Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs

By Peter Blecha

From ancient Rome through the 1980s "Explicit Lyrics" labelling crusade and on to the infamous Taliban regime, repressive governments and self-appointed moral guardians have sought to limit musical expression. In this extensively researched ode to scandal, Peter Blecha recounts the travails of musicians who have dared to air "unacceptable" topics. Filled with several centuries' worth of raunchy sex ditties, morbid murder ballads, blasphemous satanic songs, paeans to intoxicating substances, and radical political anthems, Taboo Tunes lays the censors' stories bare.

Far from merely a recounting dusty history, Taboo Tunes casts a much-needed spotlight on current concerns over civil liberties and artistic freedom in the post-9/11 world.


Take the case of poor Phil Ochs. Here was a notable protest singer, a veteran of myriad civil rights and peace rallies, an effective rabble-rouser, and a genuine thorn in the side of the Establishment - a fact greatly appreciated by his fans, though less so by the FBI. After having been a recording artist with a major label contract for a half-decade (and with several albums to his credit), by 1968 he had yet to score with any kind of "hit" record. That's when he finally came up with his best-ever shot at scoring on the charts - a brilliantly cynical masterpiece featuring sing-along lyrics about the hypocrisy of modern society, all wedded to a fun, rollicking, ragtimey tune called "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends." Upon its release, the darn thing was embraced by a promising number of radio markets and began climbing a few regional sales charts. Hopes were high among fans that he'd finally gotten the shot at the "big time" that he'd always deserved.

But then the tides suddenly shifted. Overnight, it seemed, various stations began axing the song from their playlists. Initial word was that the disc was being shunned on the grounds that it "promoted drugs" - a criticism which, for once, was technically accurate since the lyrics did feature a comparative evaluation ("Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer"). This explanation seemed a bit disingenuous though, especially when stories began to filter out that Nixon was leaning on the (theoretically independent) FCC, who were strong-arming radio managers and advising them to shun Ochs in general. While it can be debated which of Ochs's ideas troubled them the most, it is certain that the drug lyric issue could be the most easily employed as a rationale for governmental intervention. This would not be the first time, nor the last, that a political gadfly has been trumped by the playing of the drug card.


Since 1978, the Freedom of Information Act has allowed the public to review many secret government files, and through that process it was revealed that as far back as 1963 the FBI had taken an interest in protest singer Phil Ochs. As a regular at civil rights rallies - and an early and outspoken critic of the undeclared war in Vietnam in tunes like "Draft Dodger Rag," "I Kill Therefore I Am," "What Are You Fighting For?", and the classic "I Ain't Marching Anymore" (of which Ochs quipped, "The fact that you won't be hearing this song over the radio is more than enough justification for the writing of it") - Ochs had become a real thorn in the Establishment's side. According to agency Director J. Edgar Hoover, it was Ochs's "propensity towards violence and antipathy toward good order and government" that won the singer his place on their dreaded Security Index.

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