A Brief History
On March 3, 1951, music history was made when the first song deemed to be “rock and roll” was recorded. Called “Rocket 88,” the lively song was recorded by Chess Records at Sam Phillip’s studio in Memphis and is credited to Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats who were actually Ike Turners’s band, the Kings of Rhythm. In fact, the song was written by Brenston and Turner, though Turner was not originally credited. As we know, the Rock and Roll genre of music has taken off ever since then, especially with the gyrations of Elvis Presley bringing the music to the mainstream, though not without some trouble along the way. Just as with Movies and television, the censorship happy crowd in the prudish United States was all too happy to declare Rock music a tool of the Devil and try to censor the lyrics and the dancing. In fact, March 3 (1873) is also the anniversary of the Comstock Laws, draconian and artistic stifling laws that tried to force Americans into a nice neat little box of good behavior approved by the uptight prudes that ran the Government. Largely negated by Supreme Court decisions by 1919 due to the ambiguous nature of the laws and the obvious overreach of the censors, 4 decades later we still had to contend with censors messing with our music! Even more surprisingly, we STILL are contending with the “nanny” mentality of the misguided do-gooders that “know” what is best for all of us.
Examples of Rock and Roll censorship include the televised airing of Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, when network scaredy-cats decided to avoid another torrent of condemnation for showing Elvis’ provocative dancing style, a style likened to dancing a striptease, by only showing him from the waist up! This was the third time Elvis had appeared on Ed Sullivan and he had already appeared on other television shows, and so far the nation had survived, but apparently the shirt and tie crowd was taking no chances this time! Elvis would not be permitted to pollute and corrupt the youth of America by being shown from the waist down on January 6, 1957. In the early days of Rock and Roll, racial overtones played a major role in the desire to stifle creativity. When you consider how far we have come, think twice! Just a few weeks ago the halftime show at Super Bowl LIV on February 2, 2020, generated thousands of complaints to the FCC because of 50 year old Jennifer Lopez and 43 year old Shakira dancing in a manner intolerant people found to be disgustingly sexual and sensuous. Have these folks not heard of the OFF button on their remote control? Do they not realize they are free to change the channel? No, because an incredible number of people in the United States are living in a world where they think their own idea of morality and propriety is best forced on everyone else! The uproar and outrage over this halftime show is reminiscent of the same sort of outcry over the dancers on the 1980’s television show, Solid Gold.
When the Rolling Stones appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on January 16, 1967, they were forced to change a lyric in their song, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.” Somehow, this forced lyric change saved the souls of Americans everywhere. Remember, this was before cable television and most people only had 3 channels to choose from, and possibly a UHF channel for Public Broadcasting, if their television was equipped for UHF. Mr. Sullivan held tremendous power over the television media back in the 1960’s and appearing on his show was the gateway to riches. Being blackballed from the show was a death sentence for a career, or at least could be. Far from an isolated incident, the Doors were also given a similar ultimatum when performing their song, “Light My Fire,” being told to change the lyric “girl we couldn’t get much higher” to the more genteel sounding “girl we couldn’t get much better.” Lead singer Jim Morrison agreed to the change, but then sang the original lyrics, infuriating Ed Sullivan and getting the group banned from his show. Somehow, once again, our nation survived!
Are you familiar with the Jimmy Dean classic, “Big Bad John?” This 1961 mega hit went to #1 and won the Grammy for Best Country and Western Recording for 1962. Even good old boy/aw shucks Jimmy Dean was not immune to censors, and his song was forced to change the last line, “At the bottom of this mine lies a helluva man, Big John” to the less frightening “…lies a big, big man, Big John.” Yes, in the early 1960’s the United States was in danger of damnation to perdition if someone sang the word “helluva” on the radio. Today, you can hear either version on the radio when listening to your oldies channel.
Another idiotic attempt to save the youth of America from an inevitable spiral into uncontrolled lust was to take the 1966 Lou Christie hit, “Rhapsody In The Rain” and make it safe for consumption. The lyrics were supposedly provocative and implied non-marital sexual activities, namely, “Baby, the raindrops play for me, Our lovely rhapsody, ’cause on our first date, We were makin’ out in the rain. And in this car, our love went much too far, It was exciting as thunder, Tonight I wonder, where you are?” Can you feel yourself losing control just reading these filthy words? Here is what the censors wanted, “We fell in love in the rain, And in this car, love came like a falling star” to replace the second and third lines of the original lyrics. Many radio stations had refused to play the original version, and some STILL refused to play even the amended version! Christie must have been some sort of love guru because his other big hit at the time, “Lightnin’ Strikes” featured more dangerous lyrics such as “When I see lips begging to be kissed (Stop!), I can’t stop, (Stop!) no I can’t stop myself! (Stop! Stop!)” Wow! How did we survive such filth? Oh, and the other lyrics from “Lightnin’ Strikes,” “The windshield wipers, seemed to say, together, together, together” were recommended to be changed to “forever, forever, forever” instead, a much more acceptable tune, eh?
The Steve Miller Band had to change their lyric in “Jet Airliner” about “funky s**t goin’ down in the city” to the more mundane “funky kicks goin’ down in the city” which to us, does not even make sense! The radio version was the censored version, while you would hear the “real” lyrics if you went to a live concert. Numerous other songs have suffered similar fates. Just think about the Nine Inch Nails classic, “Closer!”
Obviously, our general attitude about censorship is that artists should be able to express their art without interference from someone else’s religious or moral inclinations. Sure, hate speech and advocation of violence should be prohibited, but the examples above? Let us know what you think about censorship of Rock and Roll.
Question for students (and subscribers): Where would you draw the line on Rock and Roll lyrics? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Plumides, Michael. Kill the Music: The chronicle of a college radio idealist’s rock ‘n’ roll rebellion in an era of intrusive morality and censorship. Booksurge Publishing, 2009.
Ward, Ed. HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL, PART I. Flatiron Books, 2017.
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