Frank Zappa quote in 1985, reading: "Rock music was never written for, or performed for, conservative tastes" in bold red font

Rock and Roll vs. Censorship

Written by: Meredith E. Rutledge-Borger

Given the recent fervor over Russian feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot's arrest and subsequent sentencing and incarceration after staging a performance art protest in a Russian Orthodox cathedral, the Rock Hall started thinking about how censorship has always been a hot button issue in rock and roll.

What’s happening in Russia now is not terribly far removed from repressive reactions to the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s, and reactions to various other manifestations of the artform throughout its history.

Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich said this in her closing statement at the group’s trial: “On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship (with thanks to Eric Nuzum) notes these milestones in the infamous history of music censorship. Many of these milestones are covered in the Museum’s Don’t Knock the Rock exhibit, a video-driven exhibit about the protests against rock and roll, from the Fifties to the present. Here's a look at some pivotal moments in censorship in America, from Congress enacting the Radio Act of Congress in 1927, which prohibited the use of obscene, indecent or profane language on the radio, to the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.


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1952: The Weavers, featuring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Pete Seeger, are blacklisted because of their leftist political beliefs. The group loses its recording contract and its popularity declines.

1955: 15,000 letters, mostly written by young adults, are sent to Chicago rock stations accusing them of playing "dirty" records. Newspaper editorials promise that the stations will censor themselves of all controversial music, especially rhythm and blues - in other words, "black" music.

1956: ABC radio bans from all of its network affiliates Billie Holiday's song "Love for Sale" because of its prostitution theme. "I Cover the Waterfront" is also banned.

1957: Elvis Presley performs onThe Ed Sullivan Show and is filmed only from the waist up because his dancing is deemed “indecent.”

1958: The Mutual Broadcasting System drops all rock and roll records from its network music programs, calling it “distorted, monotonous, noisy music.”

1959: Link Wray’s instrumental classic “Rumble” is banned from radio stations across the U.S. – even though it has no lyrics. The title of the song is thought to be suggestive of teenage gang violence. When Wray performs on American Bandstand, Dick Clark introduces him but doesn’t say the title of the song.


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1964: Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh asks the State Broadcasters Association to ban the song “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen because he considers it to be pornographic.

1965: Many radio stations refuse to play the Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” because it is considered too suggestive.

1966: In March, John Lennon comments that the Beatles are more popular with teens that Jesus Christ. The observation leads to Beatles-record burnings and bans from radio play around the country. The Beatles release their Yesterday and Today album with the “butcher cover” (featuring the Beatles sitting with pieces of meat and decapitated baby dolls). The record company quickly withdraws the record from stores and replaces it with an innocuous photo of the band.

1967: The producers of The Ed Sullivan Show request that Jim Morrison of the Doors change a line of the song “Light My Fire” from “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” to something less suggestive of drug use. Morrison initially agrees, but during the live performance sings the original line. That same year, the show’s producers also demand that the Rolling Stones change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”  As ordered, Mick Jagger sings “let's spend some time together.” 

1968: An El Paso, Texas, radio station bans all Bob Dylan records because “it is too difficult to understand the lyrics.” The station management fears that the lyrics may contain politically objectionable or lewd messages. However, the station continues to play recordings of other artists covering Dylan’s songs. During the National Democratic Convention, Chicago mayor Richard Daley orders local radio stations to stop playing the Rolling Stones’ single “Street Fighting Man” in anticipation of rioting that occurred during the convention. The plan backfires, and airplay and sales of the single reach record-setting proportions in Chicago.


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1971: Officials in Illinois release a list of popular music that contains drug references. The list includes the popular children’s song “Puff the Magic Dragon” and the Beatles “Yellow Submarine.”

1977: The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” is banned not only by the BBC, but also by every independent radio station in the U.K., making it the "most heavily censored record in British history."


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1981: The morals of Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, are saved when radio stations ban Olivia Newton John’s hit “Physical” because its sexual innuendoes are found to be “unsuitable” for their audiences.

1985: The PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) is formed in Washington, DC by Tipper Gore, wife of then senator Al Gore. The PMRC’s primary focus is to convince record companies to monitor and rate artists’ releases with a system similar to the MPAA systems for movies. Frank Zappa is among the artists who testify before the United States Senate in hearings on the PMRC.

1987: Heavy metal icon Ozzy Osborne is unsuccessfully sued by the parents of a 19 year- old who claimed their son committed suicide after listening to Osborne’s song “Suicide Solution.” 

In California, Jello Biafra, leader of the punk group the Dead Kennedys is acquitted of distributing pornography. The case involves the artwork the H.R. Giger, featured on the band’s Frankenchrist album. Copies of the album are seized and destroyed.


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1990: Metal band Judas Priest is sued by the family of two young men. The families contend that “hidden” messages in the band’s “Stained Class” record prompted the youngsters to beat and choke one of their mothers, walk around town exposing themselves and steal money.

Members of the rap group N.W.A. receive a letter from the F.B.I saying that the agency does not appreciate the song “F*ck tha Police.” Law enforcement groups across the country agree.

Police in Dade County, Florida, set up a sting to arrest three retailers who are selling copies of a record by 2 Live Crew  called “Me So Horny” to children under the age of 18. Members of 2 Live Crew are also prosecuted for performing the material live in concert.


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2001: After the September 11 attacks, Clear Channel  distributes  a list of “lyrically questionable” songs to all of its radio stations. While some of the songs include references to airplanes, burning and death, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and all Rage Against the Machine songs are also included.

2003: After a member of the Dixie Chicks says that she is embarrassed that President George W. Bush is from the group’s home state of Texas, radio stations throughout the country refuse to play the group’s music.

2012: The Sex Pistols revisit their controversial early days by turning down an invitation to perform at the Olympics’ opening ceremony in July. Olympics’ organizers suggest censoring the Pistols’ 1977 song “Pretty Vacant,” asking John Lydon not to pronounce the word “vacant” with his provocative emphasis on the final syllable.

In February, Moscow-based female punk rock group Pussy Riot performs a "Punk Prayer" at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a Russian Orthodox church in Russia's capital. The three members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina – are subsequently arrested and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Each woman is sentenced to two years imprisonment in August. Numerous musicians from around the world speak out and voice their support of Pussy Riot, including Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Paul McCartneyMadonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.

Inductees mentioned in this story

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