The British public have an odd reputation around the world. We’re known for being slightly aloof. For being overly polite, too. And for being prudish. That’s not to say ‘easily offended’, just sensitive to matters involving sex and other taboo subjects.
Looking at the list of songs banned by the BBC throughout its history, it seems our public broadcaster assumes this about us, too. ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ and ‘I Want Your Sex’ – a triad of banned songs spanning three decades – all feature on the list. And that isn’t all. Two songs from The Beatles’ ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s album (which turned 50 this year) are also included: ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ – both of which feature none-too-subtle drugs references.
But musical bans aren’t always quite as simple as these aforementioned records might suggest. So I thought I’d take a look at a selection of these tracks, alongside some stranger outlawed songs, digging deeper into their back-stories and exploring the reasons for their eviction from the airwaves of UK radio!
If your mother is in the room, this may be the time to turn the volume down and plug in your headphones instead…
1. Hard Headed Woman – Elvis Presley 
This fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll song was a US number one (UK number two) for Elvis, taken from his album King Creole, the soundtrack for his film of the same name. It was certainly easier to be banned back in the 1950s than it is now – especially in the conservative America of that time. But it turns out the BBC weren’t too happy with Presley’s biblical references either: the lyrics “Now Adam told to Eve / Listen here to me / Don't you let me catch you / Messing round that apple tree” were cause enough for the song to be banned and only played by special request. Before you ask – yes, Cat Stevens did record a song of the same name. But it isn’t this one.
2. Leader of the Pack – The Shangri-Las 
A short-lived US phenomenon largely killed off by the British Invasion, ‘teen tragedy’ songs – also known as ‘death discs’ or ‘splatter platters’ – often received limited radio play due to their morbid themes of young death and heartbreak. Nevertheless, the effortlessly cool girl-group the Shangri-Las managed to secure a big hit with ‘Leader of the Pack’, which topped the US charts in 1964. Rumour has it that this tragic tale of motorcycle (or should that be moped?) melodrama was banned by the Beeb not because it was a ‘death disc’ but due to concern that the song's lyrics would incite violence between gangs of Mods and Rockers.
3. My Generation – The Who 
“Political correctness gone mad” is a phrase we’re accustomed to hearing in the 21st century. But it’s surprising that back in the 1960s the BBC was so concerned about offending its listeners. Although this raucous rock classic teased radio moderators with the phrase “why don’t you just f-f-f-fade away,” it wasn’t the language of the song that resulted in the ban; it was the fact that Roger Daltrey’s singing style might offend the nation’s stutterers! For a short time, ‘My Generation’ was banished from the airwaves, only to be rescued by the pirate radio stations. Since then, it’s gone down in music history as the original anthem of rebellion.
4. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – The Beatles 
For many of the freewheeling ‘60s hippies, drugs were an essential element of the Summer of Love – as essential as the music, some might argue. But the BBC weren’t so keen on the idea. This Beatles classic, taken from the group’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, was refused airplay because radio controllers feared the title alluded to the drug LSD – commonly known as acid. But while LSD was certainly being used by musicians at that time, songwriter John Lennon insisted the lyrics were about a picture his son had drawn at school.
Coincidence? We’re not so sure…
5. Lola – The Kinks 
While some stations banned this playful pop hit for detailing an encounter between a man and a transgender woman, the BBC were more bothered about it mentioning a certain world-famous drink. Due to the BBC’s strict product placement policy, any mention of a brand name or product could result in a song being taken off air. So, when Ray Davies sang “I met her in a club down in North Soho, where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola,” the BBC had no choice but to ban the track until Davies flew home from a US tour to change the recorded words to the generic “cherry cola”.
6. All The Young Dudes – Mott the Hoople 
There were multiple reasons the BBC could have found to keep ‘All The Young Dudes’ from radio play: its reference to youth suicide, for one, and also its character Jimmy, who “dresses like a queen”. The actual reason for this gay glam-rock anthem being banned? Because it mentions high street retailer Marks & Spencer! Yes, the line “Wendy’s stealing clothes from Marks & Sparks” had to be changed to “Wendy’s stealing clothes from unlocked cars,” in accordance with the BBC’s policy on advertising. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but none-the-less this legendary rock track – written by David Bowie – reached UK number three.
7. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Ian Dury 
Well, this one probably requires little explanation. Finding fame through the emergent punk scene, Ian Dury and The Blockheads gained notoriety for their unique musical style and Dury’s street-smart, often obscene lyrics. It was no surprise, then, that the BBC banned ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, despite allegedly being written as a celebration of life outside the 9-5 existence rather than an anthem of excessive hedonism. While the funk-inflected track was not a commercial success (the ban probably didn’t help), it did give birth to the well-known expression ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ and became an anthem for the punk rock movement.
8. God Save The Queen – Sex Pistols 
Speaking of punks, there was no band more infamous than the Sex Pistols. Released to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, this seething, snarling alternative to the national anthem caused chaos in the UK. Singer Jonny Rotten was attacked in the street by outraged members of the public; the band was arrested after performing the song as they floated down the Thames on a boat; and, after being removed from the BBC Radio 1 playlist, the track was allegedly denied UK number one, despite outselling Rod Stewart’s chart-topping single at the time.
9. (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang – Heaven 17 
Joining violence, drugs, sex, blasphemy, and advertising on the list of banned subjects for pop songs, Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ offered up a new area for concern: politics. This eccentric synth track used the language of funk music to denounce racism and fascism, providing an irresistible slice of political pop. But the group’s namechecking of newly elected US president Ronald Reagan ran too much risk for the BBC’s legal team, who feared a libel case if the track was played. The offending line? “Democrats are out of power / Across that great wide ocean / Reagan’s president elect / Fascist god in motion.” The song did moderately well, despite the ban; reaching 45 in the UK charts and being well-received on the US dance scene.
10. Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood 
The chorus – “Relax, don’t do it / When you want to suck it, do it” – was reason enough for Radio 1 DJ Mike Read to refuse to play this raunchy 1984 classic, with the BBC following suit across multiple stations (and Top of the Pops) in support of Read’s decision. But it wasn’t just the lyrics they had a problem with. Influential 80s pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood knew how to cause controversy through their cover art and music videos, too. Using gay imagery and smart marketing, the release got everybody talking – and despite being at number six when the BBC banned the track, it went on to top the charts anyway. ‘Relax’ was one of the most controversial yet commercially successful songs of the decade.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 84, Pages 48-50.