Why Pin It On Rock And Roll?

By John Anthony Wilcox and Robert J. Sodaro

Fairfield County Advocate, January, 1986

Rock and roll has come under fire – again. This time it's a group of Washington women, many the wives of prominent politicians, calling themselves the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The PMRC, which is claiming at least a moral victory in its latest skirmish with the record industry, claims that rock and roll lyrics are corrupting an unsuspecting youth, turning them towards drugs and the devil. One of the few musicians to take an active stand against the PMRC's attempts at censoring rock and roll is the always-outspoken Frank Zappa. Here are some of his thoughts on the subject.

Advocate: What do you think caused the so-called "Washington Wives" to think that record companies should rate records and "protect our youth?"

Frank Zappa: Politics.

How so?

Well, it's a little bit complicated, because the thing didn't start with the PMRC, the best I can tell. It started with the PTA, last year, or maybe even before that. The PTA took it on, and didn't have much success with it. The woman who runs the national PTA acted against the recommendations of at least four highly-placed people in her own group. But she said, "Nope, I'm going ahead with it." So she did, and she didn't get anywhere, 'cause the record companies laughed her off. Then they joined forces with the Washington Wives, and that got the record industry's attention. The executives got a letter signed by the wives of a bunch of legislators who were sitting on committees, and these committees had life-or-death power over several bills that the record industry was trying to get through Congress.

The group never downplayed the political connection between the women and the husbands. Obviously that was an extortionary tactic used to make the record industry pay attention to this supposedly rational demand.

I'll tell you that I've been told off the record that the PTA regretted their involvement from the minute they got involved because the initial demands of the Washington Wives were far more extreme than what the PTA originally asked for. This put the PTA in a logical box, because the PTA has a charter which is First Amendment up and down the line; they even subscribe to the Free Library Act, which says that no book should be removed from the library because of its content.

The Washington Wives claim not to be extremists, but nice, normal, ordinary folks. But they are extreme, because if you look at the original press releases that they put out, the things that they were asking for, you could come to some pretty drastic conclusions. They are definitely out in right field someplace. I thought the record industry should have gone after them and nuked them from the beginning. Instead, they decided to act prudently, and offered months and months ago to put a generic warning on all albums that said, "Parental guidance/explicit lyrics." The women said, "No, that's not good enough, we have this list of 8 demands," which included dropping people from the label if somebody saw them do something in concert that they didn't like.

That sounds a lot like the blackballing that went on in the movie industry during the 50's.

Yeah. By the time it got to the Senate on September 19, they had given up on all the other demands, and were just begging for some little something on a record. The record industry, sometime between September 19 and November 1 when the so-called agreement was reached, announced a couple of press conferences and canceled them, claiming that they were having some problems working on details. But that's really bullshit, because what they were waiting for was the Blank Tape Tax Bill to have its first hearing in a Senate subcommittee, which occurred on October 30. So the press conference that announced this sup­posed agreement took place on November 1. I have the AP wire report in an envelope sitting right here. I'll tell you what was agreed to, and it was bullshit. Here it is (reading) "There are no guidelines," These are exact quotes from the paper now. "There are no guidelines. The parents groups will have no role in determining what is explicit. What is explicit is explicit. Those artists that have contractual control over their contracts are free to ignore the understanding. Record companies will determine what is explicit." Now what is that? What does that really amount to? Basically what it amounts to is the IRAA doing the PMRC a favor and making it look like they accomplished some­thing, when they really didn't accomplish anything. All this in order to protect their legislation.

Now what exactly is the Blank Tape Tax?

In the House it's called HR-2911, and in the Senate it's called the Matthias Bill. It places a surcharge of 1 cent per minute on all blank tape, and 10 percent – in the case of HR-2911, 5 percent in the case of the Matthias Bill – on each single recording device, that's like a single tape recorder. And – in both cases – 25 percent on any dual recording device, like a double cassette machine, or a combina­tion of a turntable and a cassette machine.

The record companies say that when a guy tapes a record at home they're losing money. The trick involved is that they say it's needed legislation in order to compensate copyright owners for the revenue lost when a person tapes a record at home. Let's look at it closely, a person tapes a record at home for a variety of reasons, some of which I approve of, and some of which I don't. If a person is taping a record at home in order to cheat someone from earning their living of mak­ing music, I don't approve; but, if a person is taping a record at home in self-defense because he can't buy a good quality cassette manufactured by the record company. The fact of the matter is if you took a TDK cassette and a brand new mint copy of an album and made your cassette in real time, not high-speed duplication, off your own record player, you'd probably have a better-sounding cassette to play in your car than if you paid the retail price for a commercially-manufactured high speed duplicated cassette which is going to wear out after 15 plays.  That's why a lot of do it at home. Then they don't save it forever, they go over the tape and record something else. That doesn't bother me as an artist or a record company owner. The person who is taping at home in order to cheat and defraud, that pisses me off, and something ought to be done. But let's get back to the line in there that says, "To benefit the copyright owners." Theoretically, you might think that's the person who owns the "c" inside the circle copyright. It's not, it's to benefit the person who owns the "p" inside the circle copyright, and that is the one owned by the record company. So they talk about copyright holders to make you think of artists starving in garrets penning these tunes but it ain't, it's the record companies.

Has anyone, to your knowledge, done any kind of study that says that teenagers will commit suicide or get brain damage from listening to, say, Motley Crue as opposed to Barry Manilow?

Well, I don't know if it's ever been done, but if you're going to count murders and connect it with music, then more people died because of Wagner than Motley Crue.

How's that?

Because of Hitler. They've banned Wagner in Israel because the composer's music was used by the Nazis. Anyone who wants to use the connection between music and death as a guideline, then obviously the most lethal type of music on the planet is going to be Wagner because you've just got a bigger scorecard there.

How did you choose to become involved with this?

I got into it by accident, because about four months ago I was invited to a debate on a CBS news show and I went to Washington and I got a whiff of this and I said, "Holy Shit, this is ridiculous." So I just kept on doing interviews, and it pretty much ate up the last three or four months out of the year. I was doing it all the time, full time.

Are you still going to be speaking out on it, or do you think it is pretty much of a dead issue because of that agreement?

The Associated Press thing said that the women are going to stay in business for at least another year, and the next target is videos. The reason that the thing got as much coverage in the press as it did was the TV news people said, "Hey, great story. Get me a bunch of videos clips, chop them up, take all these things and the announcer does a voice-over, "Is this filth? You decide." They show you part of a Twisted Sister video, for example, and talk about dirty words. Well, there are no dirty words in the song, the song itself is a joke, and the video is funny. At the Senate they took that Twisted Sister video and showed it, and the net result was laughter and applause.

Well, I thought that the video aspect was ridiculous anyway because as far as violence in that video you could get the same thing by showing a 1940's Abbott and Costello or Three Stooges short.

Or a hockey game. They claim the simple hearing of words will cause aberrant behavior. They support this with statistics like (alters voice) "Between the ages of this and this and that and that a child will hear 11,000 hours of this stuff repeated over and over again." If that statistic is valid, and the mere hearing of this topic or these types of songs over and over again will create antisocial behavior; I should think that you have far more murders, an even more ridiculous suicide rate, and a higher teenage birthrate – all things that they're claiming the lyrics do when you consider how much actual music is in the air and how it is consumed. If their fears were well-founded things would be in a lot worse shape than they are now. Look at the communist countries where you don't have this kind of music do you think that they have violence, erratic behavior, unwed mothers, and everything else? Sure they do.

Why pin it on rock and roll? The answer is simple; it's politics. You take a guy with weird hair and bizarre-looking clothes on and that's like, this week we're going to hate this guy. This is your new target to hate. All of these fundamentalist-fringoid people cannot survive without someone, or something to hate. It ain't the devil it's Twisted Sister. Well, I think that there are more crimes committed by people who listen to Barry Manilow, and Wayne Newton, and the people who commit those crimes commit serious crimes that affect large numbers of people. We're talking about political crimes. Because that's the drug of choice, the audio drug of choice, for that kind of mentality, but I wouldn't want to keep them from listening to Barry or Wayne.

You know what they used to go after before rock and roll? Jazz. The jazz musicians were supposedly leading the country to perdition 'cause they smoked marijuana and did heroin. And the initial complaints about rock and roll were all racial. That's where it all began. You don't want your children listening to this, because first they hear it and the next thing you know they'll be m bed with Negroes.

Do you know if this whole PMRC deal has had any effect on the stores?

Oh yeah. One of the reasons why a few of the people who belong to the RIAA backed out of the deal was because they were threatened by Sears and JC Penney's. They were told by these chains that if they sent a record with a sticker on it, that the company would not buy it or rack it. That's Why MCA originally backed out, so did A&M, and so did Geffen. Then MCA went back in, I don't know about the other two. Then the Camelot Record Stores were told by their landlord – which is the Shopping Mall Owners Association – that if they racked this stuff they would lose their lease. So naturally they're going to put the heat on the record companies.

I guess that's the ultimate way to get someone to respond – threaten them with loss of money.

That's the American way. And that's what the PMRC did to the record industry to begin with. They threatened them (the record industry) with the loss of, $200 million to $250 million a year in easy money, which is what that blank tape tax amounts to. That's the bill they were trying to protect.

This is for a Connecticut news-paper, right? Lowell Weicker is your Senator, right? Well, I think you should consider him a national resource, because when you talk about the people in Washington, DC who will go toe-to-toe with Jesse Helms and that Bible Mafia that's operating down there, the only name that comes up is Weicker. The reason I bring him up is because it's going to take people who are actually in government to stand up and fight this stuff, because any move towards censorship, you know where it takes you. The end of the road has been illustrated over and over again throughout history. Anybody who wants to make everybody the same. Anyone who tries to legislate that kind of uniformity is a menace, and you've got to fight it. There may be others in Congress who share those kinds of concerns, but I don't know about them. I just wish that more, of them would open their mouths.

Note. This article is based on the same interview as "Frank Zappa Meets The PMRC", Relix, October 1986.

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