23 Jul 2019

Music Feature: Songs banned by radio

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:23 pm on 23 July 2019

There's nothing like pop music to get the 'squares' riled up. Simon Sweetman dropped into the RNZ studios to talk about famous songs which have been banned from the airwaves.

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Photo: Pixabay

1. My Generation - The Who

This was released in 1965 and was one of The Who's early signature songs. It was from the band's debut album of the same name and was banned from radio when released as a single.

Not, as many thought at the time because of the "f-f-f-fade away" line suggesting swearing, but because it was deemed insulting to stutterers - very 'woke' of the BBC for 1965 says Sweetman.

"Back in 1965 there were really two ways to hear music outside of seeing it performed live - you could hear it on the radio or you could go and buy the single and the banning of the song from the radio meant that people rushed out and bought the single," says Sweetman.

Hundreds of thousands in the UK alone, he says.

2. Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday

Written as a poem in 1937 by Abel Meeropol under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, 'Strange Fruit' was then adapted to music and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.

This protest song has had an entire book written about it - specifically about Holiday's version.

It was also famously recorded by Nina Simone and many other musicians from across the genres. Originally a slow ballad, protesting the lynching of black people in America, it was banned because of the evocative, violent descriptions in its lyrics.

There are versions by Jeff Buckley, UB40 and even Sting - but Sweetman advises going for the original.

"White indie-pop bands playing it in the 80s and 90s - it never felt right to me."

Time Magazine listed it as the Song of the 20th Century.

"It's a haunting song for many reasons and yeah it was banned I guess because of those evocative images, those lyrics talking about the smell of burning flesh, talking about bulging eyes and twisted mouths. I mean the opening couplet of the song sets it up 'Southern trees bear a strange fruit.'"

3. Je T'aime,...Moi Non Plus - Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin

French chanteur, composer, drunk and lecher Serge Gainsbourg's career would be somewhat unthinkable now.

Gainsbourg could not be cancelled, Sweetman says. He was a huge star in France but is best known globally for this duet with then partner Jane Birkin in 1969.

He wrote the song originally for Brigitte Bardot but it was famously sung with his partner Jane Birkin.

"Birkin has since said the song was a joke, all funny lines - Gainsbourg was famous for punning in English and French and for using other languages or even transliterating to make funny, new words and possibilities.

"It's likely the heavy breathing - suggestive, naughty, worrying - is what saw this song banned."

There was a rumour that the couple had actually recorded themselves having sex. Gainsbourg deadpanned that if that was the case he hoped it would have been a long-playing record.

If you can get past the panting, Sweetman commends the "loveliness of the melody".

Banned almost everywhere, the song had nevertheless sold 4 million copies by the mid-80s.

4. The Pill - Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn was a huge country star when she recorded this in 1972.

Held back until 1975, this song, one of Lynn's best, was banned by many country music stations since a frank discussion of birth control was absolutely not on among their conservative listeners.

"It's crazy really when you think the pill was introduced in 1960 and so nearly 15 years after the song was still a major controversy.

"Now it was the country music stations that wouldn't play it, they were fans of the artist but not fans of what she was saying at this particular time."

And although the song was less successful than Lynn's previous country releases, it found her a new crossover audience.

"At that point basically if she released a song it went to number one or number two and this limped up to number five but it crossed over to the mainstream stations and the pop stations played it and got her a bigger audience outside of her country market.

"And you know one of the things that's amazing about this is Loretta Lynn in an interview a few years afterward said that when she would tour and play the small towns, a number of rural doctors would say to her that the pill had actually done more they thought to highlight the availability of birth control in isolated rural areas than any of the literature that they'd released."

5. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Little Jimmy Boyd

Little Jimmy Boyd was just 13 when he recorded this holiday staple in 1952.

It was initially banned because the suggestion was that mummy and daddy (in a Santa suit) were kissing and that kissing leads to the sort of thing the Catholic church could not abide.

"The teen country crooner had to meet with church leaders - something I find far more lurid than the thought of anything addressed in the song - for the ban to be lifted," says Sweetman.

6. Spasticus Autisticus - Ian Dury

Best known for his work with The Blockheads - 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' was an international hit - Dury wrote this in 1981 which had been dubbed International Year of Disabled Persons

'Spasticus Autisticus' was banned even though Dury himself was disabled and he was mocking do-gooders.

"He was unhappy that 1981 was dubbed the International Year of Disabled Persons, he found that a very patronising thing. Ian Dury contracted polio when he was a kid, so by his own admission he was, as he said, a cripple himself, those are the words he used. So he felt he could sing about this.

"Apparently the refrain comes from I Am Spartacus."

The song used at the opening of the 2012 Paralympics in London, but Dury never got to see this vindication as he died of cancer aged 57 in 2000.

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