The Frank Zappa Interview
On ’80s Music, Double-Dating, and Washington Wives
In 1984 I was working as a lifeguard/swimming instructor and began dating the girl I’d eventually marry. After a first-date movie, I took her on a double date to see Frank Zappa at the Palace in Hollywood. Also the Dead Kennedys, as a test of her musical open-mindedness and general sense of adventure.
She evened the score by taking me to see Rod Stewart, followed by Wham!
The next year, Zappa started speaking out in the press about pending legislation and political issues that were impacting musicians. Somehow I got the notion to arrange an interview with Frank for The Long Beach Union newspaper at CSULB.
In the pre-streaming days, the big issue in the music biz was home-taping and its impact on artist royalties.
There was another hullaballoo at the time: a group of well-connected Washington D.C. spouses, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), wanted to save the nation’s youth by labeling rock music with warning stickers.
On September 19, 1985, Zappa spoke at the PMRC-prompted Senate Hearing regarding rock lyrics and the First Amendment.
On December 5, he made time to talk with your humble scribe, writing for CSULB’s free weekly newspaper.
Here’s the published interview, only slightly edited for the Interwebs.
The Long Beach Union
The Students’ Newspaper of Cal State Long Beach
December 16–22, 1985, Volume XVIII, Number 16
Mothers of Prevention and Dancing Politicians
An Interview with Frank Zappa
by Mitch Devine
Unless you’ve been on vacation for the past six months, you’re probably aware that a group of women calling themselves the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)—also derisively referred to as the “Washington Wives”—has been attacking rock music with ratings stickers and politics.
What you may not be aware of is the hidden agenda.
Composer, performer and record-label entrepreneur Frank Zappa has been educating the public about the controversy. Last September he testified before the Senate Hearing Committee in Washington, D.C. with John Denver and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister in an effort to prevent this latest governmental creep into censorship.
The iconoclastic rock satirist has always been an unorthodox if ardent first-amendment advocate. Now from the headquarters of Barking Pumpkin Records at his home in Laurel Canyon, Zappa is trying to spread the word on the rock-n-roll ratings kerfuffle with his “Z-Pac.”
To get your own information-packed Z-Pac, send a self-addressed, legal-sized envelope with $1.50 postage (Frank sez, “There’s a lot of paper in there, buddy!”) to: Z-Pac, P.O. Box 5265, North Hollywood, CA. Or call 818-PUMPKIN for more information.
Now here’s Frank to tell the story in his own words.
“See, these ladies started off with a premise that is very unscientific… that rock music causes suicide, murder, teenage pregnancy, rape, drug abuse and sympathy for the devil.”
Union: Is your new record, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, an attempt to create more awareness about the ratings issue?
FZ: The thing about the ratings issue is it’s not really an issue. It’s a bunch of bullshit is what it is, and I would like to create more of an awareness about the bullshit that’s involved.
See, these ladies started off with a premise that is very unscientific, and that premise is that rock music causes suicide, murder, teenage pregnancy, rape, drug abuse and sympathy for the devil.
If we’re talking about consumer information here, or truth in packaging, which is one of the things they often refer to, I would say we require some truth in packaging from the PMRC as far as their ideals and their ideas are concerned, because there is no science to back these claims up.
The reason it got so much coverage is the media, especially television, saw a great chance to put these little news stories on the five o’clock news because of the existence of rock videos. They would take rock videos and chop up these colorful little bumpers and then the announcer would say, “You decide.” Well, the fact that they put it on the air gives the impression that there is a problem, whereas there is not.
Frank Zappa testifying at the PMRC Senate Hearing:
Union: So 22 members of the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] have agreed to carry a generic warning sticker or print the lyrics on the jacket…
FZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but subject to the loopholes. And the loopholes are: parents’ groups will have no role in determining what is explicit. The record companies will determine what is explicit.
A quote from [RIAA President] Stan Gortikov: “Explicit is explicit.”
There are no guidelines. Those artists who have contractual control over their album packaging are free to ignore the understanding. That’s all directly from the Associated Press wire report, November 1.
So what really do we have here? The way I see this: the RIAA did the PMRC a big favor and let them save face by pretending to agree to something that is not really enforceable.
“This whole business of them trying to connect the lyrics or performance of AC/DC with an accused Mexican murderer is really preposterous.”
Union: You beat them to all this sticker business last year when you put your “Warning/Guarantee” sticker on Thing Fish.
FZ: I’ve had three albums out now that have that sticker on, but look what that sticker says:
“This contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress.”
I don’t think anybody should give any more warning than that.
As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to put that on there because an intelligent person would know that music is not going to make them go to hell, nor will it turn you into the Night Stalker. I mean, this whole business of them trying to connect the lyrics or performance of AC/DC with an accused Mexican murderer is really preposterous.
Examine it this way: Let’s take other famous murderers in the United States like… William James Gacy [sic]. Isn’t he the guy that killed all those kids and concreted them into his basement in Chicago?
Union: Or how about Charles Manson freaking out on The Beatles’ White Album?
FZ: Okay. So if Manson goes berserk on The Beatles, then it’s possible that everybody else who heard a Beatles song is going to turn into a Charles Manson.
All you have quoted is examples of people who have committed murder and like rock ‘n roll. There are plenty of people who kill who much prefer either country & western or other forms of music. But the guy who killed the most would be Hitler and his favorite was…
FZ: So what do we have here? It doesn’t really add up.
Union: Your Joe’s Garage album virtually predicted all these groups like the PMRC and PASS—the “Parents Against Subliminal Seduction.”
FZ: Oh, I’ve got another one for you: “Freedom Village.” I got a package in the mail the other day from the attorney general of the state of New Mexico, the guy is a fan. His father used to be my high school English teacher. He sent me this package ‘cause somebody had sent it to him.
If you remember when the hearings were held on the 19th, there were some news shots of kids picketing outside the Senate building. They were holding signs that said, “Stop Murder Music.” And I thought, “Well, that’s pretty amusing. Where do these suckers come from?”
Well, here’s the story… apparently somebody connected with the senate committee or the PMRC or Rev. Jeff Ling or somebody involved in that thing invited these kids from a place called Freedom Village in Lakemont, New York. This is a detox center to cure children of rock addiction. It’s run by a guy named Pastor Fletcher A. Brothers.
They had sent a whole busload of these kids down from Freedom Village to testify at the Senate. But apparently, when they saw them and saw who extreme this whole thing was, they didn’t put them on as witnesses. They did let them march around outside with these signs saying, “Stop Murder Music” and they had this bus from Freedom Village endlessly circling the Senate building for five hours.
So the other day I got this package of stuff from Freedom Village and it’s got the whole schmeeze. They’ve got a pamphlet that lists everybody in rock ‘n roll that they think are major offenders and what it is they’ve done wrong.
Let me give you a couple of examples: Stevie Wonder is on there because the album Songs In The Key Of Life refers to astrology.
Linda Ronstadt is on there because they’ve taken some quote of hers out of context, which says, “I’d rather shoot smack in both arms than sing a show on a full stomach.”
Then they got The Who in there because Pete Townshend follows Meher Baba and they recorded a Hindu prayer on one album.
This is all under the heading of “Murder Music.”
Their cover letter mentions “MURDER MUSIC” in capital letters, bold-face type with quotes around it, about ten times. It also has Boy George in there. Aside from the fact that they give the guy a hard time because he’s gay, they claim that his music promotes Hinduism. And the thing is full of typos. It’s unbelievable. John Denver is on there. The reason he is on their shit list is because he belongs to EST.
And I think that most of the people on this list don’t even know they’ve been targeted by these people. The stuff is really extreme.
It comes complete with free typed petitions that you’re supposed to fill out and send to the FCC and senators and everybody. They also tell you to mail all this stuff back to Freedom Village and they’ll deliver it to Washington, D.C. They want to get you on their mailing list and then exploit you as a mindless member of their organization.
In case you think this is bullshit, the toll-free number for Freedom Village is 1-800-VICTORY. The cover letter says, “Feel free to distribute this package to your friends.” And that’s one of the reasons why I am copying it and sticking it in the Z-Pac. There’s really a big wad of stuff.
“Most of the signatures of these women were over the names of husbands who sat on committees that affected the life or death of this legislation for the record industry.
So it was a matter of implied extortion.”
Union: Isn’t the PMRC just a diversion to sneak through H.R. 2911, the Blank Tape Tax?
FZ: Well it’s a little more complicated than that. First of all, it’s known under two names. It’s also known as the Mathias Home Taping Bill. 2911 is the number in the House of Representatives and in the Senate it goes under the other name.
The bill in the Senate has among its endorsers, Senator Gore, Cranston, Kennedy… I don’t have the bill here, but those are a few of the names of the cosponsors that I recall from the bill. You’ll also note that as of September 19, the date of the hearings, Senator Gore—whose wife, Tipper, is a PMRC founder—was not a cosponsor of the bill. As of October 30, when they had the first hearing of the Mathias Bill in the senate committee, he was a cosponsor.
Originally, when the first PMRC letter that went to the RIAA was delivered there were sixteen signatures on it. Most of the signatures of these women were over the names of husbands who sat on committees that affected the life or death of this legislation for the record industry. So it was a matter of implied extortion.
Speaking from the PMRC standpoint, it was like, “If you don’t do what we ask, then your bill may experience an untimely demise in my husband’s committee.”
Union: Or, “Nice bill you’ve got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”
FZ: Right. At least that’s the way the RIAA perceived it because I had discussions with Gortikov about this months and months ago. Gortikov, in fact, was the one who told me that one of the original PMRC signers was Mrs. Strom Thurmond. Ultimately, this legislation has to go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Strom Thurmond. So there was an awareness at the RIAA of what the implications of that PMRC letter were.
If this bill that they are so concerned about passes, it will put 200 to 250 million dollars a year more money in the pockets of the record industry just like a special tax.
Union: Do you think this is going to pass?
FZ: Well, let me tell you some of the people who are against it. I’m not the only one who has said negative things about it. Every manufacturer of blank tape and every manufacturer of home recording machinery, they all hate the thing.
What the bill requires is that all of these manufacturers first obtain a compulsory license from the Registrar of Copyrights. Without this license they’re not allowed to sell the goods in the United States. And prior to selling your licensed goods, the manufacturer has to pay into the Registrar of Copyrights a royalty. So they have to pay it. It ties up their capital.
So do you think that they’re not going to attach a little premium on top of this surcharge in order to compensate them for the loss of interest on that capital? Because, if the bill itself requires a surcharge of one cent per minute on all blank tape, do you think that that’s all that’s going to get passed along to a consumer? No way.
The other thing that you ought to consider is that in the case of the Mathias Bill, the surcharge on a single recording device is 5%. On a double recording device, which is any double cassette machine or a combination of a turntable and a cassette machine, it’s 25%. Do you think that the manufacturers, if forced to do this, will just add 5% and 25%? No way.
The other thing that people don’t understand about the way the bill works is the wording of it is kinda tricky. In the Mathias bill it talks about the extra income going to the copyright holders. Now, when people think of copyrights, they think of the little © in a circle. That © with the circle is the copyright for the music.
There’s another thing on the record, though. It’s a “p” with a circle and that is the copyright for the performance. And guess who owns that? The record company.
Gortikov has talked to me twice in the last month or so about the blank tape tax because he doesn’t want me to say bad things about it. The last conversation I had with him, was him trying to explain what the record industry’s point of view is on the tax, just so that I wouldn’t hurt or embarrass anybody by saying things that other people in the industry would really hate to have me say.
So I listened to him and I took notes and I’ll give you the benefit of a few of those notes. He’s the one who gave me the estimate of between 200 and 250 million dollars a year in revenue.
When I questioned him about the “p” copyright, he says, well, the division of the money that comes in—even though the bill doesn’t specify the division—if you look at it on paper it doesn’t tell where the money goes. But he said that he expected that the pool of funds would be divided up in the same proportion that the profits from a record album would be divided up.
Let me tell you what that means in plain English: the “p” copyright holder gets 90% and the “c” copyright holder gets 10%. So this bill is of major benefit to the record companies and of much smaller benefit to the recording artist.
Then I said, “Well, in the terms of the 10% that goes to the recording artist, how is that divided up?” And he said, “Well, that’s probably going to be based on actual record sales.”
Guess what that means?
The big winners would be Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen—all the guys that are already selling millions of units. So the bill really does little or nothing to help a lower- or mid-echelon sales artist. It just means extra compensation for those people who already sell millions of units, based on the theory of “they sold it, they earned it,” which I can agree with because any other kind of division would start to smell like Communism.
But we have to say that if a guy has already sold 30 million albums—say, in the case of Michael Jackson—how many people did not buy a Michael Jackson album and taped it from a friend? Obviously, he did okay.
So for all the guys that are already selling large numbers of albums, are you trying to tell me that there is an equal number of people who didn’t buy the record and just taped it from their next-door neighbor?
Union: You’ve been telling people to register to vote a lot lately, and even as far back as the Live at the Fillmore album, you put that on the cover. Yet you have said that the first and last time you voted was for Kennedy. Why is that?
FZ: See, if I’ve got something that I feel I really can exercise freedom of choice on, rather than the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, then I’m personally gonna go out there and vote.
“Unless you are registered [to vote], nobody in Washington will pay attention to you. You don’t exist.”
FZ: What my voting habits are has nothing to do with me urging other people to register.
Here’s one of the reasons why you should register: Unless you are registered, nobody in Washington will pay attention to you. You don’t exist. So why should you expect them to enact legislation that will suit the needs and wants of an 18-year-old voting block, unless they know there are 18-year-old voters who could put them out of business?
The people in Washington are there because they like to be there. That is their idea of a good time, being legislators. They want that power. Without somebody to give them the power, they’re out of a job.
Now if kids don’t pay attention to what’s going on, they’re gonna suffer the results. They’re gonna grow up to be adults and they’ll be living in a country that has already had laws enacted that will restrict their ability to function freely in the society and those laws will have been enacted during the time when they had the ability to change it, and didn’t.
Here’s a really cheezoid example: elevating the drinking age to 21. In all of those states where it was already 18 or whatever, people who had the right to vote at 18 could have kept their drinking age from going up to 21. They could have kept that from happening.
And what about when one day when they decide to have the draft again?
Union: Right. Not if, but when.
FZ: Right. If you’re not registered, you can’t say shit.
Union: So are you still registered, but you just haven’t voted?
FZ: At the time I was registered to vote for Kennedy, I was living in a different town. I am not registered as a voter in Los Angeles, and one of the reasons for that is they require that you put on public record your home address. And that is a slight problem for me.
Union: A big hassle. On the radio show “Almost Live” you said, “The politicians will dance to you.” Do you think…
“They will vote any way that it takes to keep their job.”
FZ: Let me tell you how it works. It’s not just bullshit. If MTV started running regularly, voter registration things, not just when it’s time for the presidential election but day in and day out, okay? And what if there was a large upsurge in young registered voters? Do you not think that there would be a change in the rhetoric coming out of Washington D.C., out of your local city council, out of every government porthole there was?
They’re not gonna say or do things that you want them to unless they know that you can hurt them. This is not a matter of goodwill as far as these public officials are concerned. They will vote any way that it takes to keep their job. The main thing they’re interested in is their job and their power, their stardom.
If you can put them back in the f—n’ stock room where they belong, they’re gonna have to do things your way.
# # #
As if all that wasn’t enough, here are a couple links for further reading:
In 2015 Rolling Stone wrote a postscript on the artists targeted by the PMRC:
The PMRC’s “Filthy 15” — Where are they now?
in 2016, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, who also testified at the Senate Hearing alongside Zappa, wrote of his own experience for Huffington Post: