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.
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.