One incalculable and oft-forgotten benefit of living in North America is our relatively free access to music. Even in my youth, before the internet showed up and turned censorship into a half-hearted punchline, there wasn’t a lot of music getting yanked off the air due to supposed indecency. Over in England, where the tyrannical finger of the BBC has been perpetually poised over the virtual Bleep Button for as long as there has been radio, things are much different.
The list of songs banned by the BBC over the years omits many of the obvious culprits; you won’t find N.W.A.’s “Fuck The Police” on this list, nor will Body Count’s “Cop Killer” make the cut. Eminem is absent, as is anything else from the last thirty years. I can understand that – maybe they evolved. I can even comprehend songs like the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk To Fuck” making this list. But why the BBC felt so threatened by some of these tracks is a mystery to me.
Were they worried that British people were that fragile? Did the BBC fear the collapse of polite society through the barrel of a controversial pop song?
In 1930 The New Yorkers premiered on Broadway, featuring the song “Love For Sale,” about a prostitute. Cole Porter’s little slice of musical debauchery was controversial all over the world due to its subject matter, but the BBC slapped an all-out ban on it. Perhaps they feared that the melody was so infectious, it would lead thousands of young British lasses to believe that becoming a hooker was a catchy and jazz-centric career path.
Okay, Pink Floyd did a lot of drugs in the late 60’s, and this may have leaked slightly into their musical output. But their first controversy with the BBC had nothing to do with suggestively druggish overtones, despite the fact that the censors were targeting anything that sounded even remotely pro-narcotic (see the Beatles entry below). The Floyd ran into trouble over branding, not bonging.
The BBC had a strict rule in place against advertising in song. So when the wretchedly jaunty single “It Would Be So Nice” rolled into their executive offices featuring a single lyric about the Evening Standard newspaper, the censors pulled out their trusty red markers and drew a thick red ‘X’ on the record.
For context, Pink Floyd’s first (and much more successful) single, “Arnold Layne”, was backed with a B-side called “Candy And A Currant Bun”, which was allowed on BBC radio. That song – originally titled “Let’s Roll Up Another One” – features the lyric: “Oh don’t talk with me; please just fuck with me.” No ban on that one.
The no-brand-name clause also pulled the Kinks’ “Lola” off the playlist. It may have been a huge mega-hit, but it wasn’t the cross-dressing subject matter that irked the BBC; it was the reference to “Coca-Cola.” Ray Davies had to interrupt the Kinks’ American tour to fly back to London to re-record the line as “cherry cola” so that the song would play.
In the early 1960s, the BBC loved the Beatles. The group had provided legitimacy for all those British teens who had spent hours dancing in front of their mirrors, dreaming of the big-time. But by 1967, the Beatles were degenerating into the prevailing drug culture, defecating upon their legacy of lovable pop songs. ‘How dare they,’ said the BBC, before unleashing a series of bans.
“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” contains dream-like lyrics that may or may not have stemmed from one of John Lennon’s drug-induced hallucinations. But the initials in the title are LSD, so clearly the song is evil. “A Day In The Life”, the closing track on the unquestionably demonic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, includes the lyrics “I’d love to turn you on.” Might be about sex, might be about drugs. Who cares? Ban it. “I Am The Walrus”? I don’t know what’s going on in those lyrics, but they must contain something nefarious. Ban it.
Some of the songs on this list are indicated as ‘banned during the Gulf War.’ These include Lennon’s “Imagine”, which was pulled off the air because of the line “Imagine no religion.” Ironically, had the world purged itself of organized religion there wouldn’t have been a Gulf War to fight in the first place.
Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” was banned, probably because that mighty drum fill in the middle was known to incite violent air-drumming and start street brawls.
Jose Feliciano’s cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” was banned during the war, because mellow acoustic covers of pop songs were known to lead to severe Quaalude abuse. Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” got no airplay during the war, likely because the BBC felt that “Hot Legs” was a better choice to rally the troops. The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” was also banned because the BBC wasn’t really clear on who England was fighting in that general region, and they wanted to play it safe, in case it happened to involve Egypt.
Louis Armstrong shows up on this list, as does Bobby Darin for their interpretations of “Mack The Knife” from The Threepenny Opera. Too violent, and it caused too many Brits to become sharks. Can’t have that.
Cab Calloway’s “Minnie The Moocher” was banned, no doubt because it has been proven that jazz scatting leads to deranged behavior. Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was banned by the BBC because… nope, I can’t even make something up for this one. This just makes no sense.
The Wikipedian text doesn’t explain why no songs beyond the early 80s appear on this list. Perhaps the children of the 60s who watched the public radio Goliath sprinkle bans on playlists like butter globs onto crumpets (is that how the English eat crumpets?), took over the reins and fought for change.
Maybe they realized that a pop song was a poor weapon to erode a soul. Apart from a curiously misguided mission to protect the masses from nothing during the Gulf War, I’m hoping this trend is done. Just in time for my debut single release, “Drugs, Communism & Pepsi.”