I ran across a mention, a couple of days ago, of the fact that it was Jane Birkin's birthday. You know, her that is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for the 1969 UK number-one hit, Je T'aime … Moi Non Plus, along with her lover (and writer of the piece) Serge Gainsbourg. It's not a song I'm particularly fond of (not because of the risqué content; I just find it boring), but it did give me an idea for a post. Which I then failed to produce in a timely fashion. Ho-hum.
So here, is a post, two days too late for the event I wished to tie it to, about songs which have been banned by the BBC.
Now, I will admit that I think Auntie Beeb, in her post-Reithian age, is kind of between a rock and a hard place where the broadcasting of, shall we say, "off-colour" material is concerned. As a publicly-funded organisation, they have to cater, somehow, at the same time, to prudish Daily Express types who seem to get offended at the mere suggestion that such a thing as sex might even exist, and also to those can see no problem wrong with, for instance, the lyric "Relax, don't do it, when you want to come" being played as your six-year-old sits down to eat her cornflakes. Clearly a line needs to be struck, and just as clearly—there being no easily-defined scale of smuttiness—there are going to be problems of subjective judgement when we approach the centre of the grey area. The beeb, who are the poor sods who have to try to scribe that line, are obviously going to come in for some flak from one side or the other. The best they can strive for, in reality, is an equal number of complaints from each side of the fence.
I don't want to get into a discussion of Reithian values and all that, but let's just say that during its first few decades, the BBC as an organisation made little or no attempt at balance. It, in effect, was the outraged Express reader. And it had control of the playlists. Which didn't stop artists and programme makers trying their best to swim against the tide of prudishness, mind. Or trying to evade it. The best example of the latter being the fantabulosa Julian and Sandy segments in Round The Horne, wherein, via the medium of Polari, loads of gay innuendo was slipped past censors who either didn't know what the hell it was they were reading and assumed it was comedy gobbledygook (much, I suspect, like a large number of their audience), or were happy to allow it since it was disguised beneath a cloak of plausible deniability.
That said, some of the banned or censored material, such as the lines, "With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll/ In the ballroom I went dancing each night/ No wonder every girl that danced with me, stuck to me tight," from George Formby's 1937 With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock, we might definitely agree was a little risqué for its time, even if it seems tame to us now. And the same can be said of Johnny Messner's double-entendre-laden 1939 effort, She Had To Go And Lose It At The Astor. But what are we to make of Eartha Kitt's 1953 I Want To Be Evil? Looking at the lyrics, the closest thing I can find to raciness is the line "The only etchings I've seen have been behind glass," which is hardly prurience run wild, is it? Even the "evil" things poor cagèd Eartha wants to do are hardly pushing out the boat of nihilistic excess. Shooting pool? Really?
Having mentioned George Formby, I must pass on this lovely little story. Sez Wikipedia:
… the Formbys toured South Africa shortly before formal racial apartheid was introduced. While there they refused to play racially-segregated venues. When Formby was cheered by a black audience after embracing a small black girl who had presented his wife with a box of chocolates, National Party leader Daniel François Malan (who later introduced apartheid) phoned to complain. Beryl replied "Why don't you piss off, you horrible little man?"
This from a funny little ukulele-strumming singer of music-hall silliness, and the wife so straight-laced she wouldn't even allow him to screen-kiss his co-stars. Sometimes the fist-bump moments come from the unlikeliest of sources.
But back to Eartha Kitt. Because mentioning her without posting a video should, in any decent world, be a crime worthy of the direst of punishments:
I get the feeling that the objection—at least semi-religiously based—was to the general idea that a person—especially a woman, shock! horror!—might aspire to being "evil." Oh, and the line "I wanna sing songs like the guy who cries" is most probably a reference to Johnny Ray, "The Prince of Wails," famous for breaking into tears as part of his stage act.
Bans that were definitely made on a religious basis are not notable by their absence. Jimmie Rodgers' trite but fun 1957 Honeycomb, for instance, wherein Jimmie described how God made the woman who would become his wife; the sweetest wife in the world. Billie Holiday's 1942 God Bless The Child was banned purely on the basis of its title. It seems, Gentle Reader, that during those early decades, even mentioning God was deemed out of bounds. Even if, as in one of the last of Johnny Cash's Sun Records recordings, the reference was made in complete agreement with normal doctrine. From 1958's Guess Things Happen That Way:
God gave me that girl to lean on,
Then he put me on my own.
Heaven help me be a man
And have the strength to stand alone.
In other words, "It's God's will. I pray for the strength to bear the burden he has placed on me." Not exactly controversial, is it?
Most of the usual reasons for banning were those you might expect; religion, profanity, sex, violence and drug references. A couple might seem a tad surprising though. The Beeb, in its early years, was very much the patrician, and thanks to Sir Arthur Bliss, composer, conductor and early BBC director of music, pop versions of classical works were deemed "disrespectful" and banned from the airways. I'm not sure when this policy ended, but it must have been prior to 1968, since Love Sculpture's Sabre Dance wasn't affected by it. The Cougars, with their 1963 Saturday Night At The Duck Pond, however, most definitely were. Which is a pity, since it was actually one of the better of the British instrumental numbers of the period (only beaten, in that year, in my opinion, by The Dakotas with The Cruel Sea), and would definitely be better-remembered if it had received the air-play it richly deserved.
Another thing which leads to bans or censorship—and to a degree which might surprise my non-British readers—is anything that smells of advertising, though for brand-names which have become part of the culture as it were (Ford, say, or Coca Cola), things are more relaxed these days. Back in the day, though, no mention of brand-names or the like was permitted on the BBC. Here's Tom Scott with a slightly more detailed explanation:
Which is why my precious seventy-eight of the Andrews Sisters' Rum And Coca Cola would never have received air-play; though the line about "all night long make tropic love" probably raised a red flag as well, if they ignored the title for long enough to listen to it. And, of course, the rash of car-songs in the late fifties saw several bans, with Fords being raced against Cadillacs everywhere you turned. And it's also why the example I chose to post was censored. No one at the BBC, it seems, was bothered by the overt trans-ness of the Kinks' Lola, which is quite surprising for the time—and it was, indeed, banned in Australia for its "controversial subject matter." Instead, it was the line about champagne tasting just like Coca-Cola which saw singer Ray Davies making a round-trip flight from the states to London, interrupting a US tour, in order to record the words "cherry cola" for the UK single.
Before we leave the topic of bans due to advertising, one particular rather ironic ban cannot be left unspoken-of. Henry Hall's 1935 Radio Times. Okay, the title is that of a radio-listings magazine, but given that the BBC was the only licensed public broadcast system in the country at the time, it seems a little petty, even under the strict non-advertising policy. Irony is added though, in that Hall's choice of backing musicians led to a recording featuring the BBC Dance Orchestra being banned by the BBC. And it's a jolly little number, so what the hell, here it is:
Considering how many people accuse the BBC of being little more than the propaganda arm of the UK government (to be fair, many, though not all, are being intentionally hyperbolic), it might seem surprising how few songs have been banned for purely political reasons. The Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen is the obvious example, with Wings' Give Ireland Back To The Irish running a close second. I've chosen to post (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang by Heaven 17 though, purely for the reason that the ban was so bleedin' obsequious. The lyrics aren't exactly favourable to Ronald Reagan, who'd just been elected president of the USA, and it so it was, rather transparently, deemed "possibly libellous" to him.
Some of the most bizarre bannings though, have to be those enacted for the duration of the first Gulf war. Anything deemed anti-war, for starters, including, obviously, the best-known of those produced in response to the Vietnam war. Which, to be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about. If it's viewed as an activity designed to deny a voice to anti-war protesters, it seems anti-democratic, but to be frank, I don't think that's the reason. I think it was a somewhat over-zealous attempt to spare the feelings of those who'd lost or might lose loved ones serving in the Gulf. Which is, as I say, over-zealous and a bit silly. I simply don't believe that most people are that thin-skinned or easily upset by a pop song. Although various tabloid opinion-columnists would quite probably manage to fake outrage on behalf of said imaginary thin-skinned listeners, thus drumming up a wave of faux-outrage, so a third possibility is that Auntie Beeb was simply engaging in pre-emptive defence. Either way, banning such songs was probably inevitable; though it's notable that none were made (or at least none were publicly made) during the Iraq war.
In support of my theory that the BBC were trying to assuage the thin-skinned is the sheer bizarreness of several of the bannings, which can only be accounted for if we note that they use imagery which could be used for warlike or violent situations, but isn't being so-used in these instances. Lulu's Boom Bang-A-Bang, for example, in which the eponymous sound isn't related to guns, bombs or anything else military, but merely describes the sound Lulu's heart makes when her lover is near. Or Ricky Nelson's Fools Rush In, which describes his nervousness about entering into a romantic relationship. There's Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire, McGuinness Flint's When I'm Dead And Gone, (any song, seemingly, which had anything to do with any kind of death, in fact, or which used a military metaphor, such as ABBA's Waterloo), Blondie's Atomic and even more strangely the Beatles' Back In The USSR, which doesn't have any anti-war sentiment, death, violence or possible-synonyms for destructiveness; well, unless you think the idea that a native of a member-state of the USSR might be glad to be home again is pro-commie and therefore an anti-cold-war statement, that is. Which admittedly some people did at the time of its release, but it's still a damned thin excuse to ban the song during a war which had sod-all to do with Russia, the cold war or communism.
The silliest of the lot though, in my opinion, was the banning of the Bangles' Walk Like An Egyptian; a song which encourages people to dance as if they were characters in the hieroglyphs of a civilisation which died out several thousand years ago and had sod all to do with the war then being fought, except for a desert location roughly eight hundred miles away. And it's not as if there was non-stop news footage reminding those imaginary thin-skinned people of the war, is it?
On the other tentacle, it's pretty obvious and understandable why Lale Andersen's 1939 Lili Marleen was banned during the second world war. Imagine the complaints had the BBC broadcast a German-language song by a German singer at that time! But the story of the song is interesting.
It began life as a poem, The Song Of A Young Sentry, written in the Great War trenches by Hans Leip. The English translation which came later is not a direct translation, and omits the anti-war sentiment, but luckily for me, Zacharias O'Bryan took it upon himself, a few years ago, to produce a version more faithful to the original:
Fronting on the barracks,
Before the sentry gate,
Stood an ancient lamp post,
And still it stands and waits.
Thus we would see ourselves again.
'Neath our old lamp post, we would stand,
As once, Lili Marleen.
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.
Both our shadows pressing,
Melting into one.
Each passerby takes blessing,
Our gift to everyone.
And they will treasure it who can,
The love that 'neath that lamp post stands.
As once, Lili Marleen.
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.
The sentry hears the bugle.
"There's curfew, friend. Let's go.
Avoid both brig and trouble."
But we stand a moment more.
"I'll see you again."— My solemn vow.
I watched you go. I'd follow now.
With you, Lili Marleen.
Mit dir, Lili Marleen.
The street-lamp knows your cadence,
Your clicking, clipping step,
And glows in loving radiance,
But me, it soon forgets.
The sorrows of war, they shatter plans.
Ah, who now 'neath that street-lamp stands?
With you, Lili Marleen?
Mit dir, Lili Marleen?
This trench-home in the earth
Tilts to troubled dreams.
I taste your loving mouth
In memory's haunted stream.
And when the night-fogs chase and churn,
To our old lamp post we'll return,
As once, Lili Marleen.
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.
It gets really interesting, however, because not only did the British ban Andersen's version, but so did the Germans, because many Nazis, and especially Joseph Goebbels, hated it for the anti-war sentiment and for not being military enough for their tastes. Says the Telegraph:
The song was banned and both Andersen and Schultze [the composer] were charged with "moral sabotage" of the nation's aims. She was placed virtually under house arrest and he was ordered to compose music praising Nazi ideals.
In 1941, however, a German Belgrade radio station broadcasting to troops in North Africa was shelled and most of their records (extremely fragile seventy-eights, remember) were smashed. Desperate for anything to fill the airwaves, Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Reintgen found a few surviving platters at the bottom of a box, one of which was Lili Marleen. And driven by lack of choice, it ended up being played. Not only did the ordinary troops and many civilians like it and keep requesting it, but so did Rommel. And so "Goebbels was forced to retract, and to pretend that the Nazis welcomed the song. Schultze and Andersen were brought in from the cold and sent around Germany to perform the song."
But British, and then American, troops, who could hear the German broadcasts, also took to the song; largely, one supposes, on the basis of the tune rather than the words, which I doubt many could understand. The Telegraph again:
When a group of British soldiers were on leave in London, publisher Jimmy Phillips chided them for singing a song in German, so the men challenged him to produce an English version. Phillips did so, in collaboration with Tommy Connor. Their "translation" offered words which differed from Leip's original poem. Although still plaintive, it was now a bitter-sweet song of dreaming about a distant love, rather than a plangent anti-war statement.
And the rest, as they say, is history. One of the most popular songs, if not the most popular song on both sides of the conflict was a song which both sides, for their own reasons, had initially banned. There's probably a moral there, but I'll leave that as an exercise for you, Gentle Reader.
Wikipedia: List of songs banned by the BBC.
The Daily Telegraph: The story behind the song: Lili Marlene.
Translation of Lili Marleen © Zacharias O'Bryan: The translator hereby grants license for use of the above English lyrics for non-commercial purposes. The lyrics may be copied and distributed provided this translator's note, crediting Zacharias O'Bryan, accompanies them; and provided a link back to this internet page is provided. For commercial use and/or recording of the lyrics, please contact the translator via the Comments Section of the linked website.
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