Nov 212008

I’ll be polite with my quotes here, but in my never-ending research into the history of rock and roll, I’m trying to make sense of the history of profanity in lyrics (as opposed to spoken profanity on rock records—stuff like The MC5‘s “Kick Out The Jams,” the Suzy Creamcheese obscenities on Uncle Meat, offhand stuff in the background like Lennon shouting “f*****g hell” in “Hey Jude,” The Last Poets, etc).

For the moment, leaving out rather obscure or underground acts like The Fugs, Pearls Before Swine, Joy Unlimited (whose 1970 song “Rankness” is probably the most extreme song anyone would do until Marianne Faithfull’s “Why’d Ya Do It”), and so on, I think the earliest use I can find would be The Jefferson Airplane with “bulls**t” on Crown of Creation and two uses of the f-word on Volunteers (the lyric sheets censored all of them, making “fred” one of my favorite euphemisms). Al Stewart made a lot of waves in 1969 with the f-word on Love Chronicles, and I just wish I was old enough to have seen the world’s response to Lennon’s profanities on Plastic Ono Band (or did the earlier Two Virgins cover create a jaded public whom Lennon could no longer shock?).

Anyway, I have a couple of tacks I’d love to see people comment on.

1) Very major acts. All of the very most significant ’60s-into-’70s artists let loose with some at some point. The Stones first, on “Rocks Off” (1972), The Who on “Young Man Blues” on Live at Leeds (1970), Dylan on “Hurricane,” Lennon as mentioned above, Pink Floyd on Animals, etc… Oddly enough, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath are, as far as I can tell, wholly obscenity-free, lyrically. Most relatively major artists I can think of have at least something during their ’70s output. Can anyone think of any who were 100% clean throughout?

2) Early usage—anything from, say, 1972 or before in rock or soul/R&B? I’m sure there are plenty I don’t know.

3) Radio edits and non-edits. Starting in the ’90s, obscene lyrics were in tons of popular songs, blipped or wiped completely. But there were a few key ones in the ’70s: Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” and Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” come to mind, where the radio verion was blipped. More interestingly, there are some where to this day classic rock still plays the uncut versions: Pink Floyd’s “Money,” The Who’s “Who Are You,” etc… I remember as a kid being shocked to note that not only did Dylan’s “Hurricane” have swears in it, but that the 45 left them in on both the A- and B-side of the split single. Anyone want to add to either of these lists?

Would you believe that my interest in this topic was recently rekindled by my first listen to Gordon Lightfoot‘s 1974 Sundown album, on which he says s**t on two different songs?


  28 Responses to “Profanity in Rock”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    Pudman, thanks for stepping up to The Main Stage! You’re looking for examples with outright profanities, right, not euphemisms? I dread that someone will post that typical, “Well, you know ‘rock ‘n roll’ is a euphemism…'” response. I’m sure you share my sense of dread and ask for inspired answers!

  2. pudman13

    Oh yeah, I want the real thing. We could talk about “Buttered Popcorn” or “Pictures of Lily” or “she’s a big teaser” all night. I actually think that the euphemisms are more artistically interesting, but I’m trying to get a sense of people actually breaking taboos.

  3. sammymaudlin

    Doesn’t really fit into any of your categories but I always enjoyed the outright profanity and to-the-point of Iggy’s:

    I got my cock in my pocket
    And it’s shovin up
    Through my pants
    I just wanna fuck
    This aint no romance

  4. BigSteve

    My favorite rock profanity is Chrissie Hynde’s “Not me baby I’m too precious … fuck off.” Why is that so thrilling?

    The stupidest radio edit is Brown Eyed Girl, where they loop a line from another verse to keep from broadcasting “making love in the green grass.”

  5. As I mentioned to Pudman when this topic was first broached, Firefall had a single in 1976 called “Cinderella” — it was huge in Boulder because they were a local band, but I don’t know if it was a national hit — that had the line “Goddamn, girl, can’t you see?” My memory is that KIMN, the AM top 40 station in Denver, bleeped the “god” and left the “damn,” and the FM stations played it uncensored. This puzzled me as a small child, because I was allowed to say “god” but not “damn” (or, for that matter, “goddamn”) and I didn’t get why it was flipped around like that.

  6. BigSteve: Because it’s a perfectly delivered use of a word too often abused. There’s a very similar one in the last verse of Heavenly’s “Atta Girl” where Amelia Fletcher chants “Fuck! You! No! Way!” in response to a line that Cathy Rogers sings. It’s similarly perfect both in terms of its literal meaning in the lyrics and as a musical element in the song.

  7. pudman13

    The Van Morrison censorship is particularly interesting because it completely changes the meaning of the song. He says “my, how you have grown,” which reminds him of “making love in the green grass.” I don’t think too many women get knocked up by “laughing and a-running.”

    Elvis Costello’s “Alison” has a similar reference to pregnancy: “I don’t know if you’re loving somebody/I only know it isn’t mine,” whch was particularly interesting when Linda Rondstadt sang it.

    Speaking of stuff that went over people’s heads, how many of you got the reference to VD in “Surrender?”

    “Stay away, you never know what you’ll catch/just the other day I heard of a soldier’s falling off.”

    Ha ha ha…for years kids sung along and nobody ever realized there was a missing word: a soldier’s [fill in the blank with your favorite euphemism] fell off because of that Indonesian junk that’s going round…

    Which brings me to my next story. For years, whenever I’d hear the Commodores’ “Brick House,” I’d sing along and fill in the missing “shit.” Yesterday, my local oldies radio DJ actually discussed it on the air. He said “fill in the missing word, ha ha ha.” Then he said that the Commodores in interviews said that they left a long pause after “brick” for just that reason.

    Iggy, by the way, is responsible for the funniest rock and roll swear ever at the end of “Success.” Throughout the song the backup singers repeat everything he says, so he starts changing the words, and says a ridiculously long line, while they stumble all over each other to catch up, then says “oh shit,” and they respond in hilarious fashion.

  8. alexmagic

    Most unexpected band to drop some profanity: ELO in “Oh No, Not Susan” from On The Third Day. The line is “…her money and her place, they just don’t mean a fucking thing.”

    Supposedly, this actually got played on the air fairly regularly in England without anybody realizing it, though I don’t know how true that is.

  9. pudman13

    I’ve never heard that ELO song, but it’s very interesting in light of them being so lame as to say “break your glass” in “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

  10. 2000 Man

    I think the first time the Stones swore on record was the B side to Satisfaction, The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man. It was actually edited out on the album, Out of Our Heads but it was on the single. Jagger sang, “I break my ass every day,” at the end. It’s on the first pressings of The Singles Collection, but I’m pretty sure the SACD remaster omits it again! There’s also the infamous Cocksucker Blues from 1969. Yeah, it’s unreleased, but it’s one of those songs they let out because they knew it would be so widely distributed, like Claudine.

    My dad wouldn’t let me listen to Radar Love in the car with him, because the line “When she is lonely and the longing gets too much” sounded like “When she is lonely and the longing is a bitch” to him. For whatever reason, All Right Now was no problem. I think he thought the line was “Let’s move before they raise the parking rent,” which is really dumb, but he thought all rock besides The Beatles was dumb until my parents divorced. He started liking it after that.

  11. Mr. Moderator

    I still love the “pain in the ass” line in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” It’s not like it was that much of a taboo, but Debbie Harry already had been stirring up a lot of feelings when I was 16, and this slight profanity making it to the radio made it even better.

    I was not aware of a radio edit of “Brown-Eyed Girl.” On Philly oldies stations they always leave the love-making line in. Is “making love” even considered a profanity? Isn’t that only slightly less titilating than “fornicating?”

    I’m shocked to learn that ELO dropped an f-bomb. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

    One of the ultimate profanities in rock is in “Some Girls,” where Mick brings in his fetish for “black girls” along with the image of their desiring to, uh, be made love to all night. Because The Stones were still so mainstream at a time when the mainstream media seemed to be exploding, that line always struck me as being extra ballsy.

  12. pudman13

    The Free lyric is “let’s move before they raise the parking rate.” Same thing, no??

    Another song that just occurred to me is the Four Seasons’ “Oh What a Night,” the most obvious loss-of-virginity song to ever hit he top 40. My favorite line is “as I recall it ended much too soon.” Between that premature ejaculation lyric, Al Stewart’s admission of impotence on “love Chronicles,” and David Bromberg’s “Sammy’s Song” (“She moves to take him in now/But her hand finds him still slack/So she sucks to make him hard/And then again lies on her back”), there was a lot of sexual dysfunction among 70 songer songwriter types.

    Speaking of singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell also made surprising use of the F-word on “Women Of Heart And Mind” in 1972: “Nothing seems to keep you high/Drive your bargains/Push your papers/Win your medals/Fuck your strangers/Don’t it leave you on the empty side.”

    Even better is the highly underrated Dory Previn, who used the word on her 1971 and 1972 albums MYTHICAL KINGS AND IGUANAS and MARY C. BROWN AND THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN. “Starlet Starlet On The Screen Who Will Follow Norma Jean?” is hilarious, as a Marilyn Monroe-voiced lost little girl keeps singing “who do I have to fuck” to be important, to get into this picture, to get treated nice, to get into a movie and finally to get into hell.

  13. “Ah, who the fuck are YOU! Whowho whowho” made it over the airwaves for years. I haven’t heard that in a while. Has that been edited?

  14. Mr. Moderator

    pudman13 wrote:

    there was a lot of sexual dysfunction among 70 songer songwriter types

    Isn’t that, along with premature hair loss and boarding school attendance, a driving factor in musicians’ becoming singer-songwriters?

  15. hrrundivbakshi

    Perhaps 2000Man can clear something else up for us. Speaking of profanity, is Jagger singing:

    “Talkin’ ’bout the midnight… SHIT!”

    … on Ya-Yas?


  16. pudman13

    Well, there’s also the clever way the Stones got “shit” onto the airwaves, with “jumpin’ jack flashhhhh…shit’s a gas.”

    The Beatles also pulled that one on “Revolution 9” where you hear one voice sy “sh” and another replies with “it,” several times.

  17. 2000 Man

    I’ve read that lyric for Free. I think the same guy reinterpreted it that changed the title of Starfucker to Star Star and made the lyric sheet read “You’re a starbucker, starbucker, starbucker, star.”

    I mean, how much does parking have to go up to force someone to move?

    HVB – You have it right. That’s right about when Mick starts beating the stage with his belt.

  18. pudman13

    Re: Free. This was a song that played regularly on AM and FM radio back in the day when they’d censor stuff like “Brown Eyed Girl.” There’s no way that line is anything other than “before the raise the parking rate.” We can certainly debate what he *means* by it, but what he says is pretty plain.

  19. Speaking of censorship, I would argue that the single mix of Kanye West’s “Golddigger” is actually better than the album version, because the clever way he avoids the use of the N-word on the single by simply repeating the word that comes before it (“I ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger/But she ain’t messin’ with no broke — broke — “) is rather brilliant, because it turns what would have been a simple bleep into a maddeningly catchy hook.

  20. mockcarr

    If George Carlin is right, oldies stations shouldn’t have been playing “Girl” by the Beatles with all those tits the lads sung in the background.

  21. mockcarr

    Also, didn’t they have to keep us from hearing “Christ” during of the Ballad and John and Yoko? There, it’s a matter of usage, since going further down the dial plenty of evangelists would be using that word in sentences.

  22. mockcarr

    It’s not rock, but I remember seeing West Side Story on regular tv as a kid and them leaving the f-ing in that opening Jets song.

  23. Mr. Moderator

    I’ve gotta say, Mad props to pudman13 if, indeed, he’s correct in noting that Led Zep and Black Sab got through their careers without uttering a single profanity. That’s shocking – and telling.

    Mad props, as well, to those of you who’ve resisted giving us that tired [adjusts glasses and sniffs] “You know, ‘rock ‘n roll’ was a euphemism…”

    Was it hardcore punk that finally blew the lid off use of profanities in rock? Hardcore songs often seemed to be structured around a spot where the music would stop and the singer would blurt out a profanity.

  24. Tom Petty – you Don’t know How It Feels – there are radio edits that say “let’s HIT another Joint” rather than Lets SMOKE another joint” (of course the joke it on them as hitting a joint can mean your smokin it)There was aslo a version that they just scrambled the word Joint.

    That damn James Blunt song “Youre Beatiful” the album says “I was Fucking High” and the radio edit says “Flying High” why did mr. soft rock need an F-Bomb in his big hit single? How many soccer moms had this on in the minivan and got a big old F’n Fuck at them in the 1st song?

    The Ugly Truth Rock by Matthew Sweet was the single from his best record Altered Beast… and you come up out of the ground like a fucking root… I don’t think there was a radio edit, i think he just sluurred it a bit

  25. pudman13

    Officially, in West Side Story, they sing “bugging,” though it sure does sound like something else.

    There was absolutely no profanity in mainstream movies at that time.

  26. The radio version of Steve Miller’s Jet Airliner switches “funky shit going down in the city” to “funky kicks going down in the city”.

    Krusty the Klown advises the Chili Peppers to change “what I got, you’ve got to get it, put it in you” to “I want to hug and kiss you” and everyone agrees that’s better casue everyone can enjoy it now.

  27. Sorry to disappoint but I’m afraid Led Zeppelin are no strangers to potty mouthery Listen again to “Hots On For Nowhere” from “Presence”.

    “Now I’ve got friends who will give me their shoulder,
    Event I should happen to fall
    Time and his bride growing older
    I’ve got friends who will give me fuck all “.

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