Best known for their 1984 anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” in recent years Long Island’s Twisted Sister has been celebrating a most unexpected musical genre: Christmas.
With the release of 2006’s A Twisted Christmas, the band pounded out some heavy holiday classics played to death by pop acts, and their annual Twisted Christmas Extravaganza has morphed into an annual tradition (the band returns to New York’s Best Buy Theater tomorrow (Dec. 17) with support from Jac&Jill). In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Twisted guitarist Jay Jay French about the success of the shows, the unique appeal of seasonal songs, and a look to the past and the future as the group nears its 40th anniversary.
It’s been five years since the first Twisted Christmas. Did you guys have any inkling that it would turn into the annual tradition that it’s become?
No. When the idea first came up, even when the album was being recorded, was one of trepidation, you know—were we making a huge mistake? That was always something in the back of our minds, because it was a little risky. We had a little idea of how to do it and we pulled it off, obviously, extremely successfully, but there was no way of knowing any more so than knowing whether or not the band was going to be around 40 years later. You just don’t know a lot of these things. That’s the unpredictability of art, and in a way, the beauty of art: For all the cynicism out there, of people who think that everything is so contrived—and rightly so—some things have to take their own course, and confluences of circumstance and coincidence take over, and that’s what makes the beauty of art and creation so important.
For those who haven’t seen A Twisted Christmas, what have you added to it over the years, and how has it evolved over time?
As it will be seen tomorrow at the Best Buy, it’s an elaborate staging of Santa’s Workshop in hell, essentially. And us playing the songs from the record interwoven with our biggest hits so that everybody gets what they want out of this whole thing. But the bottom line is, it’s just fun; it’s a lot of fun. We all take it seriously. You know, we play heavy metal versions of Christmas songs that everybody knows, so it’s easy to sing along, because you know all these songs, and we execute it really well, if I don’t mind saying so myself. It’s very entertaining and a lot of fun, and people will enjoy coming.
Growing up, were there any particular holiday tunes that you’d like to give a shout-out to as a musician?
You know, being a New York Jew, and a conflicted one at that—because my parents had a Christmas tree and a menorah, which only further confused me—there were no songs in particular. I mean, Nat “King” Cole and Mel Tormé’s voices kind of ring, because I’m older, I’m 59; so it goes back to prior to the Phil Spector Christmas album, which kind of changed everything from a rock perspective. Now what happens is, my two favorite records that I play during the holidays are the Phil Spector Christmas album, which is now nearly 50 years old, and the Rat Pack Christmas…so it’s a lot of fun. It’s just the atmosphere of the time—I love the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s; it’s a great time to be in New York, and it’s a great time to spend with family and friends. Generally, it’s just a time more than a particular song.
Other bands have noted that as well: Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, that’s something entwined with it—this music with a strong sense of community and togetherness. It’s one topic that seems to be eternal as far as writing songs around it.
It’s a huge thing in America. It gets derided because of the commercial nature of it; I understand that. [But] if people are like me, you get this real feeling during that period of time. I mean, I have to say that for people who suffer loss between Thanksgiving and New Year’s then it becomes tougher in a way, because you want to celebrate, but you’re also mourning. My mom died on December eighth—ironically, the day of [John] Lennon’s death—so there is that trough there for me, but she died a natural death; it wasn’t a tragic one. Stories that you read, like these four girls who lost their single father who was a cop, they’ll never approach this holiday the same way; they’ll never experience that joy because they’ll be in mourning. It breaks my heart to hear stories like that, because you like to associate this time with something good, and they won’t, and it may be a long, long time before they can, and it’s unfortunate, because this time, for the vast majority of people, brings together family and friends.
Regarding the influence of the Twisted Christmas album, since its release we’ve seen other heavy holiday albums like We Wish You a Metal Xmas, Halford’s Winter Songs, and now Black Label Society has a new EP out. How much of an influence do you think, or do you know, A Twisted Christmas has had on these artists?
[Our] Christmas album was extremely successful, so success breeds—I wouldn’t say copycats, but imitators or homage givers, or—obviously, if the album had bombed nobody would be making a Christmas record, right? This is for sure. I can’t tell you that anybody’s come up to me and said, “Because of what you did, I’m doing mine”—I haven’t heard that, but I can absolutely say unequivocally that if ours didn’t do well then nobody else would, and now everybody has. So I think everyone has realized that Christmas is a safe time to make a record. Maybe it was looked on as something wimpish or lame before we did it and nobody wanted to touch it, then we proved that it was totally cool, so everybody just jumped into the pool. So it’s an honor to have been at the forefront of that.
Do you have any favorites among those other artists?
No, because I really don’t listen to those other records. They could be fine; for all I know, they could be wonderful. Look, let’s go back to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra; that started maybe the phenomenon of a rock band attempting a Christmas song, which was done kind of as an afterthought by a band called Savatage that became Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I don’t think they knew at the time that that transformation of that song [“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”] that did it was going to create such a model of success for them. So you’ve got to give them a lot of credit, too—I mean, when people see [Twisted Sister] I call it the “Transvestite Siberian Orchestra,” for those who wander in and don’t know anything about the band and wonder what they got themselves into.
But you can’t discount what they did; they kind of pioneered it, in a way. We kind of took it to the commercial extreme, because “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” were linked so stylistically closely together…which really works from a melodic standpoint, which is why the single “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and the YouTube video of it has millions of hits on it, exactly because of that reason, because the songs are so identical. So we were fortunate that way, and I just want to give TSO credit for really taking the first steps in this whole thing.
Was “We’re Not Gonna Take It” literally based on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”?
No, Dee [Snider, vocals] didn’t ever think it was until it was pointed out to him by a friend of his, who said, “You do know you took that melody,” and Dee said, “What are you talking about?” And he just transposed it over our song, and it was very, very close. I’m not going to say it was melodically identical, but close enough.
Do you have any plans to do another themed album?
No, there is no plan on making a record.
This is also the 10-year anniversary of Twisted Sister headlining the New York Steel 9/11 benefit. Looking back, what do you remember most about that?
Well, first of all, 10 years—my God, where did it go? Secondly, the fabric of New York was torn apart because of 9/11; it’s still, in a way, frayed. I don’t think there’s anybody who lives in the city or went through it who will ever be the same way again. Look, you could say the same thing for tragedies and World War II—London was bombed, I get all that stuff—but this was a transformational moment in the history of New York, and for those New Yorkers, of which we are, who lived through it and know there’s six degrees of separation. We all know stories to tell leading up to direct contact and relatives who died in that building to people who knew friends who did, the firemen, the policemen and everybody else—you can’t separate it. So 9/11, being the 10th anniversary, brought all that back, and that was crushingly upsetting, but important as a signpost in the history of New York to get over it.
We have accomplished so much in the last eight years, because even after the New York Steel show we didn’t get back together for another couple of years. In the last eight years we’ve released six DVDs and three CDs. We’ve toured the world; in the last year alone, we headlined 13 countries. The band’s influence is bigger around the world than it’s ever been—“We’re Not Gonna Take It” is an international folk song; it’s used by the Tea Party, it’s used by Occupy Wall Street, it’s used by everybody in between. It’s used as a symbol of empowerment and initiatives by governmental organizations around the world, so when we play these songs now and everybody knows who we are around the world, I couldn’t have predicted that ten years ago. As good as I am at predicting many things, I would never have predicted that.
I also wouldn’t have predicted that we would still be here, because every year I thought, “Well, the reunion will last a year and be gone,” and here we are; our last year we played 13 countries, and I don’t know what this new year will bring, but I don’t say “never” anymore. Everything is on the table; we take it as it comes.
Next year, Twisted Sister turns 40. What are the group’s plans?
Well, it’s interesting. The band name will turn 40. Basically, it won’t officially happen until 2013. The first rehearsals were done in ’72—the band didn’t really officially call itself Twisted Sister until around Valentine’s Day, 1973—but even still, yeah, that brings me 40 years into it. Eddie [“Fingers” Ojeda, guitar] comes in two years later. Dee comes in a year after that; it’s gonna be interesting.
I don’t know what plans are, I just know that this 40-year threshold is interesting. There are not that many bands that get there. KISS got there; Alice Cooper got there; Scorpions got there; [Judas] Priest got there; AC/DC got there; you know, we’re there; it’s a kind of heady company. I don’t think any of us ever thought when we started these bands that they’d be lasting 40 years. Certainly, the world did not expect men in their late 50s to go parading around the world with Marshall stacks and blasting heavy metal—I don’t think anybody expected that. So that’s a whole new world, too, and it’s a surprising one. So I’ll take it as it comes. As things get closer, in another year or so, I’ll start thinking what could possibly mark a 40th and how we’ll approach it.
Any other messages as we close out 2011?
Again, Twisted had a great year. It’s been a tough economic time around the world; it’s been tough for our friends in New York. One needs to really always remain humble, because you never know; life is precious. Kiss your kids; they’re really the most important thing. This year I did a lot of fundraising for uveitis, which is this eye disease that my daughter has. You can go to our website or Pinkburstproject.org or Jayjayfrench.com and get a link to the Uveitis Foundation and donate for that. Giving charitable donations is really the key, I think. I am grateful that Twisted Sister gives back in terms of its entertainment value to its fans, so we’re blessed to have them, and I wish all of our fans a very happy and healthy new year.
A Twisted Sister Christmas Extravaganza begins Saturday, Dec. 17 at 8:00 p.m. at the Best Buy Theater, 1515 Broadway (off 44th Street), in New York City. General admission tickets are $35; click hereto purchase. Visit the band online at www.twistedsister.com.
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