“Pyjamas lyin’ side by side / Ladies’ nighties I have spied / I’ve often seen what goes inside / When I’m cleaning windows.” George Formby: When I’m Cleaning Windows (1937) – banned by the BBC
“Fuck what I said, it don’t mean shit now / Fuck the presents, might as well throw them out / Fuck all those kisses, it didn’t mean jack / Fuck you, you ho, I don’t want you back.” Eamon: Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back) (2003) – played (with swearing removed) on daytime BBC radio stations, helping the song to Number 1 in the UK singles chart.
Just after a decade ago, in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a number of songs were banned by a range of radio stations following what is known as the Clear Channel Memorandum. These included When Will I See You Again by The Three Degrees, Bullet With Butterfly Wings by The Smashing Pumpkins, and the entire recorded oeuvre of Rage Against The Machine. Some artists were forced into other action: Bush renamed single, Speed Kills, to The People That We Love, Jimmy Eat World similarly updated Bleed American to Salt, Sweat, Sugar, The Strokes pulled New York City Cops from all subsequent editions of debut album, Is This It, and hip-hop duo The Coup hastily removed copies of their recent LP, Party Mu$ic, from shops due to its eerily prescient cover art.
People’s capacity to be easily offended can never be under-estimated. One person’s harmless remark is another’s devastatingly cruel barb. However, at the time, I couldn’t help but think people would probably have more pressing concerns than reading too much into what was being played on the radio. Of course, it’s better to be on the safe side, but the eagerness to cover all bases and ensure no offence was caused was a little on the over-zealous side. The Strokes were being hailed as counter-cultural icons, the figureheads of a zeitgeist-capturing scene – was anybody really going to be horrifically offended by their proclamation that New York City Cops “ain’t too smart”?
Since then, taking offence and apologies have become more and more commonplace. Politicians and celebrities “mis-speak”, jokes are taken out of context, comedians argue the toss over whether words have transcended their original meaning or not. Meanwhile, Outraged Of Tunbridge Wells fires off an email to Ofcom if Katy Perry so much as glances salaciously at a television camera. However, there have been no blanket bans on songs in the UK in such a manner, temporary or otherwise, since 2001. In fact, the BBC now go as far as to say they have a policy to not ban songs on their radio stations, which are listened to millions of residents each day.
Is this a good thing or not? As British tabloid, the Sunday People, once asked: must we fling this filth at our pop kids?
The list of songs banned by the BBC is a fascinating historical document which shows changes in what is and isn’t deemed acceptable over time, as fashions, trends and culture develops. There’s an hilarious missive from the Dance Music Policy Committee, written in 1942, which states: “We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of war.” In its time, the BBC has banned A Day In The Life by The Beatles (which, technically, is still banned), Mack The Knife by Bobby Darin and Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday, amongst others. However, in more recent times, they’ve happily played Because I Got High by Afroman (practically a love letter to marijuana), Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back) by Eamon (and its reply, F.U.R.B. (Fuck You Right Back) by Frankee) and S&M by Rihanna (though it was referred to by the title, Come On, by DJs).
Ultimately, times have changed, but although censorship and regulatory bodies still loom large in everyday life, pop music now seems to be almost beyond such standards. Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand caused a national scandal by leaving an – admittedly, unprovoked and cruel – answer machine message for actor Andrew Sachs, yet it’s fine to play songs which glamorise the taking of illegal intoxicants. UK viewers complained in their thousands about the provocative performances of Rihanna and Christina Aguilera on The X Factor, but myriad hip-hop videos which demean women and portray them as scantily-clad objects of lust fulfilment raise little more than a shrug.
Earlier this year, The British Board of Film Classification refused to grant a certificate to The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) due to its content, the first time this had happened for over two years (it was subsequently given an 18 certificate following the removal of several scenes). It makes you think what a song would have to do to cause similar consternation because it now seems – profanity before the watershed aside – anything goes. One thing’s for sure, we’ve certainly come a long way since Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was deemed too offensive for the public’s sensitive ears.