Frank Zappa pointing & speaking into mic with red text: "Rock music was never written or performed for, conservative tastes."

Don't Knock the Rock: Exhibit Retrospective

Rock and roll has got to go.

That has been the battle cry on conservative lips since the dawn of rock. Rock and roll has been denounced as degrading, satanic, anarchic and amoral. (Some fans may agree and wonder what’s wrong with that.)

The history of attempts to censor rock and roll music is a long and winding story that is still being written today. Just five years ago members of Pussy Riot were arrested in Russia for performing a song that criticized Vladimir Putin. It seems that for every person that ecstatically screams along to a song, another person tries to shout it down.

Whether music is an issue of morality is up to the listener, but on one thing we all agree—it wouldn’t be rock if it didn’t stir up some controversy.

Early Censorship

The year is 1957, and Elvis Presley’s performance on The Ed Sullivan Show is filmed from the waist up. His gyrating was too provocative. (Originally Sullivan refused to have Presley on his show, but he changed his mind once he realized that he needed to play rock to stay relevant.)

By today’s standards Elvis is a kitten, but in his time he was sex incarnate, a threat to our country’s morals and our daughters’ virtue. The irony is that Elvis got his start singing gospel music, a passion that he never abandoned, even at the height of his fame.

In fact, he was friends with Reverend Jimmie Snow, the son of country star Hank Snow and a promising rock and roll talent before he was “saved.” A video on display at the Rock Hall shows Snow preaching against the depravity of rock; he says, “I know how it feels when you sing it. I know what it does to you. And I know the evil feeling that you feel when you sing it.” Is it just us, or do we detect a hint of longing in that sermon?

Across the country censors picked up their pitchforks. On radio station KWK, a deejay gave taboo records a “farewell spin” before smashing them, acknowledging and denouncing rock’s greatness in one fell swoop. (Much like Ed Sullivan, the station resumed playing rock a couple years later to stay competitive.)

Highway to Hell

There has been an impressive number of excuses for censoring rock. Some say the loud volume at which it’s played makes it a health hazard and therefore open to regulation. A former rock and roll fan claimed that the music made her hear voices at night. Still others say that it incites violent crime. However, one of the more interesting reasons to censor rock is that it promotes the ultimate evil—Satan worship.

Yes, there was a time when listening to ELO made you a disciple of Lucifer. A common accusation launched at rock bands was that they manipulated their listeners with “backmasking.” Backmasking is a technique in which a message is recorded backward onto a song that is played forward.

Rock bands were accused of recording messages that promoted evildoing and Satan worship backwards, so that whoever heard the song would subconsciously accept the call to corruption. A video at the Rock Hall shows a clip from a news show in which an album played backwards appears to say, “Someone sung this song for Satan.”

Tensions came to a head with the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee formed with the intention of protecting people from rock’s violent, sexual and occult themes.

The Right Side of History

Bob Dylan was right when he said the times they are a-changin’. The passage of time has exposed the ugly underside of the movement to sanitize rock and roll. From the first waves of resistance in the Fifties to the suppression of today, rock clearly stands on the right side of history.

Some repellent things have been said and done by anti-rock crusaders. A San Antonio councilman outright stated that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to rock and roll. In 1956, the North Alabama White Citizens Council said that rock “lowered” white Americans to the level of black Americans. (In other words, rock and roll is a tool for equality.) N.W.A received a letter from the F.B.I. telling them they disapproved of “Fuck Tha Police.”

Despite their best attempts, rock and roll is here to stay. As long as there is a need for expression, as long as there is a spirit of rebellion—in other words, as long as we continue to breathe—there will be rock. People don’t have to listen if they don’t like it, but they’re missing out.

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