Love them or hate them, the BBC and British radio history go hand-in-hand.
The British Broadcasting Corporation is at the heart of radio’s story throughout the United Kingdom. At first, the BBC was the company to introduce us to broadcasting as we know it today. However, they were also the giants that prevented listeners from finding the new and experimental sounds that they so desperately craved.
As the broadcasters of the people, the BBC has always strived to uphold consistent, and sometimes antiquated ideas of “public decency”. For many years, this has meant either censoring songs that seemed too “risqué” for everyday consumption or banning music entirely.
Scandalous songs packed full of lyrics about sex, politics, drugs, violence and even religion have all been removed from the airwaves over the years. However, that hasn’t necessarily stopped those tunes from gaining a following. Pirate radio stations and other broadcasters outside of the law have always found a way to give music lovers their taste of forbidden fruit.
To celebrate the freedom of expression in all music, we thought we’d create a list of some of the most compelling banned songs from the radio.
Here, you’ll learn why each tune was removed from the airwaves, and what makes it so controversial at the time.
Why were songs banned by the BBC?
For years, the BBC was more than just the group with a complete monopoly over British broadcasting. The BBC was also responsible for making sure that the public in the UK got the entertainment and information that they wanted in a reliable and welcome manner. To some extent, this meant removing anything from broadcasting that was deemed to be too upsetting to the average public.
Taking on the role of the “Nation’s auntie”, the BBC created the Dance Music Policy Committee in the 1930s. Though the group’s name might sound a little silly, they took their job of censorship extremely seriously. One statement from the Committee’s directive in 1942 informed listeners that the BBC weren’t just getting rid of songs that featured drugs and violence. The group were also excluding songs that were rife with “Sickly sentimentality” which they found to be “Nauseating” or not in keeping with the needs of the UK public.
Over the years, Auntie BBC’s approach to censored songs has often been confusing, and even infuriating at times. While a lot of families and listeners can understand the need to ban songs from the public radio that might cause upset or offence, some music ended up being banned because it was too commercial, too loud, or just a bit too “Soppy”. At one point, the theme song from “The Man with the Golden Arm” was banned from the airwaves, despite being a completely innocent instrumental piece. The tune joined a growing list of banned songs, simply because the film it came from was about drugs.
At the same time, there have been some songs on the air that have continued to broadcast despite taboo subjects and topics. In the 70s, Mary Whitehouse tried to get countless songs banned from the BBC. She failed to get the “My Ding-a-ling” song by Chuck Berry removed from the airwaves, but she was easily able to get “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper banned instead.
Of course, simply banning songs on the radio has never been enough to stop the music from capturing the hearts and minds of a generation. As we saw with the rise of pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline, the British masses will always be drawn to any entertainment or information that’s deemed too “risqué” for them. In fact, many of the songs banned from the radio today achieved an even greater pop culture status because they were banned.
15 of the best songs that were banned through the decades
Auntie BBC, as the group was playfully called, banned songs for all manner of reasons through the years, citing suspected drug references, elicit topics, and even references to religion. While some songs could simply be censored and returned to the airwaves, others remained out of the broadcasting sessions for months, or even years at a time, despite their popularity.
Here are some of the most famous pieces of censored music to be removed by the BBC.
1. Dead Kennedys: Too Drunk to Fuck
Dropping the F-bomb isn’t too much of a big deal in today’s music scene. Profanity in music is a lot more accepted, depending on the radio station that you listen to. Most of the time, the BBC will include carefully censored songs in the top 10 lists that air before the watershed. However, when Dead Kennedys, the Californian punk band released their “Too Drunk to Fuck” tune back in 1981, the BBC was quick to clamp down on it. Rather than just censoring the song, the tune was quickly banned.
Interestingly, when the song was sold in stores around the UK as a single, stickers were supplied to record shops so that they could obscure the song’s name. The stickers were hilariously risqué in their own right, stating that the shop owners were too afraid to reveal the title of the song on the shelves.
2. Scott Walker: Jackie
Hard as it may be to imagine, the death penalty for a relationship between two men still existed in the UK until 1861. Although the country is now beginning to move more aggressively in the right direction, there’s still a way to go. When the BBC arrived on the scene and started delivering music over the radio, they were uncomfortable releasing any song that made homosexual reference.
The song “Jackie” by Scott Walker referenced “Authentic queers and phony virgins”, which caused the BBC bosses to forbid the tune from being played. It took many years for the song to be allowed back onto the airwaves, and in some cases, it’s still censored today.
3. The Beatles: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
The Beatles might be one of the most famous bands in UK history, but they’re also one of the groups that suffered the most from songs banned by the BBC. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was just one of many songs that were originally banned by the British Broadcasting Company, who were concerned that the tune had something to do with drugs.
The band denied that the song had any link to drugs and claimed that it was inspired by a painting from John Lennon’s son Julian. However, since then, some experts have suggested that there may have been a link between the tune and the hallucinogenic drug, LSD.
4. Various: I’m Always Chasing Rainbows
Performed by a wide variety of artists over the years, this is one of the best-known songs banned by the BBC, even though it had absolutely nothing to do with sex, drugs or rock n’ roll. According to the BBC, the hit song was removed from the air because it was “Too sentimental”. The BBC directive in 1942 claimed that the tune was too sickly sweet and emotional, which was just too much for listeners during British wartime.
The policy for getting rid of overly soppy and sentimental songs started to disappear after World War 2, however. You’re a lot less likely to see songs banned from the radio for being too emotional today.
5. Blondie: Atomic
There were certain periods during British history where censored songs became more common than usual. The war was one of the biggest times for censorship, as the BBC was worried about the moods and morale of the locals. The early 90s also saw a spate of censorship as Britain entered the Middle East for the first war in the Gulf. As a result, the BBC released a list of songs which they considered to be “unsuitable” while the conflict was happening.
Famous, and otherwise innocent tunes like “Love is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar and “Give Peace a Chance” were removed from play. However, Blondie’s 1980s number 1, Atomic was banned exclusively for using the word “Atomic” at a time when war references were deemed dangerous.
6. The Prodigy: Smack My Bitch Up
Deemed one of the most controversial songs of all time, the song by The Prodigy “Smack my Bitch up” was banned by countless radio stations, including the BBC. In fact, it was only ever allowed on the BBC Radio 1 in the form of an almost entirely lyric-free censored version. The song was designed as a commentary on the time, but the BBC, ever in search of peace, were quick to remove any reference to it from its shows.
In conversations about music charts, disk jockeys were even asked to refer to the Prodigy song as nothing more than “Smack”.
7. The Shamen: Ebeneezer Goode
Probably more silly than actually offensive, this is one of the banned songs that’s most frequently mentioned in lists of censored music from the UK. Ebeneezer Goode by the electronic music group, the Shamen was banned for its apparently “pro-drug” chorus, which sounded a lot like ” E’s are good”. The term “E” was a slang way of referring to the popular drug, ecstasy.
The song was released at the height of the rave age when the BBC and other groups were trying to crack down on any music that celebrated or supported drug use.
8. Donna Summer: Love to Love You Baby
Easily one of the best-known songs of all time today, Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You” is a musical classic, but it’s also one of the most scandalous songs ever to appear on the radio. The 1975 tune contains one of the most explicit selection of “simulated sex noises” in any musical creation. 23 faked orgasms were apparently counted in the song.
In an interview, Summer claimed that she had to be left alone with the lights dimmed when she was recording the tune in the studio. Of course, like many songs banned by the BBC, Love to Love You didn’t miss out on any fame. It earned Summer the title of “The First Lady of Lust” and cemented her position in the disco scene.
9. Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax
Here’s another example of one of the many songs that were banned by the BBC because of its references to sex. Frankie Goes to Hollywood “Relax” is one of the most famous songs ever banned by the BBC. When it first emerged on the airwaves, DJ Mike Reid started playing the song and stopped playing it halfway through when the message got through to him.
The scandalous nature of the song about preventing premature ejaculation quickly caught the attention of the media and the public. The tune rose all the way to number one in the UK singles chart, despite being banned by the BBC. Soon after, Frankie Goes to Hollywood repeated the trick again by getting their next song, “Two Tribes” banned, too. That song also soared to the top spot despite being banned from the radio.
10. Noel Coward: Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans
While the BBC has built a reputation over the years for its satire, the channel hasn’t always known how to cater to the needs of its audience. The banning of a popular wartime tune by Noel Coward was a serious misstep from the broadcasters at the BBC, who were also responsible for programs like “The Thick of It”. The song was all about being good to the German people after the British managed an “inevitable” victory, but this didn’t totally translate onto the radio.
Broadcasters at the BBC home office couldn’t see past the title, which they felt drew attention to the war, and acted as a political statement against fighting. The tune was therefore banned from being played on the radio for a number of years.
11. Ricky Valance: Tell Laura I Love Her
The BBC was always keen to ban songs that they deemed to be unusual or inappropriate for the times. One interesting genre of music that got a lot of negative responses from the BBC over the years was “death rock”. The genre dealt with things like teenage tragedy, and often dealt with songs sung from the viewpoint of a deceased person, or someone grieving their loss.
Ricky Valance’s song “Tell Laura I love Her” tells the story of a boy who falls victim to a car crash that happens during a race to win him enough money to buy a wedding ring for his young bride. The track is very dramatic, but the BBC decided to ban it because they were worried about the impact of sharing a song that was so emotional with the public.
12. The Sex Pistols: God Save the Queen
A fantastic example of songs banned from the radio at their finest, the Sex Pistols were one of the most controversial bands to appear in the UK. It’s difficult to remember today how nervous the government was about the success of the Sex Pistols, with songs like “God Save the Queen“. The BBC and many other groups were concerned that songs by the Sex Pistols would potentially inspire some sort of overthrow by the public masses of the time.
Despite selling at the number one spot for the week, God Save the Queen was banned from the radio during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and Rod Stewart’s “First Cut is the Deepest” got the position instead.
13. Chuck Berry: Maybellene
When discussing songs banned from the radio in the UK, most people reference Maybellene by Chuck Berry as one of the most ridiculous censored tunes. After all, the song itself is relatively innocent enough, although some people complained that Maybellene explored the concept of infidelity. However, it’s worth noting that while the song does discuss the concept of cheating on your significant other, the song is also highly critical of infidelity.
Chunk wants the woman that the song is about, Maybellene to “be true”. This didn’t stop the BBC from banning the song in an attempt to avoid controversy, of course.
14. Tom Robinson: Glad to be Gay
Irony at its finest, the Tom Robinson satirical song “Glad to be Gay” features lyrics about the way that gay publications had been censored in the past. The tune highlights the ridiculousness of censored music and censored songs that are removed from the public eye because of their homosexual undertones. Unfortunately, the song itself was censored by the BBC. Radio 1 refused to even broadcast the tune after it hit the top 20 records list.
In the late 80s, the UK was going through a massive transformation in youth culture. The acid house movement, similar to the punk movement, was represented negatively in the press. Many government officials were concerned that people listening to “acid” music were supporting the free trafficking of drugs in the UK. It’s little surprise then, that D-Mob’s song “We call it Acieeed” was removed from the airwaves by the BBC by being too drug-focused.
The song did manage to get a little bit of airtime before it was removed from the airwaves completely. However, the band did return to the radio a year later with more public-friendly songs.
The history of censored sounds
Since the BBC emerged as the ultimate source of moral guidance for the radio landscape, the organisation has always struggled to define what should be allowed on the airwaves, and what shouldn’t. Sometimes, the songs that have been censored by the BBC over the years have been perfectly innocent, leaving listeners to wonder why they were removed at all. Other times, tunes with a clear political message have been silenced based entirely on the organisations fear of what might happen if music was allowed to enrage and engage the masses.
There are also plenty of banned songs throughout history that were removed from radio shows for no other reason than they weren’t “decent” enough at the time. The Pogues “Fairytale of New York” is one of the most controversial Christmas songs ever to appear on the radio for instance. The song was banned for a while when it was first released, although it has begun to appear on the radio again over recent years – particularly around Christmas. More often than not, the song is censored, although some groups have requested for the original uncut version to be played instead.
While the sheer number of banned songs in the UK has sparked a lot of anger and discomfort among radio listeners over the years, the BBC has refused to be swayed. Responsible for keeping the airwaves safe for everyone, the BBC has been left with the complex and often overwhelming task of choosing which songs should be deemed “scandalous”, and which are suitable for easy listening.
Fortunately for more risqué listeners, the rise of other radio stations and internet broadcasting companies means that no song is truly off limits, if you know where to find it.
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