From David Bowie to The Beatles: The 10 greatest songs banned by the BBC
With Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion currently showing how far censorship has retreated when it comes to making music with their song ‘WAP’, we thought we’d look back at 10 of the greatest songs to ever be banned by the BBC.
While the Beeb can be thanked for giving some of our favourite artists their first shot at the big time, even the broadcasters themselves would agree that over the course of history the BBC has been a traditionalist. It meant that some incredible stars like David Bowie and The Beatles have been banned by the BBC.
There is a fine line between being banned and being censored but considering almost all of the censored songs on this list were banned prior to adjustments being made, we think they deserve to all stay together.
The BBC has refused to play countless songs over the years, with tracks from the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and even Cliff Richard finding themselves victims of the Beeb’s stringent ethically policies. While some of the bans are more sensible than others, some that feature on our list are, well, outrageous.
Perhaps the most notable moment of banning from the BBC came when the first Gulf War began, the broadcaster removed 67 songs from BBC airplay. It included ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ and Queen’s ‘Killer Queen’, but we’re interested in the best songs to ever be banned.
The 10 greatest songs banned by the BBC:
‘Space Oddity’ – David Bowie
When it was written in 1969, ready to cash in on the moon landing and all the audiences around the world looking up to the sky as one, David Bowie’s song ‘Space Oddity’ actually received a dip in attention.
The song, almost certainly written with the moon landing in mind, was even passed on by Tony Visconti as he thought it was a “cheap shot.” But while the opportunity for extra Apollo 11-induced publicity was too tempting to refuse, the BBC refused to play the song.
That’s right, the broadcaster banned the song until Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins landed safely back on Terra Firma. When the ban was lifted the track rose up the charts and begun a career that would see the singer become the iconic Starman.
‘Glad to be Gay’ – Tom Robinson
In 1976, there weren’t many artists and musicians who were openly homosexual. But Robinson wasn’t just out and proud, he even wrote a song for a gay pride march, ‘Glad to be Gay’. The track became an unofficial gay anthem.
Despite the track finding its way to the charts, the BBC refused to play the song on the Radio 1 chart show. It was a misstep in the history of the broadcaster bu one DJ can hold his head high. Ever the rebel, John Peel didn’t adhere to the banning order and played the song on his massively popular Radio 1 show.
Robinson went on to marry a woman before adding another verse to the song: “Well if gay liberation means freedom for all, a label is no liberation at all. I’m here and I’m queer and do what I do, I’m not going to wear a straightjacket for you.” Quite confusing stuff but still a brilliant song.
‘I Love A Man In Uniform’ – Gang of Four
A lot of the BBC’s reasons for banning songs hang around public perception. Not just of the topic at hand but with an eye on current affairs. Gang of Four were victims of such a banning order when their song ‘I Love A Man In Unifrom’ was on its way up the charts.
Sadly, for the band, the Falklands War began and as British troops entered the fray, the BBC deemed the song inappropriate. It’s not the only time the band have been banned by the BBC either.
In 1979 their song ‘At Home He’s a Tourist’ was also censored by Auntie Beeb with the band even walking off Top of the Pops minutes before they were set to perform the track after being asked to change the lyrics. A band of principles it would seem.
‘My Generation’ – The Who
Many of the songs featured in this list are banned for legitimate reasons but the reason behind banning one of the most visceral youth anthems from the 1960s isn’t as obvious as you might think.
Did The Who’s ‘My Generation’ get banned for the swear word that Daltrey alludes to in the song? Was the song banned because of the incendiary acts that follow the song’s outro—usually ending in smashed instruments? Or, indeed, was it the anti-establishment message that seemed to ring out of everything The Who did? No, it was at the fear of backlash from the stuttering community.
The song was banned because during the track Daltrey fakes a vocal stutter to mimic the effects of taking the pills of the day. While that fact was missed by the Beeb, they did ban the record after they were worried the song would offended other stutterers.
‘Lola’ – The Kinks
A similar banning order was given to The Kinks’ game-changing song ‘Lola’. The track is famed for featuring either a man who enjoys dressing as a woman or indeed a trans woman and breaking what would have been an immeasurably bigger taboo back in 1970.
It wasn’t the subject matter that encouraged the BBC to ban the song but the use of a particular soft drink in the lyrics. Thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded, it doesn’t rely on advertisements and is therefore extremely stringent about product placement. It has also seen songs from Chuck Berry and Pink Floyd also banned for inadvertent product placement.
The Sex Pistols made a career out of being banned. After the group appeared on the Today show with Bill Grundy and delivered a plethora of four-letter expletives, they were on every broadcaster watch list. The band offered a tantalising opportunity, they guaranteed viewers. But on the radio, the group were kept off the airwaves.
After the Grundy incident, the band’s single ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ was promptly banned by the BBC and, as an added extra, when the group released their next single ‘God Save The Queen’, it was banned by the channel too.
It had little bearing on public sentiment though as Sex Pistols stoked the fires of punk and ‘God Save The Queen’ flew up the charts, alleged;y only being kept off the top spot by collusion.
‘Atomic’ – Blondie
One of the songs that fell foul of a wide banning order was Blondie’s ‘Atomic’. The track was deemed too inappropriate at the beginning of the Gulf War and was promptly banned from airplay along with 66 other songs from various artists including ‘Boom-Bang-a-Bang’ by Lulu and Cher’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot me Down)’
The track captured the band their fourth UK number-one single and cemented their place at the mountain top of music when it was first released.
Harry said in the book 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, “He (Jimmy Destri) was trying to do something like ‘Heart of Glass’, and then somehow or another we gave it the spaghetti western treatment. Before that it was just lying there like a lox.”
‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ – Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin
Serge Gainsbourg isn’t afraid of getting himself involved in the salacious activity and, with the release of his and Jane Birkin’s song ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’, he certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.
The song was quickly banned by the BBC for its overtly sexual content but the track is infamous for another reason. The song may have been performed by Gainsbourg and his then-girlfriend Jane Birkin, but it was actually written and recorded with Brigitte Bardot.
After BB’s husband heard the song he was furious and Bardot pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release the song. A plea he did not adhere to.
‘Creep’ – Radiohead
To ban a song because it is too much of one feeling is tad bit thin, even for the BBC. But that’s exactly what happened to Radiohead with their 1992 classic, ‘Creep’. While Radiohead may be happy to never hear the song again, back in 1992 it was a critical hit that the track was banned.
The reason it was banned was that it was deemed “too depressing”. As well as including ‘the f word’, the track was taken off airplay lists and the song suffered because of it. The track was then re-released in 1993 where it reached number seven in the UK charts.
We don’t really know why Radiohead hate ‘Creep’ but what we do know is that only one year later Radiohead would write and record ‘My Iron Lung’ a song about the misery of playing a track over and over, despite it being the very thing that gave you life in the first place.
‘A Day in the Life’ – The Beatles
The Beatles song ‘A Day In The Life’, taken from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was once dramatically banned by the BBC following its release in 1967 in controversial circumstances. The decision showed that the corporation was run by an iron fist and, even if you were the biggest band in the world— if your music was deemed offensive then it would not be given air time.
The band received a letter from BBC director of sound broadcasting Frank Gillard on May 23rd, 1967, detailing his reasoning for banning the song which opened with the line: “I never thought the day would come when we would have to put a ban on an EMI record, but sadly, this is what has happened over this track.”
“We have listened to it over and over again with great care,” continued Gillard, “And we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the words ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ followed by that mounting montage of sound, could have a rather sinister meaning.
“The recording may have been made in innocence and good faith,” Gillard added. “But we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it. ‘Turned on’ is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in vogue in the jargon of the drug addicts.”