!!Banned #1s Special!!

Having just covered the Daddy of all banned #1s, ‘Relax’, I thought I’d take a short pause to look at which of our 530 previous chart-toppers had been banned for one reason or another.

By ‘banned’ I mean ‘banned by the BBC’, as I think that’s probably the best barometer of overall public taste and opinion in the UK. And rather than divide the post by song titles, I’ve divided it by the reasons the records were banned. Starting with…


Such a Night, by Johnny Ray – a #1 in 1954, and one of my favourite pre-rock chart-toppers. It was banned because of Ray’s ‘suggestive panting’, as he recalls a night of wild abandon with an unamed person. (Ray was gay, and so he technically sent an ode to gay sex to #1 a full thirty years before Frankie Goes to Hollywood.) Read my original post here.

Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus, by Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – a strong contender for the most controversial #1 ever, alongside ‘Relax’. Leave it to a Frenchman to record this steamy slice. Rumour has it that the ‘suggestive panting’ here is an actual live orgasm, as the randy old goat defiled English rose Jane Birkin in the studio. (Gainsbourg denied this by claiming that if it had been live sex, then the record would have had to have been a long player… Ooh lalala!) Live or not, this record was so good it came twice. To the singles chart, that is… It originally made #2 in the spring of 1969, before being re-released in the autumn and reaching its ultimate climax. (Original post here.)


Answer Me, by Frankie Laine / Hold My Hand, by Don Cornell / The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan – the fact that these three records were banned might sound completely ridiculous to modern ears. But in the 1950s people – or the Beeb, at least – blanched at the mere mention of Our Lord in a pop song. Frankie Laine made light of praying with the line Answer me, Lord above… (When David Whitfield came to record his own chart-topping version, he changed the words to Answer Me, Oh my love…) Don Cornell and Frankie Vaughan meanwhile compared acts of love to being in the Garden of Eden. Saucy stuff for the mid-fifties. Here’s Vaughan’s hit from 1957, which was actually a bit of a banger by pre-rock standards:


Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin – originally written for Berthold Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ in the thirties, Bobby Darin’s recording is nowadays seen as the definitive version of ‘Mack the Knife’. No matter that the references to murder and prostitution were softened considerably – ‘cement bags’ and ‘scarlet billows’ for example – the BBC still thought it was a bit too heavy for radio.


Tell Laura I Love Her, by Ricky Valance / Ebony Eyes, by The Everly Brothers / Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton – One of the stranger musical movements of the 1960s was the popularity of ‘death-discs’ in the very earliest years of the decade. They usually involved a young couple, a tragic accident, and an untimely end… Three such ‘splatter platters’ made it to #1 in the UK, the best of which was the Joe Meek produced ‘Johnny Remember Me’. The BBC banned them on the grounds that they were ‘morbid’ – which I guess is true – and ‘nauseating’ – which is most definitely true in the case of the awful ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’.


Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble & the Stingers – I’m stretching things a bit here, as this record was never actually banned. However, the BBC did put it to a review, as this 1962 #1 was a rock ‘n’ roll take on the march from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, and Auntie took a dim view of frivolous parodies of much more worthy classical pieces. In the end the board decided that the record was clearly of ‘an ephemeral nature’ and was ‘unlikely to offend reasonable people’. B. Bumble lived to sting another day. (Original post here.)


Space Oddity, by David Bowie – Bowie’s first chart hit was this classic, released just five days before the Apollo 11 mission launched in July 1969. The world was on tenterhooks, waiting to see if Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would make it to the moon and back in one piece. The BBC felt that this song, in which a solitary Major Tom floats in his tin can towards oblivion, his circuits dead and something wrong, went against the optimistic public mood. The ban only lasted until the astronauts had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The single made #5, and eventually #1 when re-released in 1975. (Original post here.)


Waterloo, by ABBA – Yes. ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA has indeed been banned by the BBC. During the first Gulf War, it was one of sixty-seven songs banned from the airwaves for alluding, however obliquely, to military conflict. The idea that a metaphor involving a tempestuous romance and Napoleon’s last stand could unsettle the general public in a time of war seems laughable, but the Beeb played it safe. Also banned at the time were Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, Paper Lace’s ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’ and… Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’.

The BBC doesn’t officially ‘ban’ songs anymore, it just doesn’t play them. The last big controversy involved The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ in the late ’90s, which was only played as an instrumental. In recent years, controversy over radio stations editing, or not editing, a certain term from ‘Fairytale of New York’ has become something of a festive tradition in the UK. Last I heard, Radio 1 were playing an edited version, while Radio 2 were sticking with the original.

Any official ‘ban’ on a song nowadays would be quite pointless, with streaming services and YouTube at our fingertips, and the BBC seems to have given up its role as arbiters of public decency. Anyway, the fact that all these banned records made #1 anyway is probably quite telling. At best, a ban did very little. At worst, it actually boosted sales through all the people popping down HMV to see what all the fuss was about.

Next up, we return to the regular countdown, with a song about nuclear armageddon. That was never, as far as I’m aware, banned…


Behind the #1s – Joe Meek

Our last entry in this mini-series takes us from the middle of the road hit-machine that was Norrie Paramor, to somebody slightly more niche.

Not that Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek didn’t have his moments in the spotlight; but his was a chart-career that favoured quantity over quality. The bold over the bland. Crazy over sane. Would one expect anything less from a man whose mother supposedly dressed him as a girl for the first four years of his life…?


The achievements in his short career are many and varied – he recorded what was potentially the first ever rock opera, and pioneered the idea of independent record distribution – as well as making music that simply didn’t sound like anything else around at the time… There was overdubbing, distortion and sampling (more on which later…) He worked with big acts like Frankie Vaughan, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, and a young Tom Jones. But this is the UK #1s blog and we are here, primarily, for the chart-toppers.

And what a trio of chart-toppers. First came the gothic ludicrousness of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, in which a dead lover calls across the moors to her still-living beau, daring him to even think about forgetting her. Up last came ‘Have I The Right?’, by The Honeycombs, in which Merseybeat was fed through an electronic blender. And sandwiched in between, the perfect weird filling in a bizarre sandwich, sits The Tornado’s ‘Telstar’. I don’t have the time or space to give that record another write-up – just follow the link here for my original post or press play on the video below. Suffice to say that it is one of the very best chart-toppers that we’ve covered so far. Top five? Definitely. Top three? Probably.

‘Telstar’ sold five million copies around the world, topped the UK charts for five weeks and became only the second British chart-topper on the Billboard 100, a full year before the British Invasion truly kicked off. And it, like most of his hits, was recorded above a shop on the Holloway Road in North London. He used something called a Clavioline on the recording – a sort of proto-synthesiser – to create that alien-craft-hovering-right-above-you sound. But Meek wasn’t fussy, or a slave to technology; the ‘drums’ on ‘Have I the Right?’, for example, came from the band stamping on his stairs.


And as mad, zany and out-there as his hit records were, they can’t compare to Meek’s life story. This is a man who took recording equipment into graveyards to capture the voices of the dead, who held seances with Buddy Holly, who talked to cats, who thought that the photographs in his studio were trying to communicate with him… It’s perhaps not surprising that some found him a little difficult to work with… Meek was a man, it seems, who knew what he liked. He turned down the chance to work with a young David Bowie, and tried to persuade Brian Epstein not to sign The Beatles. He allegedly ran screaming, with his fingers in his ears, from a 16-year old Rod Stewart the second he began to sing…

Which all sounds perfectly absurd and entertaining; but it’s probably not fair to make light of it. Meek had serious troubles with addiction and paranoia in the later years of his life, stemming largely from the fact that he was gay and feared being outed. He was arrested for ‘immoral acts’ in a public toilet in 1963, which signalled the start of his downward spiral. Somewhat touchingly, it seems that he feared being outed to his mother much more than the general public…

On top of this, he faced lawsuits from one his main collaborators over exactly who wrote ‘Have I The Right?’, and from a French composer for the melody from ‘Telstar’ (which meant he never received a single royalty cheque for his biggest hit.) Meek was, in all honesty, a bit of a musical magpie, and seems not to have had much regard for licensing and copyright. He was above all those prosaic concerns – a true artiste. A one-off. No constraints, no boundaries. Which is why he could create a record as ahead of the curve as ‘Telstar’.

But it’s also why, when he heard rumours that every ‘known homosexual’ in London was going to be interviewed over the murder of a young man, a paranoid and desperate Meek shot himself and his innocent landlady. It was 1967 – he was just thirty-seven. He had had nothing to do with the murder, he simple feared the notoriety and possible prison sentence that came with being gay in the sixties. It’s tragic, given that five years later Bowie was dressing up as Ziggy Stardust on Top of The Pops, and that barely fifteen years later Frankie were saying ‘Relax’. Meek was born just that little bit too early.

He died on 3rd February, the same day as his idol, Buddy Holly, and his ghost can still be heard banging about in his old recording studio every year on that date, if you believe in that sort of thing. I’m including the videos for his three chart-toppers below – knock yourselves out – and would recommend Darryl W. Bullock’s book ‘David Bowie Made Me Gay’, in which I first read about unhinged genius of Joe Meek.

124. ‘Johnny Remember Me’, by John Leyton

If you enjoyed the OTT angst of our previous #1 – Woaah-oo-wooah-oo-woaah… ‘You Don’t Know’ – then you’ll probably love this next one. Probably. Because while Helen Shapiro coyly flirted with melodrama on her hit, this next disc grabs melodrama by the hand and elopes with it.


Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 31st August – 21st September / 1 week, from 28th September – 5th October 1961 (4 weeks total)

Picture the scene. A rainy, misty moor. Wind whistling across the heather. A galloping rhythm introduces the recently bereaved John Leyton. I hear the voice of my darlin’, The girl I loved and lost a year ago… Then we hear said voice of his late love… Johhnnnnyyy Remember Meeeee…. straight from the cheapo ghost house at the local carnival. Off the top of my head, this is the first and perhaps only #1 to feature the ‘voice’ of a dead person.

Well it’s hard to believe I know, But I hear her singing in the sighin’ of the treetops, Way above me… I’d like to point out here that moors tend not to have many trees – what with them being bleak and open spaces – but I feel that trying to apply logic to this song might be missing the point. As it progresses I’m on the fence. This is clearly a ridiculous song. But is it good-ridiculous; or bad-ridiculous?

One moment sways it for me: when poor, bereaved John lets rip with a Yes, I’ll always remember…! He doesn’t sound like he particularly wants to keep remembering her; but she does insist on speaking to him from the treetops. Till the day I die, I’ll hear her cry, Jooohhnnnny remember meeee… He goes on, in the final verse, to describe that while he’s sure he’ll find another love, he is equally sure that he’ll never be allowed to forget his first love. She’ll always be there… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy…. I love that. Who knows, maybe the singer is the one who killed her off, and it’s his conscience he can hear in the wind…? It’s like a full Gothic novel in under three minutes, this song.

What to make of all this, then? I can’t file it under ‘Novelties’ – the musicianship is too good, and the lyrics are clearly heartfelt. But at the same time… Who was buying this and taking it seriously? It’s extremely camp – a word that I’ve found myself writing quite a lot in recent entries (‘Surrender’, ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’…) Turns out people in the early-1960s had a much higher tolerance for camp than we do now. Or at least, they clearly didn’t think of this stuff as ‘camp’. They took this song at face value – the BBC banned it, for God’s sake, due to all the references to death – and connected with the sentiment. In the intervening fifty-eight years since ‘Johnny Remember Me’ became a huge hit record, we’ve become a much more cynical, irony-loving people. This song just wouldn’t work in 2019.


This is, of course, another dreaded Death-Disc! Dun-dun-dun! That oh-so early sixties phenomenon. It joins ‘Running Bear’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and ‘Ebony Eyes’ to become the fourth death disc to hit the top in the UK… But it’ll be the last. And, for what it’s worth, I think this is the best of the four. It’s mad, it’s OTT and then some; but it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go till it’s done. John Leyton was actually an actor by trade, starring at the time in an ITV drama in which he played a rock star. Said rock star sang this song in one episode and, hey presto!, it became a real-life hit. Leyton had very few others in his singing career, but once he returned to acting he did star in one of the most famous British films of all time, ‘The Great Escape’ (you’re humming the theme already, aren’t you?)

Perhaps worthy of more note than Leyton himself is the fact that this disc was produced by Joe Meek, a man who was dragging rock music forward thanks to his innovation in the recording studio. He overdubbed, he sampled, he added lots of echo and reverb, using his recording equipment like an extra instrument. The real stars of this song – the eerie atmosphere and the shrill voice of the ‘dead’ woman – all stem from him, and we’ll hear from Meek again before long in this countdown. Along with Del Shannon’s recent ‘Runaway’, and its use of the Musitron, we’re starting to get a glimpse of the future of pop music as the sixties unfold. What started off as a funny, campy, Halloweenish gimmick of a record is actually pointing the way forward… Listen carefully and you can just about hear it beckoning… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy….