We all love an anthem – something that makes everyone stomp their foot and shout along like a drunk uncle in the last hour of a wedding party. Fortunately, heavy metal has produced its fair share.
Here, we’re going to have a look at one of the best examples – ‘We’re not Gonna Take it’ by Twisted Sister. This is a song with quite a few stories attached, as well as a healthy dose of political controversy. So strap in while The Hawk brings it all to life.
Doing it Hard
Twisted Sister are one of those bands that had to do it the hard way. Formed in 1972, they spent a full 10 years schlepping round the club circuit in New York. There were many yanks on the steering wheel over the years – changes in personnel, and (gradually) a heavier style of music.
They had some success, but never put out a record until they formed their own small label and released a couple of singles. One of those somehow found its way to the UK, and onto the desk of Martin Hooker, who ran a small UK record label, Secret Records.
Call it destiny if you want – tired of their ongoing failure to secure a recording deal in the US, the band upped sticks and moved to the UK, where they signed with Secret, and finally released an EP (‘Ruff Cuts’) followed quickly by an album (‘Under the Blade’) both in 1982.
The production was, ahem, basic, and it didn’t pull up any trees commercially – not enough anyway to save Secret records, who went out of business not long afterwards. But it put Twisted Sister on the map, gained them somewhat of a hardcore following, and bought some decent opening slots with bigger names like Motorhead. They were picked up by a bigger label, Atlantic, who would help propel them to mainstream popularity.
But anyway, after putting up with all the crap for so many years as a low status clubbing band, it’s probably no surprise that singer Dee Snider had nurtured an ambition to come up with a heavy metal protest anthem – one that would be a rallying cry for the ages. Snider was desparate to get it right – he started writing what would become ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ way back in 1979.
The chorus came easily, but the rest of the lyrics took time to come together. The band had thought about releasing the single while they were still with Secret Records, but it wasn’t finished, and it ended up featuring on their third album, ‘Stay Hungry’ in 1984.
This would be Twisted Sister’s golden period – ‘Stay Hungry’ was, and still is, the bands biggest ever seller (about 3 million at the last count). But it was ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ that would be the real break out number, in more ways than one. Released as a single, it hit #21 on the US Billboard chart (their best ever) and was successful in many other countries, even hitting the top 10 in a few.
It was most famous (or infamous as it would turn out) for the accompanying video, which was almost a permanent fixture on MTV for a time. Inspired in part by the movie ‘Animal House’, it features a kid wanting to rock but being bawled out for it by his controlling, disapproving father.
Needless to say, the rock instinct can’t be contained – the kid grows into a fully-fledged Dee Snider who takes revenge in a series of cartoon violence incidents. Dad is blasted out of an upstairs window by the power of an amplified guitar strum and knocked over repeatedly by the band marching through a swinging door. (‘Dad’ is played Mark Metcalf, who also played the controlling Niedermeyer in Animal House, and even brings in a couple of the lines from the movie in the part where he’s tearing strips off his delinquent son.
Money, fame, success – Twisted Sister had now arrived. Happy days, right?
Corrupting Our Youth
Well, for most regular people, sure. But not for a certain strand of conservative politician – a group of whom were getting themselves into a lather about evil lyrics corrupting the nation’s youth. Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and future Vice President Al Gore had stumbled across Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’, a song about a dominatrix with overt references to sex and masturbation. Sample filthy lyrics:
I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex friend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
The Dreaded PMRC
Outraged, Gore went on a mission to find out how much more music was out there exposing impressionable young minds to evil influences like sex, drugs and violence. She founded the Parental Music Resource Centre (PMRC) with other like minded and well connected Washington spouses, and together, they put together the famous ‘Filthy 15’, the allegedly most objectionable songs to be found.
It’s not quite true to say that the PMRC were targeting heavy metal – that Prince ditty tops the list of 15, with mainstream pop acts like Sheena Easton and Madonna also included. But metal gets a healthy representation, and The Hawk is happy to say that many of the bands featured on this site are included – Judas Priest, AC/DC, W.A.S.P., Def Leppard, Black Sabbath.
And, of course, Twisted Sister with their ubiquitous ‘We’re Not Gonna Take it’ comes in at #7 on the list, for VIOLENCE.
Now, this is objectively ridiculous. There’s no reference in the lyrics to violence of any kind, and whilst the video features some, you might as well claim that Tom and Jerry were corrupting the nation’s youth. (Maybe Tipper Gore did think that for all The Hawk knows…)
Won’t Someone Think of The Children?
But outraged politicians are not noted for their sense of proportionality, and the PMRC were able to use their connections to set up a full Senate hearing to investigate what they called ‘Porn Rock’, and Dee Snider was invited to give evidence alongside Frank Zappa and US country music legend John Denver.
That level of celebrity meant the hearing was prime time viewing. Zappa turned up in a bespoke Versace suit and put the committee on the back foot right away.
‘Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training programme to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?’Frank Zappa
John Denver then followed up with this gem (to the horror of the committee who must have hoped a true blue country legend would be on their side):
‘The suppression of the people of a society begins in my mind with the censorship of the written or spoken word. It was so in Nazi Germany. It is so in many places today where those in power are afraid of the consequences of an informed and educated people.’John Denver
Snider flew the flag for heavy metal with powerful testimony of his own:
‘The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experiences and dreams into the words. The examples I cited earlier showed clear evidence of Twisted Sister’s music being completely misinterpreted and unfairly judged by supposedly well-informed adults. We cannot allow this to continue.’Dee Snider
As well as the accusations of violence levelled at ‘We’re Not Gonna Take it’, he was referring to claims that Twisted Sister’s ‘Under The Blade’ was connected to sado-masochism and rape, when in fact it was about the fear of surgery that many people experience.
You Picked The Wrong Guy
In inviting Snider to testify, the committee had picked the wrong man. Expecting some f***ed up kid into drugs and violence (as per the stereotype), then got a sober, intelligent 30-something guy, who had been around the block many times and was both tough and articulate. He put out a compelling defense of the free speech rights of musicians.
The upshot was that the PMRC succeeded in getting advisory stickers slapped onto some CD covers, and that led to some de-facto censorship for a time, just as the performers had feared. Some record shops were reluctant to stock the stickered releases, or kept them out back instead of on display. But the hearings had backfired to the extent that free speech in music was now a hot topic, at least as much as the so-called moral depravity. But the finger pointing would not go away for some time – it was the same impulse that led to the famous Judas Priest suicide pact trial.
And obviously, it created endless free publicity for the songs features on the filthy 15 list, which did no harm in establishing ‘We’re Not Gonna Take it’ as the legendary anthem it became. As Snider said at the hearing, it’s a song that leaves plenty of room for audience interpretation – Snider isn’t himself protesting about something specific as he sings the words.
And because of that, the song has gained widespread popularity. Here are Snider’s own words in an interview with Songfacts:
‘We’re Not Gonna Take It wasn’t written with anything specific in mind. Instead, it was something that listeners can interpret on their own and apply to a situation they were in. “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.’Dee Snider
Any old Axe to Grind
It’s true – pretty much anyone with an axe to grind can use the song – and they have.
Advertisers love it, using it for anything from car dealerships to hotels to telecoms to movie trailers and tv. Ditto protesters – it was used as a rallying cry for a teachers’ strike in the US in 2018. Ukrainians have used it in protest at their invasion last year by the Russian military.
More controversially, it’s been co-opted by politicians, often without so much as a ‘by your leave.’ For example, Paul Ryan used it while he was running for vice president in 2012 alongside Mitt Romney. Snider asked him to quit it, saying he’d be voting for Barack Obama. Trump used it in 2016, whipping up that angry white vote. Snider had apparently given permission that time before getting cold feet when people thought he might be in the MAGA camp himself.
Overseas, an Australian windbag named Clive Palmer used a version of it in a TV election campaign, eventually being stung for $1.5 million in a copyright infringement lawsuit.
It’s an issue – you write a relatively generic protest anthem, and pretty much anyone can claim ownership. You get connected with all kinds of causes and conspiracies whether you like it or not. Tired of being pestered by questions on why he’d happily sanction the Ukrainians coopting his song but not the MAGA crowd, Snider put the issue to bed once and for all on Twitter.
No Greater Complement
You take the rough with the smooth. Overall, Snider seems to feel overwhelmingly positive overall about the song and it’s impact. Here he is in an interview with NPR back in 2018:
‘I think, as a songwriter, there’s no greater compliment than to have something you created become part of the fabric of not just the country — of society, of the world. And if it’s a voice for the oppressed in any fashion, my job is done.’
So there you have it – a true classic heavy metal legend. Let’s play out on the extended version in all its comedy glory. Look out for those Animal House lines.
What’s your take on the violence level of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It?’ Parental advisory or regular cartoon? And what about the song – where does it sit in your pantheon of metal anthems? Which ones are better?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.