Jay Jay French, lead guitarist founder of the band Twisted Sister, told me how after they sold 20 million albums in the 80s, he was so broke and bankrupt that he had to take a job as a stereo salesman at a store.
“I was also thinking about being a checkout guy at the grocery store.”
“I’d go install stereos and people’s houses and I’d see our records on the shelves and I wouldn’t even say anything to them about who I was. I didn’t want to be a sob story.”
“But, can I ask…did you ever sob during those times?”
He laughed. “Oh yeah.”
He started the band in 1973 and then they first broke up when he walked in on the lead singer at the time aiming a gun at the drummer. “I thought I was about to witness a murder,” he said.
Jay Jay hasn’t had anything to drink since 1970. He met Dee Snider, who became the lead singer, who also never drank or did drugs.
They kept it clean and that’s a critical advantage they’ve had over the other bands. “40 years later,” Jay Jay told me, “we’re the only band where all 5 members have been together for over 30 years without a change.”
The band still tours, filling an average of 60,000 people per appearance.
“The version of the band you see now changed 11 times in the first few years.”
They changed everything to find the right people. Who you are with, knowing that you can trust the people around you, is the most important decision you make every day. Whether it’s a wife, your mentors, your colleagues, the people you do deals with.
Who you choose is more important than what you do.
They were filling out local bars but they couldn’t get a record deal. Finally, they got a deal, they got airplay, they got on MTV, they sold 20,000,000 albums and the rest is history. Until…
Until they went bankrupt. Until Jay Jay had to take a job selling stereos.
“I had to learn to reinvent myself,” he said, “and you never see someone reinventing themselves when they are on the top of their game.”
He sold stereos for three years before a band I never heard of signed him on to produce their album. That band went on to sell 6 million albums. “I made more money than I ever did with Twisted Sister.”
Then he reformed the band, he started licensing the song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and they started touring. “That one song is the most licensed song of the 80s. It’s crazy all the people who are licensing that song. Almost every political movement has licensed that song. Some of them try to not even pay but we always get them.”
“If you could change one thing,” I asked him, “what would you change.”
I knew what he was going to say. He was going to say “Nothing.” I even heard the “N” sound coming out of his mouth so I said, “And don’t say ‘Nothing’. Pretend you are giving advice to a 25-year-old exactly like you.”
“Always do what you say you’re going to do.” He described one transaction where a guy providing lighting for his tour gave him a deal on the lights but trusted him to make payments every week.
“He told me, ‘this is just a verbal agreement and you can break it but then you’re the guy who broke his word to me’ and the guy was the biggest lighting guy in the industry. I didn’t break my word and I still don’t and that’s why the band is still together 40 years later.”
I asked him about when he was doing nothing, when the band had gone bust, when he had lost everything. He could’ve ended up doing nothing for the rest of his life.
“I followed one simple thing: I wrote down ten things I always wanted to do and then I started back from the beginning and built up. I always knew stereos and I always loved music so I started selling stereos.”
Within three years he produced a record, and now two decades after, he’s made millions from licensing ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’.
- Don’t be afraid to start from the beginning. Again and again.
- Always do what you say you’re going to do.
- Be healthy and pick your team to be with people of similar values and health.
- Love what you do. Twisted Sister went ten years performing before they found a label.
“Why did you even need a label?”
“We were selling out to crowds of 5000-10,000,” he said, “so we were making money. But at that time you couldn’t go national without a label. Now it’s different but then there was no way.”
In those ten years they performed 6000 times. He described to me all the disappointments they had along the way. And then that night they would perform again. Being that guy.
The one who does the work no matter what, with the people you chose to work with, being willing to reinvent if necessary, being willing to come back.
I get emails every day that say, “I’m 27 and feel like a failure because I haven’t done anything.”
And then I talk to Jay Jay French. The man who couldn’t take it.