Frank Zappa & The PMRC Hearings

Frank Zappa & The PMRC Hearings

On September 19, 1985, a circus sideshow was held in Washington, DC. Free speech and freedom of expression were under attack. The Parents Music Rights Commission, founded by four women - Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; 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 - sought to arbitrarily destroy artistic expression in the United States by empowering government officials to censor any art they deemed worthy of censorship.

Three music industry artists provided testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on “the subject of the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.” 

The artists in question were Twisted Sister’s lead singer Dee Snider, folk-music hero John Denver and legendary maverick Frank Zappa

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Speak Your Mind

Before Zappa was able to begin his testimony, Senator J. James Exon suggested that though he wasn’t in favor of censorship, he did support a “voluntary arrangement of some kind to police the music industry.” It was a fitting comment by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Exon clarified that unless artists and record labels could arrange a “free-enterprise solution,” he would support the proposed legislation. 

Zappa began by reciting the First Amendment to the Constitution before cutting to the chase; it was a beautiful moment. Reading from his prepared statement, he said: 

“The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design…

“No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently, they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication. Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola. Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of 'toilet training program’ to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few.”

He mentions Prince and Sheena Easton because they were two of the fifteen artists who were placed on a list of artists responsible for releasing the “most objectionable songs” of that time. The list was referenced as the “Filthy Fifteen,” and it included the following artists/songs: 


#

Artist

Song title

Lyrical content

1

Prince

"Darling Nikki"

Sex/masturbation

2

Sheena Easton

"Sugar Walls"

Sex

3

Judas Priest

"Eat Me Alive"

Sex/violence

4

Vanity

"Strap On 'Robbie Baby'"

Sex

5

Mötley Crüe

"Bastard"

Violence/language

6

AC/DC

"Let Me Put My Love Into You"

Sex

7

Twisted Sister

"We're Not Gonna Take It"

Violence

8

Madonna

"Dress You Up"

Sex

9

W.A.S.P.

"Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)"

Sex/language/violence

10

Def Leppard

"High 'n' Dry (Saturday Night)"

Drug and alcohol use

11

Mercyful Fate

"Into the Coven"

Occult

12

Black Sabbath

"Trashed"

Drug and alcohol use

13

Mary Jane Girls

"In My House"

Sex

14

Venom

"Possessed"

Occult

15

Cyndi Lauper

"She Bop"

Sex/masturbation

 

 

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Senator Paula Hawkins seized an opportunity to show the videos for Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” and “We're Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, assuming they would trigger some long-overdue awakening and debauchery would be exposed. Clearly, she was unembarrassed by the move, so she doubled down by saying: 

“Much has changed since Elvis' seemingly innocent times. Subtleties, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult.”

“Elvis' seemingly innocent times..”? Rape, heavy drug use, and occultism were commonplace in the entertainment industry in the 1950s, as was racism. Imagine being so ignorant. 

Zappa took the opportunity to invite her to his home to see “what kind of toys his children were playing with” during a notable altercation and pulled no punches through the remainder of his testimony: 

“While the wife (Susan Baker) of the Secretary of  Treasury recites “Gonna drive my love inside you” and Senator Gore’s wife talks about “Bondage!” and “oral sex at gunpoint” on the CBS Evening News, people in high places work on a tax bill that is so ridiculous, the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public’s mind on something else: ‘Porn rock.’”

“It is unfortunate that the PMRC would rather dispense governmentally sanitized heavy metal music than something more uplifting. Is this an indication of PMRC’s personal taste, or just another manifestation of the low priority this Administration has placed on education for the arts in America? The answer, of course, is "neither." You can't distract people from thinking about an unfair tax by talking about Music Appreciation. For that, you need sex and lots of it.”

After a herculean effort, lambasting the wolves with a dose of truth for more than nine minutes, he closed by saying: 

“That's it…all. That's all I have to say.” 

The full video of his testimony is at the end of this article. 


Aftermath

Despite Zappa’s efforts, and those of Snider and Denver, the censors got their wish. There was little doubt as to what the outcome would be. This was at a time when the same government groups were suggesting that the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons “was Satanic” and promoting human sacrifice as part of the government's “Satanic Panic” propaganda campaign. It was an obvious dog-and-pony show used to paint legislators as caring, concerned parents and artists as carefree, drug-addled, sex-addicted Satanists. 

Moving forward, record labels would be forced to put “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyric” tags on albums that contained any content deemed “dangerous to children” by the overlords. 

Not only did this not “protect children from objectionable material,” it placed a bullseye on the exact records where they could find the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” content they were looking for. I remember it well.  

Interestingly enough, the next album that Zappa released was entirely instrumental - “Jazz From Hell” - and it received an “Explicit Lyrics” sticker at retail outlets. He set excerpts from the PMRC hearings to Synclavier music in his composition "Porn Wars" on his album “Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.”

 

Friends and Family

Former bandmate Mark Volman, says Zappa was "such a caring father, and with Gail..they gave their kids room to be themselves and to speak their minds. And they are all very articulate and very generous about their love for their father. He didn't care about going out and making the scene. A big night for Frank was a pot of espresso, a pack of cigarettes and a pizza - delivered. And to have his 24-track studio in the house and his family upstairs."

John Lennon said Zappa was the guy he’d “always wanted to meet."

 

Zappa's Full Testimony

 



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