The Early Days of Rock and Roll Censorship on TV

Ed Sullivan Censorship

Photo : By Maurice Carnes LaClaire [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was 48 years ago this month that British invaders, The Rolling Stones, arrived at a television studio in New York to perform their new single, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” only to be told the host, a particularly ornery gent by the name of Ed Sullivan, was offended by the title. In one of the most famous compromises based on rock and roll censorship, Mick Jagger and team agreed to change the song’s lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together,” a decidedly different sensibility but perhaps not so catastrophic a change in the end. Still, it clearly angered the band as evidenced by Jagger’s continuous eye rolls during the broadcast or, even better, when the Rolling Stones returned to the stage wearing Nazi uniforms garnering them not only a rebuke from Mr. Sullivan but a ban from the show for over two years.

More Rock and Roll Censorship

It doesn’t take much digging to discover the rock history book is filled with examples of this type of censorship and controversy. There’s The Who’s hit “My Generation” that was banned by the BBC because they thought the stuttering on the line “Why don’t you all f-f-f-fade away” was meant to imply another “f” word of slightly more vulgar connotation. John Lennon’s classic, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was banned for its hallucinogenic references. Or another infamous moment involving Ed Sullivan where The Doors agreed to change the lyrics of their smash hit “Light My Fire” for the performance only to have singer Jim Morrison belt out the original offending lyric “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” on live television.

In one of the stranger twists on this theme, The Kinks seminal hit, “Lola,” was even banned not because of its references to a transvestite but because the line “tastes just like Coca Cola” was considered a product endorsement. Singer and songwriter Ray Davies was forced to go back into the studio and re-record the line as “tastes just like cherry cola” in order to get the song on the airwaves.

But none of these compare to the bizarre and almost conspiratorial story surrounding The Kingsmen’s massive hit, “Louie Louie,” a rock and roll staple that was nearly ripped from the airwaves for obscenity even though nobody could actually understand the lyrics at all. After the song’s release in May 1963 rumors began circulating that the muddied, almost inaudible lyrics, were intentionally garbled to cover up profanity and depictions of a graphic sexual encounter. Crumpled pieces of paper containing what were claimed to be the “true” lyrics to the song began circulating amongst teens across the country and word spread that “Louie Louie” was as explicit as it could get.

Despite numerous attempts by the band and its management to explain that in reality the song was simply a sailor’s ode to his dream girl, the song was banned on multiple radio stations and even prohibited throughout the entire state of Indiana by its governor, Matthew Welsh. The rumor mill continued to grind until the buzz reached such epic proportions that the Federal Bureau of Investigation found themselves responding to so many obscenity complaints they decided to take up the case.

A 31-month investigation ensued involving researchers listening to the song backwards, forwards, and at different speeds only to find that no matter what they tried the lyrics were simply “indecipherable.” The investigation officially ended with the FBI throwing up their hands claiming they were simply “unable to interpret any of the wording in the record”. Oddly, investigators never contacted the one person who had the answers to what the slurred words actually were, Kingsmen singer Jack Ely.

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, The Kingsmen’s version of the song spent 16 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 and became a standard at teen parties everywhere. In 1995, the song was acknowledged by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll and Rolling Stone declared it one of the “40 songs that changed the world”.

In an ironic epilogue, Kingsmen drummer Lynn Easton admitted many years later that 54 seconds into the song he screamed the word “F*ck” as he fumbled with his drum sticks.

Written by Michael Quinn


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