Matt Grimes

Matt Grimes

In relation to this month being the 30th anniversary of the BBC banning radio play of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, Matt Grimes, Degree Leader for Music Industries at Birmingham City University, comments on the surrounding controversy of the ban and more recent music censorship cases.

As a parent of 3 children I know only too well the response from a child when you tell them they can’t do or have something….along comes a barrage of questions and protestations and in doing so you set up a personal challenge to the child to find out exactly what it is about that thing you have refused them.

30 years ago a similar situation played out between a puritanical and moralistic ‘aunty’, the BBC, and a group of petulant young men from Liverpool, under the tutelage of uber pop-producer Trevor Horn,  members of the soon to become infamous band Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s (FGTH) debut single ‘Relax’, released on Trevor Horn and Paul Morley’s newly formed ZTT label, entered the British charts in 1983 in a fairly inconspicuous manner at number 67, and then slowly climbed only as far as number 35 seven weeks later with very little airplay on BBC radio.

Courting some minor controversy, with a clever promotional strategy devised by Morley, the single never really took off until Thursday 5 January 1984 when FGTH performed ‘Relax’ for the first time on the BBC’s flagship pop music chart TV programme, ‘Top of the Pops’. Within a week the single catapulted itself to number 6 and when BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read refused to play it on his radio show, thousands of young inquisitive teenagers went straight to their local record shop to see what all the fuss was about, and in doing so, put the record at number 1 in the charts by 24 January, where it remained for 5 consecutive weeks and became the biggest selling single of 1984 and commercially successful that decade.

So what was the fuss all about? Mike Read said he found the graphical images of the record sleeve and the song lyrics sexually suggestive, distasteful and should be banned, unbeknown to him that the BBC had already decided to ban the record from its playlists anyway. During the controversy surrounding the song the band publicly denied that the lyrics were of a sexual nature, even going as far as to suggest that the BBC directors and Mike Read were reading more into this than was apparent, thus questioning what sort of ‘deviants’ the BBC were employing. Later however, the band retracted any public pretence about the nature of the song. The ban by the BBC backfired on them, drew more attention to the song and became more of an embarrassment to them as the song was being played by commercial radio stations and TV channels who were welcoming their newly gained listeners that the BBC had just alienated.

Music censorship was not new then and still continues today, either as an outright ban or certain words altered or masked. As early as 1940 George Formby had his song “When I’m Cleaning Windows” banned due to its smutty lyrics! The Sex Pistols infamous Jubilee punk anthem ‘God Save The Queen’ suffered a similar fate, and one of my favourite anarcho-punk bands Crass had to suffer the indignity of a record pressing plant refusing to press  the song, “Reality Asylum”, accusing them of blasphemy. Instead, they had a blank space with silence in its place, which the band humorously dubbed “The sound of Free Speech” in protest.

More recently fewer songs are getting outright bans; the last by BBC radio was in 1993 with the banning of hip-hop outfit Marxman’s “Sad Affair”, which protested against the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland, and was almost universally banned by UK radio stations, including those operated by the BBC.  To add to this the BBC also deemed some songs inappropriate for airplay during the Gulf War such as “War” by Edwin Starr, “Give Peace A Chance” by the Plastic Ono Band and “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” by the Cutting Crew-which in my humble opinion should be banned outright for just being plain awful.

However the ‘alteration’ of lyrical content to enable airplay, or ‘radio edit’ versions is becoming more commonplace as artists strive to express themselves more openly whilst their record labels try to maximise airplay by remaining within broadcasting guidelines. Of course with the availability of music online, either as downloads or streams, censorship is losing some of its bite as listeners are able to source ‘explicit’ versions of popular songs. For a really good examination of music censorship you would do well to read; Banned!:Censorship of Popular Music in Britain, 1967-92  by Martin Cloonan; Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands and Censored Songs by Peter Blecha; and Shoot the Singer!: Music Censorship Today by Maria Korpe.

Rethink Media Conference returns to Birmingham on 25 March 2014 and will provide inspiring insights, informed debate and potential solutions to the many challenges facing the fast evolving digital media sector.

Rethink Media is organised by Birmingham City University – a national leader in media education – and aims to support emerging media by showcasing new business models and the tools to improve content creation, maximise distribution and support audience engagement.

The following two tabs change content below.

Matt Grimes

Degree Leader for Music Industries at Birmingham City University