In September 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) took its case for governmental regulation of rock in general and heavy metal in particular before Congress. It was there that heavy metal effectively stood trial—and won.
The event was triggered by Tipper Gore, wife of Tennessee senator Al Gore, getting her girdle in a knot over hearing her eleven-year-old daughter groove to the line “masturbating with a magazine” from “Darling Nikki” by Prince.
Tipper then convinced a cabal of other congressional spouses to drop their baking pans and freshen up their beehive hairdos to enact change that would “protect” the lot of us—ignorant, unwashed, incapable-of-self-determination metal fans—from the evils lurking behind those album covers emblazoned with all those devil symbols and bondage gear.
Teaming with Susan Baker, who was married to Treasury Secretary James Baker, Tipper presented the PMRC’s “Filthy 15” list of their picks for the absolutely most toxic and psychotic rock songs ever recorded (they must have been working with an extremely limited selection), along with six demands:
• Print lyrics on album covers
• Keep explicit covers under the counter.
• Establish a ratings system for records similar to that for films.
• Establish a ratings system for concerts.
• Reassess the contracts of performers who engage in violence and explicit sexual behavior onstage.
• Establish a citizen and record-company media watch that would pressure broadcasters not to air “questionable-talent.”
Come the congressional hearing, the PMRC’s supporting witnesses argued in favor of mandated record labeling. Opposing witnesses countered with arguments that government involvement in any such activity would call in to question the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees unregulated freedom of speech.
Before Congress could forcibly enact any laws, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) struck a deal with the PMRC in November 1985. Record companies would voluntarily affix “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” stickers on some products.
In the end, freedom rang. Yet as the present social-media-dictated speech landscape sees private citizens turning on—and turning in—one another for supposedly “offensive language—it remains clear that, no, freedom is never free. But it rocks. Always.
Here now are the 6.66 most metal moments from the 1985 PMRC hearings.
6.66. JOHN DENVER AS HEAVY METAL HERO
Folk-pop’s premiere nature boy, pal to Muppets everywhere, and gentle granola hippie lookalike of Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch, John Denver packed a stunning wallop when speaking out before Congress—and the world—on behalf of freedom of expression.
Denver eloquently defended the First Amendment and pointed out how even his 1972 hit “Rocky Mountain High” had been wrongly accused of endorsing drug use.
“This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains,” Denver said, “and also had never experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseid shower on a moonless, cloudless night, when there are so many stars that you have a shadow from the starlight, and you are out camping with your friends, your best friends, and introducing them to one of nature’s most spectacular light shows for the first time.”
The takeaway: don’t let anybody dictate what words “should” mean, folks.
6. VAN HALEN’S “HOT FOR TEACHER” EDUCATES CONGRESS
Florida Senator Paula Hawkins treated her fellow taxpayer-funded servants of the American people to a hot dollop of MTV’s heavy rotation schedule by showing two music videos, “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister.
“One criticism of the rock industry is the way it portrays values in rock videos which are viewed by the kids,” the Senator said. “There are suggestions that the move to label rock albums be extended to videos as well. I do not watch much television. I am not sure how many of my colleagues get much opportunity to watch any of the music video shows now available on cable and free TV. I brought along two videos from which to choose which I believe are representative of the kind of presentations which cause the problem. The first is by the group Van Halen.”
It’s also not a huge leap to imagine Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy making a note to tip off then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to make a point of tracking down that “Hot for Teacher” clip.
5. W.A.S.P. BUZZ-SAWS ITS WAY TO WASHINGTON
Among Senator Hawkins’ other nuggets of evidence on behalf of the “there out to be a law” crowd were three record covers: the LPs Pyromania by Def Leppard and W.O.W. by Wendy O. Williams; and the single “Animal (F—k Like a Beast)” by W.A.S.P.
“The covers to me are self-explanatory,” noted the esteemed lady from Florida.
“The material we are concerned about,” added Susan Baker, “cannot be compared with ‘Louie Louie,’ Cole Porter, Billie Holliday, et cetera. Cole Porter’s ‘the birds do it, the bees do it,’ can hardly be compared with W.A.S.P., ‘I eff-you-see-kay like a beast.’”
Boasting as it does the image of a bloody buzz-saw thrusting forth from a crotch-adorning codpiece, the media could not get enough of broadcasting and rebroadcasting that W.A.S.P. cover, supplying publicity and exposure the entire recording industry couldn’t buy.
4. THE MENTORS’ “ANAL VAPOR” MAKES HISTORY
Perhaps no single entity benefited more from the PMRC hearings than the Mentors, a beyond-all-extremes metal group that stood out among the late-’70s Los Angeles punk scene by being shirtless fat guys in executioner hoods who belched out comically exaggerated “rape rock” lyrics.
Pastor Jeff Ling of the Clear River Community Church, a PMRC consultant, effectively provided the Mentors’ with the most hilariously possible free commercial when he wrapped up his testimony by citing them, not inaccurately, as metal’s most outrageous lyrical offenders.
“This album was released just recently by a band called the Mentors,” Pastor Ling said. “It was released in an album with the label Enigma Records, which also launched Mötley Crüe’s career. The album includes songs like ‘Four-F Club: Find Her, Feel Her, F–k Her, and Forget Her,’ ‘Free Fix for a F–k,’ ‘Clap Queen,’ ‘My Erection is Over,’ and the song ‘Golden Showers,’ which says these words, ‘Listen, you little slut, do as you are told, come with daddy for me to pour the gold. Golden showers. All through my excrement you shall roam. Bend up and smell my anal vapor. Your face is my toilet paper. On your face I leave a sh-t tower. Golden showers.’”
3. ZAPPA TANGLES WITH SEN. HAWKINS… OVER TOYS
Frank Zappa has been a hero to heavy metal artists and aficionados since his 1960s debut. Zappa’s boundless imagination, exquisite technical expertise, and fearless passion for exploring dark, forbidden interests and ideas embody the spirit of metal, while his outspoken love of Black Sabbath and enlisting guitar gods on the order of Steve Vai to play alongside him connect him deeply to the music’s specifics. So, too, did Zappa’s tireless commitment to defending free expression.
That Frank Zappa would wittily, pithily, and powerfully argue against censorship at the PMRC hearings was a foregone conclusion. He did just that, of course, but he also directly and provocatively engaged Senator Paula Hawkins when she suggested that labeling records would be no more censorious than when toy companies suggest appropriate ages for their products.
Senator Hawkins: Well, I might tell you that if you were to go in a toy store — which is very educational for fathers, by the way; it is not a maternal responsibility to buy toys for children — that you may look on the box and the box says, this is suitable for 5 to 7 years of age, or 8 to 15, or 15 and above, to give you some guidance for a toy for a child.
Do you object to that?
Frank Zappa: In a way I do, because that means that somebody in an office someplace is making a decision about how smart my child is.
Senator Hawkins: I would be interested to see what toys your kids ever had.
Frank Zappa: Why would you be interested?
Senator Hawkins: Just as a point of interest.
Frank Zappa: Well, come on over to the house. I will show them to you.
Senator Hawkins: I might do that.
That proposed delicious powwow never happened. Frank Zappa did, however, later in 1985 release an album about the experience, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.
2. “KIDS’ ADVISORY-HERE’S THE GOOD STUFF”
As John Denver himself prophetically testified before Congress, “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting. Consequently, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to get at what is being kept from you.”
When the RIAA rolled out its “Parental Advisory-Explicit Content” labels in November 1985, Denver’s words proved on the money.
1. DEE SNIDER SOCKS IT TO CENSORSHIP
However eye-popping and alarming W.A.S.P.’s Leatherface dick pic and the Mentors’ using somebody’s face as toilet paper may have been, nothing stupefied and amazed during the PMRC hearings on the level of Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider—in full headbanging hesher regalia—testifying before the PMRC hearing committee.
It was shocking because, by speaking calmly, intelligently, respectfully, and with great authority, Dee Snider kicked censorship’s ass the hell out of Congress (that day, anyway).
Highlights of Dee’s talk include the following.
I would like to tell the committee a little bit about myself. I am 30 years old, I am married, I have a 3-year-old son. I was born and raised a Christian and I still adhere to those principles. Believe it or not, I do not smoke, I do not drink, and I do not do drugs. I do play in and write the songs for a rock and roll band named Twisted Sister that is classified as heavy metal, and I pride myself on writing songs that are consistent with my above-mentioned beliefs.
On Tipper Gore’s accusations about the song “Under the Blade”:
Ms. Gore claimed that one of my songs, “Under the Blade,” had lyrics encouraging sadomasochism, bondage, and rape. The lyrics she quoted have absolutely nothing to do with these topics. On the contrary, the words in question are about surgery and the fear that it instills in people… That the writer could misquote me is curious, since we make it a point to print all our lyrics on the inner sleeve of every album. As the creator of ‘Under the Blade,’ I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore.
On Tipper Gore’s claim about a Twisted Sister t-shirt depicting “a woman in handcuffs sort of spread-eagled”:
This is an outright lie. Not only have we never sold a shirt of this type; we have always taken great pains to steer clear of sexism in our merchandise, records, stage show, and personal lives. Furthermore, we have always promoted the belief that rock and roll should not be sexist, but should cater to males and females equally.
Directly taking on Tipper’s husband, Al Gore:
Al Gore: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Dee Snider: Excuse me, are you going to tell me you are a big fan of my music as well?
Al Gore: No, I am not a fan of your music. I am aware that Frank Zappa and John Denver cover quite a spectrum, and I do enjoy them both. I am not, however, a fan of Twisted Sister and I will readily say that.
Mr. Snider, what is the name of your fan club?
Dee Snider: The fan club is called the SMF Fans of Twisted Sister.
Al Gore: And what does “SMF” stand for when it is spelled out?
Dee Snider: It stands for the Sick Mother F–king Fans of Twisted Sister.
Al Gore: Is this also a Christian group?
Dee Snider: I do not believe profanity has anything to do with Christianity, thank you.
Al Gore: It is just an interesting choice. I was getting the impression from your presentation that you were a very wholesome kind of performer, and that is an interesting title for your fan club.
You say your song “Under the Blade” is about surgery. Have you ever had surgery with your hands tied and your legs strapped?
Dee Snider: The song was written about my guitar player, Eddie Ojeda. He was having polyps removed from his throat and he was very fearful of this operation. And I said: Eddie, while you are in the hospital I am going to write a song for you.
I said it was about the fear of operations. I think people imagine being helpless on a table, the bright light in their face, the blade coming down on them, and being totally afraid that they may wake up, who knows, dead, handicapped. There is a certain fear of hospitals. That is what, in my imagination, what I see the hospitals like.
Al Gore: So it is not really a wild leap of the imagination to jump to the conclusion that the song is about something other than surgery or hospitals, neither of which are mentioned in the song?
Dee Snider: No, it is not a wild jump. And I think what I said at one part was that songs allow a person to put their own imagination, experiences, and dreams into the lyrics. People can interpret it in many ways. Ms. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage and she found it. Someone looking for surgical references would have found that as well.”
On the 25th anniversary of his testimony, Dee Snider said: “I was the poster boy for everything wrong with society. Let’s cut to 25 years later: I’m still married. None of my kids have been busted for drug possession. Can Al and Tipper Gore say the same thing? I don’t think so.”
Five years later, that truth remains the same. Truth does that.