Sunday, April 8, 2012

Ban Sex and Pot, but Leave the Racists Alone!

I always remember standing next to the teletype machine in the WIUM studios at Western Illinois University in 1970 and looking over the shoulder of one of the other announcers at the list of songs that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was telling radio stations NOT to play.

Back then the FCC had much more power than it does today.  Stations in 1970 had to go through a rigorous license renewal every few years.  All of that went away when Ronald Reagan was President.  Reagan completely deregulated the broadcast industry.

Here’s a partial list of the songs the FCC urged radio stations NOT to play in 1970.  The FCC claimed that all the songs had drug references in them and President Richard Nixon was beginning his WAR ON DRUGS:

“I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends,” Beatles
“White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane
“Mr. Tambourine Man,” The Byrds
“Puff (the Magic Dragon),” Peter, Paul and Mary
“Eight Miles High,” The Byrds
“Along Comes Mary,” The Association
“Happiness is a Warm Gun,” Beatles
“Mellow Yellow,” Donovan
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Beatles

The way I visualized Puff the Magic Dragon and Jackie Paper.
I remember asking fellow WIUM staffer Denny Shaw why “Puff (the Magic Dragon)” was on the list.  “Pot, Jim,” Denny said.  “’Jackie Paper!’  You know rolling papers, Zig-Zags!  It’s about smoking pot!”  I was flabbergasted.  Peter, Paul and Mary were singing a song about smoking marijuana?  Shows you how sheltered a life I was living in 1970 at age 22.

I thought “Puff” was a cute kids’ song, “Eight Miles High” was about space travel, “Along Comes Mary,” was about a California girl named Mary, and “Mellow Yellow” was about bananas.  Maybe they are!

American radio stations have always been willing and eager to ban songs, even without FCC intervention.  Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” an anti-war song, was never heard in on many American radio stations because of its anti-war, anti-racism messages.  Here’s my favorite part of McGuire’s song:

“Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama.
You may leave here for 4 days in space
But when you return, it's the same old place.
The poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace.
You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace.
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace.”

Pretty strong stuff, isn’t it?  But certainly true!  American radio stations, however, didn’t want their listeners to hear the truth about marches in Selma or the hypocrisy of religion and the stifling nature of American suburban life.  I wanted to hear it!  Hell, I was living it in beautiful Crystal Lake, Illinois where we double hated our neighbors because they were our cousins!

Sex qualified for banning on the radio as well!  I never heard Tommy James’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” until I went to college at WIU.  Some radio stations did not play it.  Here are some of the "sexually offensive" lyrics that got the song banned:

Look at the way,
We gotta hide what we're doin'.
'Cause what would they say,
If they ever knew and so we're,

Running just as fast as we can,
Holdin' onto one another's hand,
Tryin' to get away into the night,
And then you put your arms around me,
And we tumble to the ground,
And then you say,
I think we're alone now,
There doesn't seem to be anyone around.
I think we're alone now,
The beating of our hearts is the only sound.

Now I’m completely against banning any kind of music.  Listeners have control over their radios.  They don’t need any help from the government or from the radio stations.

But I’ve wondered over the years about why the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd not only continues to be played on radio stations but also is featured in many films.  I watched To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman last week, and she does a seductive dance for Joaquin Phoenix in front of her car’s headlights to the strains of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Neil Young
Part of “Sweet Home Alabama” was inspired by Neil Young’s song “Southern Man.”  Here are Young’s lyrics:

Southern man
Better keep your head.
Don't forget
What your good book said.
Southern change
Gonna come at last.
Now your crosses
Are burning fast,
Southern man

Don't you love the flag?
Now here’s Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response:

Well I heard Mister Young sing about her [Alabama]
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down.
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow.

In Birmingham they love the governor [George Wallace]
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth.

Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963, while government officials try to persuade him to move and allow African-American students to register for classes.
“Sweet Home Alabama” is as racist as the day is long.  The song praises Alabama Governor George Wallace who stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama and refused to allow African-American students to register.

And Watergate doesn’t bother Lynyrd Skynyrd?  Well read All the President’s Men, guys. Then we’ll talk about Watergate and how much our consciences are bothered, or in your case, not bothered.

Let’s face it.  Neil Young is right about everything he says in “Southern Man.”  But “Sweet Home Alabama” has a neater guitar lick so the song gets played.  No one looks at the racist lyrics.  Heck, racism is a part of American life.  George Wallace was a good old boy.  He was all right.  Leave him alone!   

Baloney!  George Wallace was the worst of the racists, and Watergate was the darkest moment in American Presidential history.

I just wish that instead of worrying about American kids smoking a little pot or having a little sex out in the weeds, the FCC and American radio stations worried more about the institutional racism that exists in American society and the perpetuation of this racism by the vehicles of popular culture.

Be like me!  Push the button on the radio when you hear Ronnie Van Zant say, “Turn it up!” at the beginning of "Sweet Home Alabama."

Just Turn it OFF!


  1. "Money, it's a hit. Don't give me none of that 'do-goody-good' bullshit." I remember when that was bleeped on radio when Pink Floyd brought out The Dark Side of the Moon. Later, radio stopped doing that in the '80's. And now, they're back to censoring that word. Really? One of the wonderful things about that song/album is that Dark Side has been around so long that our response is a Rorschach test for those in power (or think they have power).

  2. Napster and now youtube are changing music even more. No barriers to entry and an infinite audience.

    couldn't agree more on your analyses above, but i will say kudos to Lynard Skynard for memorializing Duane Allman, who led the first successful racially integrated band, and we all love that solo in that memorial ie Free Bird.

  3. I really love your blogs, Jim. Keep up the great work! :)

    Speaking of George Wallace, I happened to hear the following story on NPR the other day, and I thought you might find it interesting. It's about Wallace's speechwriter during his days as governor, and what he went on to do thereafter.

    His name was Asa Earl Carter, and was responsible for writing the historic line that Wallace exclaimed, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"

    Anyway, what happened next is something almost Andy Kaufman-like, so I'll let you read it for yourself. I hope you're doing well!