The Day The BBC Banned The Beatles...Again
“I read the news today, oh boy” — The Beatles
The Beatles song ‘A Day In The Life’, taken from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was once dramatically banned by the BBC following its release in 1967 in controversial circumstances. The decision showed that the corporation was run with an iron fist and, even if you were the biggest band in the world, if your music was deemed offensive then it would not be given air time. It was a stark contrast to the previous loosening of collars during the sixties explosion.
Still, it felt strange to see The Beatles being banned by the establishment. This particular moment arrived during The Fab Four’s well-documented LSD period, a time which seeped into their foray into the psychedelic world for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which was a dramatic move considering their whiter than white image. It was a moment that captured the band at the peak of their hedonism.
The band received a letter from BBC director of sound broadcasting Frank Gillard on May 23rd, 1967, detailing his reasoning for banning the song, which opened with the line: “I never thought the day would come when we would have to put a ban on an EMI record, but sadly, this is what has happened over this track.”
“We have listened to it over and over again with great care,” continued Gillard, “And we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the words ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ followed by that mounting montage of sound, could have a rather sinister meaning.”
The recording may have been made in innocence and good faith,” Gillard added. “But we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it. ‘Turned on’ is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in vogue in the jargon of the drug addicts.”
Lennon, however, refuted this claim that the track was actually nothing to do with the substances that were aiding him during the recording process and about two stories that he read in a newspaper. “I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories. One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash,” he told David Sheff.
“On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was a damn good piece of work,” he added.
Although that was the motivation that inspired Lennon to initially come up with the premise for the track McCartney has later said the track was “the only one in the album written as a deliberate provocation”. The lyrics they used to try and spark a reaction did work in this case, with Frank Gillard, taking their bait which ended up making the song even more notorious than if he had allowed it airplay in the first place.
Gillard’s letter, dated 23 May 1967, read:
I never thought the day would come when we would have to put a ban on an EMI record, but sadly, that is what has happened over this track. We have listened to it over and over again with great care, and we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the words “I’d love to turn you on”, followed by that mounting montage of sound, could have a rather sinister meaning.
The recording may have been made in innocence and good faith, but we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it. “Turned on” is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in vogue in the jargon of the drug-addicts. We do not feel that we can take the responsibility of appearing to favour or encourage those unfortunate habits, and that is why we shall not be playing the recording in any of our programmes, Radio or Television.
I expect we shall meet with some embarrassment over this decision, which has already been noted by the Press. We will do our best not to appear to be criticising your people, but as you will realise, we do find ourselves in a very difficult position. I thought you would like to know why we have, most reluctantly, taken this decision.
The Beatles hit back at the decision, with Paul McCartney telling reporters: “The BBC have misinterpreted the song. It has nothing to do with drug taking. It’s only about a dream.” John Lennon added: “The laugh is that Paul and I wrote this song from a headline in a newspaper. It’s about a crash and its victim. How can anyone read drugs into it is beyond me. Everyone seems to be falling overboard to see the word drug in the most innocent of phrases.”