Television was formerly the most sacred gatekeeper in the music industry, a medium that had enough power to make or break careers. However, it also has a dark tendency to stop artists from truly expressing their art, putting them through a beige filter that dilutes the message of the music.
Understandably, this has infuriated musicians, many of whom have felt humiliated by having their art censored by faceless television executives who have watered down their work in front of the eyes of millions.
The reasons for broadcasters taking the decision to suppress artists are wide-ranging, and sometimes their grounds were frankly absurd. Nobody is free from censorship, and some of the most cherished artists to ever grace the world have faced this unenviable situation.
Below, we reflect upon some incredible moments when television interfered with music and stopped artists from conveying their desired message. These are the moments that got musicians banned from TV.
15 times musicians were censored on TV:
Soundgarden and MTV
In 1991, Soundgarden were one of the biggest bands on the planet and one of the most eminent members of the grunge movement. They released their magnum opus, Badmotorfinger, that year, and it has been a staple for rock lovers ever since.
Whilst the lead single ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ failed to chart in the US, it broke through at Number 30 in the UK. To accompany the release, the band created what is now an iconic music video, complete with numerous pieces of anti-religious imagery, including a burning cross.
Added to this unapologetic atheism, the video replaced Jesus with a woman on a cross, supported by skeletons. As the band have maintained ever since they did this to demonstrate that women have been persecuted throughout history.
Duly, the video caused an outcry in Christian circles, with groups on the religious right taking to the streets to protest MTV airing it on an episode on The Beavis and Butthead Show. As a result, the channel had no other option but to ban the song. They’d eventually lift the ban and showed the video on the late-night serial, Headbangers Ball.
Frontman Chris Cornell discussed the controversy in a 1993 interview with Raw Magazine: “It ended up being the first video that MTV wouldn’t play on The Beavis and Butthead Show, cos it didn’t meet their standards,” he began. “It turned out that it was the religious imagery that they were afraid of. They don’t seem to get uptight about the rap bands rapping about killing people and exploiting women, but religious imagery…”
John Lydon and BBC
John Lydon has never been frightened to say exactly what is on his mind, and he has made it his objective to air uncomfortable truths, even if it landed him in hot water. During an interview with the broadcaster in 1978, the Sex Pistols leader said, “I want to kill Jimmy Savile – he’s a hypocrite. I bet he’s into all kinds of seediness that we all know about but aren’t allowed to talk about. I know some rumours.”
At the time, Savile was one of the BBC’s flagship names, and it didn’t become public knowledge until after the DJ’s death in 2011 that he was one of the most horrific paedophiles in British history. Following Lydon’s comments, he was unofficially banned from appearing on ‘Auntie’ for several years.
The punk icon had the final word in 2015 when he told ITV, “I did my bit, I said what I had to. But they didn’t air that”.
Smashing Pumpkins and Top of the Pops
This entry can be put down to a misunderstanding, although it’s still shocking. In 1994, Chicago legends, The Smashing Pumpkins, were at their commercial and creative zenith, as the previous year they had released their masterpiece Siamese Dream, which featured the singles ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Today’.
The third single from the album was ‘Disarm’, and it, like its predecessors, had become a hit. Despite this, the BBC and Top of the Pops found fault with the song. Notably, the song is about frontman Billy Corgan’s fraught relationship with his parents, the emotional abuse he suffered and abortion. He once said, “I never really had the guts to kill my parents, so I wrote a song about it instead.”
The BBC interpreted it in a completely different way, though. The title and the lyrics were regarded as a literal reference to the gruesome murder of Merseyside toddler James Bulger, who was abducted and murdered by a pair of ten-year-olds who then left his body on a train track to be dismembered. Although the story is so appaling, it was little known outside of the UK, so the chances of ‘Disarm’ being about the murder were very small.
A pair of lines, in particular, were what drew the ire of many at the BBC, “Cut that little child / Inside of me and such a part of you” and “The killer in me is the killer in you”. Due to what they saw as the sick implications of these lyrics, the BBC banned the song from Top of the Pops. Despite the ban, though, the song endured and has remained a fan favourite ever since.
Rage Against The Machine and SNL
Saturday Night Live is still the holy grail for musicians, and it remains a landmark achievement to perform on the institution. Politics have always been a keen part of Rage Against The Machine’s image, but, for some reason, when they demonstrated their ideology on SNL, it caused an uproar.
The band were an unorthodox booking for such a mainstream programme in the first place, and there was an expectation that Rage would have a trick up their sleeve for their performance.
In truth, their political statement was subtle by their standards, and all they did was hang American flags upside down from their amplifiers while playing ‘Bulls on Parade’. However, they were soon escorted out of 30 Rock and have never been invited back.
The Doors and Ed Sullivan
The Ed Sullivan Show had a notorious policy for censoring artists, and The Doors felt his wrath first hand. During rehearsal, the host approached the band and instructed them to “smile more”, which was a sign of things to come.
Later that afternoon, a producer asked the band to change a lyric in their number one single, ‘Light My Fire’. The contentious line was “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher”, and the suggestion was changing the word form “higher” to “better”.
The band duly agreed to alter the words, but they had no intentions to do so in realirty. Instead, they went on to perform the song how they always intended. Their stubbornness resulted in a ban from the programme, yet, their integrity remained intact.
Neil Young and MTV
Neil Young’s video ‘This Note’s For You’ took a sideways glance at the commodification of artists. This parody was relevant after the likes of Eric Clapton started getting into bed with advertisers, and it was his way of poking fun at his peers.
However, MTV, which relied on funding from the same brands that Young mocked, refused to air the song. In response, Young wrote to the broadcaster and said: “MTV, you spineless twerps. You refuse to play ‘This Note’s For You’ because you’re afraid to offend your sponsors. What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.”
Remarkably, after the intervention by the Canadian, they admitted defeat and began to play ‘This Note’s For You’. In a dramatic turn of events, it even won the ‘Video Of The Year’ award at the 1989 MTV Awards.
The Rolling Stones and every broadcaster
The Rolling Stones are no stranger to controversy, and they’ve enjoyed frequenting the tightrope for years. The band have a history of sometimes overstepping the mark, such as their video for ‘Undercover Of The Night’.
The video was shot in Mexico City and starred Mick Jagger as a detective helping a woman whose boyfriend (also played by Jagger) has been kidnapped by a gang led by Keith Richards, who later kills Jagger.
The video was deemed too violent for MTV, the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, who put out a blanket ban on the film.
Jagger later revealed it “was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, a free-wheeling novel about political and sexual repression. It combines a number of different references to what was going down in Argentina and Chile.”
The Beatles and BBC
Even The Beatles weren’t too big to be censored, and the BBC refused to air their track, ‘I Am The Walrus’, which was banned completely from all arms of the broadcaster.
It was the line, “Pornographic priestess/ Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down,” which upset the institution that believed this proved ‘I Am The Walrus’ was about sex.
In a later interview, John Lennon discussed the ban and said, “The words didn’t mean a lot. People draw so many conclusions, and it’s ridiculous. I’ve had tongue in cheek all along–all of them had tongue in cheek. Just because other people see depths of whatever in it…What does it really mean, ‘I am the Eggman?’ It could have been ‘The pudding Basin’ for all I care. It’s not that serious.”
Happy Mondays and Top of the Pops
Manchester legends, Happy Mondays are no strangers to controversy. They burst onto the scene at the end of the ’80s riding the crest of the Madchester wave and became one of Britain’s hottest outfits. However, like with every band who have uncompromising attitudes, they often fall foul of the establishment.
The band made their debut on BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1989, performing their heady hit ‘Hallelujah’, alongside Kirsty MacColl. However, for a time, this would be their only chance to perform on the channel, as they’d find themselves banned almost instantly after walking off stage. It’s a remarkable fact when you note that they were yet to release their biggest hits ‘Kinky Afro’ and ‘Step On’.
In 2018, Ryder explained how the band were banned from the BBC on Joe Presents: Unfiltered with James O’Brien. “We was giggling and this guy didn’t like us giggling, who was the boss at the time,” he said. “And when he told me to shut up and I’m a young, silly kid… I mean, this guy’s probably never been told to fuck off and do one before.”
“He’s the big boss at Top Of The Pops, and some snotty kid says ‘Fuck off knobhead. Do one.’ He’d never come across that obviously, and he banned me for life.”
The Prodigy and MTV
The Prodigy’s provocative dance anthem, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, caused controversy from the title alone after it angered feminist groups. Their complaints were understandable, but it’s not the use of the discriminatory slur with which MTV took issue.
The video for the track includes drug use, driving under the influence, sex, nudity, and a smattering of brutal violence. Initially, the video was restricted to late-night airings. However, the broadcaster would later release a public statement explaining that they would no longer show it on their stations.
Despite its ban, it was nominated in four categories at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, winning ‘Best Dance Video’ and ‘Breakthrough Video’.
The Beastie Boys and American Bandstand
The Beastie Boys made history when they became the first group to become censored on American Bandstand with their appearance in 1987. Their excitement to perform ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ dissipated when they were told to lip-sync, and they made the producers rue that request.
“We had to [perform] to a tape,” Adam’ Ad-Rock’ Horovitz later remembered to Morning Call. “We couldn’t play it live, so we threw our mikes on the ground and wrecked them.”
That’s exactly what they did, and they deliberately sabotaged the programme by delivering the most woeful performance imaginable. Halfway through the song, Ad-Rock, even explicitly grabbed his crotch. Unsurprisingly, this suggestive gesture was edited from the final programme that made it to air.
Pearl Jam and MTV
Pearl Jam’s ‘Jeremy’ depicts the heartbreaking tale of a real-life student, Jeremy Wade Delle, who killed himself in front of his classmates, and the video for the track is chilling. However, the film we associate with the song isn’t the original footage they intended to release.
Singer Eddie Vedder initially recruited Chris Cuffaro, who created a graphic video to accompany the track, which never saw the light of day until 2020. MTV told their label, Epic, there was no chance they could air it, and they hired Mark Pellington to create a more palatable version.
Explaining their decision to finally release Cuffaro’s take, Vedder said, “In addition to the equity protests taking place around the country, today also marks National Wear Orange Day. The increase in gun violence since the debut of ‘Jeremy’ is staggering.
“We have released the uncensored version of the video which was unavailable in 1992 with TV censorship laws,” they added.
Fear and SNL
A more obscure name, the story of how LA punk legends Fear ended up on Saturday Night Live is a fabled one. Different beasts from what the show’s bosses and viewers would typically expect, they tore up the rulebook during their appearance.
The band fronted by Lee Ving, who remains the only consistent member of the group today, enjoyed a chance encounter with film director Penelope Spheeris while sticking gig advertisements to telephone poles in Los Angeles. Spheeris, who asked Ving if his band wanted to be in a documentary about the LA punk scene, would later appear in The Decline of Western Civilization and kickstart Fear’s rise to the top.
While the film didn’t become a hit in the mainstream, it did catch the attention of comedian, actor, singer and all-around SNL legend John Belushi, who was fascinated by the band. After discovering them, Belushi went out of his way to see the group perform live on multiple occasions before reaching out with a collaboration proposal.
Belushi, at the time, was working on the set of John G. Avildsen’s comedy film Neighbors. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Berger, the film starred Belushi alongside the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, and Kathryn Walker in what turned out to be a commercial success for Columbia Pictures, and Fear were meant to have an important part in it.
After striking up a dialogue with Fear, Belushi brought them to Cherokee Studios to record songs for the movie with the hope that they’d soundtrack the film’s closing credits. However, the producers decided against using their music, which embarrassed Belushi greatly. Wanting to make it up to Fear, who were now his friends, Belushi pulled some strings behind the scenes at SNL for their Halloween special.
What ensued was total chaos, to say the least. Upon entering the stage, boos rang around immediately as the New York natives took offence to the band opening with the hilarious words, “It’s great to be in New Jersey” which didn’t go down well. Undeterred, Fear played three songs: ‘I Don’t Care About You’, ‘Beef Bologna’, ‘New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones’, before a member of the mosh pit screamed into the microphone: “New York Sucks!” which resulted in their fourth song, ‘Let’s Have a War’ being pulled from the broadcast.
Later, a report in the New York Post would go on to claim that Fear caused $200,000 worth of damage to the SNL studio that night, destroying the green room, a mini-cam camera, two viewers and a viewing room. Unsurprisingly, the band were never invited back onto the programme. Despite this, their performance lives in punk folklore.
Elvis Presley and Ed Sullivan
Making his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was a bucket-list moment for Elvis Presley, who declared after the performance, “Wow! This is probably the greatest honour that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except it makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
However, what he didn’t know at the time was that his performance had been censored. Following a controversial hip-shaking appearance on NBC’s Steve Allen Show, television executives decided they didn’t want a repeat incident and only showed Presley from the waist-up for ‘Don’t Be Cruel’.
The Replacements and SNL
There’s no real surprise that punk legends The Replacements made it onto this list. They made their name as one of the most riotous outfits out there, and by 1986 their reputation had earned them a slot as musical guests on Saturday Night Live, but it didn’t go as expected.
At the time, internal tensions and excess were tearing the band apart, and their self-destructive nature was about to play out in front of the entire nation, in what was their first-ever appearance on national TV. The band arrived as last-minute guests, replacing The Pointer Sisters, who had cancelled only a few days prior to their scheduled performance.
The call was made by the show’s musical director at the time, G.E. Smith, who was a big fan of the band. However, what ensued would result in SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels prohibiting them from ever returning.
They performed ‘Kiss Me on the Bus’ and were completely off their face, before they jumped into an out of tune rendition of ‘Bastards of Young’, during which frontman Paul Westerberg yelled, “Come on fucker”, which incensed NBC bosses. The final nail in the coffin was when they returned to the stage wearing mismatched versions of each other’s clothing.
In a 2015 interview recorded for the Archive of American Television, G. E. Smith recalled that although the band had performed well for the early evening pre-taped dress rehearsal performance, one of their crew then smuggled alcohol into their dressing room and they spent the next few hours drinking (with the guest host, Harry Dean Stanton) while taking drugs. According to Smith, by the time of the late-night live broadcast they were so intoxicated that on their way to the stage to perform, Bob Stinson tripped in the corridor, fell over onto his guitar and broke it—a fumble that led to Smith to hurriedly loan him one of the SNL house band’s spare instruments.
The Replacements would eventually return to NBC in 2014 when they appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon almost 30 years on from that fateful night in 1986.