11 Classic Songs That Were Banned

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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One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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