Unfit for Auntie's airwaves: The artists censored by the BBC

From Cole Porter to the Sex Pistols, the BBC has censored artists. Spencer Leigh reads transcripts of the discussions

Today it is common to hear such favourites as Frankie Laine's "Answer Me", Johnnie Ray's "Such a Night", the Coasters' "Charlie Brown", Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" and Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" on BBC programmes, but all of them were originally kept off the airwaves.The BBC has always been funded by public money and its management often felt that its music should reflect public taste or, at least, not be out of step with it.

The role of the gatekeeper was taken very seriously by the BBC and it is gratifying that the copious files of the Dance Music Policy Committee and its various incarnations have been preserved at their Written Archives Centre in Caversham. The files, which stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s, tell us much about different times, especially during the rise of teen-orientated music in the mid-1950s. Things were moving so fast that a member likened their work to "a crazy weathervane in a storm". The Controller of Sound Broadcasting replied: "No one is more alive than I to the need to buttress the forces of virtue against the unprincipled elements of the jungle."

The committee was deemed highly necessary in the pre-war years, as many music-hall and American blues songs were packed with innuendo. The BBC also banned Cole Porter's glorious ballad, "Love For Sale", in 1930. Not only was the song about prostitution but it also appeared that the singer was rather enjoying the experience: "If you want to buy my wares, follow me and climb the stairs, love for sale."

As late as 1964, the BBC was still divided about whether this ban should be lifted. Ten years earlier, Johnnie Ray had soared to the top with "Such a Night": the song itself was permitted but not Ray's performance as his coital panting was seen as "lewd and suggestive". In 1969, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg were banned for simulating orgasm on "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus". At least its title could be mentioned in a chart run-down: when Max Romeo's "Wet Dream" started selling, the radio DJs Tony Brandon, Tony Blackburn and Alan Freeman were instructed that they must only make reference to "a record by Max Romeo".

George Formby appears to have had a one-to-one relationship with the Committee. A memo in 1946 says, "We have no record that 'With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock' is banned. We do, however, know, and so does Formby, that certain lines in the lyric must not be broadcast."

The committee took its work very seriously, so any mention of religion was shunted off to the Head of Religious Broadcasting. Although the identity of "HRB" changed with the years, the views and outlook did not shift substantially.

In 1953, Frankie Laine's "Answer Me" was seen as "a sentimental mockery of Christian prayer". Laine was simply asking the Lord to tell him why his girl wasn't treating him right: "Answer me, Lord above, just what sin have I been guilty of, tell me how I came to lose my love, please answer me, O Lord."

Bunny Lewis, the quick-witted manager of David Whitfield, seized the moment. With minor adjustments, the song became "Answer Me, My Love" and, with BBC plays, the singer from Hull had a No1.

In 1954, Don Cornell's "Hold My Hand" was banned from airplay as HRB did not consider that a relationship with a girlfriend could be likened to "the kingdom of heaven". Despite the lack of airplay, the record went to the top of the charts. Cornell had sent "Hold My Hand" to the Archbishop of Canterbury for approval, but the Archbishop had tactfully responded by saying that he had no time to listen to popular music.

In 1959, Billy Fury released a seasonal single, "My Christmas Prayer", which had the same plaintive appeal as his previous successes, "Maybe Tomorrow" and "Margo". HRB damned it by saying, "The lyric is an expression of longing, set as a prayer. Either fact on its own could be acceptable but it is felt that the conjunction of the two would give offence."

Had the committee still been in existence, it would surely have banned Cliff Richard's "Millennium Prayer", as only one arrangement of the Lord's Prayer was permitted. Richard was lucky to escape a ban with his B-side about a stuttering girlfriend, "Mumblin' Mosie", in 1961. Luckily someone remembered that the old song, "K-K-K-Katy", was allowed.

In 1942, the BBC's director of music, Sir Arthur Bliss, along with other luminaries, had written wartime instructions for the committee and had allowed the banning of songs "which are slushy in sentiment".

"I'll Be Home For Christmas" is a standard but it was not heard on the BBC for some years as it was felt that it might lower the morale for troops listening overseas. Similarly, "Paper Doll" was banned as "we did not think it desirable to broadcast the song's theme of feminine faithlessness".

The anti-slush campaign did not last, although its presence was felt for some years: "Crying in the Chapel" was described as "nauseating but theologically unexceptional".

Bliss, as might be expected, was staunchly against tunes borrowed from classical works. The application of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu for the melody of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" prevented it from being played. The instruction led to surprising bans: sometimes whole albums by Liberace, Lawrence Welk and Mantovani were prohibited. The score of Kismet was seen as suspect as it borrowed from Borodin, and so "Baubles, Bangles And Beads" was not played.

In 1961, most of that year's 167 banned records were included for mutilation of the classics or, as the committee put it, for "distortion of melody, harmony and rhythm". The Cougars' version of Swan Lake, "Saturday Night At The Duckpond", did not impress the committee. Both "Loch Lomond" and "Greensleeves" were seen as serious pieces, and most interpretations were banned, including the Fabulous Flee-Rekkers' hit single, "Green Jeans" from 1960.

On the other hand, you could do what you liked with "Sabre Dance" as "it is not a well-loved classic whose perversion we would be encouraging".

The most unlikely record to slip through the net has to be B Bumble and the Stingers with their 1962 chart-topper, "Nut Rocker". The committee deliberated hard about it and concluded: "This instrumental piece is quite openly a parody of a Tchaikovsky dance tune, is clearly of an ephemeral nature, and in our opinion will not offend reasonable people."

Often, the committee was standing firm against what it saw as the vulgarisation of music and the lowering of standards, both of which appeared to come from America. Slang terms perplexed the committee and, once they had had a translation, they might ban the record anyway. Take Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's witty composition for the Coasters, "Charlie Brown", from 1959: the Committee regarded "spitball" (actually a peashooter) as a "disgusting, delinquent word" and banned the record.

"Mack the Knife", the song from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, was seen as the gangsta rap of its time: "It has an off-beat lyric about knives, corpses and blood and it was decided that it would cause offence if broadcast out of context." The implication was that it could only be performed in The Threepenny Opera.

Satire was always difficult for the committee and, in 1953, 10 of the 12 tracks on The Tom Lehrer Songbook were banned. Six years later, More Of Tom Lehrer was treated more leniently but the BBC's management was horror-struck when "We Will All Go Together When We Go" was played on Housewives' Choice. A subsequent investigation revealed that the BBC had played the record three times but, "from an audience amounting to about 25 million, only six letters of protest were received."

An explanation for the difficulties of satire can be found in the correspondence from 1943 about Noël Coward's "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans". The BBC decided that the song could be broadcast but expected complaints: "It is just on the cards that casual or slow-in-the-uptake listeners may take the song literally and want indignantly to know why the BBC allowed Coward to advocate such excessive kindliness towards the Germans." The answer to all complaints was to be: "The BBC believes that most listeners would rather have Mr Coward being himself than Mr Coward tied up in censorship from Broadcasting House." This implies that there was a law for the super-talented and another for the rest.

Bob Dylan's first ban came in 1962 with "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" as it included the phrase, "God-almighty world". He and many others recorded politically aware songs that often gave the committee pause for thought. Not many of them were banned outright and even Barry McGuire's 1965 hit, "Eve of Destruction" was only placed on its "restricted" list, so it could not be used in "general entertainment programmes", (it was, with special permission, broadcast on Folk Room).

By this time, the committee was an anachronism and had been scaled down. Soon the choice of songs would be left to individual producers, with occasional blanket bans for Donna Summer ("Love to Love You Baby"), the Sex Pistols ("God Save the Queen") and Frankie Goes to Hollywood ("Relax").

Very little is banned today, and producers have guidelines that enable them to determine what is or isn't suitable for their programmes. However, the attitude towards a record can change with the circumstances: during the Gulf War, the BBC published a list of records to be avoided, including Cher's "Bang Bang", Rod Stewart's "Sailing", the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" and Lulu's Eurovision winner, "Boom-Bang-a-Bang". To borrow the title of another record on the list, heaven help us all.

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