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PMRC’s ‘Filthy 15’: Where Are They Now?

Three decades after W.A.S.P., Vanity, Judas Priest, Prince, Madonna and others shocked Tipper Gore and her committee, Rolling Stone takes a critical look at 1985’s worst of the worst

PMRC

Protesters attend the PMRC Senate hearing in 1985. Here, Rolling Stone evaluates each of the so-called "Filthy 15" songs the committee compiled that year.

Mark "Weissguy" Weiss

In the past year, Tove Lo's hit "Talking Body" found her singing, "We fuck for life," Big Sean got on the radio with "I Don't Fuck With You" and Macklemore's "Thrift Shop," in which he raps about purchasing a blanket with the sole intention of ejaculating on it, continues to get airplay. So what is today's litmus test for obscenity?

Thirty years ago, a committee known as the Parents Music Resource Center made a playlist of what it deemed the most offensive music at the time, including songs by megastars like Madonna and Prince and culty underground metal groups like Venom and Mercyful Fate. The list, dubbed the "Filthy 15," was to serve as an example of how the PMRC thought albums should be "rated," in a way similar to the MPAA. But instead of issuing general "PG" and "R" designations, the committee — on which former Second Lady Tipper Gore famously served — suggested content-based ratings: "X" for profane or sexually explicit lyrics, "O" for occult references, "D/A" for lyrics about drugs and alcohol and "V" for violent content.

Ultimately, the Record Industry Association of America convinced labels to affix potentially offensive albums with the warning stickers the world has grown to love: "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics." At the time, record-stickering became such a talking point that the Senate's Committee on Commerce held a hearing on the "Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records," at which Frank Zappa, John Denver and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider testified. The musicians were worried that stickering would lead to record stores refusing to carry albums, a fact that came true with Walmart.

The 30th anniversary of the hearing is this weekend, so Rolling Stone has revisited each of the so-called Filthy 15 songs to see what was so objectionable about them in the first place, and to find out what became of the music industry's onetime pariahs. Many of the artists, including Judas Priest, W.A.S.P., Vanity, Mary Jane Girls and Black Sabbath, were eager to offer their thoughts on what it all means now.

Def Leppard

Def Leppard, circa mid-Eighties.

Mark "Weissguy" Weiss

Def Leppard, “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Drugs and alcohol

Explicit Lyrics: "Saturday, I feel right/I've been drinking all day … /I got my whiskey/I got my wine/I got my woman/And this time, the lights are going out"

Def Leppard Then: After emerging from the fabled New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene with a hard-edged sound in the late Seventies, Def Leppard refocused their sound for a little more commercial appeal and scored their first hit album in the States with 1981's High 'n' Dry. The record contained two hits that still get classic-rock airplay, "Let It Go" and the unstoppable "Bringin' on the Heartbreak," but it was the AC/DC-like drinking ode "High 'n' Dry (Saturday Night)" that earned them notoriety on the Filthy 15. By the time the PMRC had homed in on the song, though, Def Leppard were megastars, having recently seen High 'n' Dry's 1983 follow-up, Pyromania, certified six-times platinum.

What They Said Then: "[Party songs were] part of the entertainment," frontman Joe Elliott once said. "The kids like us to do that. We like to do it as well, but we don't write about it all the time. And a lot of people seem to think that's it, that we don't have opinions on anything else."

After the PMRC: The group went on to even more success. Their 1987 album, Hysteria, was certified 12 times platinum, and — after guitarist Steve Clark died of an alcohol and drug overdose in 1991 — their 1992 offering, Adrenalize, even withstood grunge's displacement of metal on radio, selling more than three million copies. In late October of this year, Def Leppard will release their 11th album, Def Leppard, for which they're already touring. The group still continues to perform "High 'n' Dry" in concert.

What They Say Now: "Dee Snider basically stood up for our rights as artists," Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen said in 2012. "He is an extremely intelligent and cool guy. This obviously upset those people with closed minds who in their ignorance expected him to turn up in his stage attire expecting him not to be able to tell the difference between entertainment and real life. His inclusion in this period of our history is momentous and really means a lot to all of us as artists."

Twisted Sister

Twisted Sister, circa mid-Eighties.

Mark "Weissguy" Weiss

Twisted Sister, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Violent

Explicit Lyrics: "We'll fight the powers that be … /We're not gonna take it"

Twisted Sister Then: At the time of the record-labeling Senate hearing, androgynous headbangers Twisted Sister were at their commercial peak. After slugging it out in Long Island since the early Seventies, the group scored major hits with "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock," two songs off their third album, 1984's Stay Hungry. By the time of the hearing, the record had already gone double-platinum, thanks to humorous videos for those songs. Along with Frank Zappa and John Denver, the group's frontman, Dee Snider, was one of the three musicians who spoke at the hearing.

What They Said Then: "On this list is our song 'We're Not Gonna Take It,' upon which has been bestowed a 'V' rating, indicating violent lyrical content," Dee Snider said during testimony at the Senate hearing. "You will note from the lyrics before you that there is absolutely no violence of any type either sung about or implied anywhere in the song. Now, it strikes me that the PMRC may have confused our video presentation for this song … with the lyrics, with the meaning of the lyrics. It is no secret that the videos often depict story lines 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."

After the PMRC: Although Snider told the Senate he expected to be "well retired" by 1994 and spending more time with his children, Twisted Sister released two more albums before disbanding in 1989. Before the outfit regrouped in 1997, Snider formed a band called Widowmaker and began writing his first movie, 1998's Strangeland, which he also starred in. He has continued to act since then, appearing in the Broadway production Rock of Ages in 2010. Since Twisted Sister reunited, the group re-recorded many of their hits for an album called Still Hungry and holiday songs for A Twisted Christmas. The group's drummer, A.J. Pero, died while sleeping on a tour bus in March of this year, and the group has planned a farewell tour — dubbed "Forty and Fuck It" — for 2016 with former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy behind the kit.

What They Say Now: "Everything I represented, stood for and said back then, I have lived and stand by today," Snider tells Rolling Stone. "I stand by every word. As a parent, I monitored what my kids listened to. When my kids wanted to listen to Eminem, I listened to the album and talked about it with my kids and used it as a forum for discussion. And I practice self-censorship. When my own family got into Tenacious D, the first album, including my little daughter who was only eight, and I made a special tape for her without 'Fuck Her Gently' on it 'cause she wasn't ready for 'Fuck Her Gently.' But she clearly listened [to] 'Wonderboy' and the other songs her brothers were listening to. This is hands-on parenting and everything I stood for."

madonna

Madonna, circa mid-Eighties.

John Roca/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

Madonna, “Dress You Up”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Profane or sexually explicit       

Explicit Lyrics: "Gonna dress you up in my love/All over your body"

Madonna Then: Thanks to MTV saturation and natural confidence, Madonna became a megastar almost immediately. By the time of the Senate hearing, Madonna's self-titled 1983 debut had gone double-platinum and her sophomore effort, 1985's little-record-that-could called Like a Virgin, was quintuple-platinum. She even had a gold home video. But the committee's selection of "Dress You Up," a single that's largely innocuous by Madonna standards (it's on an album called Like a Virgin!), seemed curious. Funnier still, the tune was written by what a local news report at the time described as "two New Jersey housewives."

What She Said Then: "I couldn’t be a success without also being a sex symbol," Madonna told Spin in 1985. "I'm sexy. How can I avoid it? That's the essence of me. I would have to have a bag over my head and over my body; but then my voice would come across, and it's sexy."

After the PMRC: The singer's inclusion on the Filthy 15 had no bearing whatsoever on her career. She sang about the joys of sex and female empowerment, and she branched out into the world of acting, appearing in Who's That Girl? In a surprising about-face, Tipper Gore even praised the singer's teen-mom drama "Papa, Don't Preach" in 1986 because, she told The New York Times, the tune "speaks to the fact that there's got to be more support and more communication in families about this problem, and anything that fosters that I applaud." Madonna put out her 13th album, Rebel Heart, this past March, and is currently supporting it on tour.

What She Says Now: "I like to provoke; it's in my DNA," Madonna wrote in a 2013 Bazaar op-ed. "But nine times out of 10, there's a reason for it."

cyndi lauper

Cyndi Lauper, circa mid-Eighties.

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Profane or sexually explicit

Explicit Lyrics: "I want to go south and get me some more … /They say I better stop or I'll go blind"

Cyndi Lauper Then: Fun-enthusiast Cyndi Lauper's 1983 solo debut, She's So Unusual, became a runaway success thanks to sharp hits like "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," "True Colors" and a cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine"; lighthearted videos that featured wrestler "Captain" Lou Albano; and the singer's Betty Boop–like offstage spunk. The most unusual single, perhaps, though was an ode to masturbation, the incredibly catchy "She Bop," which became a Number Three hit. Its success helped She's So Unusual go quadruple-platinum by the time of the Senate hearing.

What She Said Then: "This song was very scandalous for me," Lauper told a Paris crowd jokingly in 1987. "It was scandal. I brought shame upon my family. I was accused of driving in the fast lane …. But anyway, the thing I thought of, I said, 'A bop a day keeps the doctor away,' and that's absolutely true. So I recommend it."

After the PMRC: Lauper released her follow-up, True Colors, in September 1986, which contained the title track, a Number One hit, and eventually went double-platinum. She notched her last big radio hit in the U.S. ("I Drove All Night") in 1989, when she put out A Night to Remember; that same year, the "She Bop" single went gold. Since then, Lauper has consistently put out new records, the most recent of which was 2010's Memphis Blues. She also branched out into acting, often portraying herself on shows like Queer as Folk and 30 Rock, and most recently, she wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, which won the Tony for Best Musical in 2013.

What She Says Now: "It's one thing to make that kind of [music]," she told Vulture in 2010, in the context of what her then-preteen son listened to. "But if they're going to play it on the radio, that's another story, isn't it? They're selling sex because sex sells."

ac/dc

AC/DC, circa mid-Eighties.

Michael Putland/Retna UK/Getty

AC/DC, “Let Me Put My Love Into You”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Profane or sexually explicit

Explicit Lyrics: "Don't you struggle/Don't you fight/Let me put my love into you/Let me cut your cake with my knife"

AC/DC Then: Five years prior to the formation of the PMRC, hard-rock hell-raisers AC/DC pulled off the most unthinkable resurrection act in rock: They replaced their lead singer, following the death of frontman Bon Scott, with Brian Johnson and they put out Back in Black, one of the best-selling albums of all time. By the time the PMRC named the Back in Black deep cut "Let Me Put My Love Into You" one of its Filthy 15, AC/DC had already put out three new albums. Their popularity had begun to wane, though, as 1985's Fly on the Wall was ultimately certified merely platinum.

What They Said Then: "People who want to strangle other people's rights are possessed by one of the worst devils around — the Satan in their souls which is called intolerance," Angus Young told People in 1985. "Rock & roll is about one simple thing: freedom. When someone tries to murder that freedom, we're against it."

After the PMRC: Truly, nothing can stop AC/DC. Back in Black has since been certified 22 times platinum, and their latest record — 2014's Rock or Bust — has already gone gold at a time when selling 500,000 copies of an album ought to be considered multi-platinum. In the years since the Senate hearing, it's mostly been business as usual for the group, which has recorded albums and toured regularly. But AC/DC recently experienced a major lineup change when founding rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young had to bow out of the band due to dementia and drummer Phil Rudd was arrested on drug-possession charges. Nevertheless, the group found replacements (Malcolm's nephew Stevie Young now plays rhythm) for their absent bandmates and is currently on tour.

What They Say Now: "[With the PMRC,] you got idiots like Tipper Gore, who really is a twit," Brian Johnson offered in the group's Behind the Music.

Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi

Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, circa mid-Eighties.

Mark "Weissguy" Weiss

Black Sabbath, “Trashed”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Drugs and alcohol

Explicit Lyrics: "I drank a bottle of tequila and I feel real good … /I knew I wouldn't make it the car/Just wouldn't make it"

Black Sabbath Then: Arguably the first heavy-metal band, Black Sabbath were an obvious target for the PMRC. At the time the committee took issue with the group's ostensible account of drinking and driving, the band was in a fractious state. Original frontman Ozzy Osbourne was long gone, and Ian Gillan, the singer of the Filthy 15 selection "Trashed," which appeared on Sabbath's 1983 album Born Again, had already reunited with his alma mater, Deep Purple. Other than a reunion with Osbourne for Live Aid in July 1985, Black Sabbath were on hiatus when "porn rock" became a talking point.

What They Said Then: "I think one of the most outrageous [videos] we've done was the one with Ian Gillan, was for 'Trashed,'" guitarist Tony Iommi once said. "Of course, it got banned because it was too lewd."

After the PMRC: The Live Aid reunion was short-lived and until reuniting with Osbourne again in 1997, the group cycled through a number of members with varying degrees of success. Its members would reunite off and on with Osbourne and singer Ronnie James Dio, with whom they formed another band called Heaven and Hell, throughout the 2000s until they put out the reunion record 13 in 2013. The band is now readying itself for a farewell tour it has dubbed "The End."

What They Say Now: "I have no personal feelings at all about such things," Gillan tells Rolling Stone. "Professionally, I would say that someone needs their head examined. 'Trashed' is about a wild night on a private racetrack … Filthy? I suppose if you have a really dirty mind."

Mary Jane Girls

Mary Jane Girls, circa mid-Eighties.

Mark "Weissguy" Weiss

Mary Jane Girls, “In My House”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Profane or sexually explicit

Explicit Lyrics: "When it comes down to makin' love/I'll satisfy your every need/And every fantasy you think up"

Mary Jane Girls Then: In the late Seventies, funk maestro Rick James decided his backup singers would make a fine breakout group and put together an ensemble he dubbed the Mary Jane Girls (after you know what) and appointed Joanne "JoJo" McDuffie their lead singer. He wrote and produced all of the songs on their self-titled 1983 debut, which made waves on the R&B chart with the infectious hit "All Night Long." He also wrote most of the songs for and produced their second album, Only Four You, which contained the funky, poppy tune "In My House," a Number Seven hit. The album went gold in June 1985, four months after it came out.

What They Said Then: "We say things that a lot of women are afraid to say and in a lot of relationships, lack of communication is what breaks you apart," Kimberly "Maxi" Wuletich said of "In My House" on Soul Train in 1985. "So we're trying to help the ladies. Honey, listen to this song, this is what I want to say to you."

After the PMRC: The record would spawn another pop hit, "Wild and Crazy Love," in 1985, and the group scored a final hit, a serene cover of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' "Walk Like a Man," in 1986. The band would fizzle out by 1987, though, after James had a falling out with Motown. James continued to record and release albums until his death in 2004. JoJo recorded a solo album, Slightly Dangerous, in 2006, and in 2013 put out an EP called The Shameless Hussy Project; she also sang backup for Barry White. Two groups of former members, one featuring Wuletich and Cheri Wells and another featuring Candi Ghant, have used the name the Mary Jane Girls in recent years, though the Estate of Rick James issued a cease and desist, claiming ownership of the name. The Waters Sisters, who sang backup on Mary Jane Girls, appeared in the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary about backup singers, 20 Feet From Stardom.

What They Say Now: "I don't feel that 'In My House' had any reason to be placed in the 'Filthy 15,'" McDuffie tells Rolling Stone. "At the time, I also felt that this was just a feeble attempt at 'censorship' to the music that was created by Rick James. It never had anything to do with 'parental guidance.' As most parents know, the quickest way to get your children interested in something is to try and keep it from them. All they did was stop any consideration for the song to get a Number One chart position or receive any of the accolades, like a Grammy or AMA, that a song of that popularity should have received.

"On the list, 'In My House' received a 'sex' description as the reason to be placed there," she continues. "Did the song discuss the sex act in a descriptive or lewd fashion? No. What it did was make an innuendo, purposely and tastefully, because Rick wanted the song to be played on the radio. True, he wanted to push the envelope, but in no way was that song of such a sexual nature to be called 'filthy.' … Creative expression has no rules, nor will it ever, no matter how many committees are designed or laws created against it. Whatever happened to 'Freedom of Speech'?"

venom

Venom, circa mid-Eighties.

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty

Venom, “Possessed”

Proposed PMRC Rating: Occult

Explicit Lyrics: "I drink the vomit of the priests/Make love with the dying whore/Satan, as my master incarnate/Hell, praise to the unholy host"

Venom Then: When the PMRC set its sights on Satan-obsessed heavy-metal speedsters Venom, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The group titled its debut album Welcome to Hell, sang songs like "In League With Satan" and "One Thousand Days in Sodom," and put a Baphomet on the LP sleeve. Venom's second album, Black Metal, also featured a demon on the cover and more songs about His Infernal Majesty. By the time they put out their fourth LP, 1985's Possessed — which featured drummer Abaddon's son in a Venom Baphomet T-shirt on the cover — the PMRC likely didn't have to put much effort into finding something objectionable.

What They Said Then: "I don't preach Satanism, occultism, witchcraft or anything," Cronos told Kerrang! in 1985. "Rock & roll is basically entertainment and that's as far as it goes."

After the PMRC: The group issued four more albums, unfazed by the Senate hearing, before splitting in 1993. Around that time, they earned notoriety for helping to inspire an altogether scarier metal movement — Scandinavian black metal — in which band members literally burned down churches and murdered each other and bystanders. Venom never endorsed this movement but embraced the attention and reformed in 1995, but Possessed-era members Abaddon and Mantas were both out by 2002; they have since re-formed as Venom Inc. The only original member left in Venom in 2015 is frontman Conrad "Cronos" Lant, who led his bandmates in the recording of this year's From the Very Depths, Venom's 14th release. The band will play its only North American show this year at Fun Fun Fun Fest in November, and it has lined up appearances at a number of festivals in 2016, including Baltimore's Maryland Deathfest.

What They Say Now: "It was by no means the most controversial song I wrote, but what the hell, I got a good laugh when I originally read it was included in the Filthy 15," frontman Cronos tells Rolling Stone. "Now, I still think that they were a bunch of losers. Everyone I spoke to always just figured that these were bored people with nothing better to do. Also, you know what they say about calling the frying pan black, yeah? I bet these people were up to all sorts of debauchery behind the scenes.

"[The PMRC] wasted their time when they could have been doing something more constructive with their lives, and for me, well, that album wasn't doing too well when it was first released, actually, but after their fantastic marketing scheme, it picked up and started selling very well, so thanks for that, PMRC. All they achieved was advertising hardcore underground music."

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