(Before we begin: I am getting tired of mourning the deaths of people I’ve never met. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of my favorite actors, and he had a lot of work left to do at age 46. Here’s a clip from Pirate Radio—known in the rest of the world as The Boat That Rocked, a much better title—in which he explains why the one word you can’t say on the radio isn’t really so bad.)
Our pal whiteray unearthed something very interesting a couple of weeks ago—a radio clip from 1975 in which a radio station in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, plays a controversial record and then asks listeners to call up and comment on it. The song was “Judy Mae” by Boomer Castleman, in which a widowed man marries a younger woman who promptly seduces the man’s teenage son, leading to the man’s suicide. In entirely predictable fashion, a parade of outraged Bible-bangers calls in, including two different preachers who both quote the same verse from Leviticus. Funnier than the preachers is the lady who wants to ask “Mr. Castleman” (whom she seems to dimly believe is there in the studio) whether he had written the song out of an experience he’d had himself—as if she were unable to grasp the concept of fiction.
Although the station portrays this stunt as the opportunity for the public to have its say, it seems pretty clear that the deck was stacked in advance. The longer the announcer goes on about how the station won’t play controversial records until they reach a certain degree of popularity and then only on a very limited basis, the more I think he’s the general manager or the owner of the station. (I doubt whether a DJ or program director would come off as quite such a tight-ass.) Further deck-stacking evidence: when the guy says that his station sometimes makes mistakes, and then adds, “Nobody’s perfect, and there’s only one who is,” he casually drags Jesus into the discussion even before Boomer’s had his say. The preachers and other outraged callers seems scripted; only the poor befuddled kid who likes the song and wants to defend it sounds like he’s winging it.
This episode got me to thinking about songs people have called my radio stations to complain about.
—A few people griped about Foster the People’s “Pumped-Up Kicks,” although my suspicion is that many who objected to its lyrical content (about a kid murdering a fellow student to steal his shoes) did so based on media reports they’d read instead of the lyrics themselves, which were so heavily blanked out on the version we were playing that it was hard to understand what the song was about.
—Sylvia’s heavy-breathing “Pillow Talk” and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” by Major Harris still bring occasional complaints that they aren’t family friendly, although where do families come from in the first place if not that sort of thing?
—Circa 1980, it was suggested that “War Is Hell on the Homefront Too,” a country song in which young T. G. Sheppard is seduced by the horny wife of an absent soldier, was inappropriate for air on Veterans Day.
The people at the Facebook group “You know you work in radio when . . . .” added a few more.
—Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger,” for the line “the devil is my savior.” (Murfreesboro, is that you again?)
—“Kiss You All Over” by Exile, which also sparked at least one disc jockey protest, from a guy in the Quad Cities, who’d gotten religion and objected to it. (He should have moved to Murfreesboro.)
—“Heaven Is Just a Sin Away,” a #1 country hit from 1977 by the Kendalls. There’s a story about it, possibly apocryphal: a DJ once played it right after his station’s Sunday morning religious programming and introduced it by saying, “Now that we’re done with the praying, let’s get on with the sinning.”
—“Society’s Child,” Janis Ian’s song about an interracial romance, which got a North Carolina DJ a death threat from an angry listener.
—Others: “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards, “Miracles” by Jefferson Starship,” “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls, “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael, “Shattered” by the Rolling Stones, “Hair of the Dog” by Nazareth.
And saving the best for last:
—A station in Springfield, Missouri, gets the same complaint every year from the same listener: that “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is inappropriate because it’s about a woman having an affair in front of her child.
Radio types amongst the readership, add your own.