Artists Seen as Crossing the Line
It didn't take much to get banned by radio stations in years past, especially in the heyday of vinyl. Then again, certain artists practically begged for it. Click through for 25 well-known songs that—for a wide variety of reasons—some stations refused to play.
"Happiness Is a Warm Gun" (1968)
Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney called this track from the White Album one of their favorite Beatles songs, but the BBC didn't share their enthusiasm. The British broadcaster banned it on the grounds that "gun" was a phallic symbol. True enough, but Lennon actually took the title from an American gun magazine. "I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say," he said. "A warm gun means that you just shot something."
"Star Star" (1973)
No symbolism in this one. Between the unambiguous lyrics ("Yeah, Ali MacGraw got mad with you / For givin' head to Steve McQueen") and the catchy chorus (which repeats the phrase "star f-----" a dozen times), the Rolling Stones had to know "Star Star" would be censored. But not everyone was outraged. An amused Steve McQueen reportedly gave the Stones permission to use his name.
"Only the Good Die Young" (1977)
A Catholic university radio station initiated a boycott of this Billy Joel single, which includes the lines: "You Catholic girls start much too late / But sooner or later it comes down to fate / I might as well be the one"). The move backfired. "The minute the kids found out it was banned, they ran out in droves and it became a huge hit," Joel later recalled, noting that the girl in the song—inspired by his high school crush—remains a virgin.
"Brown-Eyed Girl" (1967)
Van Morrison changed the original title from "Brown-Skinned Girl," which wouldn't have gone over well at the time. (When the song was written, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.) But after hearing the line about "making love in the green grass," some radio stations banned "Brown-Eyed Girl" anyway.
"Love to Love You Baby" (1975)
Donna Summer simulated 22 orgasms in this disco hit (Time magazine kept a tally), but one would have been plenty for the BBC, which promptly banned it. Summer later spoke to the Guardian about the controversy. "Everyone's asking, 'Were you alone in the studio?'" she said. "Yes, I was alone in the studio. 'Did you touch yourself?' Yes, well, actually, I had my hand on my knee."
"Je T'aime ... Moi Non Plus" (1969)
Donna Summer had nothing on Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. With the release of this single, many were persuaded that the European couple had actually recorded themselves having sex. (If that were the case, Gainsbourg deadpanned, he hoped "it would have been a long-playing record.") Banned in several countries and denounced by the Vatican, it sold more than 4 million copies. Summer put out a disco version in 1978.
"Tonight's the Night" (1976)
Rod Stewart coaxed the Swedish actress Britt Ekland (then his girlfriend) into cooing and whispering in French à la Jane Birkin at the end of "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)." Some radio stations simply edited that part out, Others blanched at the none-too-subtle lyrics ("Spread your wings and let me come inside") and banned the song altogether.
"Louie Louie" (1963)
The dirtiest song of the '60s? Decades later, The New Yorker set out to answer that question about the Kingsmen's incomprehensible garage-rock anthem, Many radio stations refused to play "Louie Louie," and the FBI studied its elusive lyrics to determine if they were obscene. Here's what they heard: "At night at ten / I lay her again / F--- you. girl, oh / All the way." Actual lyrics: "Three nights and days, I sailed the sea / Me think of girl, ah, constantly."
"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (1952)
Jimmy Boyd was just 13 when he recorded this holiday hit, about a boy who wakes up to see Mom and Dad (in a Santa costume) under the mistletoe on Christmas Eve. Sweet, huh? Not to the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which blasted the song for suggesting a link between Christmas and sex. A local radio boycott ended only after the freckle-faced singer met with church leaders.
"Leader of the Pack" (1964)
A No. 1 hit for the Shangi-Las, this archetype of the "teenage tragedy" genre recounts a breakup that leads to the death of the singer's biker boyfriend. Ominous lyrics ("Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!") are accompanied by the rumble of a Harley. Some broadcasters refused to play the song because they felt it glorified motorcycle gangs.
"Rocky Mountain High" (1973)
In 1971, the FCC ordered broadcasters to quit airing songs that "promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs." Erring on the side of caution, many decided not to play "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver's tribute to his home state of Colorado, solely because of the last word in the title. Denver eventually testified before Congress and said, "This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains."
"My Generation" (1965)
"Why don't you all f-f-f-fade away," sings Roger Daltry in the Who's baby boomer anthem (No. 11 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time). But it wasn't the sly suggestion of another F-word—or even the nihilism of "Hope I die before I get old"—that triggered a BBC ban. The broadcaster just feared that "My Generation" would be offensive to stutterers.
"Love Is a Good Thing" (1996)
Every day was a winding road for Sheryl Crow back in the '90s. Her debut album "Tuesday Night Music Club" won three Grammys and sold 7 millions copies, Then, in 1996, Wal-Mart refused to carry her self-titled second album because of this track, which criticized the retail giant's gun policy. Today that album is certified triple-Platinum. Wal-Mart no longer sells the kind of weapons used in mass shootings.
"Wake Up Little Susie" (1957)
Back in the '50s, you didn't have to go very far to get banned in Boston. This No. 1 hit for the Everly Brothers is a case in point. Some radio stations decided not to play it because the lyrics raised a question: What were those kids up to before they fell asleep? Of course, times change. In 2000, presidential candidate and born-again Christian George W. Bush said "Wake Up Little Susie" was his favorite song.
The transgender theme was decades ahead of its time and controversial enough to provoke a ban in Australia. But the BBC found another reason to boycott "Lola"—a line about "Coca-Cola," which violated its rules against product placement. The Kinks were on tour at the time, but frontman Ray Davies flew home to London to change the lyric to "cherry cola" in time for the release of the single.
The BBC's policy against product endorsement also applied to this Paul Simon hit, which received only minimal exposure in the U.K. because its title is a registered trademark. Meanwhile, some U.S. radio stations refused to play the song because of the word "crap" in its opening lines: "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school / it's a wonder I can think at all."
"Love Me Two Times" (1967)
The Doors' sexy second single from "Strange Days" was banned by a number of radio stations—notably one in New Haven, Connecticut, where frontman Jim Morrison became the first rock star ever to be taken into custody in the middle of a performance. Police charged him with obscenity and incitement to riot.
"Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" (1939)
In April 2013, a week after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died, this upbeat ditty from 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" became an unlikely hit, reaching No. 2 on the British charts. The sudden surge in sales happened despite a ban by the BBC, which noted that the song was "clearly a celebration of death."
"God Only Knows" (1966)
Brian Wilson claimed that musicians on hand for the recording of "God Only Knows" called those studio sessions "the most magical, beautiful musical experiences they've ever heard." Still, many radio stations, viewing the use of "God" as blasphemous, boycotted the Beach Boys' heartfelt ballad. Wilson had anticipated the reaction and nearly changed the title and lyrics, but in the end decided to stick with what he said was "a spiritual word."
This one is unusual in that Rupert Holmes—best known for 1979's "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)"—wrote it for an unknown group with the hope that their debut single would be banned. He got his wish. "Timothy," a song about trapped miners who resort to cannibalism, gained enough attention to break into the Top 20, and the Buoys, a band Holmes had discovered, emerged as a one-hit wonder.
"Walk Like an Egyptian" (1986)
Two days after 9/11, the radio giant Clear Channel (now known as iHeartMedia) sent a memo citing "lyrically questionable" songs to its 1,000-plus stations. The titles ran the gamut, from Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" to Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire." But the Bangles' harmless confection "Walk Like an Egyptian" stood out and helped discredit the entire list.
"Strange Fruit" (1939)
Based on a 1937 poem protesting the lynching of African-American men in the South, this Billie Holiday signature song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. But in 1939, Columbia Records wouldn't let Lady Day record it, and when another label finally released "Strange Fruit," radio stations refused to give it airplay. Even so, it would become Holiday's best-selling single.
Also in the Grammy Hall of Fame, this Van Morrison song—written when he was lead singer of Them—scared off Chicago radio stations with lines like: "She comes around here / Just about midnight / She make me feel so good, Lord / I wanna say she makes me feel all right." Two years later the Shadows of Knight, a Chicago proto-punk band, toned down the lyrics and turned the garage-rock classic into a Top 10 hit.
"Great Balls of Fire" (1957)
Jerry Lee Lewis, who attended Bible school in Texas, was himself uncomfortable with the sexual overtones of this early rock and roll classic, and it didn't help that "great balls of fire" was a down-home expression considered blasphemous by Southern Christians. Even so, the radio ban wasn't widespread. But soon after that, Lewis was blacklisted nationwide when the press learned he had married his 13-year-old cousin.
"Justfy My Love" (1990)
Madonna is "yearning, burning" in the song, but it's the arty black-and-white video—a blend of voyeurism, anonymous sex and sadomasochism—that provoked a ban by MTV. Of course, the Queen of Pop lives for this stuff. As biographer Mark Bego told Entertainment Weekly, "Throwing a scandal Madonna's way is like throwing gasoline on a fire."
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