11 Classic Songs That Were Banned

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Radio stations have censored or banned records for almost as long as they have been playing them. (Billie Holliday's 1939 song "Strange Fruit," which helped to inspire the civil rights movement, was banned by many Southern stations.) But since the coming of rock'n'roll in the 1950s, famous pop songs have been banned from airplay, or even removed from records, for a number of unusual reasons. Here are some of the most intriguing.

1. "Wake Up Little Susie" (1957) – The Everly Brothers

Reason: Teenage hanky-panky
Despite their image for showing a wholesome side to rock'n'roll, the Everly Brothers made the news when this song was banned by radio stations because it was all about a pair of teenagers sleeping together (even though, in this case, the emphasis was on "sleeping").

2. "Splish Splash" (1958) – Bobby Darin

Reason: Nudity
This ditty was about a guy who walks out of a bath and into a party in the adjoining room. (They sang powerful and topical songs back then.) It was banned for an excellent reason: there was no mention of him putting his clothes back on. In fact, it mentions that he just places his towel around him. Shocking.

3. "Tell Laura I Love Her" (1960) – Ray Peterson

Reason: Too sad

This song was banned because it was a little morbid: the story of a teenager who enters a stock car race, in the hope of winning the prize money for his girlfriend's wedding ring... only to die in an accident on the track. Though censors might have frowned upon it, the song moved straight up the charts, and gave them their worst nightmare: a popular craze for songs about teenage death. Many of them (Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel," the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," Twinkle's "Terry") were also major hits.

4. "Puff the Magic Dragon" (1962) – Peter, Paul and Mary

Reason: Drug references
In 1970, US vice-president Spiro Agnew described rock music as "blatant drug culture propaganda" and warned that it threatened "to sap our national strength unless we move hard and fast to bring it under control." He immediately went on a crusade to ban songs that referred to drugs. This included the children's ditty "Puff the Magic Dragon," which would surely be harmless to anyone for whom it was written. Despite lyrics like "Puff," "dragon," "autumn mist," "little Jackie paper," and... that's it, really... composer Peter Yarrow always protested the song was merely an innocent fantasy, with no hidden meaning.

5. "My Generation" (1965) – The Who

Reason: Unfair to the disabled
This anthem of youth rebellion might have worried a few people, but the line that won the most attention was... a mistake. When it was recorded, Roger Daltrey sang "Why don't you all f... f... fade away" because he was having trouble reading Pete Townshend's lyrics. They decided to keep the stutter, and add it to some other lines ("don't try to dig what we all s... s... say"), partly because it sounded like a young mod on drugs (i.e. like many of their fans). A few listeners, however, were shocked because "f... f..." sounded like he was trying to say something else. Later, the BBC banned the song from radio because it was insulting to people who stammer. As long as it wasn't about drugs...

6. "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1967) – The Rolling Stones

Reason: Low morals
The Rolling Stones were asked not to perform this song on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ever the rebels, they refused, but they worked out a compromise, agreeing to change the lyrics to the less suggestive "let's spend some time together." Instead, Mick Jagger sang "let's spend some mmmm together." To the more optimistic moralists, he was singing "time" and just mumbling. Nonetheless, Sullivan banned them from ever appearing on the show again.

7. "A Day in the Life" (1967) – The Beatles

Reason: Drug reference (but only one)
Often voted by musicians and critics as the best Beatles song ever (a very contentious claim), this final number from Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has a few sections. Though it has some bizarre, drug-inspired verses written by John Lennon, whose lyrics ("Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall") don't immediately seem to make sense, it was the more straightforward lyrics of Paul McCartney's section that got the song banned by BBC Radio, specifically the line "found my way upstairs and had a smoke." This was considered an unmitigated drug reference. Still, while McCartney was certainly known to enjoy the odd marijuana joint back then, you could argue that he was possibly just talking about tobacco. (Moot point, perhaps. Either way, it's not healthy.)

8. "Lola" (1970) – The Kinks

Reason: Free advertising
This song by the Kinks won some controversy for its subject matter: the love between a man and a transvestite. However, it couldn't be played on the BBC for a different reason: the lyrics "where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola." To solve this problem, Ray Davies, the lead singer (and songwriter), was flown from the US to Britain to re-record this one line, as the government-run station could not be seen to endorse any product. Now, according to the song, the champagne in North Soho (London) tasted like cherry cola.

9. "God Save the Queen" (1977) – The Sex Pistols

Reason: Unfair to Her Majesty
This song made number one in the British charts, despite being banned from radio for insulting Her Majesty during her Silver Jubilee celebrations. With lyrics like "she ain't no human being," you could understand why the radio programmers felt that way. Fans of the Sex Pistols, however, argued that the rebellion of the song was not targeted at the Queen, but at the political classes that treated Britons, including the Queen herself, as something less than human.

10. "Walk Like an Egyptian" (1986) – The Bangles

Reason: It was the wrong time...
After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, a Texas-based radio network asked its stations to drop 150 songs from their playlist. Sure, the Gap Band's "You Dropped the Bomb on Me," even Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane," could be taken badly. However, banning the Bangles' catchy novelty hit "Walk Like an Egyptian" (because of its references, however goofy, to northern Africa) was perhaps going too far. John Lennon's "Imagine," though many people found it inspiring, was also on the list for the line "imagine there's no heaven," which was deemed anti-religious. Most strangely, uplifting songs like Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" were also banned. Was solace considered insensitive?

11. "Cop Killer" (1992) – Body Count

Reason: Los Angeles riots
Ice-T's heavy metal song was one of many angry songs he performed with his band, Body Count, on their second album (also called Body Count). His fans enjoyed it when it was released, and nobody else seemed to notice. However, after riots in Los Angeles, a Texas police officer called for its ban. The riots had been inspired not by the song, but by the acquittal of white police officers after they had been captured on video beating African-American motorist Rodney King. Still, the song's somewhat violent sentiments were considered dangerous. After letter bombs arrived at the studio, Time Warner, and Ice-T's daughter was taken out of school for police questioning, the musician instructed his label to withdraw the album and reissue it without that song. Despite this self-banning, he continued to defend the song, saying that it had a strong sense of justice. As a song about vigilantism, and revenge against corrupt lawmen, he suggested that it was similar to Clint Eastwood's western The Unforgiven. The Unforgiven went on to win four Oscars; "Cop Killer" was taken away.

For 11-11-11, we'll be posting twenty-four '11 lists' throughout the day. Check back 11 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.


Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog.

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November 11, 2011 - 5:11am
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