Back in the day when a ban was a ban, when bad publicity was bad publicity, being banned meant canceled gigs, lost sponsorships, and being blacklisted from future contracts. Today, in contrast, the spotlight can bring a band a bump. Ever since Elvis popularized the genre, rock ‘n’ roll songs have been censored, barred or faced radio play restrictions. Let’s look at why some of those songs got tagged as the black sheep of the music industry.
‘Imagine’ –John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band
Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too
This idealistic ode to peace has the audacity to imagine all people living peacefully in a borderless world. It’s been banned several times. In a strongly Christian nation in which God and country delineate patriotic nationalism, a song that imagines “no countries,” “no religion” and “no heaven” is deemed blasphemous and anti-American. The idealistic hymn, much to the religious right’s chagrin, is also one of the most popular songs ever written.
“Imagine” was banned during the buildup to the first Gulf War and it was banned after the 9/11 attacks. It’s been considered too controversial for graduation ceremonies and funerals on both sides of the Atlantic. Song fact: Yoko Ono inspired the tune and wrote most of the lyrics. Based on the principle that peace needs to be imagined before it’s realized, it was recorded in 1971 as part of an artistic marketing campaign for peace.
‘Strange Fruit’ –Billie Holiday
Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
This song was to be Billie Holiday’s best-selling single, but radio stations refused to play it, and promoters ordered her not to sing it. “Strange Fruit” was based on a poem protesting racism, especially lynching, which was a lingering tragedy of the deep South when the song was released in 1939. It’s hard to imagine anyone dissing a song that calls out lynching, but it happened, right here in the ‘land of the free.’
Considered too graphic and gory, the haunting ballad was banned in South Africa during apartheid and landed Billie Holiday on the F.B.I.’s “watch list.” Holiday’s label, Columbia Records, refused to record her act of dissent. Luckily, her contract permitted the admired singer to hook up with another, smaller left-leaning label, Commodore Records, to record it. Time magazine named “Strange Fruit” the “song of the century”, but not until 1999.
‘Take the Power Back’ –Rage Against the Machine
Yeah we need to check the interior / Of the system that cares about only one culture / And that, is why we gotta take the power back
Rage Against the Machine’s unique punk/rap/metal/hip-hop sound led by Zack de la Rocha’s anti-establishment lyrics has met all kinds of censorship. Besides the total ban by Clear Channel after 9/11, in 1996, SNL banned the group, permanently, for draping upside-down flags on their amps while rocking “Bulls on Parade” live. In 2009, BBC Radio 5 Live censored the final refrain of “Killing in the Name” by fading it out. They asked de la Rocha not to sing, “F*** you, I won’t do what you tell me!” live, but he did it anyway. The publicly-funded BBC apologized.
The 1992 song, “Take the Power Back” faced censorship in 2015 by the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona when teachers at a local high school met a noncompliance notice for using the tune to teach a Mexican-American history class. The infraction? Arizona State law forbids advocating “ethnic solidarity.”
‘Like A Prayer’ –Madonna
When you call my name it’s like a little prayer / I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
The savviest of provocateurs, a.k.a. The Queen of Pop, struck a high note with “Like A Prayer.” When the music video premiered on MTV in 1989, the controversy over sexual innuendo in her lyrics took a backseat to the widespread indignation over the presentation of religious and sexual themes. Madonna offended Catholics so deeply, with the video that showed her seducing a black saint amongst burning crosses and displaying hand-wound stigmata, that Pope John Paul II and PepsiCo denounced it.
The Vatican called it blasphemous and ordered a boycott of a new Pepsi TV commercial featuring Madonna singing with a church choir. Pepsi panicked and pulled the ad, but not before shelling out $5 million to the publicity-shrewd diva. It was the perfect concoction of controversy and attention. “Like A Prayer” remains one of the material girl’s most successful songs.
‘God Only Knows’ –The Beach Boys
God only knows what I’d be without you / If you should ever leave me / Though life would still go on, believe me / The world would show nothing to me
Banned for blasphemy. If there are any doubts concerning the roots of conservatism in these United States of America, please lay them down. Paul McCartney legendarily gushed over the Beach Boys’ 1966 love ballad, while radio stations in America’s southern states boycotted it. The love song didn’t use the Lord’s name in vain, but a pop song with “God” in its title seemed blasphemous enough.
Partly because some stations refused to play it, “God Only Knows” only made it to No. 39 on U.S. charts. However, in the U.K., it shot to No.2. Another factor is that it was overlooked, having been issued as a B-side to the band’s wildly popular, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
‘Splish Splash’ –Bobby Darin
Well, I stepped out the tub / I put my feet on the floor / I wrapped the towel around me and I / Opened the door
Back in 1958, when “Splish Splash” was a lively pop singles sensation, some radio stations found the tune too suggestive. Being in the bath suggests the singer is naked. Not only that, but the explicit language about walking into a house party in just a towel was way too evocative. (Oh, if only the expurgators knew Lady Gaga was coming!)
When he finally joins the party, he only mentions putting his dancing shoes on! (Now, there’s a visual.) Bobby Darin hardly suffered from censorship. The 22-year-old Bronx-born singer-songwriter became a teen idol overnight, with "Splish Splash" reaching No. 3 on the pop singles chart.
And we’ll never be royals / It don’t run in our blood
This song was banned for, quite possibly, the dumbest reason. “Royals” was released in 2013. By the time the 2014 World Series rolled around, the 16-year-old Lorde’s No. 1 chart-topping song had become an anthem, of sorts, to Kansas City Royals fans. When the Royals matched up with the San Francisco Giants, overzealous Giants fans had a problem with the song playing during the Series.
In response, Bay Area KFOG banned it saying, “No offense, Lorde, but for the duration of the World Series, KFOG Radio will be a Royals-free zone.” Other S.F. stations removed the song from playlists as well.
‘In the Air Tonight’ –Phil Collins
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord / And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
Who knows why “In the Air Tonight” was banned during the Gulf War and again after 9/11. But, nevertheless, the song about suffering through jilted love was deemed too sensitive for airplay during wartime. Perhaps the line, “It’s all been a pack of lies” was posthumously interpreted to refer to the reasons for the wars?
It would make sense if Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” was blacklisted, but it wasn’t. Instead, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” made the list. The censorship was brought to us by the BBC and Clear Channel Communications.
‘Wake Up Little Susie’ –The Everly Brothers
We both fell sound asleep / Wake up, little Susie, and weep / The movie’s over, it’s four o-clock / And we’re in trouble deep
“Wake Up Little Susie” was a No. 1 chart-topper in 1957, but that didn’t stop a Boston radio station from banning it. The censors claimed the song implies the teenage couple slept together. The content, in general, staying out late with a boyfriend, was too sensitive for the Fifties. It’s almost impossible to fathom that reaction from our era of wide-open sexuality.
The song was a huge hit. While campaigning for the presidency, George W. Bush told Oprah that Buddy Holly’s version of “Wake Up Little Susie” was his favorite song. The songwriters who wrote most of The Everly Brothers’ songs were Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, a husband and wife team who also wrote ditties for Elvis, Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly.
‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ –The Shirelles
Tonight with words unspoken / You say that I’m the only one / But will my heart be broken / When the night meets the morning sun
This song, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, was originally recorded by The Shirelles, an all-girl foursome. Rumor had it that it is about a girl ready to lose her virginity due to the lyrics, “So tell me now, and I won’t ask again, will you still love me tomorrow?” (How, exactly, is beyond our imagination). But several U.S. radio stations spotted the line and banned the song.
In 1960, the mere hint of suggestion was enough to trigger the alarms. The bans were not enough, however, to stop the song from the first African-American all-girl band from topping U.S. charts and hitting No. 4 in the U.K.
‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ –Jimmy Boyd
Oh, what a laugh it would have been / If daddy had only seen / Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night
In 1952, the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The adorable jingly-jolly holiday carol was recorded with lyrics sung by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd. It sold two million copies during that holiday season. But not everyone was impressed.
The Catholic Church condemned the song for linking sex with Christmas. Several radio stations banned it. The line, “She didn’t see me creep/Down the stairs to have a peep” was also considered indecent. (Wait. That’s not daddy dressed as Santa Claus?!)
‘Louie Louie’ –The Kingsmen
A fine little girl, she waits for me / Me catch the ship across the sea / Me sailed the ship all alone / Me never think I’ll make it home
This song was truly banned for no reason. It all started with a teenage girl’s father who penned a concerned letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, blaming the “extreme state of moral degradation” of the nation on the “Louie Louie” ditty. An F.B.I. investigation duly commenced. Of concern, according to the F.B.I. report, were lyrics that seemed to say, “At night at ten / I lay her again / F*** you girl, oh / All the way.”
To wit, the only obscenity of the song, it turned out, occurred about 50 seconds in when the drummer drops a drumstick and yells, “F***.” Ironically, the F.B.I. didn’t catch it. Song fact: Richard Berry wrote and recorded the calypso-inspired song with his band in 1957. The Kingsmen covered it based on a cover-version by the Wailers that they heard playing on local jukeboxes.
‘If U Seek Amy’ –Britney Spears
All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to / If you seek Amy
The way Britney Spears sings it, “If U Seek Amy” seeks an obscenity ban by wordplay. With an emphasis on “iF U See K,” a pun makes a double entendre of the refrain.
In case it appears inadvertent, a quick look at her music video clarifies intentions. A sex party is winding down to a conservative domestic scene, like a risqué version of “Mrs. Robinson.”
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ –The Rolling Stones
When I’m ridin’ round the world / And I’m doin’ this and I’m singing that / And I’m tryin’ to make some girl / Who tells me baby, better come back maybe next week / Can’t you see I’m on a losing streak?
When this song was first released in the U.K., only pirate radio stations would play it. In the U.S., “Satisfaction” topped the charts at No. 1 for four consecutive weeks. But its “sexually aggressive” lyrics were censored on TV, partly because Mick Jagger’s gyrations on stage were considered lewd. The words, “I’m trying to make some girl” got zapped. Following the 1965 ban in the U.K. for lyrics deemed “too sexually suggestive,” the song rose to No. 1 on the U.K. charts as well. However, it was also criticized for “tasteless themes.”
Critics found anti-establishment tendencies in lyrics such as, “When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me / How white my shirts can be / But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke / The same cigarettes as me.” Despite the denunciations, it’s the second greatest song of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine. Devo, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, and Vanilla Ice have all released cover versions.
‘Rolling in the Deep’ –Adele
Finally I can see you crystal clear / Go ahead and sell me out and I’ll lay your ship bare
The controversy here seems to revolve around the reason radio stations censored Adele’s song. Broadcasters concerned the lyric might be, “I’ll lay your sh*t bare,” bleeped it out, just in case. To make things clear, Adele replaced the word in question with “stuff” during a TV performance.
What is certain, the ballad “Rolling in the Deep” was a massive sensation. The No. 1 hit song stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks.
‘The Real Slim Shady’ –Eminem
I’ll be the only person in the nursing home flirting / Pinching nurse’s asses when I’m [lyric bleeped] or jerkin’ / Said I’m jerking, but this whole bag of Viagra isn’t working
Radio station KKMG of Colorado Springs was slapped with a $7,000 fine for playing Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” in 2000, due to a listener complaint to the FCC. Never mind that it was a radio edit and one of the rapper’s tamest tunes on his newly released LP.
Updated FCC guidelines issued just two months prior, claimed innuendo, without expletives, can be considered subject to obscenity laws. The agency cited “unmistakable offensive sexual references,” quoting the lyrics above and several other lines. Later, however, the FCC reversed the fine stating the song was, “not patently offensive under contemporary community standards.” A Wisconsin radio station was also hit with the fine for playing the unedited version of “Slim Shady.” They paid the fine without appeal.
‘Cop Killer’ –Body Count
I’m a cop killer, f*** police brutality! / Cop killer, I know your family’s grievin’ (f*** ‘em) / Cop killer, but tonight we get even
“Cop Killer” is a song of vengeance and retribution by hardcore rock band, Body Count. Accompanying raps by Ice-T relish in vanquishing L.A.P.D. cops for killing his homies and rally against institutional police brutality. Needless to say, the explicit song faced a lot of heat from politicians and parent organizations nationwide. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle criticized it.
In response to the condemnation, Ice-T said, “I’ve become the hero of the people, and the more they attack me, the stronger I’ll get.” However, in response to the condemnation, Ice-T removed the song from the album. Reflecting, he found free speech means we can say what we want, “but you have to be prepared for the ramifications for what you say.” Song fact: Ice-T was inspired to write “Cop Killer” while singing the Talking Heads' song “Psycho Killer.”
‘Light My Fire’ –The Doors
You know that I would be a liar / If I was to say to you / Girl we couldn’t get much higher
In 1967, The Doors were eternally banned from The Ed Sullivan Show over one word. Before the live performance, a producer informed the band that the term “higher” suggested illegal drug use, and the lyric must be changed to a more appropriate word, like “better.” As the door closed, Jim Morrison, insulted by the ridiculous request to self-censor, declared, “We’re not changing a word.”
During the live performance, singing it exactly like the single, guitarist Robby Krieger grinned at Morrison’s noncompliance, but the CBS execs were incensed. They confronted Morrison saying he’ll never play on the show again. Morrison quipped, “Hey, man. We just did the Sullivan show.”
'Juicy' –The Notorious B.I.G.
Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight / Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Today, when “Juicy” plays on the radio, there’s an awkward silence in place of the line, “Blow up like the World Trade.” This, despite the fact the song was released years before the 9/11 tragedies. Notorious B.I.G. was referring to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in the underground parking area that killed six people, but his metaphor “blow up” refers to explosive personal success and getting paid.
It wasn’t until after 9/11 that the song was censored for radio play. Notorious B.I.G., though some believe his lyric was prophetic, would never even know about the censorship of his song nor the catastrophic event. Tragically, Biggie was murdered in 1997.
‘Lola’ –The Kinks
I met her in a club down in North Soho / Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola
It wasn’t this line: “Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man / But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man / and so is Lola,” that caused the fuss. It was the BBC’s policy against product placement that forced The Kinks to rewrite part of their popular 1970 chart-topping song, “Lola.” The radio version replaced the “Coca-Cola” brand name reference with the words “cherry cola.”
Lead singer Ray Davies had to fly from N.Y. to London to sing the radio edit to get the song on the air. Song fact: Davies wrote this song in jest after the band’s manager went to a club and danced with a transvestite. He was so plastered that he didn’t notice “her” stubble growing back in the wee hours of the night.
‘Physical’ –Olivia Newton-John
I took you to an intimate restaurant / Then to a suggestive movie / There’s nothing left to talk about / Unless it’s horizontally
In Utah, Salt Lake City and Provo radio stations banned Olivia Newton-John’s chart-topping peppy tune “Physical”. It was 1981, at the dawning of the conservative “Reagan Revolution” when the line, “Unless it’s horizontally” was deemed too sexually suggestive. The music video for “Physical”, released the same month as the premiere of MTV, was also banned.
The ending of the video revealed a gay theme. MTV censored it by cutting it short, and some broadcasters in Canada and the U.K. banned it outright. The song won a Grammy for Video of the Year and was the most popular song of Newton-John’s career.
‘Greased Lightning’ –John Travolta
You know that ain’t no shit / We’ll be gettin’ lots of tit in grease lightnin’
From the Broadway musical to the movie, Grease has been widely adopted as family entertainment, which is curious considering it’s about sex-crazed teens and illegal street racing.
On the radio, the word “shit” in John Travolta’s 1978 version of “Greased Lightning” had to be censored with a bleep. Although the line, “You are supreme, the chicks’ll cream for grease lightning” remained untouched. Other than that, it’s a virtual course in auto mechanics about stylin’ up some wheels with overhead lifters and four-barrel quads, dual-muffler twins and chrome-plated rods.
‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ –Frank Loesser
I really can’t stay (oh baby don’t hold out) / But baby, it’s cold outside
During its day, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was a perfectly acceptable song. Frank Loesser wrote and recorded it with his wife as a duet in 1944. It won an Oscar for Best Original Song in Neptune’s Daughter after Loesser sold it to MGM for the 1949 film.
Today, in 2018, the tune has been washed up in the #MeToo movement and faced radio play censorship for being a rape song. (Sigh.)
‘Love Game’ –Lady Gaga
Let’s have some fun, this beat is sick / I wanna take a ride on your disco stick / Don’t think too much just thrust that dick / I wanna take a ride on your disco stick
With a refrain like that, “LoveGame” takes gamers to a whole new level. Lady Gaga’s third release from The Fame was banned in many countries. Australia took offense at the suggestive music video footage “involving bondage and sexual acts,” but the U.S. played “LoveGame” straight.
However, in the U.S., MTV removed scenes where Lady Gaga appeared naked. The video also faced banishment from MTV Arabia. Song fact: The term “disco stick” is hardly suggestive, especially after the diva explained that it’s a direct reference to a penis. She also said the song was inspired by being attracted to a stranger at a nightclub.
‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead’ –The Wizard of Oz
This high-energy, 1939 Munchkin song, welcoming Dorothy to the colorful Land of Oz, never faced any sort of censorship, that is, until British prime minister Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013. Detractors of the former PM led a campaign that aimed to thrust “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” to the top of the charts during the week of the unpopular leader’s death.
The effort nearly succeeded as the festive tune pushed its way up to the No. 2 position, but BBC’s Radio 1 doused the flames by refusing to air it on their charts. The BBC called it a distasteful campaign and banned it for representing “a celebration of death.”
‘Brown Eyed Girl’ –Van Morrison
Sometimes I’m overcome thinking ’bout / Makin glove in the green grass / Behind the stadium with you / My brown-eyed girl
This song was released in the 1960s during the iconic Summer of Love. “Brown Eyed Girl” seemed like the perfect accompanying ballad, however, Van Morrison wasn’t having it with the hippie association. Radio stations had a problem with the line, “making love in the green grass,” and so “Brown Eyed Girl” was either banned or censored for being too provocative.
Originally, Morrison titled the ditty, “Brown Skinned Girl,” an interracial suggestion that definitely would have received even more censorship. Interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states at the time, so he altered the song into the more radio-friendly version that we recognize today as one of the great rock ‘n’ roll classics.
‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ –The Beatles
When I hold you in my arms / And I feel my finger on your trigger / I know nobody can do me no harm / Because / Happiness is a warm gun, yes, it is
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is all four of the Beatles’ favorite song off the “White Album,” but it wasn’t the censors’ favorite. The track, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, appeared on the epic, 1968 double-album, The Beatles. It was promptly banned by the BBC. The media gatekeeper barred it for sexual symbolism they found in the gun metaphor. Fair enough.
In the U.S., radio stations also refused to play the controversial tune. Song fact: Lennon borrowed the title from an article he read entitled, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” in The American Rifleman. He said, “I thought it was so crazy that I made a song out of it.”
‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ –Peter, Paul and Mary
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea / And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee/ Little Jackie paper loved that rascal puff
In 1970, the Nixon Whitehouse kicked into high gear with a virulent anti-drug crusade. Vice President Spiro Agnew, leading the pack, addressed Republicans in a speech that was broadcast on radio and TV. He singled out 1960s artists who he claimed advocated drug use by (wait for it) quoting their lyrics. By December, the Illinois Crime Commission issued a list of “drug-oriented” rock songs. “Puff the Magic Dragon” made the list.
The words “puff” and “papers,” allegedly, referred to rolling joints, and “dragon” to taking a drag. Meanwhile, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, insists the 1963 song was never about drugs. He goes so far as to say he didn’t even know marijuana existed at the time of the song’s composition. It’s about the loss of innocence and the conclusion of childhood, according to the artist.
‘My Generation’ –The Who
Why don’t you all f-f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation) / And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say
Songs were banned by the busload during the radical Sixties. Change was bad, from the elders’ perspective. The Who’s debut album, My Generation, included the song that defined it with its titular track. It was offensive! Roger Daltrey sings that he’d rather die before he gets old (like his censors). It was the stutter in “Why don’t you all f-f-fade away” which seemed to imply an impending “f-word” that raised the ire of BBC officials. But since the word doesn’t develop, the broadcasting company claimed it offends people who stutter or stammer.
Pirate radio stations continued to play “My Generation,” and, eventually, it hit No. 2 on the U.K. charts. The real reason for the stammering in the song originated when Daltrey was attempting to read Pete Townshend’s lyrics for the first time. It had a groovy sound, so the band kept it.
‘Love to Love You Baby’ –Donna Summer
Do it to me again and again / You put me in such an awful spin, in a spin, in
Before disco music hit the pop charts, it gained popularity in gay dance clubs featuring D.J.s instead of bands. Donna Summer’s 1975 “Love to Love You Baby” was one of the first songs to make that transition. It hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. A more contentious transition occurred from clubs to the radio. The issue was not so much her lyrical content as the purported “orgasmic” audio material that critics bemoaned.
The BBC calculated 23 “orgasms” marked by “erotic moans,” while Time magazine called the 17-minute song “a marathon of 22 orgasms.” The sensuous sounds of breaths and moans on the recording gained further controversy as she had recorded the track laying on the floor in a dark studio. The BBC banned it immediately. When the Guardian interviewed her about the controversy, they said “everyone’s asking” if she touched herself. She replied, “Yes, well, actually, I had my hand on my knee.”
Oh, uh huh make it magnificent / Tonight right / Oh, your hair is beautiful / Oh, tonight, atomic
During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the BBC freaked out and banned 67 songs they considered too (potentially) sensitive during wartime. “Killing an Arab” by The Cure, I get it. But, why did Blondie’s 1979 hit “Atomic” register a possible 10.0 on their censorship Richter scale? Because of the word “atomic.”
Never mind that it’s a love song. Not even Clear Channel Communications thought to remove “Atomic” from radio play during their capricious war-ban.
‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ –Sex Pistols
I am an anti-Christ / I am an anarchist / Don’t know what I want / But I know how to get it / I want to destroy the passerby / ’Cause I want to be anarchy
By the time of the English punk band’s demise in 1978, the Sex Pistols had been banned on radio, banned on television, banned from live performance, and nixed by two separate record labels. EMI dropped them for using profanity on a live TV broadcast, and A&M proceeded to dump them after just six days. Too hot to handle, with nowhere else to go, iconic punks Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Pistols took their act to the U.S. It unraveled in S.F.
They produced just one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, released in 1977. “Anarchy in the U.K.” was its first release. The violent, anti-government nature of the song forced the band to defer releasing the rest of the album for a year. “God Save the Queen” was likewise banned from radio, but it still made it to No. 1 in the British charts.
‘Johnny Remember Me’ –John Leyton
When the mist’s a-rising / And the rain is falling / And the wind is blowing cold across the moor / I hear the voice of my darlin’ / The girl I loved and lost a year ago
John Leyton’s song “Johnny Remember Me” was released in 1961. The tune fell into the popular genre of the time called “death ditties.” These death-pop songs, fashionable like the “bell-bottoms” fad of the Sixties, featured morbid love-and-loss stories in pop music, which teens loved.
The phenomenon alarmed the expurgators. (Would those critics have banned Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as well?) The BBC banned “Johnny Remember Me.” It topped the U.K. singles chart at No. 1 and sold over half a million copies. Artist - 1, censors - 0.
‘I Want Your Sex’ –George Michael
Sex is natural / Sex is good / Not everybody does it / But everybody should!
The title, alone, of George Michael’s 1987 song, was enough to trigger a ban, and not because it was too suggestive. It is pretty clear. In fact, “I Want Your Sex” was the first pop song sporting the word “sex” in its title. The song by the former Wham! superstar is from Faith, his first solo album. It was banned during daytime hours on radio stations in the U.K. and the U.S. The single went platinum.
Despite Michael’s emphasis on monogamy in the music video, in an effort to be sensitive toward the AIDS crisis, MTV also banned it during daytime hours for promoting promiscuity. It took the No. 3 spot on the 2002 countdown of MTV’s Most Controversial Videos Ever to Air on MTV.
‘Glad to Be Gay’ –Tom Robinson Band
Don’t try to kid us that if you’re discreet / You’re perfectly safe as you walk down the street / You don’t have to mince or make bitchy remarks / To get beaten unconscious and left in the dark
Tom Robinson wrote “Glad to Be Gay” for a 1976 gay pride parade in London. In 1967, homosexuality had been decriminalized in the U.K., but society didn’t much notice. The song, performed by the punk/new wave Tom Robinson Band, criticizes attitudes in Margaret Thatcher’s England, and especially of the British police, who would raid gay pubs for no reason but bigotry.
It was released in 1978 on the band’s live Rising Free EP. Radio stations considered it too sensitive to play. BBC Radio 1 refused to broadcast it on its Top 40 Chart, but John Peel, the evening D.J., defied the ban and aired it. Today, the protest song inspired by the Sex Pistols has become an LGBT anthem in the U.K.
‘I Love a Man in a Uniform’ –Gang of Four
The girls they love to see you shoot / (bang-bang you’re dead) / I love a man in a uniform
The 1982 single “I Love a Man in a Uniform” by the post-punk band, Gang of Four, was banned for a ridiculous and ill-timed reason. The song, which was a chart-topper and popular in the gay community at clubs, admittedly contained militaristic and sexual double entendre according to the band, but it was banned for another reason.
From the post-ironically titled studio album, Songs of the Free, “I Love a Man in a Uniform” was stripped from radio playlists in the U.K. According to the band’s guitarist Andy Gill, a memo from the BBC that stated, “Do not play this song. We’re expecting to have to report casualties tonight. This song will not be played from now on, period,” began circulating. British troops were entering the Falklands War the following day.
‘Burn My Candle’ –Shirley Bassey
There’s ‘S’ for Scotch, that’s so direct / And for straight and simple sex / ‘I’ for invitation to, a close relationship with you / ‘N’ for nothing bad nor less / “S-I-N,” that’s sin, I guess
In the 1950s, when songs with incomprehensible lyrics were banned, just in case, for what they might be saying, Shirley Bassey’s song “Burn My Candle” was a no-brainer for the censors. It was the Welsh singer’s first single, recorded in 1956, when she was just 19 years old. The BBC censored it for its risqué suggestion.
Bassey was so young and naïve at the time, she claims that after the ban she was totally shocked, having had no idea what the song, written by Ross Parker, was about. It proved to be a minor blip in an otherwise illustrious career.
‘Jackie’ –Scott Walker
My record would be number one / And I’d sell records by the ton / All sung by many other fellows / My name would then be handsome Jack / And I’d sell boats of opium / Whiskey that came from Twickenham / Authentic queers and phony virgins
“Jackie” was released in 1967, the same year homosexuality between two men over the age of 21 (in private) was ruled legal in England. It wasn’t only the line about “authentic queers” top bosses at “Auntie” that BBC found too-obscene-to-spin. Drug references to an “opium den” and sexual language like “phony virgins” also caused the ban.
“Jackie” became the first song banned on the then-new Radio 1. The song by Jacques Brel was translated from French and recorded by Scott Walker as his first solo single.
‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ –Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
So let’s get to the point / Let’s roll another joint
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers received an industry-wide ban on his use of the word “joint” in “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Radio stations, MTV, and VH1 all altered the recording to remove the words “joint” or “roll”. MTV censored it by playing “joint” backward. It sounded strange, like “noojh.” In the end, “You Don’t Know How It Feels” won Best Male Video at MTV’s VMAs.
Petty said he was “elated” when the song was banned. The one exception was David Letterman’s show, where it was played in its entirety. The No. 1 hit song was released in 1994 on the studio album Wildflowers. However, as late as 2007, the song was censored during the Heartbreakers’ performance at Lollapalooza. R.I.P. Tom Petty.
‘Red Nation’ –The Game
I can’t tell ya what’s good, but I can tell ya what’s what / And that’s B’s up, hoes down / Lookin’ in the mirror, I know where to be found / Blood, I’m a dog, call me a blood hound / Throwin’ blood in the air, leave blood on the ground
“Red Nation” was banned for references to gang culture. Especially due to Game’s supposed affiliation with the infamous Los Angeles Bloods gang. Custom officials in Canada denied the American hip-hop artist and rapper entrance to the country citing his organized crime involvement.
The rap song was banned on radio, MTV and BET. As a result, the video racked up over 3 million views on YouTube that week. The rapper hopes more of his songs get banned. “Red Nation,” featuring Lil’ Wayne, received tons of free publicity. Since it wasn’t available on public broadcasts, fans went to stores or YouTube to check it out.
‘Rumble’ –Link Wray & His Ray Men
“Rumble” holds the unique distinction of being the only instrumental song ever banned from radio. Just the title was enough for the 1958 song to raise fears of an escalation of street fights and juvenile delinquency. Plus, it characterized a menacing new trend called “rock ‘n’ roll.” When Dick Clark introduced the song to American Bandstand viewers, he avoided naming the tune and carefully welcomed Link Wray and his band on the popular TV dance show.
The song by Link Wray & His Ray Men sounds a bit like Lou Reed sans lyrics. And it was revolutionary in its day for its use of distortion. Remarkably, Link Wray invented the fuzzbox by altering his amp to create the effect. This song became a huge hit. Song fact: “Rumble” is featured on Pulp Fiction.
‘Honey Love’ –The Drifters
I need it, I need it when the moon is bright / I need it, I need it when you hold me tight / I need it, I need it in the middle of the night/ I need your honey love
“Honey Love” was Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters second No. 1 hit single, but it wouldn’t be found in Memphis jukeboxes! Memphis, Tennessee police officers targeted the tune and seized all copies of the aberrant disk. The violation? Suggestive lyrics.
The word “it” in the lyrics of the peppy, Calypso-style, 1954 song were far too open for interpretation. Radio stations pulled it from playlists. According to Bill Pinkney, the last surviving member of the Drifters quintet, “The songs were clean, people’s minds were just in the gutter, they took it where they wanted to carry it.”
‘Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!’ –Dean Martin
I never knew what love would do ‘til I saw your smile / And when I did I flipped my lid and almost went plum wild / But now I know I’ll never show my love to anyone / ‘Cause wham bam you broke my heart and hope that you had fun
Dean Martin is known for hanging out with Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the hep-cat social group known as the Rat Pack. It’s not terribly surprising a song titled “Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!” would be banned from the radio in 1951, and that’s exactly what happened.
Technically, the offensive song is about a jilted lover who got dumped, but the radio gods deemed the lyrics too suggestive. Case closed. No trial.
‘Four or Five Times’ –Dottie O’Brien
What I like most is to have someone who is true / Who will love me, too / Four or five times / Four or five times / There is delight / To doing things right / Four or five times!
This 1951 oldie was faced the same fate, only more severely. It was banned by the FCC for being immoral. Most radio stations pulled it. The lyrics above were cited as evidence.
“Four or Five Times” was recorded four or five times since its first recording in 1928 by male artists. Radio stations played it without issue. But this version by female vocalist Dottie O’Brien caused an uproarious sensation. Suddenly, lyrics about “four or five times” were immoral, suggestive and illicit. Today? It’s too tame to play.