The Bizarre Time When Frank Zappa’s Entirely Instrumental Album Received an “Explicit Lyrics” Sticker

zappa lyrics

In 1958, Link Wray released his bluesy instru­men­tal “Rum­ble,” known for its pio­neer­ing use of reverb and dis­tor­tion. The grit­ty, seduc­tive tune became a huge hit with the kids, but grown-ups found the sound threat­en­ing, rem­i­nis­cent of scary gang scenes in West Side Sto­ry and grow­ing fears over “Juve­nile Delinquency”—a nation­al anx­i­ety marked by the 1955 release of Black­board Jun­gle and its intro­duc­tion of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

Just three years lat­er, “Rum­ble” made mid­dle class cit­i­zens so ner­vous that the song has the dis­tinc­tion of being the only instru­men­tal ever banned from radio play in the U.S. And yet, that hon­or is some­what mis­lead­ing. It’s true many radio sta­tions refused to play the song, or any rock and roll records at all, but it did receive enough exposure—from peo­ple like Amer­i­can Band­stand’s Dick Clark, no less—to remain in the top 40 for ten weeks in 1958.

Fast-for­ward thir­ty years from Black­board Jun­gle pan­ic, and we find the coun­try in the midst of anoth­er nation­al freak­out about the kids and their music, this one spear­head­ed by the Par­ents Music Resource Cen­ter (PMRC), formed by Tip­per Gore and three oth­er so-called “Wash­ing­ton Wives” who sought to place warn­ing labels on “explic­it” pop­u­lar albums and oth­er­wise impose moral­is­tic guide­lines on music and movies. Con­gres­sion­al hear­ings in 1985 saw the odd trio of Twist­ed Sister’s Dee Snider, mild-man­nered folk star John Den­ver, and vir­tu­oso prog-weirdo Frank Zap­pa tes­ti­fy­ing before the Sen­ate against cen­sor­ship. The fierce­ly lib­er­tar­i­an Zappa’s oppo­si­tion to the PMRC became some­thing of a cru­sade, and the fol­low­ing year he appeared on Cross­fire to argue his case.

PMRC back­lash from musi­cians every­where began to clut­ter the pop cul­tur­al land­scape. Glenn Danzig released his anti-PMRC anthem, “Moth­er”; Ice‑T’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech vicious­ly attacked Gore and her orga­ni­za­tion; NOFX released their E.P. The P.M.R.C. Can Suck on This… just a small sam­pling of dozens of anti-PMRC songs/albums/messages after those infa­mous hear­ings. But we can cred­it Zap­pa with found­ing the musi­cal sub­gen­era in his 1985 Frank Zap­pa Meets the Moth­ers of Pre­ven­tion, which includ­ed “Porn Wars,” above, a mashup of dis­tort­ed sam­ples from the hear­ings.

All of these records received the req­ui­site “Good House­keep­ing Seal of Dis­ap­proval,” the now-famil­iar stark black-and-white parental warn­ing label (top). Zappa’s album cov­er pre-empt­ed the inevitable stick­er­ing with a bright yel­low and red box read­ing “Warn­ing Guar­an­tee,” full of tongue-in-cheek small print like  “GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS.” All this inces­sant needling of the PMRC must have real­ly got to them, fans fig­ured, when Zappa’s 1986 record Jazz from Hell began appear­ing, it’s said, in record stores with a parental advi­so­ry label—on an album with­out lyrics of any kind.

But did Zappa’s Gram­my-award-win­ning instru­men­tal record (above) real­ly get the explic­it con­tent label? And was such label­ing retal­i­a­tion from the PMRC, as some believed? These claims have cir­cu­lat­ed for years on mes­sage boards, in books like Peter Blecha’s Taboo Tunes: A His­to­ry of Banned Bands & Cen­sored Songs, and on Wikipedia. And the answer is both yes, and no. Jazz from Hell did not get the famil­iar “Parental Advi­so­ry: Explic­it Lyrics” label, nor was it specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed by Gore’s orga­ni­za­tion.

The album was, how­ev­er, stick­ered in 1990—notes Dave Thompson’s The Music Lover’s Guide to Record Col­lect­ing—by “the Pacif­ic North­west chain of Fred Mey­er depart­ment stores,” who gave it “the retailer’s own ‘Explic­it Lyrics’ warn­ing, despite the fact that the album was whol­ly instru­men­tal.” This is like­ly due to the word “hell” and the title of the song “G‑Spot Tor­na­do.” So it may be fair to say that Zap­pa’s Jazz from Hell is the only ful­ly instru­men­tal album to receive an “Explic­it Lyrics” warn­ing, inspired by, if not direct­ly ordered by, the PMRC. Like the radio cen­sor­ship of Link Wray’s “Rum­ble,” this region­al seal of dis­ap­proval did not in the least pre­vent the record from receiv­ing due recog­ni­tion. But it makes for a curi­ous his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of the absurd lengths peo­ple have gone to in their fear of mod­ern pop music.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Frank Zap­pa Debates Cen­sor­ship on CNN’s Cross­fire (1986)

Frank Zappa’s Exper­i­men­tal Adver­tise­ments For Luden’s Cough Drops, Rem­ing­ton Razors & Port­land Gen­er­al Elec­tric

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Chris Clark says:

    Nice piece, but…because of the premise of the arti­cle, I feel as though I should point out that the track Mas­sag­gio Galore con­tains vocal sam­ples played on the Syn­clavier, includ­ing at least one instance that is clear­ly long­time Zap­pa vocal­ist Ike Willis, which would like­ly mean that these vocals were record­ed by Frank Zap­pa in the stu­dio, and so would qual­i­fy as an orig­i­nal vocal record­ing. This may for some dis­qual­i­fy the “pure­ly instru­men­tal” descrip­tion of the ground­break­ing Frank Zap­pa release Jazz from Hell.

  • Michael says:

    When going to col­lege in Kansas in the ear­ly 1990s, I was excit­ed to hear the local clas­sic rock radio sta­tion play­ing “G‑spot Tor­na­do” as the intro music for a severe weath­er announce­ment. I’m sure it was nev­er noticed by the pow­ers that be.

  • Bob Ridgway says:

    I reck­on Frank had the stick­ers put on the sleeve. As an artis­tic state­ment

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