The broadcasters care about you. They really care. They are so keen to protect your delicate ears that any hint of profanity, obscenity or brand-name sodas must be removed immediately so that you never, ever hear it. Hence so many songs being on the “banned” list.
Banning songs has a rich history, and there was a time when being banned by the big broadcasters -like the BBC in the UK – meant that a single would die and fall out of the charts. Nowadays, with instant downloads, the radio stations don’t have the power they used to have. Even if a song is banned from every radio and TV station in the world, you’d still be able to find it somewhere on the internet. So it’s with a hint of nostalgia that we present the Top 10 Banned Songs.
10. My Generation – The Who
The 1960s were the golden age of banning songs – music was becoming ever more controversial and at the same time, broadcasters were run by people born in the 1920s, with 1950s morals. It was a clash that was bound to end in heavy censorship, especially in Britain where the ex-public schoolboys that ran the BBC cringed at the very mention of rebellion.
And along came The Who, who were exactly the kind of band engineered to upset those BBC types. With Keith Moon drumming insanely, and legendary parties that ended up with TVs being thrown out of windows, The Who thrilled teenagers and upset teenagers’ parents. So, it didn’t take much to get a single banned, and “My Generation” had it all – a rebellious message, some fake swearing and a tic that was bound to offend stammerers. Yes, it was the last bit that got it banned. The line “Won’t you all just f-f-f-fade away” was seen to be offensive not because it sounded like he was saying “Won’t you all just f*** off?” (a version often shouted by fans), but because stammerers might be upset. That’s 1960s BBC logic!
9. Strange Fruit – Billie Holliday
A very early example of a song being banned, Billie Holliday recorded this song in 1939 and not even her own producer would work with her on it – instead, she had a one-day release from her contract in order to record it with another producer. It was the subject matter that was controversial – an account of a lynching in the Deep South that left “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” It was instantly banned by all the Southern radio stations, although it went on to become massively successful. A short, strange and disturbing song indeed but an important issue and a brave one for a black singer to tackle when segregation was still very much in force.
8. Lola – The Kinks
In contrast to the rebellious Who, the Kinks were relatively radio-friendly, with their sweet ballads about sunsets at Waterloo and songs about lazing on sunny afternoons. Then along came this 1970 tune about an encounter with a person who “walked like a woman and talked like a man” in Soho. The subtext wasn’t particularly subtle -”I’m a man, I’m a man and so is Lola” – but it wasn’t the transvestite references that earned the song s temporary ban.
No, it was the brand name in the second line “Where they drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola”. As a strictly non-commercial station, the BBC was forbidden to mention brand names and to this day, any products shown on their preschooler channel have stickers over the brands. Ray Davies flew in from America to re-record the line so that the champagnes tasted like “cherry cola” and all was well with the BBC again.
7. Paper Planes – M.I.A.
Just to prove that song banning wasn’t only in force during the 60s, here’s a modern example of a song that fell foul of the censors. There are a few reasons why the song might have caused controversy – the chorus sounds suspiciously like “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-n-Effect, on top of a sample from The Clash’s “Straight to Hell”. So, it wasn’t entirely original, or credited but it was the lyrical content that caused controversy, with the song being banned in Sri Lanka for appearing to support the Tamil cause, against the Sinhalese. American-Sinhalese rapper DeLon said she was “supporting terrorism” by using the symbol of the Tamil Tigers and the song was censored on MTV. An admirable political stance and the the publicity didn’t damage M.I.A.’s sales at all.
6. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – Beatles
What could possible be controversial about a father singing about his son’s picture? Well, the problems might occur when the father is a famous drug user and the picture happens to have the same initials as a prominent psychedelic drug. John Lennon always claimed that the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a picture that his son Julian drew of his friend Lucy, in the sky with (you’ve guessed it)…diamonds! The psychedelic imagery throughout the song didn’t go unnoticed by the censors and it was banned by the BBC. If only it had been “Betty in the Bush with Conkers” – they couldn’t have argues with those initials!
5. Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Now onto the thorny and very un-British subject of sex. “Relax….when you wanna come” sang the band from Liverpool and earned themselves a ban from the BBC on the basis of obscenity. The DJ Mike Read was the first to notice the sexual imagery on the sleeve and take it off the turntable live on air. The subsequent ban ensured the record shot to number 1 and stayed there for 5 weeks.
The song later featured in the film “Zoolander“, where it was used as a trigger to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Now, THAT’S controversial!
4. Je T’aime…Moi non plus – Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin
Another song that was deemed too sexy for the radio, this was first recorded by Gainsbourg and his then girlfriend Brigette Bardot, although Bardot’s husband unsurprisingly objected and the song wasn’t released until 1986. The first released version, in 1969, featured Birkin and her suggestive heavy breathing, which prompted rumors of lewd goings-on during recording sessions. It was banned by several countries and even Gainsbourg’s native France wouldn’t play it before 11PM. Again, the publicity only helped and it reached number 1 in the UK.
3. Tell Laura I Love Her – Ray Peterson
From the sexy to the dreary, this was the tale of wimpy Laura and her speed-demon boyfriend Tommy who dies in a firey crash while trying to win the money for an engagement ring. Remarkable for featuring a man able to sing an entire chorus in his “dying breath”, the record didn’t win over the executives at Decca who decided it was “tasteless and vulgar” and ordered the destruction of the 20,000 copies already pressed. A rival label rushed out a cover version and it went to number 1 for 3 weeks. Bet they regretted that! (Executives at Decca were later to reject the Beatles as well – their decision making skills probably needed a review). It also sparked a host of other teen morbidity songs, including “Teen Angel” and “Leader of the Pack”.
2. God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols
While many of these bands may have been surprised to find their hard work dismissed, that can’t be said about the Sex Pistols. A band who went out of their way to shock and alarm (even swearing on live TV), recording a song about the “fascist regime” of the Queen in her Silver Jubilee year was a quick ticket to being banned. Using the Queen’s image on the sleeve only sealed the deal. The single would have got to number 1 but chart fixing ensured it stayed at number 2 and saved the BBC the embarrassment of having to play or mention it on “Top of the Pops”. What’s that they were saying about a fascist regime? Looks like they might have had a point….!
1. Smack My Bitch Up – Prodigy
Another song that surprised no-one by getting banned in 1997. The title alone was enough to get it censored – a borderline swear word that was offensive and degrading to women, and the implied approval of domestic violence. What very few people pointed out was that it was also a pretty weak song, compared to the other singles from “Fat of the Land“.
Still, the furore over the lyrics continued. It was banned from the BBC and only a lyric-free version played, and TV shows refused to show the song title in their chart countdowns. It peaked at Number 8 in the UK although it hit Number 1 in Finland. The group defended the title, saying it was about “doing anything intensely”, although the video showed drugs, violence towards women and sex with strippers all from a first person perspective…which is later revealed to be a woman. It won praise from some quarters for the way it subverted the stereotype but most just focused on the numerous ban-able things contained in it. Generally, an exercise in how to offend just about everyone without achieving anything.