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5 Excellent Moments From the Senate’s 1985 Rock-Lyrics Hearing

Dee Snider sparred with Al Gore. Frank Zappa made fun of Tipper Gore's accent. John Denver was there, too.

A People spread from Sept. 16, 1985. Susan Baker on the left. David Lee Roth on the right.

This year will mark the 30th anniversary of a very strange day on Capitol Hill: September 19, 1985, when a group of well-connected Washingtonians addressed the US Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about what they saw as out-of-control rock music lyrics. Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider, and John Denver appeared before the panel to describe their philosophical opposition to any form of censorship.

Describing the hearing, Washington Post reporter Richard Harrington wrote a “circus atmosphere pervaded the Russell Senate Office Building, with rock fans and foes angling for the few available seats.” Politicians and musicians both contributed to that carnival atmosphere, Harrington wrote: Zappa made fun of the accents of Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) members Susan Baker and Tipper Gore.

“You could manage to give the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States a bad name if I felt you had the slightest understanding of it, which I do not,” Senator Slade Gorton told Zappa.

And at an early point in the hearings, Senator John C. Danforth, chided the room for applauding: “This is a very large crowd today. We have allowed people in beyond the capacity of this room. We’re not going to have any demonstrations. No applause, no demonstrations of any kind.” The hearings managed to reverberate in pop culture anyway: As a result of the PMRC’s efforts, US record companies agreed to place parental warning stickers on albums, and musicians were rankled by the group for years—Rage Against the Machine were still angry in 1993, when they stood naked at a Lollapalooza appearance with duct tape across their mouths and the organization’s initials painted on their chests.

Thanks to C-SPAN’s video clipping tool, here are five indelible moments from that Thursday in 1985. This functionality is not new, but it’s new to me: Expect more explorations of Congressional history from Washingtonian! Here’s the full hearing if you want to really get into it.

  1. THE US SENATE WATCHES “HOT FOR TEACHER” Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida has brought along a couple of videos she said “are representative of the kind of presentation which have caused the furor.” After a moment, Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” appears on a woodgrain TV set. Hawkins’ fumbling introduction of the band came too late to give them much joy—David Lee Roth had quit the group earlier that year.
  2. JOHN DENVER TALKS ABOUT GETTING HIGH In a conversation with Senator J. James Exon of Nebraska, John Denver discusses his objections to record ratings. Then, seriously, he has to leave to go brief NASA. “I will stop my questions at this time and wish Mr. Denver good luck in getting on the Space Shuttle,” Al Gore of Tennessee told the room. Denver never did get on the shuttle, but he wrote a song for the crew of the doomed Challenger.
  3. DEE SNIDER VS. AL GORE Tipper Gore had singled out Snider’s band Twisted Sister on its “Filthy Fifteen” list of offensive songs. Snider pounces first, then gets Gore to admit he likes Denver. Gore counters, asking whether Snider, who introduced himself as a Christian, had any problems with the colorful name of Twisted Sister’s fan club.
  4. SENATORS: MEET THE MENTORS This is surely one of the only times the words “anal vapor” ever rang out in the hallowed halls of Congress, courtesy of Pastor Jeff Ling of Clear River Community Church in Chantilly. (In 2010, Ling told Vulture’s Bryan Reesmanhe deeply regrets” his Mentors quotes are among his contributions to the Congressional Record.
  5. FRANK ZAPPA AND JIM EXON FIND SOME COMMON GROUND The senator asks Zappa whether he’d performed with Glenn Miller or Mitch Miller. As it turned out, Zappa has a Mitch Miller connection.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.