This past Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the PMRC hearings in Washington. As part of a story I wrote for New York Magazine’s website about the infamous Senate hearings on obscenity in popular music, I interviewed W.A.S.P. frontman Blackie Lawless about the PMRC, censorship and his band’s notorious single “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)”. Many of his answers were quite intriguing, especially as I had not interviewed him in a decade and immediately recalled his crazed stage shenanigans from the mid-1980s, including tossing raw meat into the audience, pouring blood on himself from a skull and displaying a bound and gagged woman on a torture rack. It’s amazing to think that he got away with more on stage back then than rockers do today.
While Lawless told me that while he felt giving parents a heads up as to what their kids are listening to is a good idea, he felt that the PMRC hearings were actually held to elevate the profile of then Senator (and future Vice-President) Al Gore. “At the time he was just a Southern political caricature seeking higher office and nobody knew who he was,” recalled Lawless. “The kids already new who we were, so what better way for them to get attention than to go after an attention getter. Joe McCarthy and Nixon both did it with their communist witch hunts in the 1950s. Champion a cause and reap the votes, it’s a tried and true formula, although history shows it does not always yield the desired results. This all became abundantly clear to me when a defector from Susan Baker’s office played me a tape of a group meeting of the PMRC members, and on it was Tipper Gore and Susan Baker telling the others the plan of how to elevate their profile. It was stunning!”
“In the last 50 years we’ve crossed a vast chasm from Elvis to the Ultimate Fighting Pay Per View. All of it is Shock Rock.”
Lawless later sued the PMRC for copyright infringement. And won. He says in her 1987 book Raising PG Kids in an X Rated Society, Tipper Gore reprinted some of his lyrics and changed some of the words “to try to better make her case against me,” he explained. “Like I needed any [help]. We gave her an ultimatum; either a public apology or a lawsuit. She came out to L.A. some time later and did a press conference and apologized to the whole record industry, so we let it go. Truth be told, she apologized because of the negative publicity the PMRC was putting on Al in his bid to become President.”
“Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)” was clearly the filthiest of the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” list, and while it certainly caused a stir at the time, the W.A.S.P. frontman now regrets it, especially as he has renewed his religious faith. “Words are the most powerful things we possess,” stressed Lawless. “They shape our very lives and determine who and what we are. Some may find it remarkable, but I was born again when I was 11 years old. I was very active in my church until I was 18, and when I left the church, I went about as far away as a person could go when I then studied the occult for three years. I wrote that song a couple of years after I stopped that study. I went for 20 more years before I returned to my Christian faith, which is where I am now. That song was put into my life for a reason. I was talking to Alice Cooper, who is also born again, earlier this year, and we both feel the same about our early work. Although a lot of the music we did early on was as diametrically opposed to the way we had been brought up, a lot of the early songs we did were laced with those Christian valves. He and I were talking and said, all we need now is Marilyn Manson and we could start a band. The world would never believe it! I said all that to say this: I renounce, denounce and pronounce that I will never play that song [‘Animal’] live again. Actually, I’ve not played it live for several years.”
When asked if he thinks that rock stars can be as controversial today when less things are shocking, and when fans often act in equally shocking ways as their idols, he replied: “Sure, people can still be shocked. It all depends how far society degrades itself and then how far bands are allowed to push the limits of what’s considered outrageous. All so-called shock bands are only a reflection of the culture of their time. The degree that people are willing to allow themselves to become desensitized is a direct result of how the sub culture of Shock Rock presents itself. They hold a mirror up to the world and say ‘Take a good look, if you don’t like what you see, don’t blame us.’ Today we like to think of ourselves as modern and cultured and that the days of the Roman Coliseum are over. Are they? In the last 50 years we’ve crossed a vast chasm from Elvis to the Ultimate Fighting Pay Per View. All of it is Shock Rock.”