact will mean to anybody. I know the band is a great live act but the band does not get the credit for being a great live act, the songs I Wanna Rock and We’re Not Gonna Take It are two of the most licensed songs of the 80s. We are in more TV commercials, more movies, more movie trailers, more everything, TV shows, you name it. But I do not know what the legacy will be exactly. I would like the legacy to be that the band was a great band and a great live act and had a huge worldwide following, people came and were able to just enjoy a great professional show, but it is beyond me to really know how that legacy is going to finally be wind up written.
RM: Again, congratulations on all your achievements. On behalf of everyone at Full Throttle Rock I would like to wish you all the best for the future and a heartfelt thank you for all the great music you created with Twisted Sister.
JJF: Well thank you. It is always humbling to me when people reach out. Talk about reaching out, I mean Australia, what a part of the world. The fact that music does this and by the way, let me just say this, because the band plays in 33 countries, because the kids sing our songs around the world it is not a cliché to say that music really does equalize and makes a broad social statement about how people connect through music. But it is always gratifying that people do and it is gratifying that it means enough to you guys to reach out to us and talk to us. So on behalf of the band I just want to tell you it means a lot and we appreciate it.
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