24 songs you won’t believe were banned from the radio

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Musician Frank Zappa once asked, “If lyrics make people do things, how come we don’t love each other?” He and other musicians spoke out against censorship during Congressional hearings in 1985 when the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was pushing legislation to label music as potentially unsafe listening for children.

Those hearings and the legislation that came out of them is something music lovers see the results of every time they buy an album that contains content deemed explicit: “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” While these warning labels are relatively new in the history of music, censorship and even the banning of songs from public broadcast is not.

Here, we take a look at some of the songs banned from the radio – some as early as the 1930s – and the “offenses” for which they were banned:

(Editor’s note: You can hear these and other banned songs on the author’s banned songs playlist.)

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Offense 1: Sex & sexuality

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

These days, radio stations aren’t as uptight about sexual lyrics as they once were. You can hear a multitude of artists getting graphic about the 100 different ways they want it. But before the late ‘90s, most radio stations tended to shy away from songs with even the slightest suggestion of sex, like these …

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1. “Wake Up Little Susie” by The Everly Brothers

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

The idea that this tune was ever banned would have most young listeners today laughing, but it was considered blatantly offensive by some radio stations when it came out in 1958.

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2. “Arnold Layne” by Pink Floyd

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

As time went on, songs began to explore not only sex, but sexuality and gender roles as well. “Arnold Layne,” one of Pink Floyd’s early songs released on the 1971 album “Relics” and written by innovative and short-lived member Syd Barrett, tells the story of a young man who steals women’s clothes to wear for himself. 

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3. “Lola” by The Kinks

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

A few years earlier, this hit song by The Kinks also addressed gender expression outside the binary. While their lyrics may not be considered politically correct today, they weren’t exactly negative about their subject either. While the song was played regularly in the United States, it was banned in Australia for its controversial subject matter. In Britain, though, the BBC banned it for a totally different reason. The song’s mention of Coca-Cola went against the broadcaster’s strict product placement policies, so the band overdubbed Coca-Cola with cherry cola on the single version.

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4. “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

A hugely important addition to sexual singles that shocked the nation was this little ditty from 1965. Several years earlier, in 1960, the birth control “pill” was approved for public use, and by 1963, 2.3 million American women were happily taking it. But when Loretta Lynn released her song endorsing the pill and applauding it as a victory for women’s rights, it didn’t go over so well with some radio executives. Singing about women being able to finally join the workforce, or go out on the town in whatever clothes they wanted was deemed too progressive and threatening for radio audiences. Despite its ban from the airwaves, “The Pill” became an important part of women’s history.

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5. “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Many times in music history, women have been criticized for changing from a good girl to a bad girl persona, and Australia’s sweetheart was no exception. When Newton-John took a note from her iconic turn as good-girl-gone-bad Sandy in Grease and put out “Physical,” it took the world by storm, charting No. 1 almost instantly. The song’s suggestive lyrics were just too much for some markets, though, and it was quickly banned from some stations.

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Offense 2: Alcohol & drug use

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Like sexually explicit lyrics, mentions of drug and alcohol use also have played a major role in songs not getting radio play. And it didn’t all start in the psychedelic era of the 1960s, either…

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6. “Rum and Coca-Cola” by The Andrews Sisters

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

In 1944, The Andrews Sisters sang about going on vacation to Trinidad and downing a couple drinks. Three young women singing about getting drunk in a foreign country was a big no-no back then (not to mention that product placement!), but it’s a relic today.

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7. “Hi, Hi, Hi” by Wings

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Linda and Paul McCartney did not shy away from writing material that got them in trouble with radio executives and this song was no exception. The band decided to spell the title like the salutation to try to avoid being banned, but the lyrics “we’re gonna get high, high, high,” spoiled that plan, as did some lyrics considered sexually explicit by the BBC. The ban seemed to spur people to buy the record, and it hit the top 10 in 1970 in both the U.K. and U.S. markets.

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8. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” by The Beatles

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

One of the most well known songs in history was also banned from radio play by the BBC in 1967 for what was considered blatant references to drug use. Though there is no actual mention of any drugs on this song from the album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was assumed John Lennon was writing about his experiences taking LSD. Lennon was later reported as saying he was inspired by a drawing his son made of a colorful woman flying through the sky.

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9. “If You’re A Viper” by Fats Waller

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This 1943 cover of the original recording by Stuff Smith (You’se a Viper) starts off with dialogue of Waller explaining that the police will “be here any minute.” A jaunty piano entrance leads right into the lyrics “I dreamed about a reefer five feet long.” From there the song doesn’t hold back on very obvious mentions of marijuana use. While Waller’s version was not the only one banned from radio play, it was one of the most well known versions. It was used during World War II to prosecute jazz musicians for drug use.

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10. “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” by Ian Dury & The Blockheads

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This 1977 song was extremely popular in the United Kingdom for its unique sound and sense of humor, but the BBC did not have the taste that the rest of the country did. Like so many other songs that referenced drugs, Dury’s song was briefly banned.

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Offense 3: Blasphemy & other religious no-nos

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Akin to questioning authority, questioning religion is taboo enough to get some songs banned. Here are some of my favorites:

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11. “Dear God” by XTC

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This song about a letter from an agnostic to God questioning God’s existence never should’ve been as popular as it ultimately became. It was excluded from the band’s album, “Skylarking” and was available only in the U.K. on the B-side of the single “Grass,” but it was quickly discovered by American college radio DJs who imported the single. The airplay it received made it so popular, that the U.S. distributor of the album repressed it to include the song. It ended up being the album’s most successful single.

The song did ultimately provoke some unusual reactions. One American radio station received a bomb threat for playing the song, and a high school student with a knife in Binghamton, New York, forced the school to play Dear God over the public-address system. As recently as 2011, a Canadian teacher was suspended for playing the song for his 6th and 7th grade poetry classes.

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12. “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” by Ella Fitzgerald

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Here’s another head-scratcher. This song was a hit when it debuted on Broadway in 1940 as part of the musical “Pal Joey.” But when Ella Fitzgerald recorded the song in 1958 it was met with some resistance. Her voice singing those tragically romantic words seemed like they had come from heaven above, but that didn’t matter. That word “bewitched” was just too much for some radio stations, even the BBC.

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13. “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Yet another song that makes you say “hmmmm…” Some U.S. radio stations refused to play this song from the album “Pet Sounds” – considered by some to be a recording masterpiece – because it was blasphemy. Apparently, using the word “God,” was a little too out there for 1966.

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14. “Walking on Water” by Eliza Doolittle

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Another song banned for lyrics some could consider blasphemous, “Walking on Water” was a comparably faith-positive song from 2013. Lines like “sometimes I wish I was Jesus,” in a song about missing a loved one, was just too controversial for airplay according to the top brass at the U.K.’s BBC.

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Offense 4: Questioning authority

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Bands all over the world sing about the cruelties that exist in their respective countries and beyond. It sometimes gets them shut down. These are some musicians who refused to stay silent and whose music sometimes became anthems for the oppressed.

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15. “F*ck Tha Police” by N.W.A.

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Given the title, this is definitely the least surprising banned song on this list, but it is notable nonetheless. Beyond the threats of violence, profanity, and the F word in the title, this song is most notable because it calls out police officers for blatant racism. The track, released in 1988, was instantly popular despite the ban (or perhaps in part because of it) and has made a powerful comeback in recent years as the same racial concerns this song addressed nearly 30 years ago continue today.

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16. “God Save the Queen” by The Sex Pistols

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Written 11 years prior to N.W.A.’s hit, this song was a British punk anthem that reached as high as No. 2 on the BBC charts before being removed from rotation for its ridicule of Queen Elizabeth II. Johnny Rotten mocked the British anthem of the same name, drawing out the syllables in lines like “we love our queen,” to express it’s irony, and even ends the song with a crowd chanting “no future.” The fact that it was played on the radio ever was shocking, but it holds an importance in music and England’s history.

Image Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons.

17. “Big Boys Bickering” by Paul McCartney

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This solo effort by McCartney was banned so hard it’s still not available on some streaming sites or the radio. McCartney has never been shy about using his fame to make his political views known, and this song is no exception. “Big Boys Bickering” was banned not only for it’s overt political commentary, but for his rare use of the F word. He said in defense of the profanity, “it was the only word fit to save the planet.”

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18. “(We Don’t Need No) Fascist Groove Thang” by Heaven 17

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This song called out President Reagan by name, asking the people of the United States to come together and take a stand. They sang about institutional racism at the time of Reagan’s presidency, and Radio 1 saw legal issues with the song, so the BBC had it banned. The song was never a huge hit to begin with, and no radio play kept it that way.

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Offense 5: War & death

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Much like questioning authority, questioning war has been one of the most common reasons an artist has been banned from radio play. Sometimes, these songs didn’t even have to include direct references to war. Likewise, suicide, murder, natural death, or violence have been taboo subjects even if their treatment of these subjects is mostly positive.

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19. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” by Bing Crosby

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Sometimes a song can be considered subversive without having any political or negative content whatsoever. That’s the case with this Christmas classic, which was banned after it came out as a featured song in the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn.” It was thought that hearing the song could hurt morale among soldiers during World War II who couldn’t be home with their families. 

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20. “Give Peace a Chance” by Plastic Ono Band

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

Some artists are very vocal about their opposition to war. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for example, had many songs, such as “Imagine” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” that expressed their stance against war, but it was their Plastic Ono Band song “Give Peace A Chance” that was banned by some stations for its blatant opposition to the Vietnam war.

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21. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” by The Beatles

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This Beatles tune really rattled radio execs. John Lennon was fascinated by an article of the same name published in an NRA magazine, and thought it would make a great song. The irregular and ironic dynamics of the background vocals softly singing “bang bang, shoot shoot” while Lennon sang about how nice it feels to hold and shoot a gun, had many people confused. Though the song may have been ironic to some listeners, it was blocked by some stations for fear it would be offensive.

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22. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” by Nancy Sinatra

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

This song, originally written by Sonny Bono and recorded by Cher, returned to popularity a few years later when it was covered by Nancy Sinatra. She slowed the song down, singing it over a dark and dreamy guitar, played by Billy Strange. It was deemed too dark to play by the BBC, but the song was popular in both the U.S. and U.K. markets despite that ban. 

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23. “Can’t Stand Losing You” by The Police

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

The song is about suicide, and that was absolutely not a subject radio executives wanted to take a chance playing on air for the public back in 1978. Since the song outlined such a relatable subject as a breakup, people were concerned that fans of The Police would follow in Sting’s fictional footsteps.

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24. “Mack The Knife” by Bobby Darin

24 songs you won't believe were banned from the radio

If you took away the lyrics you’d have an upbeat, seemingly happy 1959 pop number similar to Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen.” But there’s a dark side to Darin’s cheerful cover of a story originally written for the 1928 German musical, “The Threepenny Opera” (“Die Dreigroschenoper” in German, which, ironically perhaps, also was banned from performance by the Nazis). Darin’s zippy tune belies the deadly menace of the song’s titular character. Despite the discomfort the song brought to some audiences, it became a No. 1 hit in both the U.K. and U.S. Still, the song was banned by many stations for its seemingly positive portrayal of serial killers. 

The author, io (ee-oh) Hickman, is an artist from Austin, Texas. She grew up around many performers, including her parents, musicians Lance Schriner and Sara Hickman, 2010 Texas State Musician. Music has been an influential part of her life since birth, and she continues to passionately listen to and study the roots and branches of all types of musical genres. This article was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

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5 Replies to “24 songs you won’t believe were banned from the radio”

  1. Stephen says:

    io Hickman’s 7/2/2019 article “20 songs you won’t believe were banned from the radio” leaves out the one song that should be at top of the list.

    The Standells 1966 hit “Dirty Water”… the song is a mock paean to the city of Boston & its then famously polluted Boston Harbor & Charles River but that isn’t what radio listeners thought they heard. There was even a movement to band the group from the US but never materialized.

  2. GZB says:

    Another example is P.F. Sloane’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965) made powerfully popular by the graveled voice of Barry McGuire.

    And yet another example might be “Greenback Dollar” by the Kingston Trio (1963). Although maybe not outright banned, it censored the word ‘damn’ in the line: “I don’t give a damn about a greenback a-dollar…”. They replaced the word ‘damn’ with a guitar strum. It just gave us snotty kids a bigger voice to shout ‘damn’ when heard on our school bus on our way to school. Yeah, we had a cool bus driver who played L.A’s KHJ 93 AM. It was a great way to entertain us on the way to school.

  3. Roseanna Marcey says:

    “Thank You John” by Willie T is about a prostitute and her pimp

  4. rcu says:

    I can’t believe Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” DIDN’T get banned. The “funky shit” lyric is not rated G, especially for 1977. But it became an instant classic and still enjoys regular rotation.

  5. J. says:

    Not mentioned here is the only instrumental song ever banned from American airways “Rumble” by Link Wrey. Authorities thought it would promote gang violence.

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