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A history of music censorship

This week marks the 30th anniversary of BBC banning radio play of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax'
  • @matt_grimes

As a parent of three children I know only too well the response from a child when you tell them they can’t do or have something…. you set up a personal challenge to the child to find out exactly what it is about that thing you have refused them.

30 years ago a similar situation played out between a puritanical, moralistic ‘aunty’, the BBC, and a group of petulant young men from Liverpool, members of the soon to become infamous band Frankie Goes to Hollywood (FGTH).  FGTH debut single ‘Relax’, released on Trevor Horn and Paul Morley’s recently formed ZTT label, entered the British charts in 1983 in a fairly inconspicuous manner at number 67, and then slowly climbed only as far as 35 seven weeks later.

Courting some minor controversy, with a clever promotional strategy devised by Morley, the single never really took off until Thursday 5th January 1984 when FGTH performed ‘Relax’ for the first time on BBC‘s ‘Top of the Pops’. Within a week the single catapulted itself to number 6 and, when BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read refused to play it on his radio show, thousands of inquisitive teenagers went straight to their local record shop to find out what all the fuss was about In doing so it put the record at number 1 in the charts by January 24th, where it remained for five consecutive weeks and became the biggest selling single of 1984.

So what was the fuss all about? Mike Read said he found the graphical images of the record sleeve and the song lyrics sexually suggestive, distasteful and should be banned, unbeknown to him that the BBC had already decided to ban the record from its daytime playlists anyway. The ban unsurprisingly backfired on the BBC, drew more attention to the song and became more of an embarrassment to them as the song was being played elsewhere by commercial radio stations and TV channels. The band publicly denied that the lyrics were of a sexual nature, even going as far as to suggest that the BBC directors and Mike Read were reading more into this than was apparent, thus questioning what sort of ‘deviants’ the BBC were employing. Later however the band retracted any public pretence about the suggestive nature of the song.

Music censorship has a long history. As early as 1940 George Formby had his song “When I’m Cleaning Windows” banned due to its alleged smutty lyrics!!! The Sex Pistols infamous Jubilee punk anthem ‘God Save The Queen’ suffered a similar fate, and one of my favourite anarcho-punk bands Crass, had to suffer the indignity of a record pressing plant refusing to press  the song, "Reality Asylum", accusing Crass of blasphemy. Instead, they had on the record a blank space with silence in its place, which Crass humorously dubbed "The sound of Free Speech" in protest.

More recently fewer songs are getting outright bans, however the BBC, and similarly the USA radio network Clear Channel, also deemed some songs inappropriate for airplay during the Gulf War such as “War” by Edwin Starr, “Give Peace A Chance” by the Plastic Ono Band and “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by the Cutting Crew-which in my humble opinion should be banned outright for just being plain awful.

However the ‘alteration’ of lyrical content to enable airplay, or ‘radio edit’ versions is becoming more commonplace as artists strive to express themselves more freely whilst their record labels try to maximise airplay by remaining within broadcasting guidelines. Of course with the availability of music online, either as downloads or streams, censorship is now losing some of its bite as listeners are freely able to source ‘explicit’ versions of popular songs.