10 Banned Hit Songs

Kendrick Lamar inducts N.W.A.

Kendrick Lamar inducts N.W.A. at the 31st Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Pop music has a long and storied history of censorship that’s effected many of the most successful artists of the 20th century. Thankfully, most of this history ends with great songs finding success in spite of the bans levied against them by conservative radio stations and government entities. Just because a song is challenging or explicit in one way or another, shouldn’t exclude it from radio airplay. So, to celebrate the triumph of art over censorship, we’re looking back at some of the most memorable of all banned hit songs.

1. ‘Arnold Layne’ by Pink Floyd

Penned by their original frontman, Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s debut single “Arnold Layne” was a psychedelic number about a man whose passion lies in stealing and wearing women’s clothes. This provocative theme of transvestism prompted pirate radio station, Radio London to ban the single from airplay altogether, declaring that the lyrics were too far removed from “normal” society to appeal to listeners.

2. ‘Cop Killer’ by Body Count

Though today he’s been playing a law enforcement officer for more than a decade, rapper Ice-T was once known only as the frontman of rap metal band, Body Count, whose early hit, “Cop Killer” sparked a storm of media controversy that provoked a condemnation from then-President George H.W. Bush himself. Law enforcement agencies boycotted the single, Tipper Gore compared its message of violence to anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, and Charlton Heston tried to embarrass Time Warner into recalling the single. Ice-T eventually decided to remove the single from the group’s self-titled album and gave away the song as a free single.

3. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon

“Imagine” is a radio classic and perhaps the signature solo song of John Lennon, a lovely piano ballad expressing a wish for a world free of war and national borders. Despite the song’s fundamentally hopeful message, it was included on a list of “lyrically questionable” songs released by Clear Channel Communications that were not to be played on the radio following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. What possessed the authors of the list to include such a pacifistic song is beyond understanding.

4. ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ by Jimmy Boyd

What seems like a goofy, yet harmless holiday classic today, was actually a source of controversy upon its 1952 release. The Roman Catholic Church decried the song for associating Christmas with sexuality and several markets banned it from being played on the radio. The bans were lifted only after the song’s 13-year-old singer met with the Archdiocese to explain the lyrics.

5. ‘Only the Good Die Young’ by Billy Joel

In one of his most exuberant and catchy songs, Billy Joel sings as a teenager struggling to convince a young Catholic girl to violate her pledge of abstinence, though not in so many words. Religious groups declared the song anti-Catholic and successfully pressured some radio stations into removing it from their playlists. “When I wrote ‘Only the Good Die Young’, the point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust,” Joel said at the time. Luckily for him, the controversy only boosted sales of the single and accompanying album.

6. ‘Physical’ by Olivia Newton-John

The lead single and title track from Olivia Newton-John’s 12th studio album, Physical was an immediate chart success in the U.K. and U.S., but that didn’t stop many radio stations from censoring sexually explicit lyrics like, “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally,” while others banned the song entirely.

7. ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ by The Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers were masterful early pop craftsmen whose sound heavily influenced The Beatles, and “Wake Up Little Susie” is one of their signature hits. The song reached the top of the Billboard Charts even as Boston radio stations banned the song for lyrics they considered suggestive. The song centers upon a young couple who fall asleep during a movie and panic about the reactions of friends and family after waking up well past their curfew. The lyrics never get more explicit than, “What are we going to tell our friends when they say ‘ooh la la?'”

8. ‘Sugar Walls’ by Sheena Easton

Sheena Easton scored a top 10 hit with her 1985 single, “Sugar Walls,” in spite of the fact that the title may actually be referring to the walls of her vagina. Lyrics like, “Blood races to your private spots, lets me know there’s a fire/You can’t fight passion when passion is hot” were enough to earn the ire of certain radio stations across the nation, as well as the condemnation of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center.

9. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Relax” garnered little attention upon its initial release, but eventually became one of the most successful and controversial hits of the 1980s, at least in the U.K. Beyond containing the lyrics, “Relax, don’t do it/When you want to suck it, do it/Relax, don’t do it/ When you want to come,” the band further courted controversy with a suggestive ad campaign and revealing record sleeve. The BBC banned the song from their radio station and music video showcase Top of the Pops, just as it enjoyed a massive boost in popularity, forcing them to announce the song as No. 1 on the charts without being allowed to play the accompanying video.

10. ‘F*ck tha Police’ by N.W.A.

Is it any wonder one of N.W.A.’s most inflammatory protest songs earned the disapproval of law enforcement agencies around the nation? The song, which condemns police brutality and condones violence against officers, provoked the FBI to send a letter of disapproval to the band’s record company. It was also banned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, inspiring the employees of the radio station Triple J to strike and play N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” on a continuous loop in protest. N.W.A. undoubtedly won this one in the long run, as the song’s title remains a popular anti-authoritarian slogan even today.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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