This will be the first of two parts examining the PMRC and the “Filthy Fifteen” list of objectionable songs. I’m splitting this up due to length and will post the second part on Friday.
Listening to music in the 1980’s was not just about the music. Many cultural and social issues were brought into play while most people were simply trying to enjoy some songs. The Satanic Panic was a huge issue throughout the decade and would greatly inform rock and especially heavy metal culture.
Coupled with, but also beyond the scope of, satanism was a grand posture of moralizing about a “societal decay” that the youth of the time were experiencing due to their music tastes. This posturing would look beyond just heavy metal to expose the base evils of rock and even pop music. There was no way anyone could strive to be a functioning, morally upright person when this awful music was around.
The movement to rid music of its less tasteful elements would take shape in the US in the form of the Parent’s Music Resource Center. This group was led by the wives of several US senators and found a figurehead in Tipper Gore, the wife of Senator and future Vice President Al Gore. Their efforts culminated in Congressional hearings on the subject of explicit music, famously featuring testimony from John Denver, Frank Zappa and Dee Snider.
The PMRC’s efforts ultimately led to the music industry adopting a sticker to place on albums. The infamous “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” tag meant that an album had been deemed to bear some sort of subversive message within its vocals. Major retailers like Wal-Mart refused to stock albums with the sticker, a blow to record sales in a time before the Internet when music couldn’t be sought out as easily.
But the sticker truly failed in its purpose. It rallied the music industry against it, which musicians from all genres using it as a point of ire. The sticker served as more of an advertisement for an album rather than a deterrent. Music distribution would seek to avoid the big box stores, which remained stuffed with inoffensive Garth Brooks albums and edited copies of any major release that had the sticker in its original form. CD and record stores would be a small business venture until the digital music revolution of the early 2000’s.
One component of the PMRC’s campaign was a list of songs deemed most terribly offensive. The “Filthy Fifteen” pulled songs from rock,metal and pop to condemn lyrics about sex, real or perceived violence and occult/satanic themes. The list was a rallying cry to the steps of the US Capitol for the senators’ wives and was a resource for finding good music for many others.
Today I want to take a spin through the songs found on the Filthy Fifteen list. A few are staples of my music lexicon, while others are artists I know but am specifically unfamiliar with these works. And a few others are acts I never really heard of. I’ve provided a Spotify playlist at the end that has all but one of the songs on it. I had to comb the recesses of YouTube’s unauthorized uploads to locate one song.
Here we have it, one of the greatest unintentional compilation albums ever made – the Filthy Fifteen.
Prince – Darling Nikki
Our list kicks off with the multi-talented and eccentric Minnesota native. Prince would be a major force in 1980’s music and beyond and is widely considered one of the best talents in the industry.
Prince is also responsible in some form for two other songs on the list besides his own, making him the true King of the Filthy Fifteen.
Darling Nikki is a cut from Prince’s seminal 1984 record Purple Rain. The reasons for its inclusion on the list are blatantly obvious in the opening lines, as the song’s subject Nikki is in a hotel lobby “masturbating with a magazine.” Apparently this was also the song that spawned the PMRC – Tipper Gore found her daughter listening to the song and leapt into action.
The song itself is nothing special and certainly not Prince’s best work. If anything, all the PMRC did was put more attention on a deep cut from an album that would sell 25 million copies worldwide. It would have otherwise been a looked-over curiosity from one of Prince’s signature albums.
Sheena Easton – Sugar Walls
Prince has his hands on this track as well, having anonymously penned the tune for Sheena’s 1984 record A Private Heaven. The objectionable nature of the song is apparently that “sugar walls” is a reference to the lining of the vagina. Back in the ’80’s we didn’t just air such things out loud, it was all purity or some such shit, I don’t know. The song would be a hit for Sheena, due likely in part to the free publicity generated by the PMRC. It’s a bit tough to say since she was trending upward anyway, but press is press.
Judas Priest – Eat Me Alive
Now we get into more familiar territory for me and also the song that sparked my retrospective interest in this list. I visited Defenders Of The Faith on Monday as my Album of the Week. I was in the middle of compiling that post when I ran over the lore behind the record and went down the PMRC rabbit hole, thus giving birth to this post.
And as I said in that post, yeah, this song is kinda bad. Overall it’s just silly and nonsensical, it’s a total farce. But the line “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint” does shade things in a certain direction, that much I’ll admit. I don’t really care in the end, Rob Halford has admitted the line was engineered for the purpose of attention. That attention would come, thanks to the busy bodies at the PMRC. Years later the band would wind up in a terrible lawsuit not owing to this song but likely indirectly influenced by controversy generated by the PMRC.
Vanity – Strap On ‘Robbie Baby’
Here we have the lone song not found on Spotify. I dug up an upload from YouTube, no telling if or when it’ll get struck by the big bad copyright robot. It’s a hair more provocative than other songs on the list but still isn’t overtly explicit.
Vanity was a product of the Prince women’s music machine, though by the time of this release she had left Prince behind and struck out on her own. The song is quite obvious lyrically, she is looking forward to being plowed by some dude named Robbie. Her album saw minor success but the song’s placement on the Filthy Fifteen likely helped move a few copies.
Denise Matthews would be one of the few to disavow her infamous work. She dropped the Vanity moniker in the early ’90’s and became a born-again Christian and specifically denounced her “sexed-up” work in interviews. She would unfortunately pass away in 2016.
Motley Crue – Bastard
I’ll wrap up part one with the Sunset Strip machine that caught fire in the early ’80’s and led the charge for rock’s direction in that decade.
Of all the songs from Shout At The Devil that could have easily found a spot on the Filthy Fifteen, Tipper Gore apparently chose this cut because of its violent lyrics. The song was reportedly written about someone who’d “stabbed the band in the back” and the lyrics take a defensive posture against an assailant rather than openly inciting violence. I guess nuance wasn’t much of a factor with the PMRC.
Again, of anything a group of concerned parents would pick off Shout At The Devil, this seems like a misfire. The Crue would get plenty of infamy for their antics and music along the way so being a part of the PMRC’s shitlist was just icing on the cake for them.
That does it for part one. I’ll be back on Friday with the conclusion of this look at the Filthy Fifteen.