Before the Sticker
Long ago, in a wholesome world filled with songs that referred to furtive flirtations, harmless handholding, and serene societies, music defined a culture of contentedness and seeming harmoniousness. The tiny rumblings of a new brand of music called rock ‘n’ roll began to slowly alter this view of our surroundings. The first controversial rock ‘n’ roll songs hinted at a more suggestive, less-than-chaste, sexual awakening brimming beneath the surface of its performers and the teens the music was aimed at. Then, social ills such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide cropped up in a handful of musicians’ observations. Finally, the questioning of authority, both parental and societal, in either a violent or non-violent atmosphere, began to pour out of home speakers and radio airwaves. By 1989, when a simple sticker was introduced, a label that said “Explicit Lyrics – Parental Warning,” the face of rock music had morphed into a more daring, more permissive, more outspoken medium. The following moments reflect some of the more notable instances in rock’s explicit lyrical history that lead to the record industry’s use of a warning label.
Concern over lyric content didn’t arrive with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, of course. It’s just that rock helped fan the flames hotter and faster. Dean Martin had already felt the singe of radio station backlash with his sexually suggestive-sounding single “Wham! Bam! Thank You Maam!” released in July 1950. And country crooner Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” found an unsympathetic response from radio programmers in 1954 who thought the song glorified the dubious merits of alcoholism. But by 1955, when Little Richard’s wails arguably were the flashpoint for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, his “Tutti Frutti” made him one of the new rock era’s first pariahs.
When Pat Boone released his single of “Tutti Frutti” on Dot Records in the mid-50s, his version was a nationwide hit. To fit his easygoing crooning style, and to wash over the sexual undertone in the Little Richard version, the familiar refrain “Boys, you don’t know what she’s doin’ to me” was changed to be sung as “Pretty little Susie is the girl for me.”
Pat Boone’s career soared during this period while Little Richard chose to drop out in 1957 to pursue business and theological studies.
Lyrics didn’t have to be the sole objectionable focus for a rock song to be effectively censored. In 1959, Fred Lincoln Wray, Jr., known as Link Wray, released a fast-paced, fuzz guitar-sounding instrumental song called “Rumble” with his back-up brothers, The Wraymen. The song was a moderate hit, but radio stations around the United States dropped the tune from their playlists because it was perceived the title “Rumble” was an encouragement to revolt. Link and his boys were denied the smash success they probably deserved, yet he still forged on, and continues to tour to this day. (Another instance of instrumental music being deemed objectionable re-surfaced almost three decades later when Frank Zappa’s 1987 eight-track instrumental album “Jazz From Hell” was inexplicably given the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker by the Recording Industry Association of America).
A number one hit in 1959 — one that sat on the top of the charts for 4 weeks — was considered far too violent for television. Singer Lloyd Price and his writing partner Harold Logan had fashioned an old folk song, “Stack-O-Lee,” an ode about ruthlessness in the world of gambling, into the catchy single “Stagger Lee.” When the song was set to debut on ABC’s “American Bandstand,” Price was required to lay down an altered version with some of the violent lyrics smoothed over. With verses like “as Stagger Lee lit a cigarette, she shot him in the balls,” Dick Clark was surely not going to have his gleeful teen studio crowd seen singing along in front of America. Eight years later, on another TV show, Ed Sullivan would have the Rolling Stones sing “let’s spend some time together” instead of “let’s spend the night together.” When Sullivan attempted to get Jim Morrison of The Doors to omit the verse “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” from the song “Light My Fire,” Ed’s wishes were ignored.
Sometimes censorship of songs came as a result of having misunderstood the actual lyrics. A colossal misinterpretation of lyrics happened when a Portland, Oregon band called The Kingsmen released an old Richard Perry tune named “Louie Louie” in 1963. Mumbling the reggae-style words into the microphone, The Kingsmen’s version got the attention of Indiana governor Matthew Welch in January 1964, who proceeded to slow down the record to try determine its content. He perceived a verse like “I smell the roses in her hair” to have been sung as “I lay my bone down in her hair.” Naturally, the scandalous-sounding recording caused the general public to purchase the single at a frenetic pace. After the FCC, United States Postal Inspector, and FBI examined the recording at length, they dropped their investigations and did not bring obscenity charges to the incredulous Kingsmen.
Sexual frankness and innuendo became more evident in lyrics as the mid-‘60s arrived. The Rolling Stones saw their first number one hit, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” met with radio indifference in some markets because of its randy-man-on-the-make third set of verses. Mick was pining for some “girly action,” and when some station managers stopped to listen to the menstruation-insinuating line “trying to make some girl, who tells me baby better come back later next week,” they yanked the tune from rotation. The Who’s first single for their manager’s label, Track, in May 1967, called “Pictures of Lily,” went to number 4 on the U.K. charts, yet stalled at number 51 in America. Perhaps its theme, that of, as Pete Townshend said, “masturbation and the importance of it to a young man,” might have put off quite a few radio programmers in the States. When the Irish band, Them, fronted by Van Morrison, concocted the three-chord rock classic “Gloria,” an American radio network, WLS, took note. But the corporate music business wanted lyrics like “she comes in my room” changed, so they hired a struggling Chicago garage band to re-record the song with tamer, non-innuendo lyrics. This group, The Shadows of Knight, had a top ten hit with their version, while Them’s version only peaked at number 71. Van Morrison would be required to change one of his solo songs a year later, when some American radio stations had a problem with his hit “Brown-Eyed Girl.” “Making love in the green grass, behind the stadium” (which led some to give a pregnant pause of thought towards the lyric later in the song “My, how you have grown”), had to be altered to say “laughin’ and a-runnin’, behind the stadium.” The Swinging Medallions’ 1966 party song, “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love),” had to be altered after public protest over its loose alcohol and sexual content. The lyrics “the worst hangover I ever had” and “She loved me so long and she loved me so hard, I finally passed out on her front yard” were changed to “the worst morning I ever had” and “She kissed me so long and she kissed me so hard.” The same fate awaited Lou Christie’s 1966 song “Rhapsody in the Rain.” Because of speculative interpretation, Christie was asked to change the lyrics “On our first date, we were makin’ out in the rain” and “In this car, our love went way too far” to “On our first date, we fell in love in the rain” and “In this car, love came like a falling star.”
By 1968, conservative concerns over lyric content shifted more towards those songs that spotlighted violent aggressiveness, promoted profanity, catered to blasphemous leanings, fostered anti-authority feelings or encouraged drug use. During this year, The Doors released the single “The Unknown Soldier” at the escalation of the Vietnam War. A promotional film was produced by the band, featuring Jim Morrison getting shot over the lyrics “Bullet strike the helmet’s head, and it’s all over for the unknown soldier.” Radio stations, fearing the wrath of government and their FCC boss, banned the song from many of the country’s markets. As the 1968 National Democratic Convention got underway in Chicago, the town’s radio programmers chose not to air “Street Fightin’ Man” by The Rolling Stones in order not to incite violence around the tense atmosphere at the convention center. This rationale obviously didn’t deter the melee that ensued.
In July 1969, The Beatles released the matrimony saga “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” and the BBC, as well as many American radio stations, withheld its broadcast due to Lennon’s use of the word “Christ” as an exclamation and his crucifixion allusions to his press and paparazzi woes. Two years later, some of Lennon’s lyrics in the single “Working Class Hero” were altered for radio broadcast, especially the lines “Til you’re so f*****g crazy you can’t follow their rules” and “But you’re still f*****g peasants as far as I can see.” And his 1972 song “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” was banned on several southern state radio playlists simply because of its controversial title.
Use of profanity was a factor in Bob Dylan having his song, “George Jackson,” altered by stations in 1971. The lyrics spoke about the unjustified killing of a two-bit thief by cold, authoritative prison officials, and the line “he wouldn’t take s**t from no one” was tweaked before hitting the airwaves. Jethro Tull also saw a line in one of their songs altered that year, when their own record company decided to change the stanza “got him by the balls” in “Locomotive Breath” to “got him by the fun.” Nobody understood this meaning, nor did it lead to changes in popular phrases such as “a swift kick in the fun.” The Rolling Stones’ record company also tampered with their product in 1972 when they changed one song called “Starf*****” to “Star Star” on the Stones’ album “Goats Head Soup.” The BBC and most American stations still chose not to air the song because of lyrics like “bet you keep your p***y clean” and “giving h**d to Steve McQueen.”
In 1972, one musician was hit with radio station censorship attitudes because of a supposed drug reference in his latest single. No, it wasn’t the popular-at-the-time Led king, Robert Plant, and it wasn’t bat-biter Ozzy Osbourne. It was John Denver and his song “Rocky Mountain High.” Mr. Denver and his wife were residents of Aspen, Colorado and as a tribute to his favorite environmental setting, the elation he felt about the Rocky Mountains, the very tall Rocky Mountains it should be noted, John wrote this song. Several uppity radio programmers felt it meant something about smoking the spleef in them thar hills and chose not to waft the tune onto their airwaves.
Sexual innuendo jumped back into the forefront of lyrical controversy over the next decade, when in 1976, the lyric “spread your wings and let me come inside” from Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s The Night” was clipped out of the RKO networks’ chain of radio station broadcasts. Olivia Newton-John ticked off enough Mormons to have two stations in Utah yank her song “Physical” off the airwaves because they thought it alluded to something other than a jog on the track machine at Bally’s.
But in 1984, a Cincinnati man named Rick Alley set the ball in motion for what would eventually end in the parental warning sticker used today. As fans of the singer Prince, Rick and his wife bought the artist’s album “1999” which contained the song of the same name, as well as the hit “Little Red Corvette.” The album also featured a song called “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” and when the 7-minute track got to around the halfway point, Rick had had enough. He felt disgusted by lyrics like “I wanna f*** U so bad it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, I wanna, I wanna…” you get the idea. So, Mr. Alley drafted a letter advocating some kind of record labeling that would alert parents as to the content of an album before they or their children purchased the item. In June of that year, The National Parents Teachers Association (PTA) endorsed Rick’s letter and took the issue to Washington D.C.
The PTA gabbed with Tipper Gore and several other prominent senators’ and businessmen’s wives around the Capitol, and they, in turn, decided to form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Their agenda consisted of requiring record companies to print lyrics on album covers, requiring record stores to keep albums with explicit covers hidden from view, a ratings system for records and concerts, and a contractual penalty for those artists who might engage in violent or sexual behavior onstage.
MCA Records was one of the first music companies to affix a warning label to the group One Way’s single “Let’s Talk” which featured singer Al Hudson giving a very explicit, frank dissertation on the practices of safe sex. The company subsequently requested radio stations not play this track. Meanwhile, in September 1985, a superior court judge upheld freedom of speech rights for lyric content when he dismissed a lawsuit against singer Ozzy Osbourne and CBS, Inc. which was filed by the family of John McCullom. McCollum was a teenager who had committed suicide ostensibly because he was “aided, advised, or encouraged” by the lyrics on Osbourne’s song “Suicide Solution.”
By the end of 1985, after having petitioned the head of the National Association of Broadcasters, the PMRC submitted a list of the 15 most-filthiest bands they felt were the scourge of the music industry. The winners of this dubious honor were: AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Cyndi Lauper, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, Madonna, The Mary Jane Girls, Mercyful Fate, Motley Crue, Prince, Sheena Easton, Twisted Sister, Vanity, Venom, and W.A.S.P. On September 19, 1985, Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister, along with Frank Zappa and John Denver, testified before a Senate hearing, arguing against restrictions on musicians and their work. The PMRC and PTA also aired their side of the dispute. By November, before the Senate could conclude their assessment of the investigation, the Recording Industry Association of America struck a deal with the Washington ladies, and said they would issue a standard warning label for those albums that contained graphic depictions of sex and/or violence in their lyrics.
A few stickers trickled out at first, but by 1989, the industry had its official “Explicit Lyrics – Parental Warning” sticker on the majority of “objectionable” albums. In hindsight, a decade later, one can easily see that, although the sticker was a victory for parents who felt the need to be better informed of lyrical content, the practice has, in effect, eased inhibitions and opened a floodgate of permissiveness, profanity, and individual expression unseen in the history of rock music to that period of time. Has music benefited from the confrontational, abrasive, somewhat-conceited content of many of the songs today? Should we look upon the innocence and “upbeat” nature of songs from the past as being naïve and woefully out of touch with the boundaries music should be breaking? It kind of depends on what genre of tunes you choose to peruse. It also depends on whether artists will continue to be free to record anything they feel artistically conveys their musical muse.
© 2000 Ned Truslow