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- September 16, 1985
- Vol. 23
- No. 12
From 'Race Music' to Heavy Metal: a Fiery History of Protests
But it's not AC/DC that wrote Lavender Cowboy, and it's not Prince who composed Dirty Lady and Keep Your Skirts Down, Mary Ann. Nor is it Madonna who wrote I'm a Virgin but I'm on the Verge. No, these are among 147 recorded songs that the NBC radio network saw fit to ban in 1940. Cole Porter's Love for Sale was considered so "blue" that it could be broadcast only in instrumental form. Bessie Smith's bawdy classic about her "sugar bowl" sounded none too sweet to radio programmers, and Duke Ellington's The Mooche was considered so provocative that some blamed it for a national rise in incidents of rape. Such was the state of pop music before two active verbs—rock and roll—became a noun that meant something quite different to its fans than to those who would censor or sanitize it.
According to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, "the term [rock 'n' roll] is a blues euphemism for sexual intercourse." Period. Attempts to present rock 'n' roll to the public from the waist up, to package it in a plain brown wrapper, go back to its inception. Before Little Richard made your knees freeze and your liver quiver, before Elvis discovered the pelvis, rock 'n' roll was called something else—"race music." As full of power, as liberating and as "sexually frank" as its offspring would prove to be, race music provoked little establishment ire for one obvious reason: Few white folk heard it.
It wasn't until race music "crossed over" to become rock 'n' roll that the first real backlash began, complete with blacklisting by radio, record burnings and rumblings from the fundamentalist right about white men who dared sing black—hillbilly cats like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. To quell protests and expand markets, white-owned record companies and radio broadcasters encouraged white artists like Pat Boone to "cover"—and cleanse—black records. One of many examples: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' risqué classic, Work With Me, Annie, claims Frank Zappa, became Georgia Gibbs' Dance With Me, Henry. That song, Zappa points out, featured the same melody and chord changes but different words.
Aside from such early rock purists as disc jockey Alan Freed, who refused to play the white versions, rock's elder defenders were few. "Dirty boogying" teens were evicted from dance parties everywhere. Asbury Park, the New Jersey coastal town that would later gain fame as the artistic home turf of Bruce Springsteen, was one of the American cities that passed legislation banning rock 'n' roll concerts and dances in civic buildings. On Sept. 9, 1956, when the Ed Sullivan Show aired Elvis from the waist up only, the New York Times nevertheless found the performance "filthy." To such critics Elvis responded: "They all think I'm a sex maniac. They're just frustrated old types anyway. I'm just normal."
Except for sporadic record burnings in the Deep South and persistent attempts to have the Kingsmen's Louie Louie formally banned from the radio (after repeated listenings, members of the Federal Communications Commission concluded that the song could not corrupt youth since not a word was decipherable), rock composers were pretty much left alone until the mid-'60s, when political protest and drug references became the new irritants of choice.
In 1970, after Vice President Spiro Agnew said in a speech that rock music was being used to brainwash America's children into using drugs, a crusade was launched to expose drug imagery in rock songs. Agnew's campaign brought some unusual characters out of the woodwork. Speaking at the Movement to Restore Decency rally in Minneapolis in 1970, one Joseph R. Crow alerted the crowd to his theory that most rock musicians are "part of a Communist movement to incite revolution throughout the world."
Seven years later, the censorious Agnew found an unlikely ally in the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Songs like Shake Your Booty, Let's Make a Baby and I Want To Do Something Freaky to You, Jackson said, contain "suggestive lyrics" that promote promiscuity and drug use. Jackson's comments were prompted by the public's fascination with disco's "sex rock"; Donna Summer's Love To Love You Baby, for example, was described at the time as a "marathon of 22 orgasms." In 1975 one interested party, the Rev. Charlie Boykin of Tallahassee, Fla., set fire to thousands of dollars worth of rock records, citing a local poll that said 984 of 1,000 unwed mothers interviewed got pregnant while listening to pop songs.
By the early '80s, inspired by the demonic doings of such heavy metal groups as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the focus of numerous cleanup drives had already zeroed in on another problem area—satanic violence. Thus, when a 25-year-old grocery store employee named Art Diaz heard his wife describe a church seminar on the influence of Satan and devil-worship in rock music, he was moved to action. Assembling a group of teenagers from the local First Assembly of God Church in Des Moines in October 1980, Diaz and his charges burned 30 album covers after breaking their vinyl contents. Among those fried were works by the Beatles, Peter Frampton and sitarist Ravi Shankar. Diaz said he also threw in a tape of the sound track from the movie Grease.
The next spring, nightclub owner Jeff Jochims of Carroll, Iowa suddenly announced he was going to close his mud wrestling/disco club and atone for past sins by setting afire $2,000 worth of albums that he felt encouraged illicit sex and drug abuse. Two hundred and fifty miles away in Keokuk, a church group spent a Sunday afternoon burning albums they believed "subliminally influenced" young people. The subversive musicians included Perry Como, the Carpenters and John Denver.
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