It’s not unusual for the business side of the music business to include trips to the courthouse. Usually, these are for copyright infringement, someone else ripping off your schtick. In the halcyon days of 2005, the band Slipknot was moved to sue, of all people, Burger King for their commercial with a fake band, all in scary masks and costumes, called Cock Rock.
The best way to describe the 1980’s would be to say, you had to see it to believe it. Weird times, man. If we weren’t panicking about Russia, we were moral-panicking over Satanic things like heavy-metal music and Dungeons and Dragons, the things that make life worth living and were supposedly at the core of wildly rampant crises of child sex abuse and teen suicide. In the red corner, the busy-body buzzkill today is Tipper Gore, then-wife of then-congressman Al, who had it in her head that rock music was a huge threat to the bedrock of society. Feel free to picture Helen Lovejoy [sfx clip]. And in the blue corner, an unlikely hero in the form of Dee Snider, front man of oh so typical larger than life hair metal band Twisted Sister.
The trouble started when Tipper bought her 11-year-old daughter a copy of the album “Purple Rain,” the smash-hit album from the *R-rated film, both courtesy of *Prince. And Tipper was shocked, *shocked to hear inappropriate lyrics. She clearly did not know his body of work. “Darling Nikki” was a bridge too far, and if you know, you know. With bra cups brimming with righteous indignation, Tipper gathered like-minded, and I’m assuming bored, wives of senators, cabinet members, and prominent businessmen to for the Parents Music Resource Council or PMRC. But this wasn’t censorship, the PMRC wanted everyone to know. It was just about helping parents make informed decisions. They wanted to see music rated like movies, with warnings for the R-rated stuff.
Critics pointed out that that was easier said than done. The Motion Picture Association of America rated about 350 movies a year. By contrast the Recording Industry Association of America saw 25,000 songs a year being released in those days. To focus their efforts, the PMRC threw down the gauntlet on the “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of songs from the likes of Madonna and Sheena Easton to AC/DC and Judas Priest, that were part of what Gore called “the twisted tyranny of explicitness in the public domain.” I did a Thundercats burlesque number to one of the songs. Care to guess which one?
While the PMRC wasn’t an official government anything, the record industry needed to stay on their good side. They were lobbying for a tax on blank cassettes, absolutely besides themselves over the idea of losing money to tape dubbing. Four members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation were all married to PMRC members. This was enough for the RIAA to cross the street to get away from the principles of free expression in hopes of getting the blank-tape tax.
When the Senate committee called for hearings on this issue. Arguing for totally’not’censorship, you guys, were PMRC members, child-health experts, and religious figures. Standing up for their rights as musicians was an interesting trio – Twister Sister’s Dee Snider, folk singer John Denver, and I would not insult him by trying to affix a label, gonzo rock god Frank Zappa. We don’t know how many musicians were invited, but they were the only ones who showed up.
Anyone else who was invited missed the chance for a lot of press – the hearing room was packed with reporters and tv cameras til the fourth estate were packed in like sardines. PMRC husband Sen. Hollings played their hand right away, referring to the music in question as “porn rock,” saying “If I could find some way to constitutionally do away with it, I would.” I bet he’s fun at parties. Sen. Paula Hawkins waved off concerns about artists’ rights of free expression under the First Amendment as she waved away the idea of parental responsibility, and bemoaned rock music becoming much more explicit in the 30 years since Elvis. A 2012 study by Elizabeth Langdon at Cleveland State University found that music has indeed grown more explicit in its sexual content, but “the sexual attitudes and behaviors (and related outcomes) of adolescents do not appear to be following suit at the national level.”
When it came time to make their case before the government, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, testified on behalf of the PMRC. Album art, a much bigger part of the whole music buying and enjoying process. Remember liner notes with all the lyics? It was like Christmas! Those albums that had Playboy, Boris Vallejo, or Saw vibes on their jacket were used as evidence. A local pastor read salacious lyrics about bondage, incest, and “anal vapors”…to unrestrained tittering and laughter. A child psychiatrist testified that David Berkowitz, the serial killer called “Son of Sam,” was known to listen to Black Sabbath. sigh You shouldn’t be allowed to get a degree without understanding the difference between correlation and causation.
Then the defense took the stand. Rally, lads! Zappa was up first, looking as not Frank Zappa as I ever saw, with short hair and a suit. “I’ve heard some conflicting reports on whether or not people on this committee want legislation. I understand that Senator Hollings does.” Sen. James Exon butted in, saying he might support legislation that makes the music industry “voluntarily” clean up its act, which Zappa astutely pointed out is “hardly voluntary.” [sfx clip]
“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 interpretation and enforcement problems inherent in the proposal’s design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”
He took dead aim at the inherent conflict of interest and said the whole issue was a facade for “trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by the Wives of Big Brother.” Chef kiss. The senators were less impressed. Thankfully the next at-bat was Ivory soap clean, openly devout Christian John Denver, or as Dee Snider later described him, “mom-American-pie- John-Denver-Christmas-special- fresh-scrubbed guy.”
Despite his broad appeal, Denver was no stranger to censorship, which he warned the PMRC was approaching. “Rocky Mountain High,” one of his biggest hits, was banned from some radio stations for drug references that weren’t actually there. “What assurance have I that any national panel to review my music would make any better judgment?” Denver asked the senators. A “self-appointed moral watchdog,” he argued, was antithetical to the ideals of a democratic society, the sort of thing you saw in Nazi Germany. Denver then excused himself from the hearing because he had a meeting with NASA in hopes of becoming the first civilian in space. Not a word of a lie. Luckily, he didn’t make the cut; the flight in question was the catastrophic last flight of the Challenger.
With the opening acts out of the way, it was time for the headliner, Dee Snider, who quite plausibly believes  “the PMRC — or the senators whose wives were in the PMRC — invited me to make a mockery out of me in front of the world.” When Snider walked in, they probably thought they’d gotten their wish. He was wearing his “dirtbag couture” – jeans, a tank top, sunglasses, and voluminous bottle-blond hair.
But Dee Snider wasn’t the airhead they were expecting. He introduced himself as a married father, a Christian, and neither drinks nor does drugs. He’d brought his Army and NYPD veteran father with him. (Zappa brought his kids, Moon Unit and Dweezil because they were Twisted Sister fans.) He addressed Tipper personally for her misinterpretation and misrepresentation of his song “Under the Blade,” which they claimed was about S&M and rape, citing the lyrics “Your hands are tied, your legs are strapped, a light shines in your eyes/You faintly see a razor’s edge, you open your mouth to cry.” Snider countered was about their bassist Eddie Ojeda having surgery, literally going under the knife. “Ms. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage and she found it,” indicating the bondage was a metaphor for fear. Snider later wrote for the Huffington Post that he enjoyed the “raw hatred I saw in Al Gore’s eyes when I said Tipper Gore had a dirty mind.”
Snider highlighted another accusation from Tipper Gore, “You look at even the t-shirts that kids wear and you see Twisted Sister and a woman in handcuffs sort of spread-eagled.” This was a complete untruth. Twisted Sister “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.” He challenged Tipper to produce any such shirt and when asked about it again by Senator Al Gore, Gore clarified for the record that “the word ‘t-shirts’ was in plural, and one of them referred to Twisted Sister and the other referred to a woman in handcuffs.” Snider stuck to his guns insisting Tipper was referring to Twisted Sister before Senator Gore changed the subject.
During Snider’s testimony, Senator Ernest Hollings from South Carolina asked him about different perceptions of obscenity and vulgarity. He read part of a Supreme Court verdict in the Pacifica Case involving the Federal Communications Commission (famous for the role George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” played in it). In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that “Patently offensive, indecent material presented over the airwaves confronts the citizen not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home. The individual’s right to be left alone, plainly outweighs the first amendment rights of an intruder.”
They still hadn’t figured out who they were dealing with. Snider pointed out there was a difference between the airwaves” as opposed to a person going with their money to purchase an album to play in their room, in their home, on their own time. The airwaves are something different.”
Sen. Al Gore opened his questioning of Snider by asking what the initials of their fan club “S.M.F.” stood for.
[x] “It stands for the Sick Motherf—— Friends of Twisted Sister,” Snider testified.
“Is this also a Christian group?” Gore asked, to a smattering of laughter.
“I don’t believe profanity has anything to do with Christianity,” Snider said. I could watch replays of that hearing all day.
[y] “The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experience, and dreams into the words,” Snider testified. “There is no authority who has the right or the necessary insight to make these judgments. Not myself, not the federal government, not some recording industry committee, not the PTA, not the RIAA, and certainly not the PMRC,” Snider said. [sfx clip?]
When it was said and done, it’s unlikely that many minds were changed by the hearing. Although, despite the protestations to the contrary, quite a few senators and witnesses had explicitly argued in favor of government action. No laws were passed, but they still got results. The RIAA agreed to work with the PMRC on labeling objectionable content with a bold black and white sticker reading “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” So the rockers kinda lost, but they were awesome and I’m counting it as a moral victory.
That black and white sticker was worse than a Scarlet Letter. Huge retailers like Walmart would not sell “labeled” records, period, cutting out a huge slice of the marketplace for “labeled” artists. Some smaller stores were threatened with eviction if they stocked “labeled” records. The city of San Antonio barred “labeled” artists from performing. Maryland and Pennsylvania debated requiring retailers to keep it in an “adults-only” area of the store. Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra was prosecuted in California over “Distribution of Harmful Material to Minors.”
But musicians would have the last laugh. The explicit lyrics sticker very quickly went from mark to shame to selling point. Retailers realized the money they were missing out on and began stocking the albums. Teens and young adults would often buy albums *because they had the warning. In fact, if you were hard-cord or counter-culture or punk in any way but didn’t have a warning label, scoff! There was also a shed load of reaction music, including Danzig’s only mainstream hit. [sfx clip] Nowadays, not only have our buying habits changed, but our standards have too.
CW: The following section is about news events subsequent to suicides, without going into too much detail about the suicides themselves. If that’s not where your head is today, no worries, we’ll catch up next week.
In 1986, Sharon Osbourne called her management client and husband Ozzy Osbourne that he had to get on a plane as fast as possible and get to LA. Like a phone call from a movie, she refused to tell him why, but demanded he go now. Ozzy landed in LA into the loving embrace of a batallion of reporter’s microphones and those stupidly bright news camera lights, asking him how he responded to the suicide. What Sharon could have taken 10 seconds to explain to him was that the previous year, 19 year old John McCollum was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his California bedroom. The album Blizzard of Oz which he’d allegedly been listening to for at least six hours straight, was still spinning on the stereo turntable. McCollum’s parents believed Osbourne was responsible, that his song “Suicide Solution” was a proximate cause of their son’s death. Okay, that was about 20 seconds, but I stand on my statement.
In their lawsuit, McCollum’s parents claimed that there were hidden lyrics in the song that incited John to kill himself, with messages like “get the gun and try it, shoot, shoot, shoot.” Osbourne countered that the song wasn’t about a solution as in an answer, but a solution as in a liquid, specifically the one he was at the time slowly killing *himself with, and which has killed AC/DC’s Bon Scott, alcohol.
[ozzy 1] “Suicide Solution wasn’t written about, ‘Oh that’s the solution, suicide.’ I was a heavy drinker and I was drinking myself to an early grave. It was suicide solution,” Ozzy said later. “Wine is fine but whiskey’s quicker. Suicide is slow with liquor. That’s what I was doing for a long while.”
The plaintiff’s case was that the song Suicide Solution should be exempt from the first Amendment’s freedom of speech. In the US, you’re free to express any viewpoint or feelings, up to a point – it is not legal to directly incite specific, imminent actions which cause harm to others. That’s hard to prove and virtually every attempt to hold an entertainer responsible for allegedly inciting action has failed. One notable exception, and a replacement for the tired old ‘you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater’ example is that of radio disc jockey The Real Don Steele, who told listeners to hurry as quickly as they could to a certain Los Angeles address to win a prize. This is 1970, only two years after seat belts became mandatory, and people were getting in crack-ups, and one motorist who had no idea what was happening was killed. In a case still taught in law schools everywhere, his family sued and the California Supreme Court ruled in their favor. I really could do a whole episode just on radio promotions going terribly, terribly wrong. At issue in the McCollum case was not whether there actually were hidden lyrics, but whether such lyrics are protected speech or incitement to violence. If successful, the McCollum lawsuit would have had sweeping consequences for artists in every medium, potentially holding them liable for the actions of those who watched, read or listened to what they’d created. At the very least, it would have made Ozzy too big a liability for any record label or concert promoter to associate themselves with, and it’s not hard to imagine that that pariah status would spread to other metal bands.
[ozzy 2]“I feel very sad for the boy, and I felt terribly sad for the parents. As a parent myself, I’d be pretty devastated if something like that happened. And I have thought about this, if the boot was on the other foot, I couldn’t blame the artist.”
The suit wasn’t just about Suicide Solution; they also blamed the song Paranoid. Data point of one, but I can disprove that one by sheer force of math; it’s probably my most-listened-to Ozzy or Sabbath song, with the very Un-Sabbath Laguna Sunrise as a close second.
Plaintiff’s counsel Tom Anderson claimed McCollum had been a normal, happy well-adjusted young man, who listened to ″Suicide Solution″ for hours before killing himself, and that a low-frequency hum on the record, only audible if you were using headphones as McCollum had been, had caused him to be more susceptible to the song’s hidden message. Attorneys for CBS, Ozzy’s record label and party in the suit, argued that Osbourne was no more responsible for a listeners’ actions than Shakespeare would be for Hamlet’s soliloquy, Tolstoy for Anna Karenina throwing herself under the wheels of a train, or the producers of “M.A.S.H.” for choosing “Suicide Is Painless” for its theme tune. When Judge John Cole dismissed the case, spoiler alert, he left room for the plaintiffs to appeal over the mysterious hum, which they did; the appellate judge upheld the dismissal.
This wasn’t the last time a fan’s suicide resulted in legal action. The family of another young man brought a similar lawsuit against Osbourne in 1986. Their case was also unsuccessful.
5 years later, CBS was back in court, though this time it was Judas Priest who found themselves in the dock, but with a pseudoscience twist. In December 1985, 20-year-old James Vance and 18-year-old Raymond Belknap of Nevada, concluded a day of drinking, drugs, and heavy metal with an alleged suicide pact by means of self-inflicted shotgun fire. Belknap died instantly, while Vance survived for a further three years, though without the lower half of his face, before eventually succumbing to complications.
The two families subsequently alleged that Priest had placed subliminal messages throughout 1978’s Stained Class album, inciting fans to kill themselves. The worst offender on the album was Better By You, Better Than Me, where messages like ‘Let’s be dead’ and ‘Do it’ were smuggled in by means of backmasking. Let’s hop out of the shallow end for a deep dive here. Backwards-masking or backmasking an intentional recording in which a message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward. It goes all the way back to the 70’s, the 1870’s, when Thomas Edison discovered the novelty of playing recorded music backwards. The beat generation of the 50s started to purposely include reverse audio into their music and artists continued to play around with it for decades. The Beatles deliberate […]. This splashed fuel on the Paul-is-dead urban legend/conspiracy theory with supposed messages like “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him,” in “I’m So Tired” and “turn me on, dead man” in Revolution 9. Audiophiles kept an ear out for it, but it didn’t come to wide public knowledge until the 80’s. These days, Easter eggs and hidden goodies are shared on social media and YT, but back then, it was conservatives ruining cassettes and vinyl records by playing them backwards in church, community meetings, local access television, whatever venue they could get. They claimed that the backwards speech could subliminally influence the listener when listening to the music in the normal way. They found backmasking in everything from Elvis to Led Zepplin. Supposedly Stairway to Heaven contained Satanic commands like “here’s to my sweet Satan,” “serve me,” and “there’s no escaping it.”
Audio Engineer Evan Olcott claims that backmasking or finding phonetic reversals is purely coincidental in which the spoken or sung phonemes, a fancy word for individual speech sounds, seem to form words. Our brains make sense of our environment, or they try, any road, and that can mean convincing themselves that garbled sounds are actually words. There’s a key to claims of backmasking and it’s priming, telling the listener what they’re going to hear. [sfx example]
Backmasking is supposed to work subliminally, meaning literally below the threshold of sensation of consciousness. In theory, subliminal messages deliver an idea that the conscious mind doesn’t detect. For those too young to remember Tyler Durden’s projectionist hobby, the prime example of subliminal messages is a single frame of text slipped into a video, which *has been used on TV by both corporations and political candidates. Whenever one of these comes to light, there is always much contention, yet thoroughly negligible results. If you can find a properly organized scientific study that bears out claims that messages you don’t know you saw can influence people’s behavior, call us here in the studio. Until then, I plant my banner on the hill of It’s Utter Crap.
At the time, Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton said: “It’s a fact that if you play speech backwards, some of it will seem to make sense. So I asked permission to go into a studio and find some perfectly innocent phonetic flukes. The lawyers didn’t want to do it, but I insisted. We bought a copy of the Stained Class album in a local record shop, went into the studio, recorded it to tape, turned it over and played it backwards. Right away we found ‘Hey ma, my chair’s broken’ and ‘Give me a peppermint’ and ‘Help me keep a job’.”
At one point, frontman Rob Halford was called upon to actually sing part of the song while on the stand, which he looks really uncomfortable doing without so much as a metronome to accompany him. “It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say to the judge and the cameras that this is a band that creates music that kills young people. We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.”
Eventually, the case against Judas Priest and their label was dismissed. The judge did agree that you could hear words other than the printed lyrics, but these were “only discernible after their location had been identified and after the sounds were isolated and amplified. The sounds would not be consciously discernible to the ordinary listener under normal listening conditions”.
And that’s… Slipknot filed a copyright infringement suit claiming Burger King misappropriated their images. The King fired back that Slipknot didn’t invent masked rockers, the post-apocalyptic gas masks aesthetic, or white guys with dreadlocks and, therefore, had no copyrights to claim. Ultimately, I guess they all realized they had more important things to do and the case was dropped.
FBI and Louie Louie
Rock and roll history is built on happy accidents, moments where enthusiasm and raw talent exceed the limits of technology. Distortion, the sine qua non of modern rock, came from broken amplifiers and mixing boards, and speakers slashed to ribbons. Such excesses can be threatening. Link Wray’s gritty 1958 instrumental “Rumble” earned a ban from the airwaves for its alleged menace. Since then, rock has survived one crusade after another, launched by parents, church groups, and scaremongering charlatans.
One classic case illustrates the norm: parental overreaction to teenage rumors, incompetent response from authorities, and, as above, a technical limitation that led to a stylistic revolution. The incomprehensible vocals in the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording of “Louie, Louie” are legendary, covered and imitated by garage bands and rock stars since, and going down “in pop history,” Anwen Crawford writes at The New Yorker, “as one of the medium’s more endearing (and enduring) moments of amateurism.”
The performance “was a result of accident rather than design.” The Kingsmen recorded the song into a single microphone suspended several feet above singer Jack Ely and the band. “Ely was wearing dental braces,” notes Crawford, “and his bandmates, who were gathered around Ely in a circle, played their instruments loudly.” The band had learned the song from the Wailers, whose 1961 version covered songwriter Richard Berry’s original, both of which had been regional hits in the Pacific Northwest.
The Kingsman’s “Louie Louie” became an instant garage-rock classic, hitting No. 2 on the Billboard singles charts, despite the fact that no one who hadn’t heard the earlier versions had a clue what it was about. Since the lyrics could have said almost anything, it seemed, they provoked immediate speculation about obscenity. Rock critic Dave Marsh describes the phenomenon:
Back in 1963, everybody who knew anything about rock ‘n’ roll knew that the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” concealed dirty words that could be unveiled only by playing the 45 rpm single at 33-1/3. This preposterous fable bore no scrutiny even at the time, but kids used to pretend it did, in order to panic parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Eventually those ultimate authoritarians, the FBI got involved, conducting a thirty-month investigation that led to “Louie”‘s undying — indeed, unkillable — reputation as a dirty song.
So “Louie Louie” leaped up the chart on the basis of a myth about its lyrics so contagious that it swept cross country quicker than bad weather. Nobody — not you, not me, not the G-men ultimately assigned to the case — knows where the story started. That’s part of the proof that it was a myth, because no folk tales ever have a verifiable origin. Instead society creates them through cultural spontaneous combustion.
The FBI investigation into “Louie Louie”’s lyrics began when outraged parents wrote letters to attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. Off and on, for two years, the Bureau investigated the recording. They played it “backwards and forwards,” says Eric Predoehl, director of a documentary about the song. “They played it at different speeds, they spent a lot of time on it–but it was indecipherable at any speed.” Why they bothered is really anyone’s guess. Agents finally had to give up and close the case, after a meaningless expenditure of government resources.
They never bothered, during their investigation, to listen to the earlier recordings of the song. (The band swears Ely sung the lyrics as written verbatim.) They never interviewed Ely himself. Nor did anyone have the bright idea to walk down to the Bureau of Copyright, where they would have found un-salacious lyrics to “Louie Louie” on file. Rumor and innuendo were as good as evidence. Read the Full FBI report at NPR. “Reader beware,” they caution, “the document describes listener theories that the lyrics of ‘Louie Louie’ were secretly vulgar, and includes the supposed vulgarities.”