Ten songs that fought back against the PMRC

PMRC Senate Hearings in 1985
(Image credit: Mark Weiss/Getty Images)

Pub Quiz Time! What infamous list contained the artists Mercyful Fate, Madonna, Prince, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Cyndi Lauper? If you guessed “The Filthy Fifteen,” the Quizmaster salutes you! As the US renews its enduring fascination with censorship, one can’t help but look back to the mid-80s, when a moralising pack of Washington wives — led by Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore — formed the Parents Music Resource Center (“the PMRC”), in order to attack and censor music that they deemed as obscene. In an Orwellian attempt to galvanise support among parents, the PMRC hand-selected a genre-spanning, fifteen-track list of songs that they felt were endemic of the pearl-clutching levels of obscenity infesting modern music — the “Filthy Fifteen.” Here’s what was on the list, and how it was rated (X = Profane or sexually explicit, O = Occult, D/A = Drugs or alcohol, V = violent):

Judas Priest – Eat Me Alive - X
Motley Crue –
Bastard - V
Prince –
Darling Nikki – X
Sheena Easton –
Sugar Walls – X
W.A.S.P. –
(Animal) Fuck Like A Beast - X
Mercyful Fate –
Into The Coven – O
Vanity –
Strap On Robby Baby – X
Def Leppard –
High ‘n’ Dry – D/A
Twisted Sister –
We’re Not Gonna Take It - V
Madonna –
Dress You Up – X
Cyndi Lauper –
She Bop – X
Let Me Put My Love In You – X
Black Sabbath –
Trashed – D/A
Mary Jane Girls –
My House – X
Venom –
Possessed - O

According to these would-be censors, songs with lyrics that involved sex, drugs, alcohol, violence or the occult all violated the code of moral decency that they had arbitrarily thrown together. Consequently, the list included tracks like Priest’s Eat Me Alive, W.A.S.P.’s (Animal) Fuck Like A Beast, Mercyful Fate’s Into The Coven, Venom’s Possessed and even Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. It’s critical to note that only the values of the committee members were represented.

The PMRC founders were in a position of rare privilege, with direct access to some of the most influential lawmakers in the US. Exploiting this advantage, in 1985, they oversaw the formation of congressional hearings on the prospect of affixing warning labels to any albums deemed obscene. Famously, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, along with avant garde rocker Frank Zappa and folk singer John Denver, all testified at these hearings. Though their testimony — particularly Snider’s — landed some genuine haymakers, ultimately, the Record Industry Association of America convinced major record labels to include a sticker reading, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” to any album with potentially-offensive lyrics.

Having hectored the music industry into cow-towing to her rating system “voluntarily,” Tipper Gore later stated that she opposed censorship and legislative bans on sales of stickered albums to minors. It was a laughably self-serving attempt to position herself as a free speech advocate after bullying record labels into bending to her selective moral code.

Unsurprisingly, the blowback among musicians was both united and ferocious. In short order, anti-PMRC songs of varying levels of complexity (and maturity) started popping up across the US. Here are rock and metal’s ten best anti-PMRC statements – you can find playlist of the songs to listen whilst you read at the bottom of the page.

Metal Hammer line break

Warrant - Ode To Tipper Gore (1990)

Released as a bonus track with Warrant’s 1990 multiplatinum Cherry Pie, Ode... is a sixty-second montage of profanity-laced audio snippets culled from the band’s live shows, intended to pack as much obscenity as possible into a single track. Though crude and immature, its innate simplicity forcefully drove home its point while achieving its goal. Although the album’s sex-charged title track likely would have guaranteed it a warning label, tacking this piss take on at the end sealed the deal.

Judas Priest - Parental Guidance (1986)

Card-carrying members of the Filthy Fifteen, Priest were singled out for the raw and unambiguous sexuality of Eat Me Alive, with lyrics about groaning in the “pleasure zone,” and “squealing in passion as the rod steel injects.” Released on Turbo, one year after the PMRC hearings, Parental Guidance is a subversively-catchy, mid-tempo rocker with the singalong refrain, We don’t need no, no, no, no parental guidance here... Vocalist Rob Halford had staunchly maintained that the idea of instilling values in one’s children is important, but in an interview with Rolling Stone, he clarified, “But all of the other extraneous screaming and yelling — 'Bands are out to kill your kids' — and the telethon Christians, adding that extremism in the mix with crazy people. Crazy people diluted the message.”

Alice Donut - Tipper Gore (1988)

The censorship battle remained in full swing in 1988 and on their debut album, the New York City punks weighed in with a sarcastic siege of double entendres like, You're a master of perversity/No one knows/Obscenity like you/You've got your finger right on it. The track begins with a spare acoustic melody followed by gang vocals of Stick it in, pull it out, twist it!. The band then pile with a squall of guitars, some Phil Spector-esque balladry and a full helping of sneering sarcasm. Forever tethered to the 80s by its lyrics, its poignant subject matter and bawdy execution merit a spot in any time capsule of 80s music.

Ramones - Censorshit (1992)

Behind their growling wall of guitars and Joey Ramones’ inimitable sneer, the opening track from Mondo Bizarro is a blistering PMRC beatdown with the peppy chorus, Ah, Tipper, come on/Ain't you been getting it on?/Ask Ozzy, Zappa or me/We'll show you what it's like to be free. In 1992, they played the song live on The Tonight Show and ironically, while the song doesn’t contain any profane lyrics, they couldn’t announce its title on television due to obscenity laws.

NOFX - The PMRC Can Suck On This EP (1987)

We’re voting in a whole EP here. In 1990, the reissue of this six-track, 7” EP became the inaugural release of Fat Wreck Chords, the label founded by Fat Mike, of California punks NOFX. The  cover of the original release, on Wassail Records, was a blunt and delightfully-sophomoric broadside of PMRC moralism. That version boasted a black-and-white cover featuring a couple graphically engaged in BDSM, with the smiling faces of televangelist Jim Bakker and his then-wife Tammy Faye superimposed on the figures. Intentionally vulgar, the band only made 500 copies, hand-numbering each one in pen and selling them out of their van while touring.

Megadeth - Hook In Mouth (1988)

As artists began releasing sonic screeds against the raging tides of censorship, it was only a matter of time before Dave Mustaine weighed in and with Hook In Mouth, he gave no quarter and, ahem, took no prisoners. Mustaine stated the the song takes on the figures who were “fucking around with our constitutional rights and trying to take away our freedom of speech." In the lyrics, he creates an anagram for freedom, followed by, This spells out FREEDOM/it means nothing to me/As long as there's P.M.R.C. Propelled by David Ellefson’s thundering bass lines and Mustaine’s stabby, staccato riffs, the track closed 1988’s So Far, So Good...So What!

Frank Zappa - Porn Wars (1985)

In addition to fighting on the front lines of the PMRC’s congressional battlefield, Zappa released this chaotic, twelve-minute soundscape that features the voices of no less than seven US Senators, snatched from audio of the actual congressional hearings, including Senators Paula Hawkins, Ernest "Fritz" Hollings and Al Gore. Using electronic music and  vocal processing effects, the track stitches together snippets of dialogue such as Reverend Jeff Ling, a PMRC consultant, quoting the Mentors’ lyric, I will drive my love into you, along with snippets like Senator Paul Trible chanting the word “rape.” Unafraid of retribution, Zappa insisted the song was artful, but wholly accurate, stating, “I just did a little grunt work to dig up some of the more amusing lines and stick them in a package that will hopefully make sense to a rock 'n' roll consumer, and maybe make them concerned about what kind of people there are in Washington."

Todd Rundgren - Jesse (1991)

Rundgren opted for the literal route with his anti-PMRC entry. Another victim of irony (see Ramones, above), this track was kept off of 1991’s 2nd Wind album due to its explicit lyrical content. It was released as a promotional single however, and Rundgren played it live for years. It can be found on streaming services on his Live At The Riviera Theater, Chicago, 1991 album. A sweet acoustic ballad, you’d want to throw it on a playlist for your valentine until Rundgren arrives at the chorus, where he passionately croons, I wanna fuck you, Jesse, several times before adding Helms, a dig at US Senator Jesse Helms, who aggressively campaigned for an end to government funding of the National Endowment of the Arts. The song then takes aim at Tipper: I wanna fuck you, Tipper/'cause you showed me/that things are still the same/Everybody's parents turn out lame/I wanna say “Fuck you, Tipper Gore".

Alice Cooper - Freedom (1987)

With the rise of glam metal and a renewed appreciation for the hard rock icons of the previous decade, the 80s served up ideal conditions for Alice Cooper’s comeback. Cooper took it personally, therefore, when the PMRC arrived and began raining on his shock rock parade. He responded with Freedom, a venomous lyrical assault with a darker and thrasher vibe than anything he’d released less than a year earlier on Constrictor. A fist-pumper from start-to-finish, Cooper stated, “That whole song was totally written about [the PMRC]. I wrote it on the level of saying, look, anybody that starts out with a premise that all kids are created stupid…I can’t understand it, but that’s really what they say! They don’t understand that these kids grew up with the Friday the 13th movies. They understand satire and they understand humour. They understand what Alice is about.”

Danzig - Mother (1988)

Though the lead single of Danzig’s debut might be open to multiple lyrical interpretations, Danzig has confirmed what inspired his most popular hit. “Mother was a song I wrote about the PMRC,” Danzig stated in a 2013 interview. “Al Gore wanted to tell people what they could listen to and what they couldn’t, what they could record. It was basically coming down to the idea that he wouldn’t let anybody record any music that he didn’t think you should be doing. There was going to be an organisation that would tell you what you could and couldn’t record. And certainly if you couldn’t record it, you couldn’t put it out. It was really fascist.” Primal and menacing, it’s understandable that the track has found eternal life in everything from video games, to movies and television, to professional athletes using the song as entrance music. But beyond its gloomy chill, Mother is a giant “fuck you” to censorship.

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.