It is more than three decades since 15 songs – the so-called “Filthy Fifteen” – were declared obscene in America. The designation of a Filthy Fifteen was part of a backlash campaign that ended with the imposition of stickers on albums warning of “explicit lyrics”. Yet the controversy over these “dangerous” songs remains a cultural talking point and, as recently as May 2018, award-winning composer Nicole Lizée toured a show about the controversy, including a performance at London’s acclaimed Barbican Theatre.
“At first, I was stunned, but then I got mad”
Though the debate over what is acceptable in print was nothing new – Cole Porter jokes about writers who “only use four-letter words” in ‘Anything Goes’ in 1934 – a national dispute over offensive lyrics started in 1984, when Prince released his groundbreaking album Purple Rain. Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore, bought a copy of the record for her 11-year-old daughter. She described her ensuing outrage in her book Raising PG Kids In An X-Rated Society, describing what happened when mother and daughter listened to the track ‘Darling Nikki’, which includes a line about a “sex fiend masturbating with a magazine”. Gore wrote: “The vulgar lyrics embarrassed both of us. At first, I was stunned, but then I got mad.”
Together with three other prominent conservative housewives – Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker), Pam Howar (wife of Raymond Howar, a real-estate developer who was active in the Republican Party) and Sally Nevius (whose husband, John, was appointed Washington City Council Chairman by President Nixon) – Tipper formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and they compiled the Filthy Fifteen: a list of songs they found most objectionable. Prince topped the list.
The PMRC lobbied hard and rallied support among PTAs in school. By August 1985, 19 record companies had agreed to put “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” labels on certain albums. The PMRC even devised its own “porn rock” rating system, with an “X” for profane or sexually explicit lyrics; “O” for occult references; “D/A” for lyrics about drugs and alcohol; and “V” for violent content. Cyndi Lauper’s song ‘She Bop’, for example, had the PMRC’s knickers in a twist because of the suggestive lyric about “picking up good vibration”.
On 19 September that year, the Senate’s Committee On Commerce, Science And Transportation held a hearing about the need to put warning labels on albums. The PMRC put forward their case and three musicians provided testimony. Frank Zappa said, “If it looks like censorship and it smells like censorship, it is censorship, no matter whose wife is talking about it.” Dee Snider, lead singer of heavy metal band Twisted Sister, argued that it was a straightforward infringement of civil liberties.
The third musician was John Denver. Snider recalled: “Gotta give John Denver credit. His testimony was one of the most scathing, because they fully expected – he was such a mom’s, American pie, John Denver Christmas special, fresh-scrubbed guy – that he would be on the side of censorship. When he brought up, ‘I liken this to the Nazi book burnings,’ you should’ve seen them start running for the hills. His testimony was the most powerful in many ways.”
Despite Denver’s intervention, the PMRC got their way and stickers were introduced. However, it didn’t necessarily work out the way they wanted. Heavy metal bands on the list received a sales and publicity boost, and the sort of lyrics that followed in rock, rap and even country music suggests that the group were fighting a losing battle. Not that they see it that way. Susan Baker recently told Time magazine that it still gives her a smile when she sees a Parental Advisory sticker and knows she helped make that happen.
The campaign did a lot of good, she insisted. Perhaps. Or perhaps all that Tipper and her gang ultimately achieved was curating an awesome mixtape for rebellious teenagers of the late 80s.
1: Prince: ‘Darling Nikki’ (1984)
Prince’s song, from Purple Rain, was actually written from the standpoint of a boy who was trying to humiliate a girlfriend who starts working for a rival. It was the reference to a girl masturbating that particularly enraged Tipper Gore. Looking back on the row in 2004, Prince said simply: “Times were different back then.” The album has been certified 13-times platinum and has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.
2: Sheena Easton: ‘Sugar Walls’ (1984)
‘Sugar Walls’ was from Scottish singer Sheena Easton’s album Private Heaven, and it was pretty obvious what she was getting at with references to “blood racing to private spots” and “spending the night inside my sugar walls”. The song was credited to Alexander Nevermind, a pseudonym for Prince. The single had everything to rile the women of the PMRC. At the time, Easton defended herself, saying, “We are not embarrassed to be sexy when we want to be. Men have never had to apologise for being sexy. Art is all about being free and if you don’t like it, then tune in to something else.”
3: Judas Priest: ‘Eat Me Alive’ (1984)
Judas Priest had been making albums for a decade by the time Defenders Of The Faith came out. The song on the album that caused such a rumpus was ‘Eat Me Alive’, with lyrics about a “rod of steel” and “groan in the pleasure zone”. Gore said the song advocated “oral sex at gunpoint”. The band responded in 1986 with a tune called ‘Parental Guidance’. The band’s founding guitarist, KK Downing, said they wondered: “Have we gone too far?” before deciding, “We were a metal band. We didn’t sing about daffodils and roses.”
4: Vanity: ‘Strap On Robbie Baby’ (1984)
Wild Animal was the debut solo album by Canadian singer Vanity (Denise Katrina Matthews), which was released by Motown Records in November 1984. The sexually provocative lyrics – “If you want to glide down my hallway, it’s open/Strap yourself in and ride” – were written by her then boyfriend Robbie Bruce. A few years later she posed nude for Playboy and said she was “just putting all of me out there”. Before her death, in 2016, aged 57, she said she regretted being “young and irresponsible, a silly woman laden with sin”, and said that, in later life, “seeking truth in Jesus Christ set me free”.
5: Mötley Crüe: ‘Bastard’ (1983)
Shout At The Devil is the second studio album by US heavy metal band Mötley Crüe, and the song ‘Bastard’ aroused controversy because of the violent lyrics about stabbing someone to death. However, the warning sticker just seemed to attract buyers. Singer Vince Neil said years later: “Once you put that sticker on, that parental-warning sticker, that album took off. Those kids wanted it even more.”
6: AC/DC: ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’ (1980)
A five-year-old tune from the Australian band AC/DC, from the album Back In Black, stirred up a row between the band and the PMRC, who said the lyrics “let me cut your cake with my knife” were profane. The band claimed the attempt to censor them was “Satanic intolerance”.
7: Twisted Sister: ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ (1984)
Dee Snider, the vocalist and songwriter of Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, defended the song from allegations that it promoted violence; ultimately, it reached No.2 on the Billboard charts. Snider said: “It strikes me that the PMRC may have confused our video presentation for this song… with the meaning of the lyrics. It is no secret that the videos often depict storylines completely unrelated to the lyrics of the song they accompany. The video ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ was simply meant to be a cartoon with human actors playing variations on the Road Runner-Wile E Coyote theme. Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons.”
8: Madonna: ‘Dress You Up’ (1984)
No list of shocking songs from the 80s would be complete without Madonna. The one that got her into hot water with the PMRC was ‘Dress You Up’, from the album Like A Virgin. The song was composed by Andrea LaRusso and Peggy Stanziale, who were described as “two New Jersey housewives” in newspaper reports. The lyrics – “Gonna dress you up in my love/All over your body” – hardly seem explicit and Madonna laughed off the row, saying, “I’m sexy. How can I avoid it?”
9: WASP: ‘Animal (F__k Like A Beast)’ (1984)
There were claims that WASP lead singer and guitarist Blackie Lawless wrote the song after seeing a photograph of lions mating in National Geographic magazine; its title alone guaranteed its place on the PMRC hit parade. The band used to introduce the song at concerts with the words, “Well, this one is for Tipper Gore.” Lawless also later became a born-again Christian and stopped performing the song.
10: Def Leppard: ‘High’n’Dry’ (1981)
Drug and alcohol references landed Def Leppard in trouble with the PMRC, especially for the lines “I got my whiskey/I got my wine/I got my woman/And this time, the lights are going out”. The British rockers were bemused by the row, declaring that they had no interest in people with “closed minds”.
11: Mercyful Fate: ‘Into The Coven’ (1983)
The song ‘Into The Coven’, by Danish heavy band Mercyful Fate, appeared on their album Melissa. The PMRC claimed the song fostered an unhealthy interest in the occult, with its plea to “come into my coven and become Lucifer’s child”. The band said the song was just a musical horror story and, years later, singer King Diamond told Rolling Stone magazine, “The whole thing was just pathetic. We thought they must be really bored to have time for this. How they saw those songs said more about them than it did about us.”
12: Black Sabbath: ‘Trashed’ (1983)
Lyrics about driving after drinking a bottle of tequila would make any sensible person worried, but singer Ian Gillan said that ‘Trashed’ was in fact about how he had crashed drummer Bill Ward’s car during an alcohol-fuelled race around the grounds of the recording studio. He claimed that the real purpose of the song was to act as a warning against driving under the influence. The band admitted that the accompanying video was intentionally lewd.
13: Mary Jane Girls: ‘In My House’ (1985)
‘In My House’ was written and arranged by Rick James and recorded by American girl group Mary Jane Girls for their album Only Four You. The so-called explicit lyrics were lines such as “I’ll satisfy your every need/And every fantasy you think up”. Singer Jojo McDuffie said that the song was just “making an innuendo, purposely and tastefully, because Rick wanted the song to be played on the radio”.
14: Venom: ‘Possessed’ (1985)
The album Possessed was released on April Fool’s Day in 1985, and the title track was one of (deliberately, presumably) 13 songs. The lyrics – “I drink the vomit of the priests/Make love with the dying whore” – were certainly unpleasant, and landed the band on the Filthy Fifteen list. “It was by no means the most controversial song I wrote,” said frontman Cronos. The album, incidentally, was recorded in a quaint Sussex village whose claim to fame was being the subject of a surreal Spike Milligan sketch about victims of the plague, suffering from burned trousers.
15: Cyndi Lauper: ‘She Bop’ (1983)
You could argue that Lauper was following in the grand tradition of female singers such as Bessie Smith, who were being suggestive back in the 20s. Some 60 years later, Cyndi Lauper offended the PMRC with her innuendo-full lyrics such as “I want to go south and get me some more/They say I better stop or I’ll go blind”, and the lewd video that accompanied the song ‘She Bop’. The song about self-pleasuring was a catchy hit. As Lauper noted, sex sells in the music industry. “It was a scandal. I brought shame upon my family,” she said with a smile.
Looking for more? Discover how musicians have always fought the battle over music censorship.