Music Censorship – A Timeline


Censorship in America

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15,000 letters, mostly written by young adults, are sent to Chicago rock stations accusing them of playing “dirty” records. Radio station WABB runs editorials call “About The Music You won’t Hear on WABB.” The editorials promise that the station will censor itself of all controverisal music, especially rhythm and blues – in other words, “black” music.


A banner year for censoring music from radio. ABC radio bans from all of its network affiliates Billie Holiday‘s song “Love For Sale” because of its prostitution theme. ABC also was responsible for a lyric change in Cole Porter’s “I


In one week’s time during April, Chicago radio stations receive 15,000 complaint letters protesting their broadcast of rock music as part of an organized campaign. The letters call for the station to remove controversial songs from their play lists.

Variety runs a three-part series on what they term “lee-ics” or R&B sons, with obscene lyrics, calling for censorship for the recording industry. The articles compare these songs to dirty postcards and chastise the music industry for selling “their lee-ic garbage by declaring that’s what kids want.”

January 1957

The Supreme Court finally confronted the obscenity issue in 1957 Roth vs. United States, Justice William Brennan wrote for the Court; Producers of The Ed Sullivan show inform the camera crew that they are only to show Elvis Presley from the waist up during the hard and final appearance show. Elvis’s dancing is considered lewd. Congress considers that legislation requires song lyrics to be screened and altered by a review committee before being broadcast or offered for sale.


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

January, 1959

Link Wray’s instrumental classis “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.

February 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.


In March, John Lennon comments that the Beatles are more popular with teens than Jesus Christ. The observation leads to Beatle record burnings and bans from radio play around the country. In March, 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.


An El Paso, Texas radio station bans all record by singer bans all records by singer Bob Dylan because it is too difficulty to understand the lyrics. The station management fears that the lyrics may contain offensive or lewd messages. However, the station continues to play recordings of other artists covering Dylan’s song.

During the National Democratic Convention, Chicago mayor Richard Daley orders local radio stations to avoid 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.

April, 1971

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


The Supreme Court announced a new Obscenity test that would allow local communities to set their own censorship standards and than would relive prosecutors of the burden of proving that a work charges as obscene is “utterly without redeeming social importance.

Miller v. California

  • Does the material depict or describe specific sexual or excretory activities or organs in a “patently offensive manner”
  • Would the average person, applying “contemporary community standards, “find that the material, takes as a whole, appeals predominantly to a “prurient” interest in sexual or excretory matter?
  • Does the material take a whole, lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value?


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 Mormon audiences.


The most prominent group in the history of music censorship, the PMRG (Parents Music Recourse Group), is formed in Washington, DC by Tipper Gore (wife of then senator Al Gore) and Susan Baker. The PRMG’s primary focus is to convince record companies to monitor and rate artists’ releases with a system similar to the MPAA systems for movies. Their efforts spark a renewed interest by a variety of groups to censor music and lyrics- interest that runs high for longer than five years. The organization’s name is later changed to the Parents Music Resource Center.


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

August, 1987

Jello Biafra, leader of the punk group The Dean Kennedy’s is acquitted of distributing pornography. The case involves the artwork the H.R. Giger, featured on the band’s “Frenakenchrist” album. Biafra is prosecuted after an attorney’s daughter bought a copy of the record for her brother as a Christmas present. Copies of the album are seized and destroyed.

July, 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 did not appreciate the song “Fuck the Police.” Law enforcement groups across the country agree.

January, 1990

In one of the most famous music censorship cases, police in Dade County, Florida set up a sting to arrest three retailers who are selling copies of a record by 2 Live Crew to children under the age of 18. Objections to 2 Live Crew started with the break-thought of their hit “Me so Horny.” Similar prosecutions regarding 2 Live Crew record sales occur in Alabama and Tennessee. No prosecutions result in standing convictions. Members of 2 Live Crew are also prosecuted for performing the material live in concert.

Later that year, New York rock band Too Much Joy plays a show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida two months after 2 Live Crew is arrested for performing “obscene material” in the same club. Too Much Joy played a set entirely of 2 Live Crew materials and is summarily arrested. The case is thrown out of court.


The parental advisory label is still in effect and many organizations are formed to stop censorship or create censorship..

POST 9/11

The events of 9/11/2001 changed music censorship in America. A must-read report on this subject titled “Singing in the Echo Chamber” by Eric Nuzum can be downloaded in PDF format here.

Other Resources

Shoot the Singer!: Music Censorship Today

Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands and Censored Songs (Book)

“Music Censorship-timeline.” Northern Kentucky University Home Page. Web. 20 Sept. 2010. <;.

Activist, Unplugged from the Matrix. Action for Freedom!

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One comment on “Music Censorship – A Timeline
  1. […] is intolerable. You don’t have to look very far to see artists being censored by governments — there are many historical examples . No one understands this more than the scores of individual artists, musicians, painters, writers, […]

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