Frank Zappa Meets The PMRC

By John Anthony Wilcox and Robert J. Sodaro

Relix, October, 1986

For the few of you out there who may not have been paying attention, Rock and Roll has recently come under fire once again. This time out, it’s a group of Washington Wives calling themselves the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The PMRC claims are the usual ones — you’ve heard them all before — Rock and Roll lyrics are corrupting an unsuspecting youth, turning (us) towards drugs, the devil, and whatever other hob goblins our parents are afraid of this week. One of the few musicians with guts enough to take an active stand against the PMRC’s attempts at censoring Rock and Roll is the always outspoken Frank Zappa. We talking with Zappa back in December of 1985. Following are some of his thoughts on the subject. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it’s a safe bet that we haven’t heard the last from these Washington Wives, or the PMRC.

Relix: What do you think caused he Washington Wives to think that Americana should rate their records, and “protect their youth?”

Zappa: Politics.

Relix: How so?

Zappa: 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, but the reason they took it on, I think, was politically motivated by the woman who runs the national PTA, because she acted against the recommendations of at least four highly placed people in the national PTA. 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 industries attention simply because the record industry received a letter signed by the wives of a bunch of legislators who were sitting on committees that had life or death power over several bills that the record industry was trying to get through congress. So that got their attention, because they never denied 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. What could it possibly harm to let people know what is in a record? The real answer to what can it harm should go back to this question ... What harm is being done? These women have taken a position that is not supported by any medical documentation. That hearing lyrics to a rock song, to any song will make you commit a murder, commit suicide, increase the teenage birthrate, make you use drugs, or damn your soul to hell. So they’re talking about this little warning being placed on a record to be truth in packaging. Well I would rather see some truth in packaging for their claims.

Relix: What’s the difference between rating records and rating movies or comics?

Zappa: Well, they don’t really rate comics...

Relix: No, but they have to get this “seal of approval”.

Zappa: The movie rating system replaced something that was actually worse, which was the Hays Office, that never should have been installed to begin with. The Hays Office is that wonderful place that used to have little rules like, if a man and a woman are seen together in a bedroom and the man is sitting on the bed, one foot must remain on the floor at all times.

Relix: Yeah, and the five second kiss.

Zappa: That’s right. They had people with stop watches going through reels of film to make sure that the foot was on the floor and all the rest of that stuff. They actually had people who did this as s job, and those people definitely wanted to protect their jobs. The movie ratings replaced that. I’m not enthusiastic about movie ratings. The comparison between rating a record and rating a movie ignores this statistic. If a person is hired as enactor to be in a movie, no matter what the film is rated, it doesn’t hurt that actor as an individual. It doesn’t go against him, because he’s hired to pretend, but you start labeling music as being filth, when a guy’s picture is on the album cover, and he wrote the song and he’s playing the music, he is a criminal now. Then when he goes to the bank to get a loan to buy a car, or whatever normal people do when they want to conduct their lives, he’s got a stigma on him, which is not going to be shared by somebody who played a villain in a movie.

Relix: One thing I would like to back track on, that’s not clear in my mind, is how it was that the PTA hooked up with these Congressmen’s Wives?

Zappa: I don’t know who approached whom, but I’ll tell you that I’ve been told off the record that the PTA regretted it from the minute that 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 means that no books should be removed from the library because of it’s content. Well, if you know anything about libraries today, you’ll also know that they have phonograph records. And since I addressed the Library Association of America about seven or eight years ago in San Francisco, I was surprised to learn that the statistics at that time were that out of all new library purchases in the U.S., that 60% of it was being spent on records, not books. Because the inclusion of the records in a library was one of the things that would make a person go to a library.

Well, so here you have the PTA. They undertook this thing for whatever political reason, based on the feelings of the ladies that ran the organization. Then the organization winds up in bed with the Washington Wives who claim not to be extremists, who claim to be nice normal ordinary folks. But they are extreme, because it 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 about how close they were to the middle of the road. They were definitely out in right field someplace. The record industry responded to the threats from these women, which I thought were pretty mild in the beginning, I thought the industry should have gone after them and nuked them. Since the threatening letter that came from the PMRC was signed over the names of a bunch of legislators who could bring sudden death to a bill, or a number of bills that would bring a lot of extra money to record industry every year they decided to be prudent, and they offered months and months ago to put a generic warning on all these albums, that said, “Parental guidance: explicit lyrics.” The ladies said “No, that’s not good enough, we have this list of eight demands.” Which included dropping people from the label if somebody saw them do something in concert that they didn’t like.

Relix: That sounds slot like the black balling that went on in the movie industry during the 50’s when people thought you were a communist because you were seen at the Russian Ballet.

Zappa: Yeah. By the time it got to the Senate on September 19th, 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 19th and November 1st, when the so called agreement was reached, announced a couple of press conferences and cancelled 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 to have it’s first hearing in a Senate subcommittee, which occurred on October 30th. So the press conference that announced this supposed agreement took place on November 1st, I have the AP wire report in an envelope sitting right here. I’ll tell you what was agreed to, and it was bullshit. These are exact quotes from the paper now. Here it is (reading) “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 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.

Relix: 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?

Zappa: 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.

Relix: How’s That?

Zappa: Because of Hitler. They’ve banned Wagner in Israel because of that. Anyone who wants to use the connection between music and death as a guideline as to how, when and where a person should be allowed to consume certain types of music then obviously the most lethal type of music on the planet is going to be Wagner because you just got a bigger scorecard there.

Relix: How did you choose to become involved with this?

Zappa: I got into it by accident. I was invited to debate Candy Stroud 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.

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

Zappa: The Associated Press thing announced that the ladies are going to stay in business for at least another year, and the next target is videos.

Relix: It seemed to me that whenever they would talk about the lyrics, they would show a video...

Zappa: Absolutely, and that’s preposterous, they were talking about words and I’ve said this over and over again ... you want to talk about words, don’t show anything. The reason that the thing got as much coverage in the press as it did was the 5 O’clock news said, “Hey, great story. Get me a bunch of video clips, chop them up, take all these things and the announcer does a voice-over, “Is this filth? you decide.” They show you a picture 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. Which Caused Dan Forth to gavel off all the noise and say, “We won’t have any demonstrations here.”

Relix: 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 and get plenty of violence.

Zappa: 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?

Relix: I’m sure they do.

Zappa: 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, If it ain’t the devil it’s Twisted Sister.

Relix: It’s just interesting that before there was Rock and Roll, before people were singing lyrics like “Kiss the devil, kiss the devil,” or whatever, we had these two major world-wide conflicts, and were listening to Glenn Miller at the time.

Zappa: 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 — 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 and 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. Gene Krupa was a junkie ...

Relix: Now it is very chic to listen to Jazz.

Zappa: ... and the initial complaints about Rock and Roll were all racial. That’s where it all began with Rock and Roll. You don’t want your children listening to this, because first they hear it and the next thing you know they’ll be in bed with negros. The same people, the same religious fanatics, who used to publish pamphlets to that effect, their descendants — in terms of fundamentalist church hierarchy — they’re still in business. The same mentality, this Ku Klux mentality is behind all this. And they can’t just go after people of a certain color anymore, because everybody makes Rock and Roll records. So that’s the genesis of this.

Relix: Do you think kids are more sophisticated today? Do they listen to someone sing “I’m gonna hack you up,” in a record and think, “This is reality.” Or do they think, “This is music.”...

Zappa: Most kids don’t even listen to the words. They can sing the hook. They really don’t follow the storyline (to the song).

Relix: The only thing that worries me about the whole thing with these women placing such importance on it, is that maybe kids are going to start to listen.

Zappa: Oh boy, it they do I’m sure they’ll really be depressed. (General laughter.) The whole idea of lyric content, just in terms of record company policy, has taken a back seat to the cosmetic aspects of Rock and Roll in the last decade, It’s never been desirable in the last decade to have a song that was really about anything.

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

Zappa: 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.

Relix: I guess money talks.

Zappa: 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 Associations — that if they racked this stuff, they would lose their lease. So naturally they’re going to put the heat on the record companies, “Don’t send me this shit.”

Relix: I guess that’s the ultimate way to get someone to respond ... threaten them with loss of money.

Zappa: That’s the American way.

Relix: Unfortunately ...

Zappa: That’s what the PMRC did to the record industry to begin with. They threatened them (the record industry) with the loss of $200,000,000 to $250,000,000 a year in easy money; which is what that blank tape tax amounts to. That’s the bill they were trying to protect.

Relix: Now what exactly is the blank tape tax?

Zappa: In the house it’s called HR2911, and in the Senate it’s called the Matthais Bill. It places a surcharge of .01 cent per minute on all blank tape, and 10% — in the case of HR2911, 5% in the case of the Matthais Bill — on each single recording device, that’s like a single tape recorder, and — in both cases — 25% on any dual recording devise, like a double cassette machine, or a combination of a turntable and a cassette machine. This is because they say 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 people 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 — the line 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. Now this is a new copyright, within the last 10 years I guess, it’s the performance copyright, and that is the copyright owned by the record company. The royalty split between the value of the “P” copyright versus the “C” copyright is 90/10.

Relix: In favor of the “P”?

Zappa: That’s right. So they talk about copyright holders to make you think of artists starving in garretts penning these tunes ... but it ain’t ... it’s the record companies.

Relix: So in other words, if this goes through, the artists are getting screwed even more.

Zappa: Of course they’re getting screwed. Look how they’re getting screwed, the rights that were given up by the RIAA don’t even belong to them. They’re giving up the rights of a third party in order to protect the money that will be brought to them by a bill that pays big to the owner of the “P” copyright.

Relix: So the difference between the “C” and copyrights is that the “C” copyright is the person who wrote the music, and the “P’ copyright is the person who owns the performance of that music.

Zappa: That’s right. When you sign with a record company, the company owns the performance, they own the master. So, if in fact, the root of the problem was the work of the songwriter or the performer, then maybe the ladies should have gone after the songwriter or the performer, but they didn’t, they went after the record company. They went after someone they would have some leverage over, and that was the RIAA: the organization who represents the people who own the “P in the circle copyright. And they had a bill—which they’re still trying to get through — which for no extra work, will bring 200 to 250 million dollars more per year into the pockets of the record companies. And it’s a tax for the record companies collected by the United States government. This is the kind of stuff that really didn’t get reported in the coverage of all this bullshit. Everyone was so interested in looking at the Twisted Sister video excerpt that they would show on the 5 O’clock news and worrying about dirty words that they aren’t realizing that if they put this through, you, as a consumer, will not get to vote on it.

Relix: Where do you see this going?

Zappa: Lowell Weicker is a Senator from Connecticut, and I think he should be considered a national resource, because the only person in Washington DC that will go toe-to-toe with Jesse Helms and that Fucking Bible Mafia that’s operating down there, is Weicker. The reason I bring him up is because it’s going to take people who are actually in government who are willing to stand up to this Theocratic Mafia that is in there now to 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. You’ve got plenty of good examples today, just look at Iran, take a look at Red China under Mao. Anybody who wants to make everybody the same and legislate it, that kind of uniformity is a menace, and you 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. The thing that was depressing about the Senate hearing was all those guys who were there for political PR reasons. They all thought, “Now here’s a good issue to get on the right side of.” Because who could prefer Twisted Sister to saving the children.

Copyright © 2009 by Sodaro & Wilcox
Published by permission of the authors

Note. This article is based on the same interview as "Why Pin It On Rock And Roll?", Fairfield County Advocate, January 1986.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)