Songwriter Interviews

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister

by Carl Wiser

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From 1999-2001, I worked with Dee Snider at a corporate radio group in Hartford, where he hosted a morning show. (His station was Modern Rock; mine was Classic Rock. I would sometimes find myself playing a Twisted Sister song while he was in the studio next door.) He's very alpha, approachable but clearly in charge. He's listed at 6' 1", but I swear he's three inches taller, which is either a trick of tailoring or an illusion created by his presence (or maybe his hair). He's sober and efficient, but favors crazy, attention-grabbing stunts, like when his sidekick ate a placenta on the air. Having Dee Snider in the office was fun, especially at the Christmas parties.

The documentary We Are Twisted F***ing Sister!, directed by Andrew Horn and available on DVD and Digital February 23 (play the clip for an exclusive look), shows how Snider became the rock equivalent of a WWE Superstar. On stage, he used his between-song banter to berate audience members who weren't showing proper enthusiasm and to praise those who knew the two albums leading up to their 1984 breakthrough Stay Hungry - the one with "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock." The one with only one band member on the cover, and only one songwriter on the credits.

Twisted Sister had been around for three years when Snider joined in 1976. He quickly asserted his dominance, wresting control of the songwriting from guitarist Jay Jay French. The turning point came early on when he brought in a song, and French blew him off. From there, Snider soberly and efficiently wrote song after song. "My sole purpose was to obliterate Jay Jay French and his songs, and take over songwriting completely," he says in the film. "I was maniacal and malicious."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Have you seen the final cut of this film?

Dee Snider: I think so. I was at the screening for the fans and investors and the band in New York City, so I assume that was the cut.

Songfacts: What did you think of it?

Snider: It's very tough to be objective. It's my life, you know. I'm too connected to the material, so I really just look to the audience to see what they think of it.

Songfacts: Was there anything that surprised you or that you learned that you didn't know?

Snider: No. I lived everything. I lived it all and I've heard Jay Jay's stories before. [Laughing] Believe me, we've been regaled with the tales of the "original band." I've got the quotation marks going on. I say, you know what? You should go on a tour with the original band, and me and the replacements will go out and we'll see who draws more people.

So, no, there were no surprises there.

Songfacts: Did you have any creative control of this film?

Snider: No. None at all. That was one thing we agreed upon. We supported the making of it. We even did a show to raise money to help Andrew Horn after, like, three years of trying to do it on his own. We encouraged fans to support it.

But one thing we said was, we will not tell Andrew what the story is. We knew it could go a number of ways. He's very much an outsider - he wasn't a Twisted fan, as he's said. He wasn't even really aware of the band beyond a couple of things, and he sort of fell upon the story while researching a documentary on Klaus Nomi. So we said, you know, this is going to be the most objective, uninfluenced point of view that we could possibly have, so we just let him do his thing.

Snider wrote the screenplay for the 1998 horror film Strangeland, where he stars as Captain Howdy, a boogyman who uses chat rooms to lure victims into his traps.
Songfacts: Well, you've been on the other side of the camera with Strangeland, so you know all about framing and editing and stuff like that. So I'm wondering if it drove you nuts while it was being made and then watching it.

Snider: No, no. The filming is done in classic documentary style where you just set up the cameras and they film you. You see the frame on camera and everything's shot in that way. Everything else was historical footage. There was nothing shot for the thing except for the interviews.

And it's documentary. I don't do documentaries, so it's a different thing.

Songfacts: Not a lot of people know this about you, but you are a classically trained vocalist.

Snider: Originally, yes.

Songfacts: Contralto tenor or something?

Snider: Countertenor, they call it. It's a male soprano.

Songfacts: What is your training in songwriting?

Snider: My training in songwriting is just school of hard knocks. Purely learning by doing it. And like any craft, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

But I worked at it. By the time I got to Stay Hungry, I had become studied in not just heavy metal, but in popular heavy metal. Doing analyses of bands who were having great success, Def Leppard in particular. Mutt Lange in his work with AC/DC, Def Leppard - god, he's worked with so many other people, but those were the two big metal bands he worked with. And analyzing song structure and things like that.

Songfacts: Were there any specific songs that you looked to emulate?

Snider: "I Wanna Rock" was designed when I realized that Iron Maiden was having tremendous success with their sort of galloping metal rhythms, and then there was the anthemic thing that I like to do, which bands like AC/DC do, and one of my biggest influences, especially in that area, Slade. I thought that if I could combine the drive of a Maiden song with the anthemic quality of an AC/DC song, I'd have a fucking huge hit. And I was right. [Laughing] I was right.

"We're Not Gonna Take It" was influenced by a lot of different things, like the Sex Pistols and Slade and bands like that. But I had the hook for that song in 1980, so I always laugh when people say, "Oh, that's when Twisted sold out." I say, "Yeah, 1980 when I had absolutely nothing and I was broke, I wrote that hook."

But I couldn't finish the song. I could never figure out how to write a verse for it. And in studying some of Mutt Lange's work with Def Leppard, I saw that a number of their songs were using variations on the chorus as a verse. I said, Oh, that's interesting. Why don't we try doing something with that.

And that gave me the information I needed to come up with the rest of "We're Not Gonna Take It," and hence that song has done pretty well.

Songfacts: Well, "We're Not Gonna Take It" has some brilliant songwriting in there. At one point in the song, you take that line that the authority figure always says to the underling, "If that's your best, your best won't do," and you turn it around and aim it right back at them and let them know that their life is boring and confiscated and what are you going to do about it?

Snider: Yeah, that's pretty big words for a teen anthem, right? Trite and jaded, boring and confiscated. There's certainly the tail wagging the dog there, for sure. And definitely firing back the same exact words at them in a sort of who-are-you-to-judge-me sensibility.

Songfacts: Were those songs directed at anybody in particular?

Snider: Well, I always said that the job of the songwriting should be to create something that people can interpret and put their own situation into and read their own concerns or passions or worries. Not to be super specific.

"Funky Claude" is Claude Nobs, co-founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival and the man who helped evacuate the crowd when the Montreux Casino caught fire (set ablaze by "someone stupid with a flare gun") during Frank Zappa's set. Deep Purple, scheduled to record their Machine Head album at the casino after Zappa's concert, watched the smoke rise from Lake Geneva and wrote a very famous song about the whole mess.
There are, of course, some very successful songs that are super specific, like "Smoke On the Water," which is literally about a fire. And when it gets down to naming names, I actually one day met Funky Claude in the weirdest of introductions. You know, the line in the song, "Funky Claude was running in and out." I was at a business event and my manager says, "Dee, I'd like you to meet somebody." And this little white-haired gentleman in a suit comes up. He goes, "This is Funky Claude." And I said, "As in 'was running in and out'?" And he goes, "Yeah, pulling kids from the ground." I'm like, "Holy shit!" I thought that was an imaginary character - it's actually a person.

But for the most part, songs lean towards being general, and that was always key for me with lyrical content. So with "We're Not Gonna Take It," whether I was singing about my parents, my teachers, my bosses, my peers, people around me, I felt it was important not to define it by actually naming names and singing, "Dad, you're so trite and jaded, I hate my teachers, too." And thus, the song has had a life in sporting events, at political rallies, at protests, pretty much anybody who's not taking something from somebody else, they're going to break into "We're Not Gonna Take It" all over the world.

Songfacts: "I Wanna Rock" has that similar universal feel to it. That song structurally is remarkable. That's a master class on how you write an anthem. You blast out with the chorus and you've got these great little vocal melodies in the pre-chorus that let you use that classical training. I'd like to get your thoughts on how you structured that song.

Snider: You know, the songs are inspired. They're not thought out. "We're Not Gonna Take It" was an exception in that regard that I discovered something through song analysis and tried to use it. But as I sang the verse of the song, it just led without any thought, just poured out the B verse. And the "whoa, whoas," that part, it just came out. It just flowed out. All my songs are like that. "I Wanna Rock" was the same way.

I wrote all of Twisted's songs by myself and I would work off song titles. I would just sit with my list of song titles and the title would inspire a groove, or maybe an idea. In the case of "I Wanna Rock," I wanted to have that Maiden feel, and I just started singing that groove. All of a sudden I just started singing, and the entire song came out: A verse, B verse, chorus, all that stuff. So I really don't construct songs.

Arrangements is a different thing, but that comes with the producer's involvement, the band's involvement, when you have ideas on how you're going to arrange it and sequence it. And with some songs I have to go back and say, "Hey, we really could use a release on this part, a middle 8 as they call it." And I go back and come up with something.

But I have been blessed with what I call a faucet-like creative force that I can turn on or turn off. I could just constantly write. I learned to just stop thinking about it unless I was prepared to put it to tape or in some capacity, because I would forget the great ideas and it would make me nuts. So I wouldn't think about it.

The Stay Hungry record, with the exception of the chorus of "We're Not Gonna Take It" and the song "The Price," I wrote that album in 45 minutes. That was the essence of the entire album. My wife was going to the store to get dinner, and my son, who was a baby, he was sleeping in the crib. My wife said, "Hey, I'm running out for food. Keep your eye on Jesse." She went out and I said, "This might be a good time to do some writing, Jesse's sleeping."

So I got my title list and I turned on the tape recorder. I remember standing in front of the tape machine. Roll tape. And I just sang ideas from these song titles. And when my wife came back, she said, "What did you do?" I said, "I wrote some songs. I think I got some good stuff." And that was the Stay Hungry album in 45 minutes. So I've been blessed that way.

But it's never been really contrived. I might have an idea to do a song with this feel or that feel, but writing the parts has never been that thought out.

Songfacts: What happened with "The Price"? You said that's one that didn't flow right out of that batch.

Snider: I wrote it after. For the first three albums, there was so much downtime when we were recording, I would be working on ideas for the next album. So You Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll was being written while we were recording Under the Blade, and when we were recording You Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll, I was working on the songs for the next album, Stay Hungry. I wish I kept doing that. I broke that pattern, and that was a big mistake in hindsight, because what that did was make sure all the records were created in a hungry place. Under the Blade, we were struggling, and I was writing You Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll. You Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll, we hadn't had Hit 1 yet, and I'm writing Stay Hungry.

When we were recording Stay Hungry, we had a hit single in England ["I Am (I'm Me)"], but we hadn't had a gold album of any kind. I should have been writing the next album, but there were some issues at that point within the band - we were starting to come apart. And Mark Mendoza, who used to be the vanguard over producers and sit with them and make sure that they were doing the right thing, he had in silent protest stopped doing that, because he couldn't stand that we were using Tom Werman as our producer. So I was assigned the job of sitting and making sure Tom Werman didn't destroy the band, which he was hell-bent on doing.

Lightning has struck 15 times with Tom Werman. He gets mental when I say that, but it's true. He's a very good A&R guy and he really is a shrewd businessman, but he's not on any level a good producer. But he's had a gazillion platinum albums. I know, it makes no sense at all.

So anyway, we were recording You Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll. I was working on the songs for Stay Hungry from that 45-minute session, and I got inspired. I had been away from home for four months from my wife and my son, and not even in a position to pay for a phone call. That's how hungry the band was. I wrote "The Price," inspired by those feelings at that time. But it was not part of the original 45.

The phone rang in the studio. I answered it. It was Jay Jay's sister-in-law. She'll tell this story forever - it's her claim to fame. She was calling to speak to Jay Jay, and she said, "How's it going, Dee?" I said, "Well, I'm feeling pretty blue. I haven't seen Suzette and Jesse in months now." And she goes, "Well, I guess that's the price you have to pay."

I handed the phone to Jay Jay and I grabbed my handheld tape recorder. I went into the bathroom and sang "The Price." Just top-to-bottom, melodically - not every word. The whole song just poured out of me.

A lot of times some of the key lines will come out of me as well, and if lines do come out of me, I like to use them as a jump-off point for the rest of the lyrics. I usually keep those handful of lines that do come out, you know, [singing], la la, ladada, hey, and all the games we gotta play, da da da dada. When something like that happens, I put that line in there, and I figure out how the rest builds around that line.

Songfacts: I read a review in one of those British magazines that gave your first album, Under the Blade, their highest rating. Then I realized you guys weren't signed yet, even though every indication was pointing at you guys being the next big thing. What was going on there?

Snider: Internationally we were signed to a British indie label called Secret Records, so there was product for a very short window. As a matter of fact, Secret Records, from the time they released the record in September, within two months they had gone bankrupt. So we didn't have an international deal, for sure.

Songfacts: And no American label figured out to sign you at this point?

Snider: Look, industry people are noncreative and not risk takers, for the most part. There's a handful of these people who are willing to put it all on the line and continue to put it on the line. People don't like to take chances. They want to go with a safe thing.

Your Clive Davises and your Ahmet Erteguns, they have a history of saying, "I don't care, I like this, I'm doing this." You look at Clive Davis' signings and it's Hendrix, it's Aerosmith, it's Janis Joplin, it's Mariah Carey, it's Whitney Houston. It's crazy, the stuff he has. But most people are afraid, to quote Blazing Saddles, for their phoney baloney jobs. They don't want to take a chance.

You've got to realize, this was the early '80s. There was no Mötley Crüe, there was no Ratt, there was no Poison, there was no hair metal. We were a metal band wearing the makeup and costumes. Even Kiss had taken their shit off. It was a holdover from the glitter era of a decade earlier, and it was not the trend. It was not what was going on. As a matter of fact, it was something that probably held us back a great deal.

Jason Flom takes credit for signing the band. He did not. He's a dear friend and I love him, and he would have if he could have, but he literally got his job threatened by Doug Morris. He was told if he mentioned our band's name again, he would be fired. And to his credit, he still went and told Phil Carson about the band. And Phil Carson wound up seeing us and said, "Holy crap! This is that band Jason was talking about and man, they are really something!"

It took a Phil Carson, who was the head of Atlantic Records in England, someone with that much clout but still a man who trusted his instincts, to sign the band against the wishes of Atlantic US, which was Doug Morris. Doug Morris had rejected us about five times personally and threatened people's jobs because he was so sick of hearing about Twisted Sister.

Phil Carson, who is my manager to this day, he signed AC/DC, he signed ABBA, he signed YES, Genesis, ELP, Foreigner. He's one of those record company legends and a guy who knows his own mind. That's the kind of person it took, and those are the people who will take chances and sign.

We are the first hair band. Like I said, these other bands weren't around. Look at it. I mean, Quiet Riot was around. To their credit, I would say they were the West Coast Twisted Sister: a band hanging onto remnants of the glitter era, playing the bar scene on their coast, hugely popular within their community yet unable to get arrested. I didn't even know about Quiet Riot, but they were on the West Coast doing the same thing.

Songfacts: Was your look based on the name of the band, the whole idea of a twisted sister?

Snider: The name of the band came from the look, essentially. Twisted Sister formed in 1973 as a glitter band inspired by the New York Dolls and David Bowie, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, bands like that. They're from New Jersey, assumed the classic glam rock look, the androgynous look of the era. They were called Star.

But they were thinking they wanted a new name, and the original singer, who was out on a binge, out drinking, he woke Jay Jay up in the middle of the night with a classic drunk person's name. He said [in classically super-drunk voice], "Jay Jay, I got the perfect name, it's Twisted Sister." I mean, think about that. It's a real drunk guy's phraseology, you know.

And Jay Jay's like, "What?" He goes, "Twisted Sister. Twisted." So he got the idea for the name based on the fact that they were these dudes wearing women's clothing. So really, the look begat the name, not vice versa.

Songfacts: Did you ever consider bringing in Desmond Child and writing a ballad?

Snider: You know, I wrote ballads on every album Twisted did. "The Price," that was one of our biggest songs, and it certainly falls into the ballad category. So I did plenty of ballads. I always felt that heavy metal and the ballad work very well together, because heartbreak is a powerful emotion, and violins and folk guitars do not capture heartbreak the way a power chord and a thunderous drum roll can. The pain of a broken heart is much better expressed by some guy in a high screeching voice screaming his lungs out, because that's really the drama of heartbreak. It's not quiet. It's not solitary. You may express it in public that way, but internally, you are screaming. And so I think that's why metal always connected with the ballad.

But I was always champion of the ballad, and we had our brush with the ballad thing. So I never thought about bringing in Desmond.

Songfacts: You were talking about how you're a male soprano, essentially. Did you write specifically to that range to give you that special sound when you sang these songs?

Snider: Well, it's tough to say which came first, the chicken or the egg. I started singing choir the same time I started singing in rock bands. I was in the glee club in elementary school and I was already singing - not professionally, but I had a band. So they were sort of simultaneous.

In rock and roll, especially back in the old days, it's so loud and you had no monitors. You had your PA system, and the only way you could be actually heard over the guitars was to sing really loudly, and low notes didn't cut. High notes are the only thing that cut, so I gravitated towards singing where I could hear it, and that tended to be up in the upper register.

Now, was that the case of a lot of singers of the era? Robert Plant and Ozzy were singing up in the upper register, and then that became the thing. You know, Deep Purple and all the bands from that era, people sang high. So I don't know if it's because they all came from the same place, or they started to feed on each other.

When the bands got heavier with more distorted guitar, that guitar competed directly with the same frequencies as the voice, the vocal frequencies, so you had to compete against the guitar. And thus, I'm working my range up higher and higher, and I'm going back into the choir and I'm singing higher. Because now it's a muscle - I've developed it and I worked it to the point where I could sing high.

Songfacts: What's the Twisted Sister song that deserves more attention?

Snider: Twisted Sister song that deserves more attention... gee, there's a whole shitload of them.

[Pause]

I'm thinking.

[Pause]

We only got attention on two or three or four songs, so there's too many to mention, but "I Am (I'm Me)" should have gotten a lot more. It was our first hit in England, but it never got released in the States, and it could have been as big as "We're Not Gonna Take It" as a rock anthem. And it's one of my favorite songs statement-wise.

February 18, 2016
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