Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #15

Twisted Sister – We’re Not Gonna Take It

I don’t listen to heavy metal very often, and those times that I do leave me confused about the genre. Classic so-called metal bands like Led Zeppelin seem more like blues rock to me, yet there they are, slotted in next to acts like Motorhead – which more match my expectations for the genre – and hair metal posers like Ratt. The stuff I think of as metal – with words like “speed”, “thrash” and “death” preceding it – has no real appeal to me as a listener.

And yet, my God, I get that appeal. While writing the above paragraph, I had my phone open to Wikipedia to look up subgenres and artists, which I then punched into Spotify for a listen. At this very second, “Prepare for Attack” by Havok is playing, and my heart is racing. I want to run out into the street and punch something, or at least just run and run and run until I fall down exhausted. Now Havok’s “Point of No Return” is on, and I feel slightly different, but still brimming with energy. Crazy evidence of how music can affect us – even music that we don’t much like.

The heavier stuff that I have liked over my listening lifetime falls more on the hard rock side than metal. Bands like Def Leppard (those guys were great – very melodic tunes that still kicked ass) and Guns N’ Roses, or alt metal bands like Faith No More (“Epic”), Korn (“Falling Away from Me”) and Linkin Park (“In the End”) were what I’d play when I wanted some­thing loud. These days, it will be the Sex Pistols first, then Nirvana.

Glam metal bands were always a joke to me, with their fake tough guy act (five minutes of watching Sebastian Stan play Tommy Lee will convince you of how much of a comic set piece Lee was, though it is possible he was at least in on the joke). So, why was Twisted Sister different? They definitely looked ridiculous. And they emerged into the wider public’s aware­ness just a few months after a more conventional-looking set of rockers, Quiet Riot, had hit the Top Ten with “Cum on Feel the Noize”. Why did I like Twisted Sister?

I think it’s because the band knew the whole thing was ridiculous and, rather than pretend otherwise, they steered into the skid. They wore outlandish costumes and cartoonish makeup, and made violently comic videos starring actor Mark Metcalf, whose prior claim to fame was as the villainous ROTC jagoff Douglas Neidermayer (who later met his demise in Vietnam at the hands of his own troops) in “National Lampoon’s Animal House”. They were a band that was obviously having fun, and fun is infectious.

Also, 1984 was a delightfully weird year in popular music, fueled at least in part by the explosion of music videos. Cyndi Lauper and her wrestling-related antics, Steve Perry’s cheeseball “Oh, Sherrie”, the over-the-top head-bobbing glory of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night”, Tracey Ullman with her secret sweetheart Sir Paul McCartney in “They Don’t Know”, the celebrity cameos in “Ghostbusters” because Ray Parker Jr. wouldn’t say the word (a guilty conscience, perhaps?), this nutbar appearance by Matthew Wilder on “Solid Gold”, Rockwell, The Romantics, Nena, and a duet from Willie Nelson and Julia Iglesias.  Prog rock gods Yes had a number one hit. I’m pretty sure that I had “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on a K-tel compilation that also included soap star Jack Wagner’s “All I Need”. WTF was in our water that year?

And what about the song itself? It starts with a straightforward drum intro, then frontman Dee Snider jumps in at the eight-second mark with the title. The song is a howl against the Reagan-era establishment, against other people – mainly older people, like parents and teachers – telling you how to live your life. It isn’t poetry or philosophy, and it is far from profound. It’s just rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s more than enough. 

One of the weird twists of modern life is that Trump-loving right wingers have somehow adopted this song as their anthem, which completely misses the point. When rich white guys think they’re the ones being oppressed, we’ve defi­nitely entered cuckooville. Snider is so not having this bullshit. It’s not about picking a political side: in the 1980s, he went toe-to-toe with Tipper Gore and the PMRC over censorship. Today, he gently takes down dim conservatives on Twitter, where he is a constant source of delight and one of my favourite music industry tweeters (along with Peter Frampton and Richard Marx). He continues to have a great sense of humour about his career.

Twisted Sister had one other lesser hit, then faded out of the limelight without ever really going away. Young people don’t seem to watch videos like we did in the ‘80s, so a band like this might not get the same chance to happen today, although maybe they’d just do the same thing but with Tiktok and a lot fewer shots of C-list actors getting thrown through windows. I’m sure Dee would find a way to make it work.

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