Frank Zappa and the Scarlet Letter
By Dot Stone
RIP, June 1985
See also: Z-Pack - Letter to the President
... I would like to know your opinion of the record-censorship program sponsored by the PMRC, an organization involving the wives of elected governmental officials. Do you support this effort? If so, have you considered the basic issue of fairness when a pet project likely to result in legislative action, is promoted by the spouse of an elected official and rushed to a Senate hearing while important national business waits in the wings? Is it fair that people not fortunate enough to be married to a D.C. superstar have to keep their mouths shut while The Washington Wives diddle with the legislative machinery? ...
Frank Zappa stares down at the Senate chambers. His dark, piercing glance alludes to more wisdom and perspective than any born-again, upper-class housewife will ever know. He, like so few others these days, is willing to stand up for his opinions. Frank Zappa is not content to let the long right arm of the government change rock 'n' roll as we know it. He has taken the podium and is again attempting to change the world or, in this matter, keep it as it is.
The case in point this time is the beloved Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and their attempt to force a totalitarian wedge into the free democracy that we know in the United States of America by declaring that rating labels be put on records. If such a bill is passed, it could eventually make you a criminal suspect every time you purchase an album that is somewhat questionable to Christian morals.
Being outspoken and factually opinionated is a common state of affairs for the brilliant, yet bizarre, Zappa. It started long ago when he joined a group called The Soul Giants back in the mid-'60s. Not content with that simple name, Zappa convinced the members to change it, commemorating the anniversary of the band's first gig: Mother's Day. The Soul Giants became The Mothers. Their record company, MGM, couldn't handle it, and Zappa had his first bout with censorship – which subsequently led to the band's being renamed the Mothers of Invention. With the release of their first LP, Freak Out!, Zappa became infamously known as rock's most poignant social commentator.
Progress came quick. With the Mothers of Invention's second album, Absolutely Free, Zappa moved into the political realms that he is associated with today. On that album he makes a sharp commentary on the lack of freedom in modern society.
This material was pretty underground stuff, but as time went on, Zappa and his sardonic view of society infiltrated the college campus. Classic tracks like "Dynah-Moe Humm" and "Teen-age Prostitute" attest to the lighthearted and insincere manner with which he views subjects that are taken so seriously by normal humans.
As time went on, Zappa came out with material like Sheik Yerbouti and his homage to rich, teenage fatales, "Valley Girl." He had seduced the public into looking at life his way. Zappa has been churning out material at a phenomenal rate, each LP revealing more of his esoteric reality. With his latest release, Jazz From Hell, Zappa is speaking to us also through the primary instrument used on the album, the Synclavier.
Although he is a prolific workaholic when it comes to music (his kids, Dweezil and Moon Unit, are also expanding into rock realms with his assistance), Zappa has found time to enlighten society in other ways, particularly through his vehement opposition to the PMRC.
In keeping with the theme of RIP's June issue, we now offer some choice morsels uttered by the man who may one day become the most passionate lobbyist for the causes of Truth, Justice and the American Way.
It seems rather ironic that by the PMRC's attempt to squash heavy-metal music, in their furious uproar, they've actually drawn attention to that art form.
Yeah, but you've got to get down to the basic thing – there's no proof that any word that you hear on a record is going to turn you into a social liability or make you go to hell. That premise is wrong. And starting from that wrong premise and working their way outward, they created something that, in 1985, was verging on hysteria.
But they've been rating movies for years, and that system hasn't harmed the celluloid industry. Why do you feel that rating records will have such a drastic effect on music?
Apart from the quantitative difference, there is another that is more important: People who act in films are hired to "pretend." No matter how the film is rated, it won't hurt them personally. Since many musicians write and perform their own material and stand by it as their art, an imposed rating will stigmatize them as individuals. How long before composers and performers are told to wear a little PMRC armband with their scarlet letter on it?
The PMRC rating system restrains trade in one specific musical field: rock. No ratings have been requested for comedy records or country music. Is there anyone in the PMRC who can differentiate infallibly between rock and country music? Artists in both fields cross stylistic lines. Some artists include comedy material. If an album is part rock, part country, part comedy, what sort of label would it get? Shouldn't the ladies be warning everyone that inside those country albums with American flags, the big trucks and the atomic pompadours, there lurks a fascinating variety of songs about sex, violence, alcohol and the devil, recorded in a way that lets you hear every word, sung for you by people who have been to prison and are proud of it?
If enacted the PMRC program would have the effect of protectionist legislation for the country-music industry, providing more security for cowboys than it does for children
The PMRC wants ratings to start as of the date of their enactment. What will be the status of those recordings remaining from the Golden Era prior to censorship: Do they become collector's items or will the government order them burned in a public ceremony somewhere in Virginia?
If as they suggest, hearing a certain type of music can cause unwanted behavior, than anyone who has heard a Beatles or a Beach Boys record is in danger. Those were Charles Manson's favorite groups.
Wagner's influence on Hitler is well documented. Shouldn't the PMRC consider a big red "M" for those classical works favored by megalomaniacs? What if statistics become available showing a marked preference for Wayne Newton and Barry Manilow among convicted white-collar felons?
Because of the fact that the alleged L.A. mass murderer – the Night Stalker – sometimes wore a cap bearing the moniker of the group AC/DC, the PMRC is building the case that heavy-metal is evil and needs to be suppressed.
When he was arrested he may have beer, wearing one garment that said "AC/DC," but he was weaning something else that said "Jack Daniel's." Now, who's to blame? Jack Daniel's is a great Tennessee company.
But PMRC advocate Tipper Gores husband represents the state of Tennessee in the Senate. To pass judgment on Jack Daniel's and alcohol wouldn't be in their best interest, now would it?
Well, those are the people who put Senator Albert Gore in office. But you can't point your finger at someone's musical consumption when there's something even more damaging that he has ingested that can drive someone to an antisocial act, and I think alcohol is a great candidate for that.
The other thing is, if you're going to use the criteria of someone's musical consumption as a tool by which to convict an individual, then let's make it fair. Everybody who's convicted or arrested for anything, let's see what kind of music they are into. There are plenty of people in the U.S. who have committed murder who are just plain old Christians who don t listen to heavy metal at all Take that guy on the boat in Staten Island with the saber. He didn't do it because of AC/DC, he did it because of Jesus. Jesus kills more people than AC/DC, there's no question about it. There's more documented evidence to support the theory that religious fanaticism is a far more lethal social problem than any song that has ever been written by anybody.
Fundamentalist Christianity is not a state religion. The PMRC's request for labels regarding sexually explicit lyrics, violence, drugs, alcohol and occult content reads like a catalog of phenomenon abhorrent to practitioners of that faith. Is the PMRC aware of the Muslim affiliations of some black performers? If they should suddenly decide to record lyrics advocating the violent overthrow of America in the name of Allah, will the PMRC's label deter a nation of semi-literates from learning an exciting new dance called "The Funky Jihad"? Will the PMRC wish they had used the big red "M" to warn of Muslim content?
They're cracking down on rock 'n' roll in other ways too. Look at the lawsuit against Jello Biafra stemming from the poster inside of the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album. Or the suit against Ozzy Osbourne because some father claims that it's Ozzy's fault that his kid committed suicide while one of Ozzy's records was playing. A spokesman from the L.A. District Attorney's office stated that he has a deskful of other possible rock 'n' roll prosecutions. Is this too going to become fashionable?
It depends on the outcome of the Biafra case. Right now I'd take that folder on the other prosecutions and use it as evidence in the Biafra case to prove it's a conspiracy on the part of the judiciary and the law-enforcement officers in California, and that it's completely prejudicial and has nothing to do with anything in rock 'n' roll.
What I want to know is, how can a person in the San Fernando Valley who becomes irate at a rock 'n' roll poster in an album suddenly get a search warrant from the State Attorney General's office, requiring the service of six vice-squad officers plus three more flown up from Los Angeles, to search someone's house in San Francisco who's not presumed to be dangerous? That's nine guys, armed, going up to someone's house with a search warrant from the State Attorney General for the purpose of, as the warrant says, "To pick up three copies of the album." First of all, why not go to a record store and buy them? Then there's the slight matter of who's been indicted here, right down to the guy who pressed the albums. Notice it's not the Wherehouse record store that sold the records – a curious omission. And, they have to prove that by seeing this poster, someone has been irreparably damaged. It's an absurd case.
What evil do you think lurks in the heart of the PMRC in 1987?
They are going to have to stick to their rhetoric – that the potential damage to the psyche of young people appears to be something worth worrying about. It's going to be hard. First of all, there's no science to it. There's no hard data to prove it. In fact, there's quite a bit more data to disprove their claims.
What is Tipper Gore doing now besides the PMRC?
She's written a book on how to raise children, and she's going to be doing the talk-show circuit. They'll try and make a star out of Tipper, really because one of the subtexts of this thing is getting the Gore family name before the public, because I think Albert wants to run for president. These people are cultural terrorists! And to bribe the PMRC – as the record industry did last November first – is as pitiful as Irangate. It's the dumbest type of terrorist tactic. Here you have the perfect casebook, the perfect textbook opportunity to perform a surgical strike on a terrorist group. Do you understand? If it would have been up to me, there is no question ... they would have been nuked!
The only thing that would make the difference now is if the RIAA suddenly saw the error of its ways and went out and did what they should have done last year – which is say, "Enough is enough and fuck you people. We're going to go out there. Just drop dead." They should have done that last year. It may be too late for them to do it now. But I would love to see the music industry come out and say, "Enough is enough. We have done our research, and we have found we made an error last year. We have researched the matter and have discovered scientifically that there is no basis for your claims. And, therefore, we feel there is no obligation to abide by a voluntary agreement, which really was just to save face for you women. So just go fuck yourselves."
You're doing your part, but tell us, what can the average person do to fight rock censorship?
Well, you know all the complaints that go to radio stations and TV stations by right-wing lunatics? Did you ever think if you were a rational person that it might be great for you too to phone your radio stations and say that you want them to play the weirdest and wildest stuff that was ever available and to fuck those Christians? The stations never get any mail from the other side. All they get is complaints. A kid has to realize that if he wants to hear something other than the blandest, tamest, most mundane garbage that anyone would ever stick on the air – to prevent all culture in the United States from being reduced to the common denominator of what's acceptable to a Christian cretin – you have to make your voice heard. Did you know that Fundamentalist organizations will supply you with blanks that you just fill in and send to whoever you want to complain to? Fight back!