Musicians often perform just for the thrill of it, but many have also used their fame to push various social, legal and political boundaries with their lyrics. This is true across all genres of music, but rock ‘n’ roll musicians throughout history have certainly made the most waves. In its heyday, rock music’s excessive use of sexual innuendo and political messages sometimes led to bans— and even riots.
Are you ready to learn which of your favorite songs were actually banned from radio because of lyrics that were graphic, obscene or just downright controversial? Across genres, some of these chart toppers and timeless classics are sure to surprise you!
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Jimmy Boyd (1952)
Who would initiate a ban on a sweet, freckle-faced 13-year-old’s record hit? The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, that’s who. When teen Jimmy Boyd recorded “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in 1952, it was supposed to be about a boy waking up to see his mother kissing his father in a Santa costume.
However, the Catholics angrily criticized the song as blasphemous, saying that it suggested a connection between Christmas and sex. They only called for an end to the local boycott after poor Jimmy Boyd met with the church leaders to explain himself. Talk about being a Grinch!
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday (1956)
Even though the 1939 song “Strange Fruit” eventually became Billie Holiday’s bestselling single of her career, Columbia Records wouldn’t allow her to record it in the 1930s. Eventually, a different label recorded and released the song for her, but many radio stations still refused to play it.
The reason that “Strange Fruit” had some radio station executives up in arms was because the song was based on an anti-lynching poem about African American men in the South at the time. In spite of this, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.
Wake Up Little Susie – Everly Brothers (1957)
The Everly Brothers’ 1957 #1 hit entitled “Wake Up Little Susie” was banned in Boston because it had parents wondering just what their children were doing after they assumed they were asleep. This is yet another case of 1950s puritanical thinking, which often stifled the creativity of the musicians of that era.
Times certainly do change, however, and we’ll show you how. Almost a full half-century later, born-again Christian and then-presidential candidate George W. Bush declared that “Wake Up Little Susie” just so happened to be his favorite song. The irony!
Louie Louie – The Kingsmen (1963)
Possibly the most famous banned track in American history, “Louie Louie” was originally a 1955 song by Richard Berry. However, in 1963, The Kingsmen remade the song with some obscure and seemingly incomprehensible lyrics that Ultimate Classic Rock (a nationally syndicated rock radio show) deemed explicit. This led to a ban from many stations.
When an individual complained to the acting Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, an FBI investigation was launched to figure out what exactly the song lyrics said. After the investigation was concluded, the FBI determined that “it was not possible to determine whether this recording is obscene.”
Gloria – Van Morrison (1964)
In 1964, Van Morrison was the lead singer of the band Them. He wrote a song called “Gloria” that offended some Chicago radio stations, leading to a ban. Despite that, the song eventually made it to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The song featured lyrics such as “She comes around here just about midnight. She makes me feel so good. Lord, I wanna say she makes me feel all right.” After the ban, a band called the Shadows of Knight remade the song and altered some lyrics, turning it into a Top 10 classic.
My Generation – The Who (1965)
In another bizarre song ban instituted by the BBC, The Who’s song “My Generation” was removed from radio airplay because the BBC felt the line “Why don’t you all f-f-f-fade away” might be offensive to those with a stutter. And this was many years before absolutely everyone was offended by absolutely everything.
As a result, no one really believed this line of reasoning, and most people thought the suggestion of a much more offensive f-word was the real reason for the ban. Apparently, even the suggestion of an obscenity was enough for them. However, the song was wildly popular, which prompted the BBC to eventually reverse their decision.
Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire (1965)
One of the most seemingly innocent songs on this list, “Eve of Destruction” was sung by Barry McGuire and written by P.F. Sloan). It was banned by several U.S. radio stations after the powers that be decided they didn’t like McGuire’s opinions and thought his band was anti-war.
Some of the lines that offended were “human respect is disintegratin’, this whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,” and “…you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’.” This didn’t stop the song from becoming a No. 1 Billboard hit in 1965.
Leader of the Pack – Shangri-Las (1965)
In another strange example of why a song was banned, the No. 1 hit by the Shangri-Las called “Leader of the Pack” had some broadcasters refusing to play the tragic song. Full of teen angst, this song tells the story of a breakup that led to the death of the singer’s boyfriend.
“Leader of the Pack” included the repeated phrase “Look out!” in the lyrics along with the rumbling of a Harley engine, implying that an accident was about to happen. Several radio stations thought the song glorified motorcycle gangs and refused to play it.
God Only Knows – Beach Boys (1966)
In another religion-based banning, many radio stations banned the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” This occurred, even though according to the Beach Boys, they meant “God” as a “spiritual word” and not a blasphemous one.
Brian Wilson went so far as to say that several musicians who witnessed the recording of the song called it one of “the most magical, beautiful experiences” they had ever had. He almost changed the lyrics to the earnest, sincere ballad, but he decided not to in the end in keeping with the true meaning of the song.
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – The Beatles (1967)
After John Lennon infamously declared that his band, the Beatles, was “more popular than Jesus,” many radio stations banned music from the band for supposed references to drugs in their songs. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was one of the songs that prompted speculation that the title was an acronym for the drug LSD.
Although LSD was a popular hallucinogenic drug at the time the song was released, John Lennon vehemently denied that the song had anything to do with the drug. According to Lennon, the song was inspired by a drawing that a fellow student made of his son Julian.
Let’s Spend the Night Together – The Rolling Stones (1967)
The Rolling Stones’ 1967 song “Let’s Spend the Night Together” made some people furious with its lyrics that seemed to encourage people to be promiscuous. The BBC promptly banned it. The Stones went on to irritate Ed Sullivan when they were on his show by not following some pre-set rules.
Sullivan had requested that the band change the lyric to “let’s spend some time together,” but Mick Jagger mumbled the real line while rolling his eyes. Even worse, when the band returned to the stage, they were dressed in Nazi uniforms adorned with swastikas. This got them kicked off the show altogether.
A Day in the Life – The Beatles (1967)
Along with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the track entitled “A Day in the Life” was also banned by the BBC. The reason seemed a bit ridiculous, in truth.
However, the BBC stood its ground after deciding that the lines “I’d love to turn you on” and “found my way upstairs and had a smoke” were both references to drugs. As with the previously mentioned banned song on the same album, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney adamantly denied these allegations.
Brown-Eyed Girl – Van Morrison (1967)
In an effort to not get his song “Brown-Eyed Girl” banned, Van Morrison changed the title from its original name, which was ” Brown-Skinned Girl.” He assumed that this wouldn’t go over well, considering that in 1967, interracial marriage was still against the law in 17 states. He was probably right.
However, several radio stations banned the song anyway for the line “making love in the green grass.” This might seem innocuous now, but it was considered fairly racy in the 1960s. The song was Morrison’s first release as a solo artist, and it coincided with the hippie-inspired “Summer of Love.”
Love Me Two Times – The Doors (1967)
In 1967, The Doors caused quite a large stir when they put out their album titled Strange Days. It included the song “Love Me Two Times.” Several radio stations banned the song immediately, but one went a little overboard.
When Jim Morrison started to sing “Love Me Two Times” at a radio station in New Haven, Connecticut, the station’s higher-ups actually called the police on him! This made Morrison the first rock star in history to be arrested during a performance. He was charged with incitement to riot and obscenity.
Kick Out the Jams – MC5 (1969)
MC5’s debut album was banned due to the use of the f-word in the first line of the title track. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the album was pulled from store shelves and was only returned when the audio or the printed word on the inside cover was censored, or both.
Even after the censorship, one department chain called Hudson’s still refused to carry the album. In response, MC5 took out full-page ads in the local papers screaming, “[expletive] Hudson’s!” This, in turn, resulted in the band’s record label, Elektra, dropping the group.
Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus – Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
When Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg released the song “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” in 1969, a lot of people thought the European couple had actually released a single consisting of a recording of the two of them having sex. In response, Gainsbourg replied, “It would have been a long-playing record.”
According to Gainsbourg, the song was actually written for Brigitte Bardot and not Jane Birkin at all, although he ended up singing it with Birkin. Despite being banned and being denounced by the Vatican, the record sold more than 4 million copies.
Lola – The Kinks (1970)
If you’re ready to get nit-picky, “Lola” by The Kinks was banned by the BBC after its release in 1970 for a pretty bizarre reason. Notably, the song was written about a love affair between a transgender woman and a cis man, which seems like the reason it would have been banned back in 1970 — but that wasn’t the reason at all.
Instead, the song wasn’t targeted for being controversial, but it dared to include the line “where you drink champagne, and it tastes like Coca-Cola.” Singer/songwriter Ray Davies promptly responded to the ban by recording a version in which “Coca-Cola” was changed to “cherry cola,” and the song was promptly put back on the air.
Timothy – The Buoys (1971)
This song is a little bit different in that the writer, Rupert Holmes, actually wrote it in 1970 with the intention of getting it banned. He discovered a completely unknown group, The Buoys, who then recorded the song about some coal miners who get trapped underground and resort to cannibalism to stay alive.
Holmes’ wish came true, and his wholly disturbing cannibalistic song made it to the Top 20, making The Buoys an instant one-hit-wonder. Rupert Holmes is best known for his 1979 song called “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
Star Star – The Rolling Stones (1973)
This controversial song initially came out in 1973. In a move that the Stones thought would be funny but instead sparked a mountain of outrage — at least for some — the song included the lyrics “Yeah, Ali MacGraw got mad with you for givin’ head to Steve McQueen” and repeated the phrase “star [expletive]” in the chorus.
The Rolling Stones got straight to the point with this song, and it was promptly banned. We aren’t sure how Ali MacGraw took the lyrics, but Steve McQueen was reportedly amused and gave the Stones permission to use his name.
Kodachrome – Paul Simon (1973)
Paul Simon irked the BBC on a couple of different levels with his 1973 song entitled “Kodachrome.” First of all, the song violated the BBC’s rule against the endorsement of any specific product, so the song was widely banned in the U.K. right out of the gate.
Second, in the opening lines of the song, Simon says, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Some U.S. broadcasters also refused to play the song because of Simon’s use of the word “crap.”
The Pill – Loretta Lynn (1975)
Country music might not seem a likely forum to voice feminist opinions, but back in 1975, it certainly was. In one of the first songs to ever mention birth control, Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” reflected on how different her life would be if she had the opportunity to not be a baby-making machine.
In 1975, only two years after the landmark Roe vs. Wade court decision, birth control was still a very controversial subject. Lynn was a teenage bride and had six children when she wrote the song. Unfortunately, the ban kept “The Pill” from being as popular as it should have been.
Love to Love You Baby – Donna Summer (1975)
This one was a no-brainer for banning, at least according to the BBC in 1975. “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer included a total of 22 simulated orgasms in the disco hit. Ms. Summer didn’t seem to understand what the big deal was and later spoke about it to The Guardian.
She said, “Everyone’s asking, ‘Were you alone in the studio?’ ‘Yes, I was alone in the studio.'” According to Summer, they then asked, “Did you touch yourself?” to which she would reply, “Yes, well, actually, I had my hand on my knee.”
Tonight’s the Night – Rod Stewart (1976)
Many listeners in the 1970s didn’t consider Rod Stewart to be a rebel, but then he released “Tonight’s the Night” in 1976. It included his then-girlfriend Britt Ekland whispering sweet nothings in French at the end of the song, so it was banned. Some radio stations just edited out the ending of the song instead.
However, other stations took issue with some of the other lyrics of “Tonight’s the Night,” which included at least one obvious reference to sex: “Spread your wings and let me come inside.” They banned the song completely, even after the editing.
God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols (1977)
In May 1977, the English monarchy was set to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, but the Sex Pistols had another idea in mind. They created the single “God Save the Queen” to point out that while the Queen was celebrating her milestone, the working class in the U.K. was mired in poverty.
This song includes lyrics like “She ain’t no human being,” and it immediately became a number one hit. The BBC refused to play it, and Billboard wouldn’t even put it on any of its charts. This made it “the most heavily censored record in British history,” according to The Guardian.
Only the Good Die Young – Billy Joel (1977)
In this spirited 1977 hit single, Billy Joel sings, “You Catholic girls start much too late, but sooner or later it comes down to fate. I might as well be the one.” Needless to say, this immediately irritated Catholics the world over.
Predictably, it was a Catholic radio station that originally initiated the boycott of the music that ultimately led to the ban. This, however, did not stop the song from becoming a huge hit. Maybe it even contributed to the success. Joel later said that the girl mentioned in the song, Virginia, was a crush of his, and she remained a virgin.
Rocky Mountain High – John Denver (1972)
In an extreme example of playing it safe, many radio stations banned John Denver’s testimonial to his home state of Colorado, titled “Rocky Mountain High.” The reason? Two years earlier, the FCC demanded that broadcasters stop airing songs that “promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs.”
John Denver took issue with this and testified before Congress, saying “This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains.” Obviously, Denver was referring to the literal height of the mountains (and not getting high on drugs) when he wrote the song.
Physical- Olivia Newton-John (1981)
Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit “Physical” was extremely popular in both the U.S. and the U.K., but that didn’t stop some conservative radio stations from banning the song for its suggestive lyrics. According to Olivia, “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally.”
The lyrics weren’t the only thing that made the song controversial, however. It was even censored by MTV for a scene in the music video where two men leave the gym together holding hands, implying that they were gay. Thankfully, the song remained popular despite its controversial messages and was even ranked at #6 on Billboard’s All-Time Top 100 list.
Walk Like an Egyptian – The Bangles (1986)
Even though the song “Walk Like an Egyptian” came out in 1986, it still appeared on a list of “lyrically questionable” songs put out to more than 1,000 radio stations by Clear Channel (a.k.a. iHeartMedia) in 2001. This was just after the 9/11 tragedy.
Nobody was quite sure what their motive was, but the addition of The Bangles’ benign, innocent song put out decades before tended to stand out to the people privy to the list. It eventually ended up being a part of the reason that the entire thing was discredited and ultimately ignored.
Love Is a Good Thing – Sheryl Crow (1996)
In 1996, Walmart refused to put Sheryl Crow’s second album on its shelves, but it wasn’t because of inappropriate content. In the song “Love Is a Good Thing,” the singer criticized the chain-store giant for carrying the kinds of automatic guns that are commonly used in mass shootings.
However, Crow certainly had the last laugh. Today, the eponymous Sheryl Crow album is certified triple-Platinum. It also spent more than a year on the Billboard charts, making it one of the top albums of 1996-97. Walmart has since revised its gun policy and no longer sells the types of weapons that can kill or injure many people in seconds.
Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead – Ella Fitzgerald (2013)
Who would have thought that a song like “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from the movie The Wizard of Oz would become a #2 hit on the British charts? Well, that’s exactly what happened in the spring of 2013 — even though the song was banned by the BBC. It was written by Yip Harburg and composed by Harold Arlen and originally released by Fitzgerald in 1961.
Why was this seemingly innocuous children’s song banned, you ask? Well, because of a deliberate campaign in 2013 — many years later — to boost the song to the top of the charts after the death of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The BBC deemed the song inappropriate because the song was “clearly a celebration of death.”