The day Dee Snider and Frank Zappa went to war with The PMRC

Dee Snider and Frank Zappa hold up parental advisory stickers during the PMRC senate hearing at Capitol Hill, Washington DC, United States, 19th September 1985
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Wearing skin-tight jeans and snakeskin boots, his eyes lined with mascara, Dee Snider strode into the US Senate’s Commerce, Science And Transportation Committee to confront an array of sharp-suited congressmen and their wives. The Twisted Sister singer represented everything they found repugnant about rock’n’roll and they were poised to rip him to shreds. The problem was that they’d picked the wrong guy.

A year earlier, in 1984, Mary ‘Tipper’ Gore, wife of Democrat Senator Al Gore, had stumbled across the Prince song Darling Nikki with her daughter, Karenna. Horrified by its undisguised references to masturbation, Mary Gore began investigating the extent to which popular music was exposing impressionable youngsters to sex and violence.

Gore didn’t like what she found. And she was neatly placed to do something about it. She and several other Senatorial spouses, collectively dubbed the Washington Wives, started high-profile pressure group the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), using funds donated by well-heeled benefactors. 

The PMRC drew up The Filthy Fifteen, a list of songs deemed objectionable, including Mercyful Fate’s Into The Coven (lyrical content: ‘Occult’), Cyndi Lauper’s She-Bop (‘Sex’) and Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It (‘Violence’).

In August 1985 Gore used her connections to set up a Senate hearing on ‘porn rock’. In one corner were the PMRC, in the other an unlikely alliance of Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and bespectacled country crooner John Denver. The stage was set for a culture clash of epic proportions.

Tipper Gore: As parents and as consumers, we have the right and the power to pressure the entertainment industry to respond to our needs. Americans, after all, should insist that every corporate giant – whether it produces chemicals or records – accept responsibility for what it produces.

Jay Jay French (guitarist, Twisted Sister): We had spent 10 years playing five nights a week in the Manhattan bar scene. We were all in our 30s by the time we got huge. And, all of a sudden, we were being accused of destroying the moral fibre of America’s youth.

Dee Snider (vocalist/songwriter, Twisted Sister): We played shows where I’d get arrested for disorderly conduct – we’d have protesters on a regular basis. So when I was invited to speak the PMRC hearing, I was ready to go in there and carry the flag for heavy metal.

Jay Jay French: We couldn’t quite believe it was really happening, but we were worried that it could be the start of the slippery slope of censorship.

Dee Snider faces up to the PMRC

You can't stop rock and roll: Dee Snider faces up to the PMRC (Image credit: Getty Images)

Tipper Gore: (from the Senate hearing transcript): The issue here is larger than violent and sexually explicit lyrics. It is one of ideas and ideal freedoms and responsibility in our society. Clearly there is a tension here, and in a free society there always will be. We are simply asking that these corporate and artistic rights be exercised with responsibility, with sensitivity, and some measure of self-restraint, especially since young minds are at stake.

Jeff Ling (PMRC advisor): The goal was never censorship. The goal was information. Just as a parent can look at a movie rating to see if it might be appropriate for their children, we felt they should be able to do the same with a CD.

Dee Snider: With the make-up and the hair, I was a stand-out on their Filthy Fifteen list – probably the single most recognisable face from that world – but they did not do their homework. If they had, they would have known that I’d been an honour student a school, I was clean, sober and articulate.

Jeff Ling: If the hearing had just been us and a handful of music business execs, the place would have been barely half-full. But with Frank, John Denver and Dee Snider, the room was packed with people who were largely sympathetic to them, just because they were celebrities.

Dee Snider: Zappa was the first of us to address the hearing. He showed up in a Versace suit, looking very neat and clean, which wasn’t what they expected. Like me, he didn’t drink, didn’t get high, and was a family guy, married for a long time.

Frank Zappa (Senate hearing transcript): Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training programme to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?

Jeff Ling: Frank was a master of manipulation. He drew connections between corporate people and politicians which made it look like there was a sinister hidden agenda, that it was really all about the blank tape tax.

Frank Zappa (Senate hearing transcript): While 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.

Dee Snider and Frank Zappa looking at legal papers

Zappa and Snider not completely sold on the Senate hearings (Image credit: Getty Images)

Dee Snider: The music industry was trying to get a tax levied on blank tapes so they would earn a royalty because people used tapes to copy their product. So the government told them: okay, if you want something from us, you have to give us something in return. That’s why they agreed to put parental advisory stickers on albums. In the end they never got the blank tape tax.

Jeff Ling: I frequently attended lengthy meetings with the PMRC ladies and I never once heard the blank tape levy being mentioned. But it was brilliant of Frank to bring that in.

Dee Snider: Frank and I were really concerned about John Denver. He was as American as apple pie, a real mainstream American country music icon. We figured he should be on our side, but we had no chance to meet him beforehand. When he arrived, senators were falling over each other to fawn over him. It was disgusting to watch. They fully expected him to bolster their case. Then he stood up and said…

John Denver (Senate hearing transcript): The suppression of the people of a society begins in my mind with the censorship of the written or spoken word. It was so in Nazi Germany. It is so in many places today where those in power are afraid of the consequences of an informed and educated people.

Dee Snider: You should have seen the panic set into their faces. The last thing they wanted was to be connected to Nazism. John’s testimony was powerfully damaging. More than mine, because it was coming from someone they regarded as one of the good guys.

Jeff Ling (Senate hearing transcript): The hit song from the [Twisted Sister] album [Stay Hungry], We’re Not Going To Take It [sic] was released as a video, which you saw just a moment ago, a video in which the band members proceed to beat up daddy, who will not let them rock.

Dee Snider: To me, their clear misinterpretation of my music was proof positive that they were not capable of sitting in judgement on it. They said We’re Not Gonna Take It was a violent song. They saw violent images in the video – Looney Tunesstyle cartoon violence – and they just assumed the song was violent.

Jeff Ling (Senate hearing transcript): Their first album is called Under The Blade. The title song includes words like: ‘Your hands are tied, your legs are strapped, you are going under the blade.’

Dee Snider: They claimed Under The Blade was about sado-masochism and bondage, when it was actually about our guitar player’s throat operation. I actually said at the hearing: “The only sado-masochism, bondage and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms Gore.”

Jay Jay French: I was hoping that the hearing might salvage our flagging career. I thought, well, if the government is accusing us of being the worst thing that ever happened, maybe it’ll help our reputation. Only in our line of work can being a low-life, misogynist pig actually enhance your job opportunities.

Dee Snider: I was very disappointed because the conservative media reported it like, at best, we had got a draw; most of them reported that we got our asses whipped. The facts were that we whipped their asses. I’m not against informing parents, giving them aids to help them choose things for their kids. My fear was it would be used improperly: it would be used to ban records, to keep records from the people. 

And that’s what happened. Record stores stopped racking records with stickers on them. Some stores didn’t even carry them, or kept them in the back. Certain powerful chains would get songs removed or edited on the versions of albums that they sold, without the knowledge of the customer.

Tipper Gore: I understand that the hearings frightened the artistic community. If I could rewrite the script I certainly would.

Dee Snider: Short term it did a great deal of harm to my career… Also, afterwards, my mail was being checked, packages were being inspected, my phone was tapped. However, every word I said at that hearing, I stand by today.

What happened next? 

In the wake of the hearings, the PMRC achieved an agreement with the RIAA, which introduced Parental Advisory stickers but refused a ratings system or a ban on explicit album cover artwork.

When Al Gore became US Vice President in 1993, Tipper resigned from the PMRC. The organisation has since quietly disappeared. Their son Al Gore III was arrested on a drugs charge in 2007. Al and Tipper separated in 2010.

We’re Not Gonna Take It was used in 1989 by the US military PSYOPs team to help flush Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega out of the embassy in which he had taken refuge.

This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #167.

Johnny Black

Johnny is a music journalist, author and archivist of forty years experience. In the UK alone, he has written for Smash Hits, Q, Mojo, The Sunday Times, Radio Times, Classic Rock, HiFi News and more. His website Musicdayz is the world’s largest archive of fully searchable chronologically-organised rock music facts, often enhanced by features about those facts. He has interviewed three of the four Beatles, all of Abba and been nursed through a bad attack of food poisoning on a tour bus in South America by Robert Smith of The Cure.