Monday, October 17, 2016

The Greatest CDs of All-Time: "Stay Hungry" by Twisted Sister (1984)

Paying homage to one of - if not the absolute best - hair metal albums of all-time!

By: Jimbo X

I’m one of those guys who goes through musical seasons. Over the years – at one point or another – I’ve been into pretty much every genre you can think of: J-Pop, grindcore, underground hip-hop, alt-country, cruddy 1980s heroin punk, early ‘90s sludge thrash, latchkey kid pre-9/11 nu-metal – heck, there was even a period where I actually listened to and enjoyed U2. The thing is, I tend to lose interest in these genres almost as fast as I get into them. Oh, I may be super hardcore into early ‘80s pre-grunge for three or four months, but by the time I’ve heard all of The Replacements’ albums and bought Mission of Burma’s Vs. on vinyl, I just stop caring and move on to the next aural flavor.

As such, there are very, very few bands that I can say I’ve consistently been “into” over the years. But no matter what style I may have been into – be it Norwegian death metal, Southern crunk, late 1970s U.K. power pop or whatever the fuck you are supposed to call what Merzbow does – Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry has never fallen out of rotation in my musical library. At a brisk 34 or so minutes in length and sans a single superfluous track, the 1984 album truly is one of the best start-to-finish genre albums of the decade, a CD that - in my humblest o' opinions - has actually aged better than just about any other universally celebrated heavy metal album from the era. It doesn't feel gloriously dated like Slayer's earlier discography, the production values are better than any of Anthrax's Reagan-era offerings and for my money, the bombastic, tongue-in-cheek pop-metal sound is certainly more inviting than the muddy, tinny, poorly-recorded sonic assaults of even the '80s best death metal outfits, including heavy hitters like Possessed and Venom. While Stay Hungry is the kind of album you can listen to all-year-round (it's great background noise for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I can attest), it's especially essential music come Halloween-time, and with Twisted Sister completing the final legs of their farewell tour, I reckoned it is lost past time we gave this mini-metal-masterpiece the much overdue, track-by-track praise it deserves. Jack in your headphones, amigos y amigas ... it's time to rock out like Tipper Gore is going to ban us tomorrow.

Track One:
"Stay Hungry"

We begin the album, fittingly enough, with the title track, which has to be one of the all-time classic opening ass kickers in metal history. One of the things that always struck me about Twisted Sister - despite being disparaged as goofs and anarchists and devil worshipers or whatever other stupid bullshit the PMRC though they were - is how incredibly uplifting their music is. While other metal bands were singing about the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Satanic slaughter and furtive allegories for sodomy, tracks like "Stay Hungry" are emblematic of the band's general "never give up, always be positive" message. Indeed, lyrics like "and if you start to slide, never show you're weak / don't feel you've got to hide, remember what you're fighting for, remember what you see" are some of the most inspirational and empowering you will find within the musical subgenre. I recall an interview in which Dee Snider said the inspiration for the song was, of all things, the 1976 Ah-nold vehicle Stay Hungry, but really, you can extrapolate any kind of meaning to the song you want, even if you're not you're trying to win the Mr. Olympia contest. If at any point in your life you are feeling down and out - whether you are failing math class, just lost your job or going through a divorce - this is the kind of uplifting message you need to hear; stick to it, don't surrender, keep kicking ass. And needless to say, that's a power of positive thinking endorsement that's about a million times more effective considering Jay Jay French's absolutely bad ass soloing.

Track Two:
"We're Not Gonna' Take It"

Well, I really don't need to tell you anything you don't already know about "We're Not Gonna' Take It," do I? The second track, for better or for worse, is Twisted Sister's flagship song, and the thing the band will be remembered for 100 years after all the members are dead. And despite the song being played everywhere from the first Iron Eagle movie to being covered by Bif Naked for a stupid WCW movie, it's still an immensely enjoyable song you can't help but crank up every time you hear it. Yes, it's goofy, it's cheesy and it's corny, but there's no way you can avoid the magnetic pull and appeal of the song. We've been rocking out to this song for 30 years, and something tells me we're going to be rocking out to it 300 years from now, as well. And yes, you do need the music video in your life, right this second.

Track Three:
"Burn In Hell"

Track three is one of the really great atmospheric headbangers of the 1980s. Unlike bands like Slayer and Death - whose M.O. was to aurally bombard you with wailing guitars and indecipherable lyrics - Twisted Sister instead used a more Iron Maiden-esque approach, carefully structuring their songs into clear, cohesive narratives. "Burn in Hell" is just a tremendously arranged tune, which starts of very slow, chunky and breathy, and then ... "you gonna' burn in hell!" Dee Snider really hits some high notes while belting his way through this one, and the drum work by A.J. Pero is just outstanding. And while the title seems to suggest this is your dime a dozen, Tipper Gore-baiting devil worshiping ballad, the actual lyrics are anything but an ode to the Dark Lord. Rather, the song is sort of a warning to people who engage in nefarious, self-centered, unscrupulous doings. "Take a good look in your heart and tell me what you see," Dee expresses at one point in the track. "It's black and it's dark, now is that how you want it to be?" So yes, rather than being an ode to evil, "Burn in Hell" is actually an indictment against evil, with the title itself referring to the ultimate punishment awaiting those who think they're getting away with foul play ... which, in a weird manner, makes "Burn in Hell" one of the most Christianity-aligned tracks in the history of heavy metal music! (And yes, in case you are wondering ... this is indeed the song from Pee Wee's Big Adventure.)

Track Four:

Now we're getting into the deep stuff with track four. "Horror-teria" is effectively two different songs superglued together, "Captain Howdy" and "Street Justice," which kinda' sorta' carry the same narrative about a psycho child murderer who shares the same name as the demon from The Exorcist who gets apprehended by law enforcement, is released on a technicality and eventually lynched by angry townsfolk. Now, if that sounds awfully familiar, it should, because it's pretty much the basis for the 1998 film Dee Snider directed and starred in called Strangeland (which, to this day, I will defend as one of the most underappreciated horror offerings of the 1990s - and it's WAY better than anything that hack Rob Zombie has cranked out, for sure.) However, the "plot" for "Horror-teria" also eerily mirrors the premise for the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie ... except Stay Hungry was released a good six months before the first Freddy Krueger movie hit theaters! Anyhoo, this is just a good, spooky track, absolutely ideal for any and all Halloween get-togethers ... hell, it's such a great track, why not break it out for Christmas and Easter get-togethers, too, for that matter!

Track Five:
"I Wanna' Rock"

And here's the other Twisted Sister song everybody's familiar with. While I prefer "We're Not Gonna' Take It" as the band's signature, idiosyncratic, balls-out, fist-in-the-air stadium rock anthem, this one does have the benefit of offering more inspired guitar work from Jay Jay French, and I've always considered the accompanying music video to be the best the band ever produced (although their duet with Alice Cooper, "Be Crool to Your Scuel" is pretty fucking boss, too.) And if you're looking for a track that has had pervasive media influence, this song has been featured EVERYWHERE, from Avis car rental commercials to being parodied in the first SpongeBob movie. Hell, Mr. French even re-wrote the song in 2008 as a political jingle for Obama's first presidential run - titled, fittingly enough, "I Want Barack.

Track Six:
"The Price"

I'm not going to lie to you, folks: my final semester in college, there wasn't a morning that went by that I didn't crank this one all the way up before classes. As far as I am concerned, this track rivals Bill Conti's soundtrack from the first Rocky movie as the most inspirational piece of music I've ever heard. In a genre absolutely glutted with prurient, infantile gore and T&A imagery, it's tracks like "The Price" that really made Twisted Sister stand out from the herd of '80s hair metal bands. It's a deeply emotional song, with quite possibly the most panged vocals of Dee Snider's career (and this is coming from a guy whose version of "Wasted Years," IMHO, is even more powerful than Bruce Dickinson's!) This has to be one of the ten greatest metal ballads ever written, maybe even top five. And in case you couldn't tell, this is easily my favorite Twisted Sister song - and quite possibly my favorite metal song from the 1980s altogether.

Track Seven:
"Don't Let Me Down"

Just how stacked is this album? So stacked that we have to wait until track seven before finding a cut that isn't a hair metal staple. Admittedly, it's probably the most formulaic song on the entire album (even though it's still better than a good 80 percent of the 80s' pop-metal tracks out there), but that doesn't mean it isn't a toe-tapper. Indeed, this song features some of the most frenzied fret-work of the entire Twisted Sister discography ... and holy shit, does Dee Snider do a killer David Coverdale impersonation on this one. 

Track Eight:
"The Beast"

Easily the most cryptic song on the entire album. I mean, on the surface, it's about some sort of stalking ... thing ... after its quarry, but you're not really sure if the titular character is supposed to be something clearly inhuman (like a shark or a Bigfoot) or a serial killer. Overall, I'd consider this my least favorite song on the album, but it nonetheless has its moments - especially the part where Dee pronounces "predator" in a way that it rhymes perfectly with "Minotaur." 

Track Nine:

And we wrap up our half hour whirlwind of headbanging awesomeness with one final fists-and-middle-fingers in the air guitar rock anthem. While "S.M.F." never got heavy airplay back in the day (I suppose a big part of that is the fact that it stands for "sick motherfucker"), it's no doubt a riotous little number that serves as perhaps the ultimate 1980s hair metal closer. It's short, it's fast, it's to the point, it's slightly opaque and it makes you want drive fast and break glass, for no discernible reason whatsoever. Yeah, Steve Reich or Miles Davis this stuff may not be, but just try to listen to it without the "devil horns," as if by second nature, assembling on your hands. It's exactly what rock and roll used to - and should always - be: loud, boisterous and extraordinarily defiant, if only for the sake of being loud, boisterous and extraordinarily defiant.

What do I wanna' do with my life? I WANNA' BLOG!

So there you have it folks, easily one of the greatest 1980s metal offerings ever. Indeed, a good two-thirds of the album isn't just great, it's absolute genre-defining, decades-best music - which is something you really can't even say about most of the hardcore thrash titans' '80s discographies. OK, so maybe Stay Hungry isn't Master of Puppets or Reign In Blood, but it definitely holds up better than most heavy metal albums from the era. And off the top of my head, I can't think of a single stadium rock/pop metal CD from the decade that comes anywhere close to outdoing this one on a track-by-track basis.

I've you've never heard this thing all the way through before, what are you waiting for? Simply put, this is one of those albums you need to have in your record collection - be it vinyl or entirely cloud-based - and on-call at any moment. If banging heads is your thing, you no doubt already adore this one - and if you're looking for a good entry point to the best 80's pop metal had to offer, outside of the tried and true Monster Ballads? This is as good a place as any to start your Spandex and denim-jacketed journeys, you Johnny Come Lately, you. 


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