1950s. USA. Paul Robeson
In the 1950s, musicians as well as the denizens of Hollywood felt the force of the McCarthyite witchhunts and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. No-one more so than Paul Robeson.
According to Julian Petley’s article in Index of Censorship in 1998, Paul Robeson is “undoubtedly the most censored of all American musicians.” After years of harassment and vilification, the State Department revoked Robeson’s passport in 1950, and US officials prevented him from singing in Canada in 1952. He was subpoenaed by the House Committee in 1956.
Source: Index of Censorship: ‘Smashed Hits’ Volume 27, 6/1998, p. 15.
Febuary 1952. USA. Seeger & the Weavers
The song ‘Wimoweh’ was recorded in 1951 by Seeger and his band the Weavers, in a version faithful to the Zulu original. But this was the era of McCarthy witch hunts in America, and Seeger’s politics made him an inevitable quarry of the commie-chasing House Un-American Affairs Committee. Just as ‘Wimoweh’ made its chart debut, a former trade union colleague of Seeger’s named Harvey Matusow denounced the musician to the committee. In “one of the looniest tales of the entire McCarthy era”, Malan says, Matusow testified that communists were “preying on the sexual weakness of American youth”. And he was willing to give names – one of which was Seeger. The public reaction was immediate. The press went wild, Weavers’ shows and television appearances were cancelled, radio stations banned their records and ‘Wimoweh’ tumbled off the charts.
1955. USA. ‘Black music’
15,000 letters, mostly written by young adults, are sent to Chicago rock stations accusing them of playing “dirty” records. Radio station WABB runs editorials called ‘About The Music You Won’t Hear on WABB’. The editorials promise that the station will censor itself of all controversial music, especially rhythm and blues – in other words, “black” music.
1958-1959. USA. Link Wray
Link Wray’s convention-shattering rock instrumental ‘Rumble’ ands in the U.S. Top 20 despite being banned in several radio markets for its violent evocations – even though it has no lyrics. The title of the song is thought to be suggestive of teenage gang violence. When Wray performs on American Bandstand, Dick Clark introduces him but doesn’t say the title of the song. Three-quarters Shawnee Indian, prolific Link Wray was later named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
1964. USA. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash was concerned with the plight of Native Americans, and produced a series of records about their condition. The song ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ became a top ten country hit. It tells the story of Ira Hayes – a Pima Indian who was one of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima in the famous photo, and who died drunk in a ditch in 1955. Country radio stations in America tried to show their influence and ban the song, but it backfired. It made Johnny Cash into the darling of the industry. He paid for a nationwide advert that said, “DJs, station managers, owners, etc. Where are your GUTS?… ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ IS strong medicine. Well, so is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”
1966. USA. Beatles
In March, John Lennon comments that the Beatles are more popular with teens than Jesus Christ. The observation leads to Beatle record burnings and bans from radio play around the country. In June, the Beatles release their ‘Yesterday and Today’ album with the “butcher cover” (featuring the Beatles sitting with pieces of meat and decapitated baby dolls). The record company quickly withdraws the record from stores and replaces it with an innocuous photo of the band.
1968. USA. Rolling Stones
During the National Democratic Convention, Chicago mayor Richard Daley orders local radio stations to avoid playing the Rolling Stones’ single ‘Street Fighting Man’ in anticipation of rioting that occurred during the convention. The plan backfires, and air play and sales of the single reach record-setting proportions in Chicago.
1968. USA. Bob Dylan
An El Paso, Texas radio station bans all records by singer Bob Dylan because it is too difficult to understand the lyrics. The station management fears that the lyrics may contain offensive or lewd messages. However, the station continues to play recordings of other artists covering Dylan’s songs.
1969. USA. John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Newark Police seize 30,000 copies of the album ‘Two Virgins’, featuring John and Yoko naked on the cover, and the vice squad shuts down a record shop in Chicago. In the same year, ‘The Ballad of John And Yoko’ is banned by 50 percent of all US radio stations. It still gets to number one.
1972. USA / England. John Lennon
John Lennon’s album ‘Some Time In New York City’ was considered to be so subversive that it was banned by the BBC when it was first released. ‘Working Class Hero’ was banned on radio stations, allegedly because of its use of the F-word. It is said that John Lennon was threatened with expulsion from the USA by Nixon and the FBI if he didn’t shut up about the Vietnam War. Faced with this ultimatum, that is exactly what he did. The Vietnam War ended, he retired to private life and never returned to political themes again.
The most prominent group in the history of music censorship in the US, the Parents Music Resource Group, PMRG, is formed in Washington DC by Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore, and Susan Baker. The PRMG’s primary focus is to convince record companies to monitor and rate artists’ releases with a system similar to the MPAA system for movies. Their efforts spark a renewed interest by a variety of groups to censor music and lyrics – interest that runs high for longer than five years. The organisation’s name is later changed to the Parents Music Resource Center.
August 1987. USA. The Dead Kennedy’s
Jello Biafra, leader of the punk group The Dead Kennedy’s, is acquitted of distributing pornography. The case involves the artwork by H.R. Giger, featured on the band’s ‘Frankenchrist’ album. Biafra is prosecuted after an attorney’s daughter bought a copy of the record for her brother as a Christmas present. Copies of the album are seized and destroyed.
1989-1993. USA. 2 Live Crew and Too Much Joy
In one of the most famous American music censorship cases, police in Dade County, Florida, set up a sting to arrest three retailers who were selling copies of a record by 2 Live Crew to children under the age of 18. Objections to 2 Live Crew had started with the break-through of their hit ‘Me So Horny’. Similar prosecutions regarding 2 Live Crew record sales occurred in Alabama and Tennessee. No prosecutions resulted in standing convictions, though.
Members of 2 Live Crew were also prosecuted for performing the material live in concert. In 1990, the New York rock band Too Much Joy played a show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two months after 2 Live Crew had been arrested for performing “obscene material” in the same club. Too Much Joy played a set entirely of 2 Live Crew material and was summarily arrested. The case was thrown out of court.
In another case, which started in 1989, the controversial 2 Live Crew recorded a parody of the Orbison song ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, using the alternate title ‘Pretty Woman’ for their album ‘Clean As They Wanna Be’. The 2 Live Crew sampled the distinctive bassline from the Orbison song, but the romantic lyrics were replaced by talk about a hairy woman and her bald-headed friend and their appeal to the singer, as well as denunciation of a “two-timing woman.” Orbison’s publisher, Acuff-Rose Music, sued 2 Live Crew on the basis that the fair use doctrine did not permit reuse of their copyrighted material for profit. The case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided in 2 Live Crew’s favour, greatly expanding the doctrine of ‘fair use’ and extending its protections to parodies created for profit. This was considered a seminal ‘fair use’ decision.
1990. USA. N.W.A.
Members of the rap group N.W.A. received a letter from the F.B.I. saying that the agency did not appreciate the song ‘Fuck The Police’. Law enforcement groups across the country agreed.
1990. USA. Sinead O’Connor
Singer Sinead O’Connor banned the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ from her show in New Jersey. Some radio stations, in turn, refused to play O’Connor’s music.
1990. USA. Frank Zappa
The Meyer Music Markets (a record retail chain in the Pacific Northwest) put a warning sticker on Frank Zappa’s ‘Jazz From Hell album’. The sticker banned sale to minors and warned of dirty lyrics. If the execs had actually listened to the record, they would have discovered it was entirely instrumental.
1991. USA. Skin Up
Central TV prevented the band from releasing the single ‘Blockbusters’, named after Central’s TV show Blockbusters starring Bob Holness.
1991. USA. Garth Brooks
Cable music channels banned the video for the American country music singer-songwriter Garth Brooks’ song ‘The Thunder Rolls’ because it depicted adultery, domestic violence and murder. Brooks refused to alter the video. The song was part of the album, ‘No Fences’, which reached no. 1 on the American Billboard country music chart and would go on to become Brooks’ biggest-selling album with global sales of over 20 million copies.
1993. USA. Bodycount
The track ‘Cop Killer’ is famously dropped from Bodycount’s album at Ice-T’s request following threats to sue by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.
1996. USA. Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album was banned in Wal-Mart because of the song ‘Love Is A Good Thing’, which mentions children killing each other “with a gun they bought at the Wal-Mart discount stores.”