The greatest banned songs of all time – ranked!

Olivia Newton-John
Gym’ll fix it … Olivia Newton-John and friends get Physical. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

20. Heaven 17

(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang (1981)

A nervy BBC banned the Human League splinter group’s funky debut single for potentially libelling the US’s new president Ronald Reagan as a “fascist god in motion”. Reagan probably had bigger problems, given that he survived an assassination attempt later that March. Political references aside, Fascist Groove Thang remains depressingly relevant.

19. The Who

My Generation (1965)

The Who’s single didn’t fall foul of the prudish BBC for flipping off their wartime elders or espousing nihilism, but because the corporation worried that Roger Daltrey’s stutter – “Why don’t you all f-fade away” – might offend people afflicted with the condition. (It eventually backed down.)

18. Neil Young

This Note’s for You (1988)

By declaring that he “ain’t singing” for Pepsi, Young is effectively doing its bidding for free. Still, the video is a great satire of 80s corporate rock: a dog in sunglasses licks his chops at a bikini-clad girl, and a Michael Jackson lookalike catches fire, leading MTV to ban the clip after threats from MJ’s lawyers.

17. Lady Gaga

Judas (2011)

Lebanese officials unfortunately agreed with Gaga’s claim, in her single Judas – released at Easter, no less – that “in the most Biblical sense / I am beyond repentance”. It was banned from radio and police impounded boxes of its parent album, Born This Way, when they arrived at Beirut international airport. (They also eventually gave in.)

16. Olivia Newton-John

Physical (1981)

ONJ’s single was banned from several radio stations in Utah for being “more suggestive than most songs”. But perhaps this just reveals KFMY and KSL-FM’s dirty minds. There are plenty of things that ONJ could have be talking about doing “horizontally” with her beau. Spirit levels. Barre classes. Sanding. Breaststroke.

15. The Beatles

Happiness Is a Warm Gun (1968)

Another instance of the BBC’s gift for misinterpretation. The Beatles’ track was not censored for referencing firearms, or for its phallic implications, but, John Lennon claimed, for being “about shooting up drugs”. Given that the phrase came from Charlie Brown, it would have been an endearingly innocent heroin reference.

14. Robin Thicke feat TI and Pharrell

Blurred Lines (2013)

Banned by dozens of student unions for its coercive lyrics, Blurred Lines started an important conversation about pop’s sexual politics. The video is as objectionable as the lyrics, but the song remains sort of irresistible. That must be the Marvin Gaye part.

13. Ian Dury & the Blockheads

Spasticus Autisticus (1981)

Dury wrote Spasticus Autisticus to protest against what he saw as the patronising International Year of Disabled Persons, and then it was blocked by the BBC, which deemed Dury’s descriptions of physical disability offensive. Redemption finally came at the 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony, where it was sung by a group of performers with disabilities.

12. Abba

Waterloo (1974)

During the Gulf war, the reliably literal BBC wasn’t taking any chances, and expunged 67 songs – featuring even the vaguest and most metaphorical references to armies, fighting, boats, killing, cavalry or the Middle East – from its playlists. Among them, Abba’s notoriously hawkish hit, Waterloo. Don’t mention the ... 1974 Eurovision Song Contest?

11. NWA

Fuck Tha Police (1988)

Fuck Tha Police didn’t need banning: it was too profane for radio broadcast anyway. But that didn’t deter Australia’s Triple J, which happily played it for six months. Then the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (under pressure from a rightwing senator) banned it. Triple J protested by putting NWA’s Express Yourself on loop for 24 hours.

10. 2 Live Crew

Me So Horny (1989)

The standout from the Florida group’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which was ruled obscene and produced a cracking defence from Christopher Hitchens, who called the judge and sheriff a “pair of racist shitheads who should be told to fuck right off”. Despite being cartoonishly puerile, it seems weirdly innocent now.

9. Lil Louis

French Kiss (1989)

French Kiss features a woman having a lovely time and was initially banned by the BBC for the charmingly coy crime of “heavy breathing”. Lest you thought society was finally OK with female pleasure, Ofcom found the east London digital station 883 Centreforce in breach of its broadcast standards for playing it one lunchtime last August.

8. Queen

I Want to Break Free (1984)

Many claim that MTV banned this Corrie-spoofing video, although accounts conflict as to whether that really happened. Regardless, the US didn’t take to Freddie Mercury in drag: Brian May recalled midwestern radio programmers saying: “We can’t possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual.” (MTV did ban the raunchier video for 1982’s less good Body Language.)

7. Madonna

Justify My Love (1990)

Justify My Love was accused of being so outrageous that Madonna had to invent a new format to contain her smuttiness: when MTV pulled the video for being too sexually explicit, she released the first ever VHS single (certified 18). It was a global hit, the clunky format a testament to the tenacity of perverts everywhere.

6. Billie Holiday

Strange Fruit (1939)

Columbia refused to let Holiday record it; when Commodore Records did, Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun called it “the beginning of the civil rights movement”. Strange Fruit – a song about lynchings – was considered so powerful that some US cities banned it, worried it would provoke civil disharmony.

5. George Michael

I Want Your Sex (1987)

Once again, in an attempt to protect the nation – this time from the promotion of casual sex – the BBC missed the mark and ended perpetuating dodgy stereotypes: Michael reprimanded them for “[dividing] sex and love incredibly”, and asserted that I Want Your Sex “is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers”.

4. Loretta Lynn

The Pill (1975)

Lynn’s iconic hit details more than just the liberation from pregnancy offered by the contraceptive pill, including the fun she will have, the clothes she will wear, how “the feelin’ good comes easy now / Since I got the pill”. Naturally, country radio flipped its wig at the scandalous notion of a woman enjoying sex and banned it widely.

3. Donna Summer

Love to Love You Baby (1975)

The orgasmic obstacle strikes again as Donna Summer unleashes her majestic carnal rhapsodies amid Giorgio Moroder’s arpeggiations. What radio stations banned, discos lapped up. Why is it that the sound of female climax is prohibited in pop, yet male guitarists get to play great wanking guitar solos until kingdom, well, come?

2. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin

Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus (1969)

The ne plus ultra of coming on strong, this breathy 1969 (nice) single upset everyone from Portugal to the pope (whom Gainsbourg called, per Birkin, “our greatest PR man”). Little did they know that, three decades later, Birkin’s rhapsodic delivery would be appropriated by M&S ads hawking posh salmon.

1. Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Relax (1984)

In January 1984, Mike Read yanked Relax off Radio 1 before the song had finished playing, appalled after having realised that they weren’t singing about, you know, calisthenics. Despite his rashness, Read was pretty slow off the mark: Frankie’s label ZTT had already taken out ads that included such phrases as “all the nice boys love sea men” and “nineteen inches that must be taken always”. Of course, it went on to be a giant hit, spending 52 weeks in the Top 75. It just goes to show, the best way to suppress smut is – like a pervert on public transport – just to ignore it.