A Look Back At The Filthy Fifteen – Part One

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.

Album Of The Week – January 10, 2022

I’m gonna head back in time this week and talk about one of heavy metal’s most excellent albums. The record just had its 38th anniversary a few days ago on January 4th. It still stands today as one of the band’s best works as well as one of heavy metal’s best efforts.

Judas Priest – Defenders Of The Faith

Released January 4, 1984 via Columbia Records

My Favorite Tracks – The Sentinel, Freewheel Burning, Love Bites

The album art lets everyone know that this is a mid 1980’s heavy metal release. The giant monster/machine referred to as the Metallian looks ready for business. The same could be said of the band, who entered their ninth studio album ready to keep on the track they’d set with Screaming For Vengeance a few years prior.

The album opens with an absolute metal masterpiece in Freewheel Burning. This song absolutely rips and sets a high bar for the rest of the proceedings. It’s become a staple of the Judas Priest live set, a bit of a task for a band now with 18 and counting studio albums.

The album continues to roll with cuts like Jawbreaker and Rock Hard Ride Free. While not matching the ferocity of Freewheel Burning, both fit in well as complementary pieces to this set. Both feature the dueling guitar attack of Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing along with suited-to-the-stage arrangements with simple, shoutable choruses (if Jawbreaker really even has a chorus).

Up next is The Sentinel. I have previously discussed the song in isolation, it was the second entry of my S-Tier Songs. This is my favorite Priest track, bar none. I’ve found that I’m not alone in that assessment, which surprises me a bit but there’s no denying the excellence of the song.

The album moves on into Love Bites, one of the album’s singles. While this track could be considered a bit goofy, its execution lifts it above being consigned to the silly song bin. It doesn’t get as flashy with guitar work as other songs on the record and it might be a preview of the direction Priest would move after this record.

The album moves on in a mini-exploration of silliness with Eat Me Alive. In fact this track might go beyond silly into disturbing territory, I’d imagine that certain specific acts referenced in the lyrics would be frowned upon today. In fact they were frowned upon then, as this song caught the attention of a group of US senators’ wives known as the Parent’s Music Resource Council. Eat Me Alive joined other naughty luminaries like Twisted Sister, WASP and Sheena Easton on the Filthy Fifteen. I won’t claim to have any issue with the song but yeah, that one line in it does stand out in a pretty dark way.

We move on to other matters with another of the album’s singles Some Heads Are Gonna Roll. The song was actually written by Bob Halligan, Jr., who has collaborated with Priest and others over the years. This tune slows things down just a hair but still retains the atmosphere found everywhere else on the record. While the single was not a hit in the conventional sense, it did bear influence over the years and has been one of Priest’s more recognizable songs. It’s been reported that George Lynch either “took inspiration” from or “ripped off” the song for Dokken’s 1984 track Into The Fire. (The specific interview Lynch gave about this hasn’t come up in my cursory searches.)

The final portion of Defenders… gets going with a slower number. Night Comes Down turns down the tempo but still offers a powerful ballad-like tune. It showcases Rob Halford’s considerable range as he is able to evoke power and emotion while a bit further down on the register than his famous screams. The song fits with the times very well and again shows that the band were considering waters a bit past the blistering heavy metal they had come into the decade with.

The album closes with a single song divided into two parts. Heavy Duty is a very brief stomper that closes out these metal proceedings well and is appended by Defenders Of The Faith, a brief title track that is honestly little more than an outro to Heavy Duty.

Heavy Duty would be very on the nose for Priest and for heavy metal as a whole. Just a few months after Defenders… saw release, the mocumentary This Is Spinal Tap would hit theaters and feature a tune by the same name. It’s almost eerie how similar the songs are in tone and attitude. Judas Priest were certainly one of many embodiments of the metal and rock culture that Spinal Tap were lampooning. Priest are also one of many bands to share Spinal Tap’s woes of a revolving door upon the drum set, though thankfully the drummer on this particular album has moved on.

A reissued version of Defenders… offers a bonus track called Turn On Your Light. The song is … certainly a song and is actually a leftover from the Turbo sessions so I don’t know what it’s really doing here. A more worthy bonus offers a live cut of Heavy Duty and Defenders.

Defenders Of The Faith is a triumphant album from Judas Priest that closes the door on their early ’80’s heavy metal prime. The band would go on to explore other sounds of the 1980’s on their next efforts, though still with success and their reputation now established. And while Defenders… sometimes flies under the radar compared to the celebrated records Screaming For Vengeance and British Steel, time has been kind to this 1984 effort and its retrospective has often been through rose-colored lenses.

And while Judas Priest have certainly embodied no small amount of the goofiness of heavy metal culture that saw parody around that time, both Priest and the parody lived on to be celebrated for what they were rather than dragged by the roasting. Defenders… certainly has its sillier moments, but they only help round out the work as a whole. And with the band still going strong despite major lineup changes almost 40 years later, it’s tough to dispute the impact Judas Priest have had on the heavy metal movement.

The Lost Years

This is the next post in my “Memories” series, outlining where I’ve been through the various times and scenes of music through my life. I’ve set up a page to help keep track of this stuff, here is where anyone interested can find more information about this. This one is a bit different as I get to kill a lot of time with one blow. This runs the time period 1995 through to mid-2006.

I call this the “lost years” because I wasn’t really attached to any one scene or place in this time. The later 1990’s saw music move in a lot of different directions, some that I could appreciate, but a lot of what I was into going toward that time period was lost. Scenes would fire up again in the early 2000’s but it would take some time for me to truly get back into them. And even as I did, it was due to changes both with the music and with me.

Through the early 1990’s I found myself getting deeper and deeper into heavy metal. I went from the fringes of hair metal at the beginning of the decade down all the way into extreme metal a few years later. Along the way I caught thrash and some of the various “alt-metal” that came around in the early ’90’s.

As 1995 wound on I would exit high school and be in the US Navy a few months later. These kind of life changes were major and had a big effect on what I listened to. I wasn’t some bored, lonely kid sitting in his bedroom in mid-Missouri, longing for something more. I was now in the mix, looking at an entirely different culture and needing to adjust.

I’ve spilled a lot of words about it already so I won’t go too much into it here, but the sounds of Britrock caught my ear in ’95 and ’96. Oasis were at their height and their tunes were the perfect soundtrack for someone young, dumb and ready to get into the world. Pulp and Blur would come a bit after and while the Britrock movement came and went rather quickly, those songs dug in to me and have become a major part of my nostalgia when I look back on music from years past.

Britrock was really just a part of a new sound coming on in rock music in general. Grunge would come and go, and open the floodgates to a major shift in sound for rock music. Gone was AOR rock geared for dad and hair metal was certainly gone by this time. In its place was alternative rock. This scene totally reshaped the sound of rock and was one of popular music’s most pivotal turning points.

Established acts were changing left and right. Metallica had delivered a curveball when they got haircuts and delivered the Load album in 1996. Van Halen jettisoned Sammy Hagar in the same year and crafted an ill-received effort with former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. Guns N Roses imploded of their own excess, and Skid Row slowly slid down a cliff into a breakup and years-long hiatus. Motley Crue tried their hand at a reunion but delivered some weird music that wasn’t fitting for their name and reputation.

All of the old reliable hands were misfiring in the late 1990’s. Danzig cranked out some very strange nosie far removed from his classic period. Death metal bands began splintering left and right, cast off in the ascent of black metal to the underground throne. Thrash was an afterthought, bands either tried to experiment, broke up, or dove into the extreme end of the pool.

All this, coupled with me now being “grown up” and living military life on the other side of the world, led to me pursuing music more as a tourist than a rabid scene connoisseur. And I’d take what was given to me, much of it being the alternative rock that was quickly catching on as the new “in” sound.

A slew of alt-rock bands would come across my desk in the time period before the turn of the millennium. There are too many names to properly mention, though acts like Our Lady Peace, Fastball, Matchbox 20 and Live were serving up some good tunes in that day. Names like Seven Mary Three and Marcy Playground ring true from back then, though I wasn’t heavily invested in them. But that was the sound I was rolling with as metal went into hibernation and rock changed form forever.

The year 2000 would finally dawn on us, that much-heralded swing of the calendar that some feared might destroy us through bad computer programming and would have so much to offer in the way of a new life. Of course, nothing much really happened. I exited the military in mid-1999 and entered the new millennium unsure of my own course and not heavily invested in any music scene.

I did find myself captivated by Eminem in the early 00’s. It was hard not to like his firebrand style and his harsh take on life and society. Much of what he did was too over the top to be taken very seriously, but he had his moments where he said what needed to be said. He seemed to be the last real shock rocker, despite not peddling his trade in rock.

I still drifted along for much of the early new century. Alternative rock would come to mean something else as years wore on, and one Canadian band would truly redefine commercial rock music forever. I never got into Nickelback that much but there was no denying their impact on the scene.

But, this did start alienating me from what I was hearing on the radio and TV. Not that Nickelback is to blame for anything, but I found a wedge starting to drive inbetween what I wanted and what was on offer. New music I heard from usual sources wasn’t connecting with me.

For awhile I just meandered along, not really connecting with much of anything. I’d give a spin to a band who had a decent song on the radio, but I had no real music identity at the time. As 2003’s calendar flipped I started gravitating back to the resurgent underground metal scene, where old acts were reforming and new bands like Nile and Behemoth were starting new fires. I was way more into that than the Slipknots, Staineds and Disturbeds that were getting so much airplay. This began a process that would come to a head a few years later in a big way.

I still floated along for a few years, just checking out whatever was on offer. Nothing was necessarily hitting with me, though. I didn’t mind Bon Jovi’s turn in the new century, they had a bounce-back string of singles and albums that felt a bit like their heyday. I was slowly dipping my toes back into the metal underground but I wasn’t really committed to any one sound or scene. I just played whatever I wanted to hear and rolled with whatever suited my mood. I did slowly start to cast aside the “mainstream” but it wasn’t some conscious decision at the time.

One thing did happen around 2005 – I started going “retro.” The stuff I adored from the 80’s was now 20 years old and I had a hankering to go back and relive those youthful moments. It was the first time I really went that hard into stuff I had not thought about in a long time. Looking back would become a feature for me, but this was early on in that process.

It would be the summer of 2006 when my time on the directionless musical road would end. A few major changes came to my life in the course of a few days and I found myself in a completely different situation very quickly. The shock and trauma of it all, coupled with a feeling of disconnect with and rejection from society, would send me into a far different place musically and for much different reasons than what I had been doing up to this point. Of course, that leads into the next part, actually two, of this series.

These lost years were fine. I found a fair bit of good music that wasn’t off the beaten path at all but offered some cool listening experiences. I found some stuff that would stick with me and others that I would find warm nostalgia for after years of leaving by the wayside. I would eventually find myself stumbling and failing at life and needing to go back to the core of my identity to rebuild myself, but there’s nothing wrong with just taking in the moment for what it has to offer. I had to leave the naïve comforts of youth for the cold embrace of adulthood, and I spent most of my 20’s in a bit of a musical wilderness. It’s still a part of the journey, only if even a transitional phase on that long and crooked road.

Album Of The Week – January 3, Zero

America is reborn in 2022. A series of attacks and disasters have led to a global rebranding. Previous civil liberties have been suspended in the interest of survival. The Bureau of Morality ensures citizens are in lockstep with the current message and agenda. The government is now a Christian theocracy in partnership with the First Evangelical Church of Plano. Water supplies have been treated with a drug to ensure immunity to biological agents as well as complicity with the new order.

Welcome to Year Zero.

Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Released April 17, 2007 via Interscope Records

My Favorite Tracks – My Violent Heart, Capital G, The Beginning Of The End

The introduction is a dystopian fantasy, of course. This work of fiction, composed in 2006 and released in early 2007, is simply the figment of Trent Reznor’s imagination. Thankfully the world we enter in 2022, the fabled “year zero” of this album, looks nothing like the hellscape depicted on the record. (…)

Year Zero was released into the world in spurts with a viral campaign to distribute digital music files on USB drives in random locations. While fans ate up the media, the Recording Industry Association of America did not and began issuing cease and desist orders to people who were uploading the songs. They did this even while noting that the record label Interscope was on board with Reznor’s ideas and fully promoted the effort.

The album promotion did not stop with this viral distribution. An entire subsection of the Nine Inch Nails website was dedicated to lore about the story behind the new album, and a phone number on an album insert featured a faux message from the Bureau of Morality. A web-based “detective” game would also see release over a few months that provided a great deal of storyline for the events of 2022/Year Zero.

The lore and message of Year Zero can be (and has been) studied extensively. At the end of the day though, this is a recorded album of music and is also deserving of evaluation on those merits.

The album remains in the general realm of industrial rock that Nine Inch Nails had made a pioneering career of. This record would depart from its more accessible predecessor With Teeth by incorporating more electronic and what has been termed “digital hardcore” elements. Even for an unconventional act like Nine Inch Nails, the songs stand apart from others in the catalog.

Though the record features 16 tracks, the runtime is kept just over an hour and only one song breaks the 5-minute mark. The songs are lean and get to the point, even when invoking atmosphere and instrumental exposition rather than communicating a direct lyrical message. It’s a strange balance of concise music and extended passages that somehow work to elevate the work well above standard fare.

While some songs provide atmosphere, others stand out as highlight tracks. The Beginning Of The End, Survivalism, and Capital G all invoke their own individual meanings outside the context of Year Zero’s themes. The latter two especially stand out as real-world influences on this dystopian nightmare. It isn’t hard to make the links between 2007 political discourse and these tracks, and especially today both are ever-present themes in how things have wound up.

As a musical document, Year Zero is a standout effort from Nine Inch Nails. Electronic soundscapes give shape to these disturbing themes of fascist government control and the resistance fighting it. The album requires a degree of attention above and beyond casual music enjoyment, but this has long been the case with Nine Inch Nails. It is, in my canon, one of the band’s best records.

It is a bit challenging to access the themes and lore provided in supplemental material through these songs but the overarching story is still present. Songs like Survivalism and Capital G highlight the base greed and selfishness that brought about this grotesque future, while The Good Soldier and My Violent Heart question the status quo and establish a resistance. Something cataclysmic happens toward the end in the album’s final tracks In This Twilight and Zero-Sum. Whatever happened to this timeline, it was not a happy ending.

While this record is turning 15 this year, there is still a trove of information about the story behind Year Zero. The nin.wiki compiles a great deal of info taken from pre-release materials as well as the web game. Though incomplete, it appears that America and the world resets on 2022 to start a new age. Year Zero does not last very long as a mysterious Presence, thought to have been a drug-induced hallucination, appears over Washington DC and heralds the apparent end of the world. The album and supplemental products tell a tale of the heavy-handed government and the various resistance factions that pop up. One group attempts to send data back in time to warn people in 2007 of the coming problems. This message is symbolized by the instrumental Another Version Of The Truth.

Of course reality is not in line with the nightmare portrayed on Year Zero. But how far away really is it? We have not adopted a theocratic government in America, though many are still trying to make that happen. It might be year zero here, but there certainly is a downward spiral that doesn’t seem to be reversing itself.

I don’t have real answers to those kind of questions. I have little to no role to play in whatever might be unfolding, here in the US and in the world at large. While I don’t really expect a pair of ghostly hands to appear over the White House and end the world next month, I can’t act like I don’t see frightening real-world prospects that parallel the themes of Year Zero. The course of the world isn’t looking great, with pandemics, disasters and bitter arguments over how to handle it instead of any real action.

Year Zero the album is a landmark release from Nine Inch Nails. Its inventive viral distribution techniques captured the attention of many and the music behind the campaign went on to be considered among the group’s best by many. Year Zero the concept, however, is a much different issue that seems to be scarily playing out in front of us in some form or another.