5 Artists Who Were Censored and Banned on Television

By the beginning of the 1950s, television sets had a place in the American home. Entertaining the baby booming generation with mostly sterilized or cookie cutter and wholesome programming, from classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Honeymooners through the more dramatic crime dramas of Perry Mason and the kid-friendly Lassie, TV was also a new platform for music.

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The first larger-scale mecca for music on television, The Ed Sullivan Show premiered Bill Haley & His Comets in August 7, 1955. The band performed their hit “Rock Around the Clock,” which marked the first rock and roll broadcast on a national TV show, preceding The Beatles momentous first appearance on the show by nearly a decade.

Music was now in everyone’s living room with The Steve Allen Show, The Andy Williams Show, and American Bandstand, among others showcasing musical acts, and across the pond with BBC music show Top of the Pops.

For the most part, performers kept some decorum while performing, while others couldn’t be told what to do. Some were misunderstood, while preventative measures were taken for some of the more provocative ones (see Elvis).

Throughout the ages of television, a number of acts were banned or censored for varied reasons, from Elvis Costello, The Replacements and Rage Against the Machine and more shaking things up on Saturday Night Live to The Doors’ infamous higher performance on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Beatles’ “sex” song ban on BBC.

Here’s a look at five acts who were banned or censored on TV for their lyrics, bodily movements, and other televised “extremities.”

1. Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show
September 9, 1956

On the heels of releasing his eponymous 1956 debut and follow up, Elvis, that same year, Elvis Presley was honored to get a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“Wow,” said Presley to the audience before his performance. “This is probably the greatest honor that I’ve ever had in my life. There’s not much I can say except it makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Though Presley performed his hit “Don’t Be Cruel,” viewers only saw half of him. Following his then-recent controversial appearance on The Steve Allen Show, the Ed Sullivan Show producers didn’t want to take a chance showing off Presley’s hip-shaking moves, so he was only filmed from the waist up.

Presley would make his second appearance on the show more than a month later on Oct. 28, 1956.

2. The Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show
September 17th, 1967

Already notorious for censoring artists, The Ed Sullivan show was a haven of sanitized rock, and nothing like what The Doors had in store for their 1967 performance.

Before the band even went on air, Mr. Sullivan approached them and told them to “smile more” on camera. Later in the day, a producer also asked the band to switch their “Light My Fire” lyric Girl, we couldn’t get much higher to Girl, we couldn’t get much better.

The Doors initially agreed to change the lyric but never had any intention of doing so. After performing “People Are Strange,” The Doors went into “Light My Fire” with all its original lyrics intact — and barely a smile among them — and were banned from ever performing on the show again.

3. The Beatles and the BBC

In The Beatles‘ 1967 television film, Magical Mystery Tour, different vignettes were fit around the band’s 12 featured songs, including “I Am the Walrus,” where they are seen miming to the song on an airstrip with other more trippy imagery.

Also released as the B-side to their single “Hello, Goodbye,” which was the final song in the film, “I Am the Walrus” was partly inspired some LSD trips John Lennon had and the 1871 Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Credited to Lennon and Paul McCartney was also written in response to fans over-analyzing The Beatles’ lyrics, specifically Lennon’s alma mater, Quarry Bank High School for Boys, where they were studying the meaning of the band’s lyrics. To trip them up, Lennon decided to write the most convoluted Beatles lyrics of all.

Though the song was written in jest, it wasn’t one the BBC was fond of upon its release.

The verse Pornographic priestess / Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl / You let your knickers down troubled the broadcaster, who believed it was about sex, and banned the song.

Read more behind the meaning of “I Am the Walrus,” HERE.

4. Beastie Boys on ‘American Bandstand’
January 16, 1987

As American as American pie, American Bandstand and host Dick Clark were the gateway to rock and roll, pop, and every genre in between with performances by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Madonna and Run–D.M.C., among countless others.  

A year after the release of their breakthrough No. 1 debut, Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys made history by becoming the first act to get censored on American Bandstand. At first, they were pumped up to perform their smash hit “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” until they found out they had to lip-sync the song.

“We had to [perform] to a tape,” said Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. “We couldn’t play it live, so we threw our mics on the ground and wrecked them.”

For the most part, the Beastie Boys played along to the tape for their performance, pretending to sing while running, sometimes moshing with one another, within the circular performance space. Throughout their performance, they continued to drop their microphones while the song played on, making it obvious that they weren’t singing.

At one point, late Beastie Boy Adam Nathaniel Yauch (1964-2012) held the mic so far from his mouth, and Michael “Mike D” Diamond was falling over his bandmates, while they all missed their singing cues. Mid-way through, Ad-Rock also grabbed his crotch, which was edited out by the time the episode finally aired.

Though it’s not clear if the Beastie Boys were forever banned from American Bandstand, they performed at the end of its lifetime on television. The show stopped airing in 1987.

5. Smashing Pumpkins and the BBC

By 1993, and Smashing Pumpkins had solidified their place within the 1990s with the mainstream success of their second album, Siamese Dream. Wistful hits like “Cherub Rock,” “Today” became part of the soundtrack within the disenchanted environs of grunge, along with their stirring ballad “Disarm,” a song Singer Billy Corgan had written about his relationship with his parents.

 “I never really had the guts to kill my parents,” Corgan once said, “so I wrote a song about it instead.” 

Though the subject matter was still fairly heavy, the BBC misinterpreted the lyrics and believed “Disarm” condoned abortion—Cut that little child / Inside of me and such a part of you … The killer in me is the killer in you. They also linked it to a recent death in the U.K. of 2-year-old James Bulger, who was murdered by two 10-year-olds.

As a result, the song got limited radio airplay and the BBC banned the song from Top of the Pops. Despite this misunderstanding, the song still managed to reach the top 20 in the U.K. and several other countries. In the U.S., the song peaked at No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart and remains a Smashing Pumpkins classic.

On Feb. 5, 1996, Smashing Pumpkins also performed on Top of the Pops for the very first time, but they didn’t perform “Disarm.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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