Heavy Metal Censorship USA: Revisiting the PMRC’s “Filthy 15”

30 years ago, Tipper Gore’s anti-rock crusade targeted America’s most dire threat: “dirty” songs.

Throughout 1985, Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson “Tipper” Gore, wife of Tennessee senator Albert Arnold “Al” Gore, spearheaded a anti-rock cabal of similarly powerful D.C. spouses originally called the “Washington Wives” before coming up with their fancy-titled censorship organization, the Parents Music Resource Center. That’s PMRC for short.

In September ’85, the PMRC used its bedroom government connections to prompt the United States Congress to hold a hearing on their cause. At issue, the PMRC claimed, was the dire public health threat posed against (please read in a Helen Lovejoy voice) “the children” by pop and rock records, in particular those falling under the sex-Satan-and-suicide umbrella of heavy metal.

At the actual hearings, a heroic trio of amusingly unlikely political bedfellows testified on behalf of artistic freedom in general and the supposed transgressions of heavy metal in particular: crackpot genius rock visionary Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, and folk-pop granola guru John Denver.

Across the aisle, Tipper’s no-fun coven presented a list they deemed the “Filthy 15.” After months of relentless research backed by unlimited funding and the very seat of American power, the Washington Wives came up with a countdown of what they believed were the most incendiary, corrupting, soul-destroying, and democracy-threatening ditties that had ever befouled vinyl.

Come the end of the hearings, public sentiment sided against Tipper’s Stepford Censors due in large part to Dee Snider’s fearless, highly informed, and powerfully well-spoken moment before Congress. Mr. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” talking sense in regard to Ozzy Osbourne and the Mentors didn’t hurt, either.

The music industry capitulated to the PMRC’s pressure by creating “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stickers which, of course, boosted sales by immediately pointing out which records contained the “good stuff.”

Presented here, with comment, is the “Filthy 15” list that Tipper Gore trotted out before Congress, complete with the category each entry was charged with celebrating and promoting.

Proceed at your own mental, emotional, and spiritual risk. And remember: “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.”

  1. “Darling Nikki” – Prince (Sex, Masturbation)

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    Coming in at #1, “Darling Nikki” awakened Tipper Gore to the vile monstrousness of contemporary rock when she heard her daughter Karenna, then 11, being exposed to the song’s opening lyrics: “I knew a girl named Nicky/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/masturbating with a magazine.” We should perhaps be grateful that Karenna hadn’t come home playing “Sister,” His Purple Majesty’s rave-up in praise of underage incest.

  2. “Sheena Easton” – Sugar Walls (Sex)

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    Scotland’s squeaky-clean “Morning Train” queen reinvented herself with this synth-funk dance ode to her sweet, funky sex organs, written by—prepare yourself—Prince!

  3. “Eat Me Alive” – Judas Priest (Sex)

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    The terribly troublesome lyrics: “Gut-wrenching frenzy that deranges every joint/I’m gonna force you at gun point/to eat me alive!” Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford is a master of double-entendre, so that “gunpoint” reference was likely a crack about his “sex pistol”—after all, he wasn’t actually stating he was going to coerce someone into cannibalism (Rob is always forthcoming in interviews—it’s just not his kink).

  4. “Strap On Robbie Baby” – Vanity (Sex)

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    Minnesota’s pint-sized menace to morality strikes again, as Prince protégé Vanity makes the raunch roundup with a plea to her boyfriend, songwriter Robert Bruce McCan (aka Robbie Bruce), to secure himself to the “carnival ride” of her crotch.

  5. “Bastard” – Mötley Crüe (Violence)

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    Admittedly, “Bastard” represents a weird bit of a tantrum for the Crüe, with its declarations of “Out go the lights/in goes my knife/pull out his life” and “Got you neck in the noose/I got nothing to lose.” However, Vince Neil shrieks repeatedly, “Don’t you try to rape me!” Shouldn’t those Washington Wives have been praising this number, then, as an anthem of self-defense against sex criminals?

  6. “Let Me Put My Love Into You” – AC/DC (Sex)

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    The PMRC supposedly sniffed out forcible intercourse in this Back in Black nugget, yet the majority of the lyrics begin with the polite request “Let me.” Consider: “Let me put my love into you babe/let me put my love on the line/let me cut your cake with my knife.” Look, the lads are even offering to serve dessert after the (f)act.

  7. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” – Twisted Sister (Violence)

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    “We’ve got the right to choose and/there ain’t now way we’ll lose it/This is our life, this is our song/We’ll fight the powers that be just/don’t pick our destiny ’cause/You don’t know us, you don’t belong!” To Tipper Gore and the PMRC, Dee Snider and the boys’ musical declaration of that most American ideal of personal liberty, as well as standing up to any force that would try to deny it from you or anyone else, constituted “violence.”

  8. “Dress You Up” – Madonna (Sex)

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    The singly most ludicrous selection on the list, if “Dress You Up” had a different beat and was performed by someone other than the simultaneous cover model of both Playboy and Penthouse in August 1985, this innocent toe-tapper could have been sung in the 1950s by Doris Day. It even says, “Dress you up” as opposed to “undress you up”! The following summer, Tipper Gore told the New York Times she liked Madonna’s teen mom hit, “Papa Don’t Preach.”

  9. “Animal (F–k Like a Beast)” – W.A.S.P. (Sex)

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    The PMRC’s beehive hairdos stood even higher on end than usual over W.A.S.P.’s lyrics, which are insanely oversexed to the point of high camp—i.e., “I got pictures of naked ladies/lying on their beds/I whiff that smell and sweet convulsion/starts a-swelling inside my head.” What truly got the ladies clutching their pearls in a dead faint, though, was the single’s cover art: a painting of a bloody buzzsaw lunging forth from a codpiece. To see it is to laugh. Unless you’re the horny Freddy Krueger. Then you might want to do with that what Darling Nikki was in the hotel lobby doing with a magazine.

  10. “High n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” – Def Leppard (Drugs/Alcohol)

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    Forgoing the opportunity to claim Def Leppard’s Pyromania was a call to worldwide arson, the PMRC instead took aim at Lep’s non-U.S. hit, “High n’ Dry (Saturday Night),” presumably over the refrain: “I got my whiskey/I got my wine/I got my woman, and this time the lights are going out.” Beware the combined evils of adult libations, heterosexuality, and lack of interior illumination.

  11. “Into the Coven” – Mercyful Fate (Occult)

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    Amidst the volcanic blood-flow of extreme metal from Europe in the ’80s, the PMRC remarkably noticed Denmark’s Mercyful Fate. It couldn’t have been the group’s name, which sounds nice, nor the title of the album in question, Melissa. Ah, yes, it was Fate frontman King Diamond, an avowed Satanist with the coolest post-Arthur Brown/Alice Cooper/Kiss face-paint maybe ever. He was scary.

  12. “Trashed’ – Black Sabbath (Drugs/Alcohol)

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    Black Sabbath built a monumental legacy in rock while trafficking in occult imagery and songs about being scared of the devil, yet all the PMRC picked up on was a track from the 1983 LP, Born Again. On “Trashed,” one-and-done Sabbath vocalist Ian Gillan belts out a saga of a drunk driver who, after surviving a crash, promises to never again take the wheel while under the influence. In a bit of further irony, Born Again has been praised as the most criminally overlooked heavy metal LP of all time. Somehow the PMRC got hep early on to its dark power and majesty.

  13. “In My House” – Mary Jane Girls (Sex)

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    Letting up on Prince for a moment, the PMRC switched their anti-funk furor to the Mary Jane Girls, a female dance-pop group named for marijuana and overseen by creator Rick James. The band’s biggest hit never gets more risqué than a reference to “makin’ love.” Imagine if they’d skipped the Mary Janes and got right to Rick’s records!

  14. “Possessed” – Venom (Occult)

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    The UK’s cartoonishly beyond-the-pale Satan metal squadron Venom existed from the get-go to appall and outrage humanity’s stuffiest. The PMRC narrowing the group’s provocative lyrics to that of “Possessed” sort of tickled even Venom drummer Anthony “Abaddon” Bray. In the documentary series Metal Evolution, Abaddon addressed the Filthy 15 issue by saying, “That just sounds lazy to me. That just sounds like nobody’s listening to enough Venom to find the worst song. That sounds like they’ve just set out something with ‘Possessed’ written on it. There’s a lot worse than that!”

  15. “She-Bop” – Cyndi Lauper (sex, masturbation)

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    Cyndi Lauper’s third huge 1984 hit, after “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time” is a comic contemplation of girls just wanting to have fun by themselves even though they might feel a little weird about it… time after time. Cyndi even looks heavenward in the “She-Bop” music video and sings, “I hope he will understand.” Tipper and her cronies most certainly didn’t.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).