The Beatles didn’t produce the same level of explicit or controversial content as some groups have been responsible for over the years. In fact, next to the Sex Pistols and The Stooges, The Beatles’ back catalogue seems like child’s play. However, As the Fab Four rose to an increasing level of public awareness in the 1960s, the BBC felt the need to step in from time to time to throw some red tape over the radio waves.
As we all know, the ’60s was a time of seismic cultural development. The post-war gloom had begun to abate as the economy thrived in the western world. The baby boomer generation matured into adulthood at this point, and they came with an attitude that would up-end the hairs on their parents’ necks. This attitude is most easily visualised by looking at the hippie culture; in with colour, psychedelic drugs and free love and out with war, racism and materialism.
Of course, The Beatles didn’t start the hippie movement, but they were certainly one of the guiding forces of the counterculture. The youth of the western world was losing religion and now putting a god-like status on musicians like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. At the time, this change worried the more conservative people in society, especially when it was discovered that the cheeky mop tops from Liverpool had started taking LSD and writing crackpot lyrics about marmalade skies and claiming to be walruses.
The Rolling Stones’ former manager Andrew Loog Oldham perhaps took it a little far when coining the alienating headline, “Would you let your daughter sleep with a Rolling Stone?” However, the rift that pop bands created between the generations was palpable in the 1960s. Reacting to the glorification of the hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, the BBC felt it necessary to censor the music at the time that they felt was promoting distasteful or illegal antics.
Without further ado, let’s explore the six Beatles songs that the BBC banned.
Every song by The Beatles that the BBC banned
Like most of the late Beatles compositions, there was very little meaning behind the abstract lyrics in Abbey Road’s opener ‘Come Together’. The only obvious meaning one can really derive is from the chorus – a nice heartfelt outcry for togetherness. Fortunately, the BBC didn’t manage to find anything offensive in the lyrics of this one, but it was banned for the same reason as they banned The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ in 1970. The BBC had strict rules against songs that mentioned specific brands, and so the mention of Coca-Cola was off-limits on the radio waves.
John Lennon once said of the track, “The thing was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook; ‘Come Together’ was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, ‘Come Together’, which would’ve been no good to him – you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?”
‘I Am The Walrus’
Perhaps one of the silliest of these BBC bannings is that of ‘I Am The Walrus’. The nonsensical lyrics were so barmy that one struggles to see how the BBC could take them so seriously, but, of course, they did. The lyrics ramble through some strange connection between the Earl of Gloucester, dead dogs, Edgar Allen Poe and the Eiffel Tower, but it’s the “pornographic priestess” side of the lyrics that really stuck in the BBC’s craw.
The aforementioned line, along with “let your knickers down”, was a step too far in the BBC’s eyes, and so they banned it for being too sexually explicit. Discussing the lyrics of ‘I Am The Walrus’, Lennon once 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.”
‘A Day In The Life’
Perhaps one of the greatest songs by the greatest band there ever was. This dramatic closer to Sgt. Pepper was also banned by the BBC. The peculiar song has multiple sections, opening with Lennon’s famous satirical lyrics inspired by contemporary news articles. One of the articles was a feature on the death of Guinness heiress Tara Browne. Later, the song morphs through a couple of orchestral crescendos with a middle section inspired by memories of McCartney’s youth, namely riding the bus, smoking, and going to class.
The BBC banned the song due to a loose drug reference in the lyrics leading into the climactic orchestral build-up: “I’d love to turn you on.” McCartney once discussed this with the Rolling Stone magazine: “This was the time of Tim Leary’s ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’.” He added: “And we wrote ‘I’d love to turn you on.’ John and I gave each other a knowing look: ‘Uh-huh, it’s a drug song. You know that, don’t you?’ Yes, but at the same time, our stuff is always very ambiguous and ‘turn you on’ can be sexual so … c’mon!”
‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’
Another song from the brilliant psychedelic endeavour that was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This one is perhaps the most well known of the “naughty” Beatles songs. Once again, we hear Lennon up to his usual lyrical tricks, supposedly hiding a reference to illicit drugs in what is, on the surface, an innocent song about a woman called Lucy who is simply milling about in the Sky with some Diamonds – nothing weird about that.
The BBC famously saw this as a reference to LSD, with its refrain pointing toward the same initialism. At the time, Lennon contended the allegations and explained that it was inspired by a drawing his son Julian had brought home portraying his classmate Lucy. As much as I believe Lennon’s story about Julian, I can’t help thinking the song was also one huge reference to LSD. You don’t write lyrics of such strange imagery and mention a “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” without having psychedelic drugs in mind.
‘Back in the U.S.S.R’
This 1968 “White Album” classic isn’t about sex and drugs, but it was banned because of its politically controversial lyrics. Upon its release, it garnered quite a strong reaction from the United States, with people taking the jovial lyrics: “You don’t know how lucky you are, boys / Back in the U.S.S.R,” to mean that The Beatles had pro-Soviet inclinations.
Strangely enough, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R’ wasn’t banned in the late ’60s for Soviet-related reasons. Instead, the BBC decided to ban the song 22 years after its release at the beginning of the first Gulf War in 1990. Alongside ‘Back in the U.S.S.R’, a further 66 songs were also banned from radio waves at the time, including ‘Atomic’ by Blondie and ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials.
‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’
While The Beatles never shied from a cheeky double entendre or a provocative title, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ seems to have come from relatively uncontentious beginnings. The song was mainly written by John Lennon, who decided to write a psychedelic circus ditty.
Most of the lyrics were taken from a 19th-century circus poster for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal appearance at Rochdale. Upon its release, it became one of the three Sgt. Pepper songs that were banned by the BBC, this time because of the lyric “Henry the Horse”. Lennon had combined two slang words for heroin, and the BBC was having none of it. It’s not clear whether this was the intention, but, at the time, Lennon denied that the song had anything to do with the drug.