Banned By The BBC

Too controversial for the British airwaves?

Tuesday 12th March 2019

Recent debates over the lyrical content of The Pogues' much loved alternative Christmas standard, stirred up the subject of censorship and banning of songs due to their subject matter. Sometimes explicit, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes completely misinterpreted by a listener with oversensitive ears. Irrelevant of the reasons it's also a matter of debate whether it is even possible to ban a song in the online era.

The BBC's official stance is that it no longer bans songs, but in the days when a song's success relied upon (at least in part) inclusion on a BBC Radio playlist, much was made of the drama when a song was banned, restricted or censored by the corporation. 

We take a look at some of those songs that survived - despite upsetting the BBC.

'When I'm Cleaning Windows' - George Formby
48 years before Frankie told Mike Reid to Relax – taken from the 1936 film 'Keep Your Seats, Please', 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' contained enough sexual innuendo to cause the BBC's director general to call it a "disgusting little ditty". Although Formby was reportedly angry with the decision, he performed the song for the King and Queen at a Royal Variety Performance without issue, and the song's success resulted in Regal Zonophone (later part of EMI) awarding George the first ever Silver Disc. Formby would come under BBC scrutiny again in 1937 for his song 'With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock', getting banned again for what BBC bosses considered unsuitable innuendo.

'Space Oddity' - David Bowie
David Bowie may well be the only artist to have a song refused BBC airtime dependent on the outcome of a NASA space mission. Many people have false memories of the events, now half a century ago, with the iconic Bowie song proving a perfect soundtrack for BBC coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The reality is that the BBC refrained from playing the song until Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were safely back on Earth. Thankfully the mission was successful and Bowie's fictional tale of an astronaut in peril made history in its own right. 

'Lola' - The Kinks
Not banned but certainly adjusted to avoid censorship. Released as a single in 1970, 'Lola' upset the establishment not once, but twice. Initially, the song's casual revelations about the gender status of Lola caused some to take offence, but it was the inclusion of a brand name in the album version of the song that famously set alarms ringing at BBC HQ. The song was reworded for the single release with "cherry cola" replacing the namechecked brand.

'Love To Love You Baby' - Donna Summer
Four decades on from George Formby - there was no innuendo in Donna Summer's epic collaboration with Pete Bellotte and disco-synth genius Giorgio Moroder. Originally intended for the more liberal-minded audiences of mid-'70s Germany and The Netherlands, the BBC refused to play the record due to its inclusion of 23 explicit sounding simulated female orgasms (by their own count) over the full-length track's 16 minutes. The song reached number 4 in the UK charts nevertheless, although Donna Summer eventually stopped performing the song live as it began to incite riot-like behaviour among her audiences.

'Glad To Be Gay' - Tom Robinson Band
Tom Robinson was inspired by Sex Pistols' anti-establishment spirit to write 'Glad To Be Gay' for London's Gay Pride Parade in 1976, although the song is fairly polite by punk standards. Illustrating the double standards and attitudes that Britain's LGBTQ community still experienced in the late 1970s, the song was the lead track on the band's 'Rising Free' EP. Despite getting to number 18 in the charts, The BBC chose not to play the track on the chart show, proving many of the assertions the song raised about the establishment, although John Peel did play the song during his show.

'God Save The Queen' - Sex Pistols
Probably the most celebrated instance of The BBC and Independent Broadcasting Association refusing to play a single despite its high position in the UK Singles Chart. The Sex Pistols' comment on the British class system and its apparent faults found its way onto shop shelves and the chart during the same period that establishment Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee. It seems this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to cause offence on Sex Pistols' part. At the time the outcry was front page tabloid news and even provoked arrests when the band played the song from a boat on The Thames. By contrast, in more recent years the song has featured in the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and has even been used to accompany the closing credits of Newsnight - the latter following an MP's suggestion that the BBC bring back The National Anthem at the end of their broadcast. 

Spasticus Autisticus - Ian Dury
Ian Dury's angry response to the UN's Year Of The Disabled in 1981. The BBC failed to see the subtlety and irony in Dury's song - not realising that he had a disability himself - and banned the song as a result. Like 'God Save The Queen' it found its way into the BBC's output years later as part of the London 2012 ceremonies.

'Ebeneezer Goode' - The Shamen
Another single that proved to be prime tabloid fodder, 'Ebeneezer Goode' arrived on the scene amidst a perfect storm of controversy and outrage caused by the proliferation of the rave scene and its coverage in the mainstream media. The song's infamous and numerous drug references, some more explicit than others, set out the pros and cons of ecstasy, a relatively new drug to Britain at that time. The BBC were understandably concerned about the public's response to the song so the decision was made not to play the song on air. Still, the song made it to number one in the UK Singles Chart, just in time for the BBC's drug awareness week, and stayed there for a month. The BBC eventually bowed to market pressure and allowed The Shamen to perform the song on Top Of The Pops with some of the references replaced with less controversial lyrics. The Shamen eventually imposed self-censorship by deleting the song after its fourth week at the top, hoping to bring an end to the chart/news circus that was detracting from their other planned output.

'Ghost Town' - The Specials
A surprising end to the list perhaps as many will remember The Specials' acclaimed song of social commentary floating eerily out of radios ever since its release in 1981, with BBC shows and DJs being among its champions as it topped the UK charts. However, the song was banned a decade after its release when along with around 70 other songs it was deemed insensitive or inappropriate for broadcast during The Gulf War. The list of banned songs also included seemingly innocuous songs by ABBA, Queen and Lulu, all checked for lyrical content that might be open to misinterpretation or misuse.

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