From perceived drug references to assaults on the authorities, sexually explicit content, and product placement, the charts have often been a battleground between artists and censors. No shortage of musicians have found themselves with banned or controversial songs to their name, showing not just how far artists will go to in the battle over music censorship, but how far the censors will go to keep them quiet. But were the censors always right in their attacks on controversial records?
These ten banned songs have refused to be silenced.
Sex Pistols: God Save The Queen (1977)
While the passing of time does nothing to dull the impact of say, “Strange Fruit,” listening to Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” today, it’s genuinely difficult to appreciate the furor it caused. The controversial song remains an utterly thrilling slice of rebellious rock’n’roll, but capable of causing the sort of unspeakable damage to British society that it was charged with at the time? Surely not.
Back in 1977, however, things were very different, and the band – singer John Lydon in particular – found themselves at the center of a moral panic. With the Queen of England’s Silver Jubilee on the horizon, the Pistols and their manager, Malcolm McLaren, sensed an opportunity to capitalize. On March 10, the group signed a new contract with A&M Records outside Buckingham Palace, and 25,000 copies of their anti-establishment tirade were pressed up. The celebrations, however, got out of hand – so much so that the label wiped its hands of the group just four days later and destroyed most of the singles.
Enter Richard Branson and Virgin Records, who signed the Pistols on May 18 and decided to rush-release the song to coincide with the Queen’s anniversary bash. Despite a ban from the BBC, the single flew off the shelves, selling 200,000 in its first week. Yet, somehow, it didn’t hit the No.1 spot. Sensing the industry had cheated them, McLaren and the Pistols organized another stunt: on June 7 they played a wild gig on a boat as it floated down the Thames River, past the Houses Of Parliament, sending the tabloids into meltdown and securing the Pistols’ notoriety.
NWA: F__k Tha Police (1988)
For young black men living in LA in the late 80s, police harassment was a fact of life. With the subtlety-named Operation Hammer, launched in 1987, the LAPD had declared war on gang violence and, by the following year, had arrested over 50,000 people. While most had no way of venting their frustrations (fewer than one percent of officers investigated over allegations of extreme force during the period were prosecuted), NWA had the power of music at their disposal. According to Ice Cube, “It was just too much to bear, to be under that kind of occupying force [the police], who was abusive. It’s just, enough is enough. Our music was our only weapon. Nonviolent protest.” NWA’s response? The uncompromising “F__k Tha Police,” a lyrical tour de force that boldly called the authorities out, with no scrimping on the insults.
The controversial song helped to cement NWA’s position as “The World’s Most Dangerous Group” and the record was banned from radio play, thus ramping up its notoriety. Infamously, copies of the lyric were faxed by police forces from city to city ahead of the band’s tour dates, increasing hostility and making it difficult for venues to find security.
The Kinks: Lola (1971)
Surprisingly, the reason that the BBC banned singer Ray Davies’ tale of ambiguous lust wasn’t the subject matter as such. Despite detailing a coming-of-age moment in which the narrator is shocked – then accepting of – the subject of his boozy affection’s gender, the song was pulled up because of this offending lyric: “Where they drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola,” which mentions a specific product.
The BBC’s strict product placement rules meant that “Lola” wasn’t played on the radio, hindering its chances of becoming a hit. It was decided that Davies would replace the name of the offending drink with the more generic “cherry cola.” Unfortunately, The Kinks were on tour in the States at the time, and the master tapes were in the UK. Davies boarded a plane back to the UK after a gig in Minnesota, had a go at the overdub, didn’t quite manage it so flew back for a gig in Chicago… after which he returned to London, where he finally nailed it. The controversial song ruled the airwaves, The Kinks had their biggest hit for years, and, presumably, Ray put his feet up for a bit.
Neil Young: This Note’s For You (1988)
Never one to pander to industry expectations, Neil Young spent his 80s wrongfooting even those who expected a certain contrariness from the singer-songwriter, releasing a string of albums that confused fans and led to his label suing him for making unrepresentative records. It’s unsurprising, then, that he viewed the then-fledgling trend for musicians endorsing brands with some cynicism.
The title track of his 1988 album, This Note’s For You, offered no illusions as to how he felt about the growing corporate influence on music, with Young in a defiant mood: “Ain’t singing for Pepsi, ain’t singing for Coke/I don’t sing for nobody, makes me look like a joke.” To accompany the song’s single release, Young made a video that went further still – mocking advertising tropes (the smoky bar, stylized black-and-white perfume ads) and including Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston lookalikes, as a dig at some of the performers who’d taken the advertising dollar. The all-important MTV, however, was not amused, banning the video.
Young wrote a fantastically blunt open letter to the TV station, beginning, “MTV, you spineless twerps,” and ending with, “What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.” Still, the controversial song became a hit, MTV eventually caved and, in 1989, “This Note’s For You” won their Video Of The Year award.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Relax (1983)
It’s amazing what a bit of good old-fashioned scandal can do for a controversial song. Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s debut single, “Relax,” had spent a couple of months ambling up the UK Top 100 singles chart, in seemingly no particular hurry until it hit the Top 40, earning itself a spin on DJ Mike Read’s BBC Radio 1 chart rundown. Though not on the BBC’s list of banned songs, midway through the track, Read cut the song short, having apparently just realized the Olympian level of innuendo at play. Frankie’s enterprising manager, Paul Marley, cannily recognized the value in making the establishment the enemy and spread the rumor that the DJ had banned the song from Radio 1.
Read has since insisted that it wasn’t in his power to do so, claiming that the only reason the track was cut was due to time constraints. But the “ban” worked wonders: “Relax” spent five weeks at No.1 in the UK before becoming a worldwide hit, launching Frankie Goes To Hollywood as a pop phenomenon.
Ian Dury & The Blockheads: Spasticus Autisticus (1981)
Having contracted polio at the age of seven, leaving him crippled for life and suffering an adolescence at the hands of what passed for disabled schools in the 50s, Ian Dury knew the harsh realities of living with disabilities. When the UN declared that 1981 would be the International Year Of Disabled Persons, Dury felt patronized by the idea that a disparate group of people were the cause du jour and penned “Spasticus Autisticus” in response.
The controversial song’s in-your-face tone, its refusal to sugar-coat the disabled experience, and deftly-written remarks as to how truly altruistic charitable giving is (“So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin, and thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in”) were enough for local radio stations and the BBC to deem the lyrics offensive and add “Spasticus Autisticus” to their list of banned songs. But the thing about art this unflinching is that it doesn’t tend to go away. Dury’s war-cry of a song might have somewhat stalled his career (amazingly, it was chosen as his first major-label single), but its power remains undiminished. Movingly, “Spasticus Autisticus” was performed at the opening ceremony for London’s Paralympic Games in 2012 by the Graeae Theatre Company, made up of disabled performers.
Loretta Lynn: The Pill (1975)
“I was the first one to write it like the women lived it,” Loretta Lynn once said of her straight-talking songs. They certainly won her a devoted following, as Lynn became one of the most successful country acts of all time. But conservative country radio stations routinely banned her controversial songs, including “Fist City,” “Rated X,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and her highest-placing single on the US chart to date, “The Pill.”
Though Lynn wrote and recorded “The Pill” in 1975, her record label, MCA, sat on the song for three years before releasing it, fully aware of the effect that a single seemingly advocating the use of oral contraceptives could have on the country music establishment. There had been plenty of country songs about abortion and birth control, but none in which the singer happily equates it with having more freedom of choice. The tone of Lynn’s performance could well have been the thing that upset the radio stations, and plenty of them banned the song. Even The New York Times took notice, reporting on its success with the headline “Unbuckling The Bible Belt”. The uproar only helped “The Pill” become yet another massive hit for Lynn.
Scott Walker: Jackie (1967)
BBC Radio 1 was launched in September 1967 as the Beeb’s response to the popularity of the edgy pirate radio stations that were catering to the hip’n’happening youth of the day. Still, despite their attempts to court the cool crowd, they were a long way from accepting some of the more risqué releases.
On hearing the lyrics to Scott Walker’s cover of Jacques Brel’s “La Chanson De Jacky” – which spoke of “authentic queers and phony virgins”, not to mention “boats of opium” – BBC bosses grew nervous enough to make it the first of what would become many banned songs the station refused to play. A terrific shame, as the airwaves were a duller prospect without it, in all of its galloping, foul-mouthed glory.
The Beatles: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/A Day In The Life (1967)
By 1967, The Beatles were old hands when it came to controversy. After all, it goes with the territory when you’re constantly expanding the parameters of pop. They’d managed to offend the more fanatical elements of the US when John Lennon suggested the band might be more meaningful to young people than religion, and they’d put out an album with a cover that was deemed so controversial it had to be recalled (the “butcher sleeve” artwork for the US-only album Yesterday & Today).
But it wasn’t until the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that they found themselves on the BBC’s list of banned songs: “A Day In The Life” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” were both refused airplay thanks to what were perceived as hints of illicit drug use. Despite the group’s claims that the songs had nothing to do with mind-altering substances, they nevertheless became celebrated among the emerging counterculture.
Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg : Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus (1969)
In 1967, the French actress Brigette Bardot was a pin-up the world over and Serge Gainsbourg was one of many millions enraptured by her. The roguish composer’s infatuation was different, however, in that it resulted in him signing Bardot to his record label and, despite her being married, convincing her to go on a date with him. Exacerbated by booze, Gainsbourg’s nerves got the better of him and he blew it. Or so he thought. The next day, Bardot called, offering him a chance to redeem himself – he’d just have to write her “the most beautiful love song he could imagine”. He wrote two for good measure: “Bonnie & Clyde” and the altogether lustier “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus.”
The pair became lovers and recorded a version of “Je T’aime…” that was steamy enough to cause a scandal in the French press, leading Bardot to plead with Gainsbourg to shelve it. But he knew the song was too good not to return to and, in 1969, he convinced his new girlfriend, the English actress Jane Birkin, to sing Bardot’s parts. The moans, groans, and heavy breathing caused a sensation, leading to a ban from the BBC and even a denouncement from the Vatican. That only added fuel to the fire. In the UK it became the first banned single (and first foreign-language single) to reach the top of the charts, despite its status as one of the most controversial banned songs of the 60s.
The Kingsmen – Louie, Louie
No one can ever seem to understand what the lyrics are actually about, which meant that the song was banned from radio in certain areas… and even led to an FBI investigation.
Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl
The original title for this song was “Brown Skinned Girl,” detailing an interracial relationship. But while Van Morrison was happy to change the lyric to ensure radio play, others still took issue with the lyric “making love in the green grass.”
The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Mick Jagger once complained that critics didn’t even understand the dirtiest line in this song, but it was controversial enough to create outcry at the time of its release.
Madonna – Dress You Up
Part of the infamous “Filthy Fifteen” that was drawn up by Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center, this controversial Madonna song is one of many risque tunes from the Queen of Pop. It led to Congressional hearings, in which Frank Zappa famously defended artistic expression.
Britney Spears – If U Seek Amy
Hear the chorus in a particular way, and you’re hearing Britney Spears spell out one of the seven words you’re never supposed to say on the US airwaves.
Body Count – Cop Killer
Ice-T’s metal project went in with this controversial song fantasizing about killing a cop. Needless to say, there was huge outrage about the lyrics, leading to the group taking it off their debut album.
The Everly Brothers – Wake Up Little Susie
The Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Boston asked that this song be banned from radio play in the late 1950s, claiming that it was far too ribald.
Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight
Clear Channel Communications banned this Phil Collins classic after the tragic events of 9/11, worried that any song related to air might remind listeners of the World Trade Center attacks. (It had been previously been banned by the BBC during the Persian Gulf War in the early 90s, when tensions were high in the Middle East, for similar reasons.)
Beach Boys – God Only Knows
In the United States of the 1960s, invoking the name of God in a pop song was regarded as blasphemy, leading to some radio stations banning the Beach Boys classic.
2 Live Crew – Me So Horny
The sexual content of the songs from these rap pioneers led to a case that was eventually settled in the US Supreme Court.
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
Blocked from radio over the content of the lyrics, which recount the horrific lynching of two African-American men, Billie Holiday’s unsparing song is still remarkably powerful.
For more censors-baiting shocks, discover the most controversial album covers of all time.