!!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…

SMUT!!

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 To the singles chart, that is… It originally made #2 in the spring of 1969, before being re-released in the autumn and reaching its ultimate climax.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.)

BLASPHEMY!!

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:

MURDER!! and PROSTITUTES!!

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.

DEATH!!

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’.

FRIVOLITY!!

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.)

TEMPTING FATE!!

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.)

WAR!!

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…

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277. ‘Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus’, by Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg

We end our run of apocalyptic #1s at two, and turn to another of human kind’s most primal concerns. From death and survival, to sex… Though if the end of the world were nigh, you could probably do a lot worse than closing the curtains, dimming the lights, and slipping this disc onto the turntable…

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Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus, by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 5th – 12th October 1969

I mentioned Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To…’ as a French #1. (Well, it was set in France, and the melody sounded French.) But this is the French #1. For a song to sound any more French, Edith Piaf would need to be singing ‘Frere Jacques’ on top of the Arc De Triomphe.

‘Je T’Aime…’ is a record that you picture in soft focus. All pinks and whites, scattered glasses of champagne with raspberries in them. The organ drones, the drums woozily keep time, and the strings flutter around the edges. I particularly love the filthy growl in the bass just before the main riff. Meanwhile Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg breath, whine, mutter, whisper, and moan… Do everything but actually sing.

The lyrics are all en Francais: Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Oui je t’aime… sings Jane. I love you, Yes I love you! Moi non plus… mutters Serge. Me neither. Jane: Oh, mon amour… It’s been written off as nonsense – ‘I Love You, Me Neither’ – but I think it shows that the singers only have lust on their minds. From now on I’ll write the lyrics in English, even though they sound much better in French…

Like a vacillating wave, I go, I come and go, Inside of you… Ooh la la! Potent stuff. Even worse if you translate the Inside of you line literally. Entre te reins = Between your kidneys. Kind of gross. By the end, Birkin is faking a pretty convincing orgasm. At least, we think she’s faking… At the time there were rumours, or some well-contrived publicity, that ‘Je T’Aime…’ was a chart-topping single with live sex (!) on it.

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Even today, in our cynical world, a record like this would raise eyebrows. In 1969, there was a fair amount of controversy. The record was banned, obviously, from radio, except in France, where it could be played after 11pm. The Vatican excommunicated the Italian label exec. who released it. Gainsbourg was unrepentant, claiming that it wasn’t about sex, but about the impossibility of true love. Others have argued that it is a feminist song, thanks to the line at the end when Birkin breathes: Non! Maintenant! Viens! (No! Come! Now!) She is in control of the love-making.

At the same time, while ‘Je T’Aime…’ is still a fairly attention-grabbing record, it also comes across as very camp and kitschy. I’m sure most people were buying it for a laugh, rather than as a soundtrack to romantic nights in. It’s also suffered the same fate as, say, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, in that it’s become a cliché – a piece of music to play over a certain scene: in this case one involving a comical seduction. I’m not sure if or why anyone would want to sit down today and listen to it. Plus, at four and a half minutes it goes on for much longer than it needs to. But… In 1969 people lapped it up. ‘Je T’Aime…’ had already reached #2, been banned, then re-leased to make #1!

Birkin and Gainsbourg were a real-life couple when they recorded their sole chart-topper. She was twenty-three, he was forty-one. Their daughter is the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Serge had originally recorded it with Brigitte Bardot, but her husband had stopped them from releasing it. I know very little about their other recordings. Birkin still sings and acts to this day; Gainsbourg meanwhile is a legendary figure in France – provocative and boundary-pushing. It’s sad that most English speakers know him solely for this record, his chain-smoking and for the famous TV interview in which he told a young Whitney Houston that he wanted to ‘fuck her’ (his words.) He died in 1991 after years of alcoholism.

A notable #1 then – the first in a foreign language, the first to feature simulated sex, the first to get somebody excommunicated. And suddenly we’re three chart-toppers away from the 1970s!