Facebook supposedly once deleted audio of a 300 year-old tune
by Johann Sebastian Bach because they believed it was an unauthorized performance of a copyrighted work.
Welcome to the world of music censorship!
That was an extreme case but it is fascinating to look back at how and why popular music has often been deemed
as unacceptable to the general public. When network television bleeps out what are considered offensive lyrics from songs
performed by today’s rock and hip-hop artists on such TV shows as the annual Grammy Awards specials, it’s worth remembering
that in his early days, Elvis Presley was once photographed only from the waist up as producers of the Ed Sullivan Show believed
that the singer’s gyrating hips might have caused offence to the viewing audience!
There are countless examples of popular songs that ran into censorship problems
over the decades on both sides of the Atlantic.
Here are just a few random examples….
One of the most documented instances concerned the song LOUIE LOUIE written by R&B singer Richard Berry
who, in addition to recording with doo-wop group The Flairs and recording his own novelty singles such as his composition
OH! OH! GET OUT OF THE CAR on Flair in ’54, he was the rich-voiced narrator in the opening of the Leiber & Stoller hit
RIOT IN CELL BLOCK #9 by The Robins on Spark in ’54; after that he provided the uncredited male ‘Henry’ voice on
THE WALLFLOWER (Etta James/Johnny Otis) by Etta James & ‘The Peaches’ on Modern in ’55.
Initially released by Richard Berry & The Pharaohs
in 1957 on the independent west coast label Flip, https://youtu.be/u4L5RtjMFrA
LOUIE LOUIE became a bona fide hit
when the Oregon-based group The Kingsmen
revived the song and it was picked up in ’63
by Wand Records, ending up at #2 on the Hot 100. https://youtu.be/1RZJ4ESU52U
It was an innocuous-enough song
with harmless lyric lines such as
“A fine little girl she waits for me/Me catch the ship across the sea”
but rumors that the Kingsmen’s single might contain indecent
references if the record was played at different speeds fueled
controversy particularly when word got around that the FBI were investigating it for obscene content. In the end, nothing untoward resulted from the inspection and over the ensuing years,
LOUIE LOUIE’s popularity grew like wildfire and hundreds of performers committed it to wax including major names ranging
from Bruce Springsteen, Otis Redding and Robert Plant
to Iggy Pop, The Kinks and The Beach Boys!
Songs which included colorful lyrics were often toned down
for different markets. A good case in point is the early rock ‘n’ roll
hit SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL written by Charles Calhoun
alias Jesse Stone. The song was originally recorded by bluesman
Joe Turner & His Blues Kings on Atlantic in ’54
and one of its lyric lines ran
“Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin' through
I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you”.
However, for a successful mass market cover version
by Bill Haley & His Comets (Decca: 1954), that line was rewritten as
“Wearing those dresses, your hair done up so nice
You look so warm, but your heart is cold as ice”.
1954 was also the year in which Hank Ballard and his group
The Midnighters lit up the cash registers with his composition
WORK WITH ME ANNIE
on the Federal label although its suggestive lyrics
and those of two further songs
SEXY WAYS and ANNIE HAD A BABY
were banned by many radio stations.
A year later, Etta James topped the R&B listings with the aforementioned THE WALLFLOWER which was conceived
by Etta along with Johnny Otis as an answer song to
WORK WITH ME ANNIE.
In the same way that Bill Haley reworked
SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL
with an alternative lyric, so Georgia Gibbs followed
Etta James’ #1 R&B smash THE WALLFLOWER success revising
“Roll With Me Henry” as DANCE WITH ME HENRY
and her single on Mercury topped the Hot 100 Pop market.
In 1956, New Orleans songwriter/producer Dave Bartholomew
cut his composition ONE NIGHT with the singer/guitarist
Smiley Lewis on the Imperial label.
The opening lyric ran
“One night of sin/Is what I’m now paying for”
and although it’s not known if that phrase prevented
the record achieving airplay, when Elvis Presley
successfully recorded the song two years later,
the opening words became
“One night with you/Is what I’m now praying for”.
Thirty-one years after that, Joe Cocker revived the song
and reclaimed Dave’s original lyric, issuing it as the title song
of his 1989 Capitol album “One Night Of Sin”.
Over the years, radio in this country has had a long history
of banning popular songs. Stations often decided
to shield their listeners from records containing
what programmers believed were indecent or provocative lyrics.
It was therefore not surprising that Mick Jagger & Keith Richards’ landmark 1965 Rolling Stones single (I Can’t Get No) SATISFACTION
met with strong resistance, resulting in it being removed
from the airwaves.
A couple of years after that when the Stones appeared on
the Ed Sullivan Show to perform LET’S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER, they were asked to amend the song’s title
and for that one TV performance, Mick sang
“Let’s spend some time together”.
Television had also been responsible for a lyric change back in 1958, when R&B singer Lloyd Price co-wrote
(with Harold Logan) and recorded an updated version of the old blues tale about the gambler STAGGER LEE.
Issued on an ABC-Paramount single, the lyric included the lines
“Stagger Lee shot Billy/Oh he shot the poor boy so bad/Till the bullet came through Billy/And it broke the bartender’s glass”.
“American Bandstand” host Dick Clark thought the lyric far too violent for inclusion on his show which resulted
in Lloyd Price recording a heavily sanitized version of his song for use on that one program.
ALONG COMES MARY (Tandyn Almer) by The Association (Valiant: 1966) was often banned by radio stations because
at that time, the name Mary was associated with marijuana. Copious other songs that were similarly accused of containing
drug references included WHITE RABBIT by Jefferson Airplane, A DAY IN THE LIFE and
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS both by The Beatles
and even PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON by Peter, Paul & Mary.
Salacious language and dubious sexual references in lyrics have regularly ruffled the censors’ feathers on both sides of the Atlantic.
For example, the 1983 song RELAX (Holly Johnson/Peter Gill/Mark O’Toole) by Liverpool group Frankie Goes To Hollywood
alluded to gay sex and even though it was a major chart song in Britain, the record’s local airplay was restricted.
Inflammatory song titles also came under close scrutiny such as the titillating ME SO HORNY
(Mark Ross/Ricardo Williams) by Florida rappers 2 Live Crew; that song sparked major headlines when it was
released in 1989 and their explicit album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” was not surprisingly banned from record stores.
Songs referring to religion and particularly God often ran into the crosshairs of
overseas radio programmers. In 1953, for example, American singer Frankie Laine charted
with a ballad titled ANSWER ME, LORD ABOVE
(Gerhard Winkler/Fred Raunch/Carl Sigman)
which was based on a German song titled “Mutterlein”.
The BBC in London banned Frankie’s record and a cover version by British singer
David Whitfield because of the lyric’s religious connotation.
Both Laine and Whitfield recut the song replacing the opening phrase
“Answer me, Lord above” with “Answer me, oh my love”.
David Whitfield’s second recording then went to #1 in the UK
and a few months later, a version by Nat King Cole
with the revised lyric titled ANSWER ME, MY LOVE
went to #6 on Billboard’s pop chart in early ’54.
Frankie Laine’s original ANSWER ME, LORD ABOVE and 74 other records that were banned by Britain’s
government-controlled BBC between 1931 and 1957 were gathered together by broadcaster and journalist
Spencer Leigh on a 3-CD box set titled “This Record Is Not To Be Broadcast” which my friend Bob Fisher
issued in 2008 on the UK label he co-founded, Acrobat Music.
What this collection underlined was just how wide and varied the BBC’s net spread
when it came to their directors positioning themselves as arbiters of social taste and style.
While one can understand negative reaction to the double entendre of Billy Ward & His Dominoes’
SIXTY MINUTE MAN and even local comedian George Formby’s WITH MY LITTLE STICK OF BLACKPOOL ROCK
causing concern, some of the other victims such as British singer Lita Roza’s KEEP ME IN MIND and Frank Sinatra’s
version of (How Little It Matters) HOW LITTLE WE KNOW seemed rather tame by comparison.
In 1961, A HUNDRED POUNDS OF CLAY (Bob Elgin/Luther Dixon/Kay Rogers)
was a #3 Pop hit here by Gene McDaniels on the Liberty label.
The song was immediately covered for the British market by local singer
Craig Douglas on Top Rank, the UK label that had recently been purchased by EMI. The Beeb instantly objected
to an irreverent part of the lyric. Consequently Craig Douglas’s 45 was withdrawn and re-recorded so that,
for instance, the line “He created a woman and a-lots of lovin’ for a man”
was replaced by “He created old Adam then he made a woman for the man”.
The BBC also strictly prohibited songs that referred to commercial products.
For instance, Ray Davies gave in and recorded a revised version of his
1970 Kinks hit LOLA replacing the words ‘Coca Cola’ with ‘Cherry Cola’.
Similarly in ’73 when Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show hit the Top Ten here with Shel Silverstein’s
song THE COVER OF ‘ROLLING STONE’, BBC Radio in London refused to play it under that title
so Dr. Hook (billed as Dr. Hook & Friends) revised and reissued it as THE COVER OF ‘RADIO TIMES’
referencing the BBC’s equivalent of TV Guide!
Let’s finish with The Sex Pistols, the poster boys for the 1970’s punk revolution and their second single
which struck a brazen, blasphemous tone with the British establishment. Issued here on Warner Bros.,
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN (Johnny Rotten/Steve Jones/Glen Matlock/Paul Cook) hit #2 on the British chart
in June ’77 despite being banned by the BBC; it was released in the UK on Virgin after EMI had dropped the band
following their drunken and foul language-ridden appearance on live television.
With Johnny Rotten’s lead vocal, GOD SAVE THE QUEEN is a first-class rock 45
driven by a vigorous guitar riff played by bassist Glen Matlock
who was later replaced in the group by Sid Vicious.
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