Monica Dyson: Unease over ‘disgusting little ditties’

George Formby.
George Formby.
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British people loved George Formby, who was a very big star in Britain throughout the 1930s, earning an unbelievable £100,000 a year.

However, the lyrics of his songs were subject to a great deal of controversy and heavily censored by the BBC. The director general at that time, Lord Reith, called When I’m Cleaning Windows a disgusting little ditty, likewise With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock, which was heavily laden with double entendres, and something that people liked.

Eventually the ban on When I’m Cleaning Windows was lifted after Formby complained that he was a favourite of the royal family, especially of Queen Mary. The double entendre and innuendo was a big part of the act of comedians like Max Miller, also a favourite in the 1930s with songs like Let’s Have a Ride on Your Bicycle, also banned by the BBC, although the ban was lifted due to public opinion. It’s surprising how many popular stars have had their material analysed to find meanings that were possibly never intended. (Or may have been in many cases!)

In the present day, there has been constant unease about dubious song lyrics in relation to the young people who listen to them. The popular song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, the number one single in 2013, was banned from events at University College London and another 20 universities in the UK for its lyrics seeming to condone rape and violence against women. On the forum Netmums, 80 per cent of parents said that young children were copying explicit dance moves from music videos, with Annie Lennox calling for videos to be regulated.

But censorship is nothing new, especially with the custodians of morals, the BBC. In 1956, Louis Armstrong’s Mack The Knife was considered too bloodthirsty, although it had originally been adapted from lyrics by Brecht for The Threepenny Opera, while in 1957 the Everly Bros record Wake Up Little Susie was banned because it contained references to teenagers sleeping together. When The Rolling Stones appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, he was appalled to learn that they were going to sing Let’s Spend the Night Together. After discussion it was agreed that the lyrics would be changed to Let’s Spend Some Time Together, but it was obvious in the live broadcast that it was ignored. They never appeared on his show again. The Kinks caused a bit of a stir with Lola in 1970. Not, it appears because the lyrics were about a man having a relationship with a transvestite, but because it referred to Coca-Cola, which of course was advertising a product. It was changed to Cherry Cola and everything was okay. In Britain at the time of the Gulf War, artistes had songs banned from BBC stations.

They included Cher’s Bang Bang, Rod Stewart’s Sailing and Lulu’s Boom Bang-a-Bang. It’s not entirely clear why. My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock seems quite innocent after all, doesn’t it?