It’s Donna Summer at the moment, but the Beatles, Stones even Lena Horne have all run into radio censorship. So this week, MM examines that select group of banned discs
ROCK MUSIC, says David Bowie, is the devil’s music. Evil and nasty. Bowie has always been one for extreme stances, but ever since Elvis caused an outrage by moving in a provocative manner, rock music has been under close scrutiny from an establishment convinced of its subversiveness.
The changing moral attitudes that have occurred in the last ten years don’t appear to be portrayed in music, the evidence suggesting that the BBC has eased its standards very little in deciding permissibility.
The case in the news at present concerns a black American singer called Donna Summer and her single, ‘Love To Love You Baby’, which the BBC are declining to play (they never actually “ban” a record).
The lyrics are tame, and the controversy has been caused by a bout of heavy breathing, intriguingly explained away by Donna as being exaggerated through suffering from an unpleasant toothache.
Radio Luxembourg must be delighted it has become a hit as they’re the one station who came out unequivocally in support of the record.
The BBC’s Charles McLelland explains that it’s unsuitable for family listening, but there’s no bar on it being played in the evenings — yet Radio One gets very little airplay in the evening. London’s Capital Radio have adopted a similar attitude.
The single is certainly less explicit than the Jane Birkin hit, ‘Je T’aime’, which was also banned, but the dubiousness of the BBC’s banning policy is not particularly in the act of banning but in the sheer inconsistency of it.
In the current chart there are two examples of records which, by their ambiguity, are as suggestive as the Summer disc — ‘We Do It’ by R&J Stone (“what a lovely record that Is” — Tony Blackburn) in which the happy couple blissfully tell us they do it “every night, every day, every possible way,” and the Who’s ‘Squeeze Box’ which drips with double meanings.
“Only people with dirty ‘minds could read anything into that,” John Entwistle has said of ‘Squeeze Box’, while RCA describe ‘We Do It’ as “a tasteful love song.”
Lord of the banned record is Judge Dread, who proudly tells us he’s had 12 singles and three albums banned by the BBC.
As well as Judge’s reggae rudery, 10cc are among the most prolific offenders. They started their career in being banned with ‘Rubber Bullets’, followed it with ‘Worst Band In The World’, and are currently in trouble with ‘Head Room’ from their new album How Dare You! whose theme of masturbation has received a firm “no” from Capital Radio.
There are basically six categories in which records may conflict with the BBC’s idea of moral standards: sex, politics, drugs, bad taste, death and commercialism, all of which have had the chop from the BBC on various occasions.
The whole thing is made comical, not by the records that are banned but the ones whose lyrical content is ignored, and still get played when they are often far more offensive than the others. Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ broke every code of good taste going by referring directly to transvestites, homosexuals, prostitution, male prostitution, and hard drugs — the lot.
The BBC played it frequently without a blush.
We attempt here to give as thorough a list as possible of those records refused a hearing on the radio, bearing in mind that a great number of potentially offensive but obscure songs, particularly album tracks, were never even considered for airplay in the first place.
The feature wouldn’t be complete, however, without some comment on one of the most celebrated “dirty” discs of the lot — ‘Wet Dream’ by Jamaican reggae singer Max Romeo.
For ingenuity, Romeo’s explanation of what the song was about deserves some sort of award, and is worth repeating here. Please bear in mind the title and the fact that the main lyric of the song was Romeo repeatedly grunting “push it up, push it up.”
“It’s not a dirty song at all. It’s only immoral people who think it is dirty. I never had any bad ideas when I wrote the song. I dreamt that I was asleep, lying with my girlfriend, and it was raining, and the roof leaked, and I got wet.
“That was what I meant by ‘Wet Dream’. And then I asked my girl to move over so I could get a stick and push something up into the roof and keep the rain out.”
Mary Whitehouse, secretary of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, hasn’t listened to ‘Love To Love You Baby’, but when informed it was the one with the heavy breathing she said she’d heard about it. She thought the association had received complaints about it but considered that if the BBC had banned it they must have a very good reason.
“This is something that recurs from time to time — not regularly, but every so often we receive complaints about a certain record and we follow it up from there and take it to the appropriate authority.
“We’re not here to ferret things out. We haven’t got time to sit listening to every programme on pop music, waiting for something we thought would be undesirable.
“Certainly not recently, when we’ve been so involved with the Linda Lovelace thing and the other things.
“In recent times I think Top Of The Pops has been much more middle of the road and there have been less complaints in general recently. People are very much more alert than they are given credit for.
“There seems to be less offence than there was a few years ago when you had Jerry Reubens (sic) and the rest of it going. I’ve not time, anyway, for the money-making exploiters who use sex for profit — that’s a really sordid business.
“When there’s ambiguity it’s much more difficult, and the trouble is where ambiguity is concerned, nobody is allowed to have a clean mind if they try.
“Regarding politics, there are some certain hard and fast rules the BBC must adhere to. They’re not allowed to broadcast politically-motivated material — if they do they’re asking for trouble.
“The problem here is that the individual producer or dee-jay may himself not be aware of the danger. I’m all for the BBC and ITV drawing a very clean line on this.
“And when you have a record about death, it depends solely on how you treat it. Some of our great poetry has dealt with death and there’s nothing wrong if it is done in the right way. It’s the same as sex, isn’t it? They’re essential parts of life.”
“Oh my God,” groaned Charles McLelland, controller of BBC Radio One and Two, when the name of Donna Summer was brought to his attention.
“It’s a bit more complicated than you might imagine,” he said. “The official policy with records of this nature is, there is no policy — each one is judged purely and simply on its own merits.
“Sometimes there are 80 singles a week released, and you can’t have a policy on all of them. Every record is treated on its own individual merits.
“We certainly never use the word ‘ban’, anyway. With the Donna Summer record, I merely said I considered the record unsuitable for family listening. The sex bit was far too overt.
“I mean it’s… it’s… SIMULATED ORGASM, there’s no doubt about that. There’s nothing to stop the record being played at suitable times when there will not be a family audience — that’s up to the individual producers.
“Basically, with all records we leave it up to the sense and responsibility of the individual producer to decide whether a record is suitable for playing.
“After all, he’s a pro, and by and large that’s how it’s dealt with, but in the Donna Summer case one or two brought it to me themselves to ask for a directive. I don’t think ‘We Do It’ or ‘Squeeze Box’ are comparable.
“It’s all in the mind, really. If you have a dirty mind then, yes, you will make those assumptions about the records, but there’s absolutely no doubt about what’s supposed to be happening on the Donna Summer record.
“If a record is basically offensive to a family audience, then it shouldn’t be played to a family audience. The Donna Summer record is offensive, I think, whereas there’s nothing inherently offensive about the others.
“You’ve got tohave a real dirty mind to find them offensive, but the Donna Summer one is noise… orgasm noise. But there’s certainly no blanket ban, and that goes for records about sex, violence, politics, whatever.
Dick Leahy, head of GTO Records, the company which released the Donna Summer record, is quite unmoved by all the controversy surrounding it. Asked for his reaction to the ban he says: “I don’t think I’ve got a reaction.”
He continued: “It’s just been banned by one section of the media. People censor films which restricts the number of people who can see the film, and we’ve got a similar situation with this record. Radio One banning it has more or less given it an X-certificate.
“I don’t care, I really don’t. It can’t harm sales — you only need to sell to one per cent of the population to get a gold disc, apart from exceptions like the Queen record, and I don’t see any need to go crazy just because the BBC put a ban on this single.”
Graham Gouldman of 10cc is disappointed about the Capital Radio ban on ‘Head Room’, as he feels the subject is dealt with in a tasteful, artistic manner.
“The thing is, what you don’t know won’t harm you. The BBC used to play ‘Walk On The Wild Side,’ which referred to lots of things, and it’s really silly they should ban the Donna Summer record. We all know what she’s doing and that she hasn’t just got bad toothache, and if some people find it erotic, good for them.
“It’s like on ‘Head Room,’ saying ‘a flick of the wrist would do.’ We all know what it means — you’ve done it, I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, but a kid probably wouldn’t understand it, so where’s the harm?
“I don’t think you suffer too much if a record is banned. In some cases it can enhance it and give it an air of mystique. I certainly can’t see anything wrong with commenting on a political situation. This is part of our job.”
Radio Luxembourg has a more relaxed attitude to the subject of questionable records. Said Ken Evans, head of the English language service: “When it comes down to it we endeavour to maintain a very open policy. We did not ban either ‘Je t’aime’ or ‘Love To Love You Baby.’ I find nothing at all objectionable in the Donna Summer record…”
He believes that material of a similar nature is widely available through television and literature and has played both on Luxembourg.
In fact, the only records he remembers having been thought unsuitable are Judge Dread’s various epics: “The lyrics are quite blatant. We decided not to feature them.”
Records with “four letter words” are, however, “a different story.” The use of “language which might be offensive to our audience,” he says, “is usually blatant and totally unnecessary.”
Politics, again, are unacceptable: “We are here to entertain.”
Not so with London’s Capital Radio. Programme controller Aidan Day told MM:”We feel, and quite rightly so in my opinion, that certain records are not suitable for the majority of our audience. Personally, I should be most perturbed if my son heard the Donna Summer record.
“We have a responsibility to our listeners, and we consider that this record is only suitable for programming at times when mainly adults will be listening.
“It’s a question of opinion whether you think ‘We Do It’ is specifically about sex. In my opinion it’s suitable for us.
“10cc’s ‘Head Room’ will not be played. We would not consider playing it. I heard the record and formed the opinion that it is unsuitable for general programming.”
Politics are also out.
But another commercial station, Radio Clyde, had another view: “We’ve not banned the Donna Summer record. We’ve played it a fair number of times, though we’ve played it at hours when we think mainly adults will be listening. We have to consider younger listeners and it is a delicate matter, and it becomes a slight problem when we have programmes which are designed to feature records which are currently in the charts which the kids usually listen to,” said programme controller Andy Park.
Prime cut here is ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ recorded by Ricky Valance, which was re-released last year. It’s a classical tale of an accident victim who with his dying breath manages to break into a spirited, fully arranged chorus.
‘Suicide Is Painless’ by The Mash is an interesting one, originally featured in the Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould movie M.A.S.H., it was used by the BBC as the theme for the subsequent television series. But they made quite sure it was an instrumental, after the vocal version had been played one night on the Night Ride radio programme and a listener complained that it was “morbid and might induce someone who is depressed to commit suicide.”
Another famous death disc was ‘Teen Angel’ by Mark Dinning which was the classic romantic, traumatic horror song.
The Ones That Got Away: ‘Leader Of The Pack’ by the Shangri-Las is THE definitive pop death disc.
It tells of boyfriend disapproved by her family because he’s from “the wrong side of town,” parents bar HIM from seeing HER, he rides his motorbike off in a rage, crashes and dies.
Caused quite a rumpus first time round, but was never actually banned, and made the chart again last year with barely a whimper.
There was also Twinkle’s epic, ‘Terry’ whose fate ran a similar violent course to the leader of the pack. Jan & Dean made a record called ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ and the Everly Brothers’ ‘Ebony Eyes’ dealt directly with death, albeit in a mushy manner.
The Beeb don’t seem to mind death too much, and most references to it tend to be in the remote manner of ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leyton. Recently we’ve had ‘Honey’ by Bobby Goldsboro and Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons In The Sun’, where the romanticism heavily outweighed any unsavouriness of the actual death.
Drug discs reached their height during the late Sixties at the tail end of flower power and there have been few in recent years. References to drugs are usually oblique and it took the Beeb quite a time to become conscious that drugs were being freely referred to in pop music. The Sergeant Pepper album probably signalled the real dawn and they banned the Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ on the grounds of phrases like “turn you on,” “had a smoke” and “went into a dream.” Drugs became almost a symbol of the underground radio. ‘A Day In The Life’ was significantly the last record ever played on Radio London, and the pirates freely played discs like ‘My Friend Jack’ by Smoke, where the mention of drugs wasn’t even thinly disguised. There were several popular records at that time that the BBC declined to play: ‘Eight Miles High’ by the Byrds, ‘Amphetamine Annie’ by Canned Heat, and a little later ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by the Rolling Stones, ‘Have A Whiff On Me’ by Mungo Jerry, and ‘High Again’ by Daddy Longlegs.
The exact reason for the ban on Wing’ ‘Hi Hi Hi’ is unclear, but it seems likely to be on the ground’s of inciting dope smoking, although it also contains references to Paul’s “body-gun” which could, of course, mean several things.
Most curious of all the bans in this section is Radio Two’s refusal to play the Kings Singers’ version of Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ because somebody apparently spotted a reference to a drug.
The Ones That Got Away: The Beeb may have discovered drugs in song with Sgt Pepper but they still missed ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’.
The Cole Porter song ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ caused a bit of a stink when it was revived by Gary Shearston last year, but it was played, even with the line about cocaine.
Many consider Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’ to be a drugs song but even if that wasn’t, the B-side ‘The Trip’ certainly was.
If you sing it sweetly with tasteful arrangement nobody’s gonna suspect anything odd and listen to it too closely — hence ‘Red Balloon’ written by Tim Hardin and recorded by numerous others never gets a second glance — but it’s about drugs right enough.
Others that got through despite their direct reference to drug experiences include the Jimi Hendrix hit ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Cold Turkey’ by the Plastic Ono Band. Oh, and then there’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.
The media are, perhaps understandably, extremely touchy about politics in songs. It may be everyone’s right, and particularly an artist’s right, to comment about a political situation, but there’s always the spectre of the government over the shoulder.
The most famous political ban is Wings’ ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’. Released in 1972, it made number 16 in the UK chart and 21 in America but despite the horrified reaction it attempted to convey no real message beyond steady repetition of the title.
On Pick Of The Pops Alan Freeman didn’t even say the title, describing it as “a single by Wings.”
Soon after came ‘Let The People Go’ by McGuinness Flint which offered a similar sentiment and was accorded a similar brush-off by the media.
Just to prove it wasn’t the argument they were specifically banning, they also refused to play ‘Soldier’ by Harvey Andrews, which in tidy detail described how a British soldier was blown to pieces as he saved some Irish families from a bomb.
The ban on ‘Idi Amin’ by John Bird was predictable enough, coming at the time of an Englishman under a death threat from Amin. Sending up a political leader isn’t something that’s likely to get much sympathy from the BBC under any circumstances, and certainly not when it concerns someone of Amin’s sensitivity.
Similarly Jim Capaldi’s ‘Tricky Dicky Rides Again’ which came at the time of Watergate, and ‘Ballad Of The Green Berets’ by Sgt Barry Sadler were also banned.
10cc’ s ‘Rubber Bullets’ was probably banned through a mixture of political and bad taste reasons, including lines like “balling in the street” in addition to its descriptions of violence and homicide.
The Ones That Got Away: Considering the BBC is so sensitive about comments on the Irish situation it is surprising that they should happily play Allan Taylor’s ‘Belfast ’71’ and not ‘Soldier’.
The BBC’s answer at the time was that this song made no particular stand on the situation and merely commented about the sadness of it all.
Roy Harper has recorded a song called ‘All Ireland’ which hasn’t been officially banned, but includes the line “Goodbye free Ireland.”
Dylan’s ‘George Jackson’ and The Johnstons’ ‘Angela Davis’ were passed without a murmur, presumably on the basis that the case of George Jackson, however high feelings were running in America, was a comparatively remote situation here and not the slightest bit inflammatory.
But political censorship of songs is the most dangerous and thinnest line of all. Isn’t John Lennon making a political statement when he sings ‘Give Peace A Chance’?
In 1972 there was a record called ‘The Miners Song’ by John & The City Lights, which was sympathetic to the striking miners and that wasn’t banned.
Funniest ban of the lot was when the BBC decided not to play ‘Rock Around The Rock’ by a band from Gilbraltar called Buddy, released on their own Beeb label. A press release issued by the label had said the record would be getting airplay support from their own station; but that wasn’t quite cricket, so in the face of the howl of favouritism, they placed a ban on themselves.
Naturally Dr Hook have to get mention somewhere and the inevitable ban came with the ‘Cover Of Rolling Stone’ single, after which the record company dubbed in “Radio Times” in place of the offending “Rolling Stone”.
But they needn’t have bothered. It still wasn’t played.
The Kinks had trouble with ‘Lola’ and it wasn’t played until they changed one of the lyrics from “Coca-Cola” to “cherry cola”.
And in 1973 a single was released called ‘Team Lotus Sings’ by the Lotus racing car mechanics to celebrate Emerson Fittipaldi’s victory in the racing drivers’ championship. Seems they referred to their sponsors John Player a little too much.
The New Seekers’ ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ was disallowed by ITV because it used the tune of the Coca Cola advertisement, but the BBC didn’t mind.
On the basis of the Lotus Team record being banned, we should do away with Chelsea Football Club’s ‘Blue Is The Colour’ and all the other football songs.
And going to the extreme, you could also say that Sylvia’s ‘Y Viva Espana’, which extolled the virtues of Spain, was doing a fantastic advertising job for the Spanish Tourist Board.
Being such a popular pastime, sex naturally gets pride of place in the banned records league. Donna Summer may be the dark lady of the hour, but she follows a long list of artists who have been deemed to have threatened the code of public decency.
Intriguingly, the records show that among the early offenders was Lena Horne with ‘I Love To Love’ in 1955, which contained nothing too outrageous lyrically but was sung by Miss Horne in a way that was described at the time as “torrid.”
Number one in the sex charts, though, is undoubtedly ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)’, which has appeared in the chart under three different guises, all of them banned.
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s is the best known version, Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield sent it up but were still banned, and the infamous Judge Dread resurrected it last year.
The Birkin-Gainsbourg version was also re-released last year, was banned again by the BBC and again made the chart. First time round the Birkin version was withdrawn by Philips when it was at number two, only to be taken over by Major Minor and go to number one.
There have been various other heavy breathers between ‘Je T’aime’ and ‘Love To Love You Baby’. One that was barred was ‘Jungle Fever’ By The Chakachas in 1972 and ‘Wet Dream’ by Max Romeo, of course, another notorious one, but it failed to make any impact when it was re-released last year.
In the Sixties, the Four Pennies (who had a number one with ‘Juliet’) had their version of the traditional song ‘Black Girl’ banned, apparently because of the inference of the line “Black girl, where did you sleep last night?”
At that time the Beeb were very touchy about who slept where and also took objection to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’.
After playing ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely?’ three hundred times a day, it must have come as a sore disappointment to the establishment to find even nice Peter Sarstedt resorting to nasty filthy sex for his subject material and they gave his ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ a definite cold shoulder.
The Ones That Got Away: Sex has always been open to ambiguity. When Bob Dylan sang ‘I Want You’ there were a hundred things he could have wanted so bad.
But if the current example of ‘Squeeze Box’ and ‘We Do It’ is any criterion, it seems that as long as you leave the slightest room for doubt and don’t reach orgasm you’ll be okay.
Thus the thumbs up was given to the “torrid” sounds of Shirley Bassey and ‘Kiss Me Honey Honey’.
Even that epitome of sobriety Doris Day moaned “Make love to me” several times during ‘Move Over Darling’ and Reg Presley growled at his most evil on The Troggs’ ‘Give It To Me’. Sylvia’s ‘Pillow Talk’ was another heavy breather last year.
Dubliners’ 1967 hit ’Seven Drunken Nights’ even in its amended, comparitively mild state, must have come under close scrutiny.
There’s also blue-eyed clean-cut American Bobby Goldsboro and ‘Summer (The First Time)’.
But if it’s sex you want, in various forms, try ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ again.
King of this section is Napoleon XIV with his one-off hit ‘They’re Comin’ To Take Me Away Ha Ha’ which was a jokey look at madness.
There’s little doubt that it was offensive to anyone who has suffered from mental illness, but the pirates were then at their height and gave it all the exposure it needed.
The pirates, however, weren’t entirely without their prejudices and Radio London declined to play ‘Arnold Layne’ by the Pink Floyd, which was loosely about transvestitism.
Procol Harum ran into trouble with ‘Souvenir Of London’, a song that obliquely referred to an unspeakable antisocial disease, and Playboy magazine won a bit of publicity when one of their cartoonists Shel Silverstein brought out a record called ‘Stacey Brown Got Two’ in 1973, which got a few plays until the Beeb realized exactly what it was Stacey had been endowed with.
The Rolling Stones never stood a chance with ‘Star Star’ from their Goat’s Head Soup album, repeating a naughty word more than thirty times.
Dear old Cliff Richard banned himself last year when he finally realised what his single ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ was about.
The Kinks’ ‘Plastic Man’ was banned because it contained the phrase “plastic bum” and American country singer Don Bowman’s record of ‘Hello DJ’ wasn’t played because of certain words.
Similarly, John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ and ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ didn’t comply with decent public standards.
“Leap Up And Down (Wave Your Knickers In The Air)” by St Cecilia became a disco hit but received no BBC airplay even though the content of the song was harmless enough, while the barrage of Judge Dread records, ‘Big Six’ and the rest were banned on the grounds of bad taste.
10cc’s ‘Worst Band In The World’ was banned because of a word they didn’t say.
The Ones That Got Away: ‘Doctor’s Orders’ by Sunny may have seemed tame enough but it got a rough ride from Radio Two, who would only play it without the spoken intro, which had Sunny sultrily telling her loved one she’d been to the doctor because of a pain deep inside.
If pregnancy is taboo, then Paul Anka and ‘Having My Baby’ should never have been played.
If St Cecilia can be banned for inciting ladies to wave their knickers in the air, perhaps The Beatles were lucky to get away with ‘I Am The Walrus’ and the line about “You’ve been a naughty girl you’ve let your knickers down.”
Diana Ross trod dangerously with ‘Love Child’ in 1968 and again with her follow-up ‘Living In Shame’ and O. C. Smith touchingly recalled how his mother became a prostitute to give her children a good living in ‘Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, also in 1968.
The Amazing Rhythm Aces gleefully described a sordid one-night affair on ‘Third Rate Romance’ without official retribution, and for gruesome detail the 1969 hit ‘Ruby’ by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition (“It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralysed”) takes some beating.
The Coasters’ 1959 hit ‘Poison Ivy’ has been taken by some as a direct reference to veneral disease and would never have got through if the Beeb had suspected likewise, while Bob Dylan’s ‘George Jackson’ was played complete with an unrespectable word.
In this section the most notorious escapee must be Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, a novelty record that was more than slightly risqué. The BBC showed commendable broadmindness to let that one go, and it brought a tirade from Mary Whitehouse who thought it encouraged masturbation, and worse than that… MUTUAL masturbation!
The record was banned by ITV but given generous airplay by the BBC.
© uncredited writer, Melody Maker, 21 February 1976