When Twisted Sister Aimed for the Mainstream – and Missed
Rock history is littered with rags-to-riches stories, and even more rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags stories. Few of these have been as extreme as Twisted Sister’s wild ride, however, as they shot to stardom with 1984’s blockbuster Stay Hungry only to crash just as quickly with the follow up Come Out and Play.
In retrospect, frontman Dee Snider said it made sense. “Before Come Out and Play was even finished, the video shot or the world tour begun, all of the pieces were falling into place for a career implosion of epic proportions," he wrote in the autobiography Shut Up and Give Me the Mic.
Only, Snider adds, "we never saw it coming." That's because myriad coinciding forces, both internal and external, seemed to simultaneously conspire against Twisted Sister, creating a perfect storm that turned their hard-won dreams of stardom into a living nightmare.
Twisted Sister had, of course, painstakingly worked their way up the rock and roll food chain, first as a record-setting underground club act then as independent label soldiers and then as major-label stars. Stay Hungry catapulted them to the top in 1984, thanks to smash hits like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” and a cultural juggernaut in MTV.
When compared to all those years of hard and fighting for a single lucky break, the dizzying heights of 1984 seemed like a cakewalk for Snider, guitarists Jay Jay French and Eddie “Fingers” Ojeda, bassist Mark “The Animal” Mendoza and drummer A.J. Pero. But their blind confidence kept them from recognizing, never mind heeding, each warning sign that surfaced as they worked on Come Out and Play.
The first of these involved the band’s choice of producer, Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd, etc.), who verbally accepted the job of replacing Stay Hungry's Tom Werman, only to back out after listening to the original demos, according to Snider's book. Twisted Sister then turned to their second choice, Dieter Dierks (Scorpions, Accept, etc.), and got down to business – first at New York's Hit Factory, and then Los Angeles' Record Plant.
Listen to Twisted Sister Perform 'Leader of the Pack'
Ultimately, Snider said he felt Dierks' overindulgence in studio technology, newly available at the time, left the album sounding dynamically flat. One could just as easily point a finger at the songs themselves, which either lacked the freshness of Twisted Sister’s earlier material or seemed to fly on auto-pilot (see “You Want What We Got," "Lookin’ Out for #1,” etc.).
Several tunes, (including the title track, the leaden “Fire Still Burns” and speedy “Kill or Be Killed”) tried too hard to be heavy. Others, like “I Believe in You” and “Out in the Streets,” were half-baked ballads, lacking hooks. The album's designated singles – “Leader of the Pack” (yep, the golden oldie) and their Alice Cooper-influenced “Be Chrool to Your Scuel" – were dismal failures in the charts.
The second of those singles seemed specifically designed to capture the general public's attention, as Snider recruited an veritable army of celebrity cameos from Alice Cooper, the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer, the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons, Don Dokken and Billy Joel – the latter of whom might have seemed like an odd choice, but for his own earlier work in the proto-metal duo Attila.
Add to this the distraction of the infamous P.M.R.C. hearings, which found Snider joining Frank Zappa and John Denver as a star witnesses against music censorship. It didn't amount of hill of beans, of course, in the long run – other than the advisory stickers which soon became a sad reality of music consumption. But this added round of exposure had Snider edging toward media saturation, with dire future consequences.
Nevertheless, thanks to the multi-platinum achievements of Stay Hungry, advance orders for Come Out and Play were exceedingly strong. So, who could have guessed what fate had in store for Twisted Sister's new LP — their can’t-miss magnum opus — when it arrived on Nov. 9, 1985?
Listen to Twisted Sister Perform 'Be Chrool to Your Scuel'
“Leader of the Pack” was, alas, a beyond-disappointing chart performer. The album’s correspondingly meager sales also revealed a much-broader image problem. Twisted Sister’s hardcore fan base – the so-called “Sick Motherfuckers" – felt alienated by the band’s mainstream success. Meanwhile, newer and more fickle fans were spending their cash on competitors like Motley Crue and Ratt.
The situation only got worse when Twisted Sister's ambitious and expensive Come Out and Play tour of the United States endured ever-softening ticket demand. Even support from Dokken, whose platinum-selling Under Lock and Key had been released on the same day as Come Out and Play, couldn't halt Twisted Sister's tumble. Snider used the excuse of throat polyps – later admitted to be fake – to cancel all remaining dates.
MTV added a final insult to the band’s extensive injuries, banning Twisted Sister's low-concept, high-dollar video for “Be Chrool to Your Scuel,” which featured rising comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite, Alice Cooper (once again) and an army of zombie students. Atlantic Records then suspended support for the album, and Come Out and Play was officially dead.
All that remained was a likewise disappointing European touring run. Twisted Sister returned home to lick their wounds amid lawsuits from concert promoters and merchandisers seeking to recoup advances. One album later, the band disintegrated.
Fortunately, decades later Twisted Sister were rescued by a combination of nostalgia and belated recognition for their enduring songs – to say nothing of their formidable live shows. Still, Twisted Sister’s ambitious Come Out and Play remains a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of superstardom, the dangers of unchecked overexposure, and the dire consequences of underserving one’s core audience at the behest of the mainstream.