Our latest episode features a conversation between Patti Smith and journalist Mick Gold that took place in London in May 1976; Arista Records had just released a 7-inch that included Patti’s live cover of The Who’s “My Generation” and during the interview she railed against the fact that the words “fuckin’ shit” had been censored on the single’s UK release.
“I’m going to do everything I can while I’m here to have the record rereleased as planned with this picture sleeve and with the uncensored version. I’m ashamed of it. I’m ashamed of the fact that it was censored and I’m ashamed that it doesn’t have it’s sleeve. And I don’t want people to buy it.”
Apparently Patti’s UK distributor EMI insisted on bleeping the offending words (it was released uncensored in America), and Patti was having none of it, telling her fans to “Send a letter to the management company, I’ll send them something, I’ll send them something to help make up for it… I can’t tell you how much this hurt me because I feel like anytime I do something that shows a loss of integrity it’s going to ruin my credibility as an artist.”
Later in the interview, talking about the Rolling Stones appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show earlier that year, Patti said:
“To me one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century is that the Rolling Stones, the top rock n’ roll band in the world, in the history of the universe, had to change “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together.” I cried when that happened. I actually cried, I was so hurt.”
The Rolling Stones weren’t the only performers asked to tone down their behavior to appease Mr. Sullivan; also in 1967 The Doors were asked to change the lyric “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” to something more innocuous (they didn’t) and during his final appearance on the show in 1957 Elvis was only shot from the waist up. It was rumored that the close-up camerawork was mandated because Elvis’ risqué dance moves during his previous appearance on the show the year before had scandalized CBS executives.
Earlier in the interview, Patti said, “It’s just words.” True – but from the moment rock n’ roll broke out of the R&B mold and found it’s way into the mainstream, those words have been under fire from outside groups – governments and conservative segments of the population – and occasionally even from within the music industry itself. Here’s a totally incomplete and unscientific look at the history of “bad” words in rock n’ roll.
195o’s – Mainstream Music Decries R&B’s “Leer-ics”
Some of the first attempts to block music started because the big record labels were trying to protect their business interests–and white stars–from upstart black artists.
Whites had their pop artists such as Perry Como, all their music was produced under ASCAP, and it was pressed on the half dozen or so major record labels such as Columbia and Capitol. Black artists produced rhythm and blues under BMI and the music was pressed on small, independent labels such as Chess of Chicago. Radio stations programmed themselves for either a white or a black audience.
– Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock n’Roll, by Linda Martin and Kerry Seagrave
When R&B music began to rise in popularity among white teens in the mid-1950’s, the white music establishment, including trade magazines like Billboard and Variety, feared their business model was being threatened. Not wanting to lose their market to “black” music, they launched a crusade against the supposedly obscene content of R&B. The trade papers decried the “leer-ics” of R&B, as “garbage” written to make a fast buck, and also pressured mainstream DJs and radio stations to denounce the music.
1968 – We Don’t Understand What You Said And We Know We Don’t Like It
In 1968, an El Paso radio station banned all of Bob Dylan’s records because they deemed his music “too difficult to understand,” and the songs may have contained lewd content or political messages that were objectionable.
1972 – George Carlin and THOSE 7 Words
While not exactly music, this track off of Carlin’s 1972 album, Class Clown, was and still is considered a touchstone in the debate over the censorship of profanity.
Yeah, there are 400,000 words in the English language and there are 7 of them that you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is!
399,993 to 7. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large.
All of you over here, you 7, baaad words!
That’s what they told us they were, remember? “That’s a bad word!” No bad words, bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words!
You know the 7, don’t you, that you can’t say on television?
“Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.”
Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.
1985 – The Beastie Boys’ Foul Mouths Nearly Land Them in Jail
Rocci Fisch interviewed the Beastie Boys on tour in 1985. That interview was featured in one of our first episodes. The boys from NYC were on their first large-scale tour, opening for Madonna, and were shocked by the hard-nosed policing at a show in Virginia the night before. And that wasn’t the Beastie’s last run in with the establishment: a show in Columbus, Ohio two years later resulted in the city council passing an ordinance that prohibited “minors at performances that present nudity, simulations of sexual intercourse or masturbation, pictures or replicas of sexual organs, the repetitive use of four-letter sexual words or portrayals of sadomasochism.” In the years following LL Cool J, Kiss’ Gene Simmons, and Bobby Brown were all arrested for violating the city ordinance.
MCA: So I said “mother fucker” a couple of times or he said “mother fucker” or something like that. And, ah, some cops went up to Madonna’s manager and said that the second we came off the stage that they were going to arrest us and put us in jail and it was that simple and there were no two ways about it.
Mike D: Like it was really scary ’cause as soon as we came off the stage they grabbed us and said, “Yo, boys. You’re going to prison.”
Ad-Rock: I tried to run away because I didn’t know what was going on and this guy, this cop, like he didn’t hit me that hard, but he like you know hit me in the back of the legs with his club. I mean if we had known in the first place we wouldn’t have done it. But this guy had to go and hit us.
MCA: I never knew that it was illegal to use profanity before this.
Mike D: You know, there’s a way we talk and it includes profanity. We never figured we’d be arrested for it.
2001 – Clear Channel’s post-9/11 Lyrical Hysteria
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, commercial radio mega-giant Clear Channel (now known as iHeartRadio) distributed a list of “lyrically questionable” songs to their 1,200 stations around the country. Clear Channel wasn’t banning the songs from rotation, but rather compiling a list of songs that, either by title or lyrical content, referenced things like violence, death, plane crashes, or suicide and might be upsetting to listeners at a time of national mourning. The list contained 165 such suggestions; some, like Soundgarden’s “Blow Up the Outside World” or Ozzy’s “Suicide Solution,” were obvious inclusions while others, like “Imagine” by John Lennon and Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Street,” seemed like tenuous inclusions.
2016 – The Future of Censorship is Automated
Earlier this year Business Insider reported that Apple had been granted a patent for a system that automatically detects and edits explicit words or content:
“The patent, named “Management, Replacement and Removal of Explicit Lyrics during Audio Playback” was filed by Apple in September 2014…
Apple says in the patent that the system could replace swear words with a beeping noise, or it could use non-explicit lyrics instead.”
Apple’s patent application indicates that the technology could or would be used for music as well as for audio books. Their online radio station, Beats 1, already restricts its playlist to non-explicit music.