The following is a list of some of the most famous examples of banned rock ‘n’ roll songs in history. These tracks were widely prohibited by radio stations and record stores for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s the typical offensive content or political messages, sometimes it’s for reasons less expected, but musicians throughout the relatively recent history of rock ‘n’ roll music have been punished with bans for boundary-pushing music.
1. The Rolling Stones, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”
From the beginning of their career, The Stones were never strangers to controversy. 1967’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was one of their earliest songs to draw rage from the powers that be, getting banned by the BBC for encouraging promiscuity.
When The Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show planning to play the song, Sullivan requested that they change the lyric from “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together.” While Mick Jagger superficially agreed, when it came time to sing it he ostentatiously rolled his eyes and mumbled the line, letting listeners mentally put in the correct lyric. Sullivan was reportedly furious and banned the group from ever returning to the program, a promise he didn’t end up keeping.
The song was again banned along with four other songs in 2006 due to its “suggestive lyrics” when the group gave its first-ever performance in China. “I’m pleased that the Ministry of Culture is protecting the morals of the expat bankers and their girlfriends that are going to be coming,” Jagger sarcastically told the BBC of the Chinese government’s decision, although he added that they fully expected some censorship would be involved with the China show.
2. The Beatles, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life”
Many Beatles songs were banned by various groups and radio stations at different times in the band’s career, particularly after John Lennon’s infamous “we’re more popular than Jesus” comments. While those comments and various aspects of the group’s image resulted in widespread bans and boycotts of their music as a whole, particular songs drew ire for their supposed references to drugs. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life” are two Beatles songs that were banned from radio stations for their alleged references to drugs.
The title of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was thought by some to be an acronym for the hallucinogenic drug LSD, while John Lennon says it came from a drawing his young son Julian did of a classmate named Lucy with that title. He also pointed to the Lewis Carroll book, Alice in Wonderland as an inspiration for the song. Lennon and McCartney both adamantly denied that the song was about LSD.
The closing track from the same album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was also banned by the BBC for the lyrics “I’d love to turn you on” and “found my way upstairs and had a smoke,” both of which the puritanical radio station decided were references to drugs. Lennon and McCartney also denied these accusations.
3. Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”
The country queen might seem quite benign now, but popular contemporary country music is not the rebellious, raw music that country was when people like Lynn and Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash were in their prime. Lynn’s 1975 song “The Pill” is really an early feminist punk song, celebrating how her life would be different now that she could have access to contraception and not be relegated to being a baby-making machine. It’s considered to be one of the first songs about the birth control pill and was banned from many radio stations due to its controversial subject matter.
The song reflected elements of Lynn’s personal life, as she’d been a teenage bride and already had six children by the time she wrote the song. While the ban prevented the song from becoming as big of a hit as it should’ve been given the magnitude of Lynn’s popularity, it’s now considered one of her biggest contributions to music history.
4. Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen”
U.K. punks the Sex Pistols perfectly timed the release of their single “God Save the Queen” to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration in May of 1977. While many mindlessly celebrated the monarchy’s milestone, the working class of England was being ignored and falling into poverty. Punk rock protested these social conditions with seething, riotous music that scared the establishment.
When “God Save the Queen” was released, the BBC refused to play the song even though it skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. With lyrics like “God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being / She made you a moron,” Billboard even blanked out the name of the song and the band on the charts, making the top spot for that week technically blank; as if there were no No. 1 song. In addition to the censorship from the BBC, other radio stations also refused to play the song and many major chains refused to sell the record. The Guardian has called it “the most heavily censored record in British history.”
5. The Kinks, “Lola”
This is one of the stranger examples on the list. While the famous Kinks song gained controversy for being about the love between a man and a transvestite, it was banned by the BBC for product placement regarding a reference in the lyrics to Coca-Cola. Kinks frontman and songwriter Ray Davies responded by recording a different version of the song that changed the line “where you drink champagne and it tastes like Coca-Cola” to “cherry cola” so that the government-run station, which at the time could not be seen as endorsing any product, could play the song.
6. Nirvana, “Rape Me”
The very title of this track from 1993’s In Utero was enough to get it pulled from the shelves of Walmart and Kmart. While Kurt Cobain was known for his strict adherence to his punk ethos, he relented to pressure by changing the title to “Waif Me” for sales at those stores that demanded it, because he recognized that some of his fans didn’t have access to other resources for buying music in the pre-internet age. “I just feel bad for all the kids who are forced to buy their music from big chain stores and have to have the edited music,” Cobain said, according to Mental Floss.
The release of In Utero wasn’t the first time the band encountered issues with the song, as they wanted to perform it at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992, but were told “no” by MTV executives. They agreed to play “Lithium” instead, but just to give the MTV people a good scare Cobain started playing the intro to “Rape Me” before starting “Lithium.” This was also the famous performance in which Krist Novoselic accidentally dropped his bass on his head and the group taunted their sworn enemy, Axl Rose a lot.
7. MC5, “Kick Out the Jams”
The proto punk band, MC5 had their debut album banned due to an obscenity in the opening line of the title track: “Right now it’s time to…kick out the jams motherf*cker!” As noted by Ultimate Classic Rock, the original album that featured the offending lyric printed on the inside cover was pulled from store shelves. It was replaced with two different versions of the album, one that censored both the audio and printed word, and one that only censored the printed word.
Despite the censorship, Detroit-based department chain Hudson’s still refused to carry either version of the album. As a result, MC5 took out full page ads in local newspapers that stated, “F*ck Hudson’s!” This action led the band’s record label, Elektra, to drop the group, and further cemented MC5’s reputation as one of the most controversial bands in rock history.
8. The Who, “My Generation”
Sometimes just the suggestion of an obscenity is enough to throw censors into a tizzy. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the BBC banned The Who’s song “My Generation” because of the line, “Why don’t you all f-f-f-fade away.” The official reason given by the BBC was that they were concerned the line would be offensive to people who stutter. However, there were also rumors that the BBC was really most concerned that the word “f-f-f-fade” suggested a more offensive f-word. Whatever the real reason, it soon became irrelevant, because the BBC eventually reversed their decision due to the song’s overwhelming popularity.
9. Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
Perhaps the most innocuous song on this list, Barry McGuire’s mellow folk rock song doesn’t feature a single obscenity or explicit line. Nevertheless, as noted by Ultimate Classic Rock, the song was banned by many U.S. radio stations. The reason? Radio station programmers took issue with the artist’s general views on the state of the world.
In the song, McGuire laments that “human respect is disintegratin’, this whole crazy world is just too frustratin’.” Released in 1965 during the Vietnam War but before the voting age was lowered to 18 years old, the song also includes the line, “you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,” which apparently struck some listeners as anti-war. Despite the ban, the P. F. Sloan-penned song became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts in the U.S. during the fall of 1965.
10. The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie”
This iconic and incomprehensible song performed by The Kingsmen may be one of the most famous banned songs in American rock history. Based on a song originally written and performed by Richard Berry in 1955, the song gained wider acclaim when a rawer, less understandable version was put out by The Kingsmen in 1963. Per Ultimate Classic Rock, the song was soon banned from multiple radio stations due to its rumored explicit lyrics.
After a concerned parent complained to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (FBI records courtesy of The Smoking Gun), the FBI launched an investigation into the song’s lyrics, of which the hilarious results can be seen here, here, and here. After several attempts to nail down the lyrics, the FBI concluded that “because the lyrics of the recording ‘Louie Louie’ could not be definitely determined in the Laboratory examination, it was not possible to determine whether this recording is obscene.” Rock music: 1, FBI: 0.
Additional reporting by Nathanael Arnold
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