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Five artists banned from 'Top of the Pops'

In terms of British institutions, you don’t get much more iconic than BBC’s Top of the Pops (TOTP), it even surpasses the likes of Desert Island Discs in terms of its cultural legacy. Originally broadcast weekly between January 1st 1964 and July 30th 2006, TOTP was the world’s longest-running weekly music show, and for people of a certain generation, they remember it as a highlight of their generational musical evolution. I’d be amazed if children today are even aware of the cultural potency that TOTP once had, now that it is reduced to a terrible Christmas special every year.  

Each weekly edition consisted of performances of some of the week’s best-selling popular music, excluding tracks moving down the chart. For many, it was where they discovered their favourite artists and got their lowdown on the state of music at that present point. You have to remember when TOTP was at its zenith, the internet was just a sapling. It was considered an honour to perform on the show, as it indicated that a musical artist had just entered the major leagues. 

Dusty Springfield’s early classic ‘I Only Want to Be with You’ was the first-ever song to be performed on the show, whilst English heroes The Rolling Stones were the first band to grace its stage with ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Interestingly, stadium fillers Snow Patrol were the last to perform on the weekly show when they delivered their colossal hit ‘Chasing Cars’ to an audience of screaming fans. 

Notably, the show delivered some of the most seminal performances in music history. March 1971 saw T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan donning glitter and satin as he performed ‘Hot Love’, which is hailed as the dawn of glam rock. Furthermore, David Bowie‘s performance of ‘Starman’ is celebrated as one of the best ever, and The Boomtown Rats’ rendition of ‘Rat Trap’ in 1978, is also a classic. The image of Bob Geldof playing the saxophone on his candelabra evokes both the brilliance and downright stupidity of TOTP.

However, some musical acts didn’t get to perform their hits on TOTP. Given that the BBC was notorious for censorship once upon a time, some artists found themselves on the wrong side of conservative Britain’s fury. Whether it be for political, provocative or downright hilarious reasons, some of the most iconic acts of all time never got the chance to perform their best-loved cuts. It’s one of the strangest tales of all time that the BBC was so into censorship given the darkness it housed once upon a time, but we won’t get into that.

Join us as we list five artists banned from Top of the Pops

Five artists banned from ‘Top of the Pops’:

The Smashing Pumpkins

This one is largely attributed to a crossing of wires, but it is still shocking. In 1994 Chicago alt-rock legends, The Smashing Pumpkins were at the top of their game as in July ’93, they dropped their seminal sophomore album, Siamese Dream, which featured tracks such as ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Today’. The third single from the album was ‘Disarm’, and it, like its predecessors, had become a hit. Nevertheless, the BBC and TOTP found fault with the song. 

Ostensibly, the song is about frontman Billy Corgan’s fractured 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 taken as a very literal reference to the gruesome murder of Merseyside toddler James Bulger, who was killed by a pair of ten-year-olds who then left his body on a train track to be dismembered. Although the story is so shocking, it was little known outside of the UK, so the chances of ‘Disarm’ being about the murder were minute. 

A pair of lines 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 their implications, the BBC banned the song from TOTP. Despite this band, the song endured and remains a fan favourite. 

Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg was no stranger to controversy, but when his taboo-breaking love song with Jane Birkin, ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ topped the charts in 1969, the establishment across the world were hugely offended. Unsurprisingly, the BBC were so angry that they refused to play it at all, denying Gainsbourg and Birkin a chance to perform on TOTP.

At the time, it was an unprecedented move, as the institution had long made it the right of whichever artist topped the chart to perform on TOTP regardless of content. It’s also strange that the French-language song offended so easily, but it wasn’t the lyrical content that the BBC head honchos were angered by. It was the now-iconic sexual panting noises that Birkin performs in the background of the track.

You can understand exactly why the stuffy older generation were angry as they thought they were literally listening to two people making love. Gainsbourg was angered at the controversy the song caused, as he found it to be a “pure” reflection of his love for Birkin. It’s a real travesty that the pair never got to perform it on TOTP.

Sex Pistols

Another crying shame is that British punk icons, Sex Pistols, never got to perform their anthemic second single ‘God Save the Queen’ on TOTP. Shortly after its release, Pistols frontman, Johnny Rotten remarked, “There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture.”

The lyrics display a general hatred towards the British monarchy and an incendiary anti-authoritarian stance that offended many. As a stroke of genius on the behalf of the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren, the song was released on May 27th 1977, in the middle of the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s accession. 

The BBC banned the song, the Independent Broadcasting Authority didn’t play it, and Woolworths refused to stock it. The BBC even labelled the track as “gross bad taste”. Due to the furore it caused, the single was selling 150,000 units a day in its first month, and it looked certain to hit the number one spot on the charts. Unfortunately, it only made it to second, being beaten by Rod Stewart’s forgettable hit ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’. 

If the BBC did have a direct hand in the ‘God Save the Queen’ not reaching the top spot, so they couldn’t play on TOTP, it was a damn good bit of skulduggery. 

Happy Mondays

Another band on this list who are no strangers to the controversy is Manchester indie rockers, Happy Mondays. Fronted by Shaun Ryder and augmented by the grooving dance moves of Bez, they’re one of the most entertaining bands the UK has ever had.

Breaking onto the scene in the late ’80s on the back of the Madchester movement, they quickly established themselves as one of the biggest bands around. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Mondays, and often it was to do with their rather uncompromising attitudes. 

The band made their debut on TOTP in 1989, performing their heady favourite ‘Hallelujah’, with the late Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals. However, this was to be the only time that the BBC would allow one of Britain’s biggest bands, who were yet to release ‘Kinky Afro’ and ‘Step On’, on the show. 

In 2018, Ryder explained how the band were banned from the BBC and TOTP 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

It’s well known that English dance legends The Prodigy never enjoyed a loving relationship with the BBC. In 1996 they released their most recognisable single, ‘Firestarter’, which teenagers and ravers loved, but everyone else hated. The video was banned by the BBC after TOTP viewers complained about the song’s theme of arson, and frontman Keith Flint’s subversive punk look. 

This was just the tip of the iceberg, though. At this point in time, The Prodigy were at the top of their game and their third album, The Fat of the Land was a huge hit. The album’s final single, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, was also a gigantic hit, but in many ways, and understandably, more offensive than ‘Firestarter’. The line Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up” made a lot of people wince, including the BBC. 

Due to the BBC limiting its airplay, The Prodigy never played the track on TOTP. It serves them right for ‘condoning’ wife-beating.