sat 25/05/2024

Britain's Most Dangerous Songs: Listen to the Banned, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Britain's Most Dangerous Songs: Listen to the Banned, BBC Four

Britain's Most Dangerous Songs: Listen to the Banned, BBC Four

Stories of the tunes the Beeb refused to play

Louis Armstrong, whose 1956 recording of 'Mac the Knife' was deemed unsuitable for the airwaves

The most notorious case of the BBC banning a pop record was the episode of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" in 1977, which was of course the year of Her Maj's Silver Jubilee. "That was genuinely dangerous," Paul Morley intoned gravely (the record that is, rather than its banning), though as with several of the cases examined here, this one wasn't quite as open and shut as it seemed.

The Beeb had been cheerfully - or at least unprotestingly - airing the disc on radio until the moment when the band swore at Bill Grundy on TV. It was Malcolm McLaren's bizarrely-dressed band of urchins running amok across the beige prairies of teatime telly that freaked the BBC out. This evidently seemed to them more likely to unseat the monarch or send the remains of Empire to the bottom of the sea than the Pistols' coruscating recordings.

It was the lesser-known examples of banning-hood that supplied the most intriguing parts of this entertaining (if not too profound) doc. For instance, during World War Two the Corporation became extremely hostile to crooners from the USA, seemingly because their "American sentimentalisation of emotion" threatened to undermine the nation's fighting spirit. Bing Crosby's "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was singled out for special opprobrium.

Wind back to the 1930s, and we found that cheeky George Formby (above, meeting his critics) was a serial offender with his ridiculous - though suggestive - songs about "My Little Ukulele" (which was banned and then unbanned after a judicious title-change) or, even worse, "My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock", up with which the BBC indignantly refused to put. It was time for a bit of sociology to prop all this up, so writer Lucy O'Brien popped in with a soundbite about the Corporation "censoring working class expression", since ghastly northerners like Formby or Gracie Fields weren't considered quite proper for the London-centric middle classes amid whom the BBC plied its trade.

In 1956 the Beeb's draconian Dance Music Policy Committee (a sort of pipe-smoking Gestapo of the airwaves) took umbrage at Louis Armstrong's recording of "Mac the Knife", Brecht and Weill's lurid depiction of the unsavoury Macheath. The song's allusions to the grotesque crimes of Jack the Ripper didn't go down well with the Committee, but as Christopher Frayling pointed out, what really got them going was a spate of real-life knife crimes which happened to be in the news at the time.

There was a very good bit about the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack", with Mark Ellen delivering a comic overview of the strange phenomenon of "splatter platters" as we pondered how the BBC banned this tale of a tragically defunct motorcyclist in a climate of warring Mods and Rockers in British seaside resorts (The Shangri-Las, above). Meanwhile, it was almost shocking to be reminded of the Corporation's erstwhile hypersensitivity about product placement. It's barely noticeable nowadays, but it caused them to suppress Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" until its writer David Bowie removed a line about "stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks " - how the struggling M&S would love to catch pop stars nicking their gear now! - and also meant zero tolerance for songs like Dr Hook's "Cover of the Rolling Stone", the Kinks' "Lola" and Paul Simon's "Kodachrome".

But the most thought-provoking specimen came last, which was the cunningly-planned online promotion of "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" to un-mourn Margaret Thatcher's death last year. "They don't ban things any more, they just don't play them," said music journalist Jon Robb, though in this case the Beeb elected to play just a few seconds of the song. The publicly-funded broadcaster could hardly have risked seeming to dance on the grave of this particular 87-year-old dementia sufferer.

George Formby was a serial offender with his ridiculous - though suggestive - songs about 'My Little Ukulele' or 'My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock'


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This programme was little more than a Stalinist style piece of propaganda by the BBC. It willfully ignored genuinely dangerous examples of BBC censorship (see below) in order to come to the conclusion that, while the BBC can seem a little prudish at times, it is good for us that it is, This can be the only for not mentioning the banning of: 1, Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, and the BBC's dreadful attitude to Afro-American music in the 40's and early 50's, 2. (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing by Heaven 17 and other anti-fascist songs in the 70's and 80's 3. The banning of Robert Wyatt from TOTP for being in a wheelchair, 4. A ban on the Gang Of Four and The Specials for mentioning condoms in songs. This programme only serves to emphasize how the BBC is going back to being run by a posh, white elite who think us plebs should be grateful to them for the things they so generously hand down to us.

And 'Listen to the Banned', while maybe it's not copyright, is the title of a wonderful compilation of censored songs from other cultures put together by the courageous Deeyah, who now lives in Norway. If the 'posh, white elite' could give her airspace, that would be something.

Good point, David - Deeyah's music is probably a modern example of music regarded as too dangerous to play rather than most examples given in this programme which weren't dangerous, just likely to offend.

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