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11 Reasons the BBC Has Banned Hit Songs

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The BBC, Britain’s sometimes old maidish, publicly-funded broadcaster, was in a tough spot last week. Following the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former Prime Minister and controversial Iron Lady, anti-Thatcherites campaigned to get the song, “Ding-Dong, The Witch is Dead,” in the top spot on UK music charts.

The 74-year-old song, celebrating Dorothy’s timely squashing of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, nearly made it, topping out at number 2, which meant that the BBC would eventually have to play it on its Sunday music chart show. The mere notion that the BBC would air a song mocking the death of Lady Thatcher resulted in complaints from Thatcher supporters that the broadcaster was letting the charts be “hijacked” for political purposes; anti-Thatcherites threw around the words “freedom of speech.”

On Sunday, April 14, BBC Radio 1 Controller Ben Cooper responded to the controversy on his blog, explaining that he was sensitive to all sides of the argument and had decided to treat the rise of the song “as a news story.” They played a 5-second excerpt of the song, rather than the full 51-seconds of high-pitched Munchkin crooning, and explained why the song was at the top of the charts. “Most of [our audience] are too young to remember Lady Thatcher and many will be baffled by the sound of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz,” he said. “To ban the record from our airwaves completely would risk giving the campaign the oxygen of further publicity and might inflame an already delicate situation.” 

It’s obviously not the first time—nor will it be the last—that a song has caused the BBC a spot of bother. That’s because for pretty much as long as the BBC has been in business, it has been in the business of censoring. But that doesn’t mean that the BBC’s treatment of popular music over the last 90 years has always been understandable—sometimes, it’s been downright manic, careening from thinking that whatever the kids were into these days was clearly objectionable to worrying that it lived up too much to its old maid Auntie image.

Here are a few things that got songs banned from the Beeb.

 

1. Prostitution

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In 1930, just eight years after the BBC was launched on the world, Cole Porter’s ballad about a happy hooker, “Love for Sale,” was banned from the Beeb’s airwaves for its ambiguity about prostitution.

2. Drugs 

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Illegal substances are a perpetual sticking point for the Beeb. In 1931, Cab Calloway’s classic “Minnie the Moocher” was kept off the air, probably owing to its drug references and depiction of generally loose morals. Just over 60 years later, in 1993, obvious references to drugs got The Shamen’s “Ebeneezer Goode” banned—the refrain went “eeeezer Goode, eeeezer Goode." Get it? “E’s are good”?

3. Violence

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Louis Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife,” from The Threepenny Opera, was banned in 1959 because of worries that its jazzy tune might incite gang violence. To be fair, it’s a pretty catchy tune about a violent murderer.

4. Sex

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Oh, Auntie Beeb. If there’s one thing that the British public, according to Auntie Beeb, can’t stomach, it’s references to sex. In the 1930s, ukulele-player George Formby and the BBC had a wary relationship, since a whole bunch of Formby’s cheery tunes were all about the fuzzy double entendre. In 1937, his jam, “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” (Blackpool Rock is a popular seaside candy that comes in stick form) was permitted, provided the version aired excised the lyrics: “With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll/ In the ballroom I went dancing each night/ No wonder every girl that danced with me, stuck to me tight.”

The Beatles’ 1967 “I Am the Walrus” was banned for the words “pornographic priestess” and “knickers”; the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was banned that same year for, well, everything. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s breathy, velvety, overtly sexual “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” (with its lyrics, “I go and I come, between your kidneys,” which sounds plainly ridiculous and somewhat painful) was pulled from the airwaves in 1969, solidifying the French opinion that the Brits were all a bunch of repressed weirdoes.

Paul McCartney’s 1972 Wings-era jam “Hi, Hi, Hi,” written with his late wife Linda, was banned for its sexually suggestive lyrics and references to drugs. (According to McCartney, the Beeb just misheard the words: One line the BBC heard as “get you ready for my body gun” was actually meant to say “get you ready for my polygon.” Obviously.)

In 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” was deemed too explicitly sexual (although “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to come” actually sounds not explicit enough—don’t do what?). In a move that probably did much for the song’s chart performance, Radio 1 DJ Mike Read called the lyrics “disgusting” and yanked the record off the turntable live on air.

5. Politics

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McCartney had a rough year in 1972 with the BBC: His “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was banned for its overtly political and anti-British message. Politics, especially of the kind that question authority, weren’t popular with the Beeb: In 1977, the Sex Pistols’ raucous “God Save The Queen” was banned for its anti-establishment message.

6. Sappy lyrics

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So, ok, sex, drugs, anti-establishment politics, violence—not fit for the public consumption, fair enough. But what could possibly be objectionable about Bing Crosby? During World War II, the blue-eyed crooner’s homesick “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” wasn’t allowed on BBC airwaves because controllers felt that the lyrics might lower morale in troops overseas. Indeed, during the War, the BBC was particularly mindful of what it thought that the country needed, and concluded that saccharine sweetness wasn’t it. In 1942, the BBC pursued a “policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of war.”

7. Teen death

What is with teenagers, death, and eternal love? In the 1950s and ‘60s, “death pop”—songs about teenagers whose love is ripped asunder by untimely death—was as big of a thing as Twilight is now. But as much as the kids were totally into the tragic, Romeo and Juliet romance of it all, the BBC wasn’t a fan. In 1960, it banned Ricky Valance’s version of “Tell Laura I Love Her,” a song about a boy called Tommy who dies in a car crash during a drag race. Tommy was only racing—heartbreak alert—to win enough money to buy his lovely Laura a wedding ring. Sigh. In 1961, the BBC banned John Leyton and the Outlaws’ syrupy “Johnny, Remember Me,” a song about a young man who is haunted by his dead lover, promptly rocketing the track to the number 1 spot on UK charts. 

8. Spookiness

Bobby Pickett’s Halloween jam “Monster Mash” was banned from the airwaves in 1962 on the grounds that it was “too morbid.” Evidently, Auntie Beeb is of a nervous disposition because “Monster Mash” wasn’t the only “scary song” the broadcaster banned: Just the year before, it refused to play The Moontrekker’s “Night of the Vampire” on the grounds that the eerie sounds of a creaking door and spooky laughter on the rock instrumental might actually scare someone to death. Muhahahaha!

9. Irreligious references to Heaven

In 1954, Don Cornell's "Hold My Hand" was banned because in it, he compares his relationship to his ladylove to heaven and that didn’t fly with the Beeb. “So this is the kingdom of heaven/ So this is the sweet promised land/ While angels tell of love, don't break the spell of love/ Hold my hand." Syrupy, sweet—and breeding a generation of atheists who find divinity only in themselves and their lovers? You be the judge.

10. Satire!

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Comedy was also not permitted by the BBC—several of mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer’s songs, including “The Old Dope Peddler,” a 1960 sentimental song about the neighborhood drug dealer, were banned. Incidentally, rapper 2 Chainz sampled “The Old Dope Peddler” on his track, “Dope Peddler,” in 2012. Lehrer told the BBC in 2013 that he was “very proud” of his song’s being used more than half a century after he recorded it—his response to their request was, “I grant you motherf***ers permission—which is the word that they use constantly—to do this and please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

11. Awesome drum beats?

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Phil Collins’s “In The Air Tonight” was banned during the Gulf War, because... of its dark, atmospheric drumming? Spooky lyrics? Relationship to Miami Vice? Who knows? Incidentally, the Beeb also yanked The Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” for obvious reasons, and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” for not obvious reasons, off the air during the Gulf War. 

What won’t get you banned

But where it banned some songs for what seem like weird reasons, the BBC certainly didn’t ban every song in questionable taste—even after complaints by certain members of the aghast British public. In 1973, broadcasting standards campaigner Mary Whitehouse, a woman with a seemingly bottomless capacity for moral outrage who spearheaded several very public campaigns to ban “filth” from radio and television throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, complained about rock legend Chuck Berry’s performance of “My Ding-a-ling” on Top of the Pops. Watch the performance here:

"One teacher," Whitehouse wrote to the BBC, "told us of how she found a class of small boys with their trousers undone, singing the song and giving it the indecent interpretation which—in spite of all the hullabaloo—is so obvious … We trust you will agree with us that it is no part of the function of the BBC to be the vehicle of songs which stimulate this kind of behaviour— indeed quite the reverse." But the BBC refused to apologize or disallow the song; then-director Charles Curran wrote to Whitehouse, “We did not think it would disturb or emotionally agitate its listeners and we believe that the innuendo is, at worst, on the level of seaside postcards or music hall humour.”

The BBC didn’t ban other songs that were controversial. Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” a song that some thought celebrated misogyny, despite the “shock” ending of the video, wasn’t exactly banned, although the BBC did limit its airplay and in some cases, only played a lyric-less version. And The Kinks’ “Lola,” the best, most melancholic song about falling in love with a trans-woman ever, was only briefly banned, not because of content that the 1970’s audience might have objected to, but because it made a reference to “Coca-Cola.” BBC Radio had a strict no product policy, so singer Ray Davies was forced to interrupt the band’s American tour to fly back to London and re-record the lyric to say “cherry cola” instead.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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