BATTLE OF THE BANS

by Malcolm Dome
Kerrang - 1985 (issue 102)

The man on the above is Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. He makes violent, sexist and offensive records. He makes violent, sexist and offensive records. He is in a straitjacket for his own good. And yours!!!

Rock censorship and the feat factor: an in-depth analysis by Malcolm Dome

Joe McCarthy is back - and this time he's in drag!" - Blackie Lawless (W.A.S.P.) How would you define 'art'? Or more to the point, how would you define the term 'morally acceptable'? These two questions are vital in the realm of rock 'n' roll as it's precisely because there are self-appointed organisations who, unelected, take it upon themselves to act as 'the conscience of society' and self-define the above terms that rock music, in all its multi-faceted states, constantly faces the threat of revision and repression.

The problem is deep-rooted and goes back even to the days of Elv The Pelv. During the early-to-mid-Fifties a number of influential US conservative groups denounced the man as an immoral perversion.

This, for example, led to television programmes only daring to show Presley from the waist up because of the 'overtly sexual gyrations' from his hips.

Since that time, a whole succession of persons on both sides of the Atlantic have attempted to immolate the power of rock 'n' roll.

Principally, this desire to attack the whole concept of rock has its tentacles firmly embedded in the strict Christian structure of Western civilisation.

Let's be honest, despite the supposed public libertarian attitudes which have existed since the dawn of the 'permissive society' in the mid-Sixties, the foundations of modern thinking still rely heavily on the doctrine of antiquated moral definitions, maintained through inescapable institutions such as education.

Behaviour patterns are based on the notion of mass conformity and everyone is expected to live within precisely those parameters erected to ensure the unhindered continuity of the overall system.

Yes, this is an oversimplification of reality, yet there is no doubt that society has inbred distrust at anything that might alter the course of its naturally perceived development. Rock music does not fit snugly into 'acceptable' patterns of supposed 'democracy'. Its creed is one of, in the words of Generation X, 'youth, youth, youth'. Sex, drugs, booze and having a high partying time are inherent to the music, image and lyrics. It offers a degenerate, misfit challenge to officialdom and, even leaving aside the political implications exercised over the years, rock 'n' roll musicians can act as a rallying magnet for 'rebellion'.

Therefore, on can understand that those who are in a position of presumed social significance are literally frightened of rock's undermining effect on the ordered, regimented society that has put them in a responsible job and whose continually they seek to cement. It really has become an eternal battle of locked horns between historical 'order' and youthful 'chaos'.

Space restrictions here prevent me from actually dealing further with this philosophical/sociological aspect of the problem. The fact is that the dichotomy exists and for the past three decades has occasionally reared into the spotlight through the concerted efforts of both individuals and pressure groups whose sole priority has been the castration of the great 'demon' rock 'n' roll.

What concerns me at this point in time has been the steady emergence recently of what can only be described as 'the fear factor' both here and in the States, as retail record/magazine outlets have taken their own punitive action to offset the possibility of being taken to court, the ultimate establishment sanction.

Last year, Capitol Records decided, after taking legal advice, not to issue W.A.S.P.'s highly controversial single 'Animal (F" "k Like A Beast)'. Their reasoning was that: 'this isn't a normal song with obscene language. It's a song about animal sex with no emotional or love involvement which can be corrupting to young people.'

At the same time, WH Smith threatened not to stock copies of Kerrang! Issue 65 with its 'sensitive Hamlet-style study' of W.A.S.P.'s Blackie Lawless on the cover, again because of the threat of legal action. And barely a few weeks later the HMV chain withdrew stocks of Venom's album 'At War With Satan' because of a similar worry over the chance of a lawsuit.

In all three cases it was simply the theoretical chance of being embroiled in a court battle rather than any actual action that was enough to have three major and experienced companies running for cover.

'The fear factor', dictated by social mood and political reality.

"In essence, the only law in the UK can be invoked against rock releases is the Obscenity Law". says Pete Winkeleman, former managing director of Bronze Records and one of the most perceptive record company executives in Britain. "Yet because this law has such a wide range of ramifications there is always the danger that it will be used for the purposes of censorship."

In America, Mercury Records were forced to place an inset photo of the Scorpions onto the cover of last year's Love At First Sting album in order to hide the supposed naughty bits shown in the original Helmut Newton picture sleeve

At the time, lead vocalist Klaus Meine summed up the situation thus : "It is crazy. When you consider that the covers for both ' Lovedrive' and 'Animal Magnetism' caused no comment in America, the fuss made over the new photograph is incomprehensible".

But there again consistency has never been associated with attempts to censor rock in all its aspects; mood, as I said, is far more important.

Despite concern during last summer, the threat of a wave of repression measures failed to materialise. However, a far more sinister and worrying attempt has now come to light in the US. An organisation under the banner of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) is now trying to ensure that a new rating system is brought into effect that would make it legally binding for a1l records with 'explicit lyrical content' to carry a variety of stickers to this effect.

"What they're trying to do is introduce certifications such as 'X' for profanity and sex, 'D/A' for glorification of drugs and/or alcohol, 'O' for the occult and 'V' for violence. These would be stuck on the shrink-wrap. However there is no way that the record companies will accept such a system," maintains Wendy Goldstein, a member of the A&R department at RCA Records' New York office and the woman responsible for handling Grim Reaper's affairs.

So, just who are the PMRC? Well, it is basically a group of influential women from Washington who include such politically aware luminaries as Susan Baker, wife of US Government Treasury Secretary James Baker, and Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Albert Gore. Consequently, given their strong establishment connections, this is a pressure group in a position of some power.

The PMRC sum up their attitude like this: 'We are basically made up of concerned parents who are saying that we need some guidelines... some help in knowing what we are buying. If a child asks his parents to buy a copy of 'Purple Rain', the parents out of love will buy it, but then they have to contend with the lyrics of 'Darling Nikki'. We are not advocating censorship at all, but we are hoping that the industry will monitor itself.'

Already the PMRC have succeeded in persuading the important Senate Communications Committee to devote a session to this situation on September 19 and under such extreme pressure, the Record Industry Association Of America (RIAA - the umbrella body of the music business in the US) has partially agreed that whilst such a rating system is not acceptable, nonetheless general warning stickers may possibly be put on records where applicable.

It's quite likely that by accepting such a sticker system when necessary as mandatory, the RIAA is hoping that the PMRC will drop other demands such as the printing of lyrics on the outside of every record, the removal of explicit promotional displays in record stores, the strict control on the contents of rock shows, the abolition of supposed hidden message/ backwards masking on vinyl product and the strict control of video clips. (On this last point it's worth noting that fundamental Christian lobby group independent of the PMRC has succeeded in getting MTV totally removed from thé cable system in Weymouth, Massechusetts.)

It remains to be seen whether the PMRC will now back off or go for the throat of the record industry. Already though, there are signs that the group won't be content with this potentially small yet vital victory but will now push ahead with even greater determination for more reforms. And the powerful lobby group of the America-wide Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which itself tried and failed to get a rating system introduced last year, will now throw its not inconsiderable weight in with the PMRC.

EXACTLY WHY this problem has reared its ugly head now seems rather clouded.
According to Blackie Lawless: "You could say if you wanted to be frivolous that it was a case of a bunch of housewives with nothing better to do trying to alleviate their boredom, but the problem deserves a more serious treatment than such a comment!"

W.A.S.P. are, not surprisingly, right at the head of the queue when it comes to the PMRC giving vent to its wrath. But Lawless, for one, is relishing a fight rather than merely bowing the pate to such a group.

"If they're looking for a battle then they've choose the right guy! I'll pick up the gauntlet and run with the whole rock movement on my shoulders. What we're dealing with here is art. I am an artist and no-one is gonna tell me how to present my art. We're not hurting anybody, we just entertain.

"Look, how can even the most foolish of people actually look at a grown man wearing a saw blade between his legs and think it's a serious comment designed to corrupt! And no-one is gonna tell me that a 15-year-old kid who buys one of our records doesn't know what they're getting.

"The PMRC are a self-appointed body who have decided that they should be allowed to dictate the definition
of 'filth'. Well, W.A.S.P. aren't gonna stand for such nonsense. Our new album, "The Last Command', contains at least two tracks that will drive them wild, namely 'Ballcrusher' ànd 'Sex Drive'. We won't change our approach fox them.

"The problem isn't sudden. When I moved to Hollywood I met a few actors who were blacklisted during the Joe MaCarthy witch hunts of the Fifties and they told me some horrific stories of the period. So this situation is nothing new. The PMRC is merely Joe MaCarthy in drag and what they are doing contravenes the First Amendment of the US constitution, namely the right to free speech."

Back in Britain, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI, the UK equivalent to the RIAA) seems to have rejected out of hand nay notion of certification. However there mere fact that the RIAA has bowed even in a small fashion to the 'moralist' lobby might yet bring pressure to bear on our record companies to follow suit with some form of warning stickers.

The bottom line really is: do we want censorship, even in a comparatively benign form, operating in the music industry? What I personally find incredible is that wives of significant figures in US political life spend their time worrying about the boundaries of decency on rock records (again an arbitrary line they've decided to draw) whilst glibly ignoring more serious defects in American society.

America has long applauded the virtue of might. Indeed, it is sickening to note that guns of all shapes and sizes can be openly purchased over the counter. It has always acquiesced to the rule of the hairline trigger and any reforms of their gun laws face strong opposition from some of the supposedly 'decent' and 'moral' sections of their society.

Yet they worry about the rather ludicrous possibility that children will be corrupted by listening to Motley Crue, Ratt or that hardy target Qzzy Osbourne. Sick or what?!

So who's the crackpot? I know where I stand and I hope and trust that by use of logical, reasoned argument people such as the PMRC can be exposed as, at the very least, the misguided individuals they seem to be.

Democracy is, in my book, best defined as being the right of every individual to lead his/ her life in the manner they see fit - as long as this doesn't deny the same right to others.

If the PMRC, or others of a similar disposition, wish to ram their views down unwanting throats then they have to be told that it was they, and their kind, who have been responsible for the misery and pain of countless wars in the cause of political expediency over the past few decades - not rock n roll; it was they and their kind who, by the careful manipulation of macro/micro-economics , have been responsible for the drastically unequal distributions of resources throughout the world - not rock n roll.

It took a bunch of so called degenerate rock stars, via Band Aid/USA for Africa/Live Aid etc to show the so-called decent moralists that famine can be combated if the sprit is willing.

Where were the PMRC when the bony hand of poverty reached out balefully from Africa? Arguing over the lyrics to Whitesnake's 'Slide it in' or W.A.S.P's 'Animal over a banana sandwich with Molotov Cocktails?!

As a final point it's worth bearing in mind that whilst attempts are being made to censor rock lyrics, no action is contemplated against the lucrative likes of Hustler magazine.

As Iron Maiden/W.A.S.P. manager Rod Smallwood recently said: "Hustler is freely available in American supermarkets, yet one edition of the magazine contains more sex and violence than the whole history of Heavy Metal!"

Think about it.