The PMRC Hearings With Frank Zappa, Dee Snider And John Denver

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The battle against music censorship in America during the 1980s.

In 1985, the American music industry was under attack from a gaggle of wealthy housewives – the spouses of Senators and such, led by Al Gore’s wife Tipper, who became known as The Washington Wives. Gore was joined by Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius – a cross-party coalition of the concerned, who with nothing better to occupy their time had taken to fretting over the lyrics to rock songs. Well, I say ‘rock’, but the newly-formed Parents Music Resource Center cast their net over a wide variety of music in 1985, when they grabbed headlines and pushed their agenda, an effort to impose a censorship regime on records, music videos and live performance.

For those of us in the UK, the actions of the PMRC – and the panic it caused in the US music industry – seemed rather weird. Not because we had it any better, of course – quite the opposite. The PMRC was primarily about imposing voluntary labelling and a movie-style rating system for record releases, and that didn’t seem the end of the world. In the UK, records by The Anti Nowhere League and A Flux of Pink Indians were being seized by the police and prosecuted under obscenity laws, so labels didn’t seem a massive imposition.

But the PMRC were also trying to stop ‘explicit’ music videos being broadcast – even though USTV was hardly doing that anyway – and, more concerningly, suggesting that record labels reconsider the contracts of artists who dared to use fruity language or discuss unsavoury themes in their lyrics. Denying employment to wrongthinkers was definitely a cause for concern, as was the fact that the issue became a cause for official concern, with congressional hearings into the matter. The possibility of government censorship suddenly loomed large, and there was the ongoing threat that voluntary labelling might soon evolve into mandatory censorship.

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And when you looked at the music that was outraging the PMRC, it was hard not to scoff. The Filthy Fifteen, as they came to be known, were a collection of tracks singled out as the worst of the worst by Gore and her gaggle (complete with the reason why), and what a selection it was: under the ‘sex/masturbation’ category was Prince’s Darling Nikki and Cyndi Lauper’s She Bop; the worst songs dealing with ‘sex’ were Sheena Easton’s Sugar Walls (the PMRC really didn’t approve of Prince, who wrote the song), Vanity’s Strap On ‘Robbie Baby’, AC/DC’s Let Me Put My Love Into You, Madonna’s Dress You Up and the Mary Jane Girls’ In My House; Twisted Sister’s defiant anthem We’re Not Gong To Take It was listed under ‘violence’; Black Sabbath’s Trashed and Def Leppard’s High ‘n’ Dry came under ‘drug and alcohol use’; Mercyful Fate’s Into the Coven and Venom’s Possessed were demonised as ‘occult’; Motley Crüe‘s Bastard was condemned for ‘violence/language’; Judas Priest’s Eat Me Alive was attacked for ‘sex/violence’; and W.A.S.P.’s Animal (Fuck Like A Beast) managed to offend for ‘sex, language and violence’. Well done, chaps.

Why these songs were singled out remains a mystery – you could almost imagine the Wives listening to the radio for the afternoon and listing anything that upset them, but of course Mercyful Fate and W.A.S.P. were not going to be getting radio play, so there does seem to be some research at work. But why Venom’s Possessed was singled out when the band had recorded a whole LP called In League with Satan, how Dress Me Up was seen as naughtier than Like a Virgin or why Trashed was apparently more druggy than Black Sabbath’s whole back catalogue is anyone’s guess. And it’s amusing that while fretting over the sexual content of the Mary Jane Girls’ record, no one noticed the drug reference in their name. All in all, it made Britain’s Video Nasty list seem nuanced and well-considered in comparison.

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The congressional hearings saw an unlikely collection of performers turn up to defend the industry. Frank Zappa, who had engaged in many anti-censorship battles over the years, was a natural, but country star John Denver was less expected – that he showed up to defend the right to free expression, while other acts more at risk of censorship said and did nothing, is notable. Dee Snider, of Twisted Sister, is perhaps most impressive – clearly, the committee expected a neanderthal, long-haired heavy metal singer, and instead they got an articulate, serious, passionate speaker. Perhaps more than anyone, Snider helped tip public opinion away from the more extreme aspects of the PMRC’s demands.

The hearing did bring out more madness, some of which you can enjoy below – more songs were singled out for often bizarre misinterpretation, like Twisted Sister’s Under the Blade, which was somehow interpreted as glorifying “sadomasochism, bondage and rape”, while Senator Paula Hawkins presented album covers by Wendy O. Williams, Def Leppard and W.A.S.P. as beyond the pale, suggesting that artwork was also in the sights of the PMRC. At times, the hearing took on the hysteria of the 1950s comic book trials, with speakers fretting about adolescents pouring obsessively over the lyrics of heavy metal songs. It is perhaps unsurprising that all this was taking place at the same time as the blind and ignorant panic over backward masking, and just as the Satanic Panic was kicking into gear.

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Shocking cover art, apparently

In the end, the hearings did very little. Record labels voluntarily agreed to place warning labels on album sleeves – well, of course they did. Without any legal weight, the labels did nothing to stop kids buying the records, but instead acted as an advertisement that the disc would contain juicy material that would upset your parents. Many acts embraced the warnings as a new form of advertising, and the fact that they started appearing on international releases was telling. Hilariously, one of the first albums to have the ‘explicit content’ warning imposed on it was Zappa’s Jazz from Hell, which was an album of entirely instrumental pieces… a misguided punishment, perhaps, for being a thorn in the side of the authoritarians.

DAVID FLINT

Enjoy the Filthy Fifteen here:

https://spotify.com/playlist/03u0JNCSqyrkLnXSu6K1d4?si=HkV0GYvNQFiRq9pEJJLzOg

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One comment

  1. Great piece. I still vividly remember (and have on videotape somewhere) an edition of the Oprah Winfrey Show on which Jello Biafra and Ice-T defended their own music, and that of many other groups, against accusations of “evil intent”. Tipper Gore was also on the panel and projected a softly softly, concerned hand-wringing uber-parent image but got massively flustered when taken to task by Biafra. Let’s not forget that Biafra and the other Dead Kennedys were dragged through the courts on the back of the PMRC hoohah, which effectively financially crippled and spelt the end for one of the best trouble making bands in rock history. So damage was definitely done. Biafra summed up the PMRC perfectly on Oprah, saying “they prey on the fears of parents who are too chicken to talk to their own kids.”

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