An Oral History of the Insane PMRC Meetings 30 Years Ago

Three decades ago, a group of Washington wives decided to take on the music industry. They weren’t happy with the tone, tenor and subject matter of popular music. “What about the children?” they cried. The result was the Parents Music Resource Centre, a group of busybodies that succeeded in pissing off just about everyone.

Newsweek looks back on the Washington hearings that turned people like Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder and (ahem) John Denver into allies.

Thirty years ago, the music industry changed forever in the midst of the Parents Music Resource Center’s fight to identify and label explicit lyrics.

The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) formed in 1984 around the collective outrage of four women known for their ties to Washington political life. Founding members Susan Baker (wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker), Tipper Gore (wife of senator and future Vice President Al Gore), Pam Howar (wife of Realtor Raymond Howar) and Sally Nevius (wife of Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius) had become disturbed by Prince, Madonna and other music their kids were listening to. And on September 19, 1985, the culture wars came to a head in a “porn rock” Senate hearing featuring testimony from John Denver, Dee Snider and Frank Zappa.

From this political fervor emerged the “Parental Advisory” sticker that probably dots your CD collection today. In this oral history, Susan Baker, Dee Snider, Gail Zappa, Sis Levin and others tell the inside story of how it happened—and reflect on the 30 years that have gone by.

All of the material contained in this oral history was provided in the form of separate phone interviews with Newsweek, with three exceptions. Tipper Gore declined to be interviewed but did supply a statement through a representative. Cronos, of the metal band Venom, responded to interview questions via email. And the quotes attributed to the late Frank Zappa are from the artist’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. (The book was written in the late 1980s, hence the use of the present tense when referring to the then-active PMRC.)

Keep going. It’s insane.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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