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date: 20 March 2019

“A Day in the Life”: The Beatles and the BBC, May 1967

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the issue of censorship in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s controversial decision to ban the final track, “A Day in the Life,” from the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 due to its oblique reference to drug use. More specifically, it analyzes the factors underlying the BBC ban within the context of the cultural environment in which company executives interpreted the recording. The chapter also discusses the BBC mission and its “Green Book,” the BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide for Writers and Producers, which establishes Britain’s standards for taste in broadcasting.

Keywords: censorship, British Broadcasting Corporation, ban, A Day in the Life, Beatles, Green Book, Britain, standards, broadcasting

On Friday, May 19, 1967, British papers carried news that the British Broadcasting Corporation had chosen the Beatles to represent the UK in the first global television broadcast. A spokesperson, explaining the BBC’s choice for the June 25 “Our World” telecast, commented that the band members represented “the best of their kind” and that the corporation saw them as “particularly British” (Bell 1967, 22). Ironically, the very same day, an internal memo reveals that even before EMI had released the group’s next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the BBC had decided to ban the final track, “A Day in the Life,” because internal censors believed that the recording “could encourage a permissive attitude to drug-taking” (Fox 1967a).1

The national broadcaster had banned recordings by other artists; but this represented the first time they had blocked something by Britain’s recently MBE-honored economic heroes. Composers Lennon and McCartney initially skirted the assertion, only much later admitting that the song did contain an oblique drug reference. Problematically, BBC officials failed to identify the offending passages, leaving the Beatles and the press guessing as to what had drawn the ban. The innocuous wordplay of the Beatles’ previous songs had skirted censorship and, while audiences would arrive at a variety of interpretations for the lyrics, Lennon and McCartney believed that “A Day in the Life” had met contemporary standards. But the BBC’s decision questioned more than words; in the context of other events, this purging of a musical item from a program constituted a confrontational salvo between generations and cultures.

By the mid-sixties, the BBC had grown from its initial role as an addendum to the post office (the first radio broadcasts were telegraph transmissions) into a powerful media corporation at the dawn of the age of globalization. With expanding international travel via commercial jet airliners and the initiation of satellite communications, the national broadcaster found its audience increasingly able to compare British programming with that of the rest of the Western world. Moreover, the Beatles had played a significant role in making British popular music commercially successful in an increasingly transnational market.

(p. 536) Domestically, the BBC’s legal monopoly on radio in the United Kingdom came under attack in the sixties as so-called “pirate” radio stations began anchoring ships in the waters surrounding the island nation and occupying former gunnery platforms (leftovers from the Second World War) in the Thames Estuary. These privately owned offshore commercial stations followed relatively lenient guidelines in their content policies, sold advertising, and perhaps most importantly made popular music the core of their programming. The BBC, by contrast, closely limited how many hours a week it allocated to pop and continued to follow in intent if not in detail a broad set of guidelines from the 1940s that defined what met the threshold of appropriateness. Later that summer, Parliament would pass the Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offenses) Act 1967 to terminate offshore broadcasting, which effected the immediate closing of over twenty stations (a clear act of censorship). The “pirates” simply filled a cultural and economic vacuum; but when a governmental organization determines when, how, and what a population might hear and see, disruptive forces like offshore radio stations introduce instability into a system that abhors change.

The corporation had taken as its charge the edification of the nation and—when faced with diminishing audiences, growing competition, and a youth culture it only partially understood—scrambled in a futile effort to reconcile the network’s mission with the confusing reality confronting it. When the BBC decided to protect the British public from “A Day in the Life,” they drew attention to the factors driving their decision.

The Challenge of the “Contemporary Limits on Decency and Good Taste”

When EMI, the corporation that distributed the Beatles catalogue, dropped the Sex Pistols from its roster in 1977, the chairman, Sir John Read, justified the action as following the “contemporary limits of decency and good taste” (Cloonan 2003, 15). The admission that these standards were in a state of change (“contemporary”) reveals much about the psychology and challenges faced by both producers and broadcasters. Ten years before that decision, the BBC faced a similar problem in the rapidity with which youth culture generated language and accorded meaning to the music and art it created and patronized. The semiotic difficulty lay in recognizing when the meaning of symbols (including words) had changed, especially in the context of popular music where metaphor plays such a powerful role in commercial value. A phrase might have one set of benign meanings among some parts of the population and quite another interpretation by members of other groups. For example, when Ian Whitcomb sang “You Really Turn Me On” in May 1965, audiences interpreted the phrase as implying physical and emotional attraction. Two years later, to say you wanted to “turn someone on” had quite a different meaning among a growing number of people.

Semioticians such as Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990) have argued that we project meaning on the world, such that when we sense something, we assign an interpretation to that (p. 537) experience. In the case of artistic expression, the artist (dancer, painter, musician, and so on) may intend an interpretation for his or her creation that audiences may or may not entirely share. The exchange hardly occurs in a vacuum. We live in a symbolic world where culture provides interpretive tools to help us create meanings based on our experiences. Consequently, the more that artists and their audiences mutually possess a cultural language, the richer will be their shared experience of the symbolic. Idiosyncratic interpretations by an individual may make what he or she has encountered personally meaningful; but shared interpretations result in socially meaningful experiences.

Numerous factors influence the interpretation process. Gender, class, race, age, education, and nationality are only some of the factors involved in how we understand artistic expression. When we encounter something new, we sometimes experience cognitive disequilibrium and attempt to reconcile what we perceive with what we already think we know. The everyday reality of common culture allows for a broad exchange of information through shared interpretation, significantly accommodating cultural communication in areas such as commercial trade. However, the specialized reality of a select social group such as a band involves coded language; a musical quotation, for example, might serve as an in-joke and refer to a specific shared experience. In the mid-sixties perhaps the most celebrated of specialized realities belonged to the Beatles, whose fame enforced a circumscribed and relatively isolated world limited to the four musicians and their immediate associates.

Societal subgroups will have their own coding practices, often to thwart translation of their specialized reality by other groups. For example, when Liverpudlian slang became fashionable among some British teens in 1963 and 1964, they were able to communicate in ways that excluded adults, not only in their understanding of the jargon, but also in the appropriateness of the very use of this language. Comedy skits abound during this era based solely on the inappropriateness of adults aping the language of teens. Even though adults may have uttered the same words, the meaning changed through the specific social context of the language.2

When censors—governmental or private—interpret for society, they attempt to place themselves between the object and the observer with the intention of imposing their meaning and their values on audiences. In the sixties, when issues such as personal freedom and the right to challenge authority flourished in the demographic anomaly of the postwar baby boom, such intervention naturally met resistance.

The BBC and Its Mission: Class and Education

When the British Broadcasting Company formed in the 1920s, its founders had in mind something rather different than the competitive commercial licenses that flourished in the United States. Indeed, London’s traditional elite juxtaposed British identity to most things American, and the geographical and cultural differences between the two nations (p. 538) meant that broadcasting would arrive at contrasting solutions. Perhaps more importantly, Britain sought to place control of broadcasting in the hands of a governmental body, which by definition meant upper-middle-class bureaucrats. The amalgamation of several fledgling British telecommunications companies in 1922 under founder John Reith came as an extension of the Royal Mail. Over its first few years, the BBC attracted a surprising number of subscribers who paid license fees in order to be able to use their radios.3 By 1926 the Royal Mail had issued over two million licenses, a number that continued to grow over the following decades (Briggs 1961, 18).

In May 1926 the nine-day general strike stranded Britain without newspapers, positioning the BBC as the primary source of information, a situation that the government of Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin (and chancellor of the exchequer Winston Churchill in particular) sought to manage. Consequently, the next year, on January 1, a royal charter established the British Broadcasting Corporation and took the potential for political control of the broadcaster away from Parliament and placed it under the crown. Parliament would hold the purse strings, but the BBC answered to a board chaired by (now Sir) John Reith (Briggs 1961, 18)

Reith began with the goal of providing the “best of everything to the greatest number of homes,” a directive that left unarticulated what constituted and who defined “best” (BBC, n.d.). With a monopoly on broadcasting in the UK, the Board of Governors saw an opportunity to set the tenor of intellectual discourse in the nation and, consequently, its aesthetic tastes; however, as ownership of radio sets expanded and listener demographics grew more diverse, lower-middle-class and working-class families came to dominate the audience.

Between 1962 and 1967, the BBC operated three domestic services: the Home Service (which provided regional programming), the Light Programme (popular entertainment), and the Third Programme (the heart of the BBC’s educational mission). The very title of the Light Programme implied the inferiority of a service that provided listeners with only a small window for commercial popular music. The corporation often operated as though it were broadcasting either to an Oxbridge elite (with plays, symphonies, and debates between scholars and politicians on the Third Programme) or to the masses (with programs on subjects like farming and housekeeping).

The BBC had long experienced competition from Radio Luxembourg, situated in the tiny nation nestled between France, Belgium, and then West Germany. This commercial station operated one of the most powerful transmitters in Europe and broadcast many programs specifically for British listeners. Record companies like EMI and even music publishers bought time to run radio programs that they had produced in the UK, even if the weather occasionally impaired reception of the station’s broadcasts. But the anchoring of the MV Caroline off Britain’s east coast in March 1964 and the subsequent commencement of broadcasts by Radio Caroline marked the beginning of the rise of independent offshore stations that briefly and significantly challenged the BBC’s authority.

Over the next three years, listeners tuned away from the national broadcaster to listen to nonstop pop with a decidedly hipper accent and less rigid set of controls. (p. 539) The government reacted to this perceived infringement on their authority (and that of the upper classes) by passing the Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 on July 14, primarily on the pretext that these stations sometimes took wavelengths reserved for ship communications. August 1967 would see offshore broadcasters fold overnight (with the exception of Radio Caroline which fought the ruling by anchoring in the waters of the semi-independent Isle of Man). By way of compensation to the listening public, the BBC reorganized and opened a new radio channel devoted to popular music. In September 1967, the BBC renamed their services Radios 1, 2, 3, and 4, with Radio 1 begrudgingly giving popular music a limited but more prominent place (see Annan 1977, 11–12.)

The “Green Book”

The BBC’s unique status positioned it between the responsibility of serving British audiences and the power of the government. During World War II, Churchill’s government placed severe restrictions on radio broadcasts, with the service sometimes conveying coded messages to agents in German-occupied Europe. Earlier in 1933, the government had even pressured the corporation to cancel a series of talks on India (Briggs 1965, 129). As a rule of thumb, the governors of the network sought to avoid controversy, which included eschewing editorial statements (128–132). Thus, when the BBC discussed censorship, it had a very specific practice in mind that focused on national welfare, including physical and mental health and social wellbeing. By 1949 Michael Standing (with assistance from others) had developed the BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide for Writers and Producers (unofficially known as the “Green Book”) to establish Britain’s standards for broadcast taste (Took 1981, 86). The language of the Guide effectively reveals attitudes that would guide decisions long after the document had ceased to be officially operational.

In this internal document, the corporation clearly understood its power of influence on listeners, which justified the considerable weight of its assumed “responsibility for a high standard of taste.” Further defining this aesthetic policy, Standing reasoned that, because of the diversity of their potential audience, they had to avoid “vulgarity, political bias,” and matters of “questionable taste.” Specifically on “matters of taste,” the BBC wished to set a “standard that will be accepted by most rational people” (Took 1981, 86). Strategically, “rational people” remained undefined, but in practice this group would be identical with the corporate framers of the Guide.

The Guide assigns “responsibility for enforcing” these standards to the producers of their programs, equating them with censors who must know the “Corporation’s general attitude towards the subject and of the detailed rules which have been drawn up during some 25 years’ practical experience” (Took 1981, 86). Of course, the producers had to walk a delicate line between what the corporation demanded and what audiences wanted, setting up inevitable conflicts of interest. The reference to “25 years’ practical experience” clearly indicates that the BBC’s standards derived from the past and not the present.

(p. 540) For entertainment, the authors of the Guide specifically prohibited references to lavatories, effeminacy in men, honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitution, women’s underwear, marital infidelity, and religion. Writers could refer to alcohol consumption, as long as they did so “in strict moderation” and could justify its inclusion only on “entertainment grounds.” Of course, the BBC forbade, except in a “serious dramatic setting,” the use of expletives, such as “God, Good God, My God, Blast, Hell, Damn, Bloody, Gorblimey,” and “Ruddy.” They recommended instead the substitution of “innocuous expressions” (Took 1981, 89). Thus, the BBC set the rules of engagement for the next twenty years.

The BBC and Music

The very British issues of class and race emerge in curious arenas, including music. Notably, Standing found the word “Niggers” unacceptable unless a producer referred to a proper title, such as “Nigger Minstrels.”4 Furthermore, the Guide treats the Western classical music tradition as an almost sacred entity, banning the “jazzing” of any works in this repertoire (Took 1981, 90). This rule from the Guide clearly was in effect in March 1961, when the BBC banned Nero and the Gladiators’ version of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from broadcast. Reflecting the corporation’s class-conscious reverence for hierarchy and without irony, Standing instructed producers in doubt about the acceptability of a musical performance to take the consultation of a “higher authority.”

As the first bête noir on the BBC’s list of questionable entertainment, the songs and jokes of the music hall presented a serious challenge to the Guide’s standards of taste. The working-class tradition had flourished in the nineteenth century, gaining an even broader audience in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the potpourri of song, dance, acrobatics, magic, and risqué humor that constituted a typical music hall program hardly represented Reith’s idea of the “best of everything.”

By the 1940s, however, the institution of the music hall was on the wane, its most successful stars having made the transition to film, which provided a cheaper and more domesticated alternative to the theater. George Formby perhaps represented the most notable among the transitional music hall stars, and his song “When I’m Cleaning Windows”—from the film Keep Your Seats Please (1936)—seems to have served as the template for some of the BBC’s standards. The corporation possibly responded to the popularity of the song with contempt, especially when the king made Formby an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1946 for his entertainment of the troops during the war and when Stalin awarded him the Order of Lenin for the laughter he brought people.

“When I’m Cleaning Windows” takes the voice of a workman as he variously views honeymooning couples, disrobing actresses, a bootlegger, and flirting chambermaids. Indeed, this song and others seemed to run the gamut of the BBC’s forbidden topics. The corporation as a matter of principle rejected other Formby songs with titles such as “The Wedding of Mr Wu” (1933), “Hindoo Man” (1937), “The Wash House at the Back” (1935), (p. 541) and “Fanlight Fanny” (1935). In particular, the BBC objected to the phallic innuendos of songs about his trademark banjo-uke (or banjolele) and his northern origins, such as “With My Little Ukulele in My Hand,” which Decca Records withdrew at first in 1933, and “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” (1937), which resulted in an official BBC request for rewritten lyrics.

Unlike the radio, the limited broadcast range of television meant that the government entertained the idea of independent networks; but the BBC’s standards applied here as well. The ban on George Formby’s material remained in place such that, in November 1963, BBC TV prevented British country rocker Joe Brown from performing “My Little Ukulele” on The Billy Cotton Band Show. Shortly afterwards the independent television networks also removed Brown from the shows Thank Your Lucky Stars (ABC) and Five O’Clock Club (AR-TV). Three and a half years later in January 1967, the BBC would cut seven minutes of discussion about the Game’s “The Addicted Man” from the popular program Juke Box Jury because of the song’s descriptions of drug use.

Second on the list, the corporation frowned upon “Americanisms,” particularly in the use of American slang and accents by singers, and wished to emphasize that producers were to favor British music wherever possible. Nothing less could be expected of a national broadcaster. Their ally among publishers had been the Dance Music Policy Committee so that the corporation felt sure that sheet music had already been vetted; but, by the mid sixties, record sales had left printed music in the dust and the committee ceased to exist.

The BBC now increasingly operated on a global stage where their audiences compared their standards to those of other countries whose broadcasters sometimes seemed to hold a stricter line. By 1967 the Rolling Stones could get away with “Let’s Spend the Night Together” in Britain; but in the United States, Ed Sullivan would force them to change the lyrics to “let’s spend some time together.” Only a few months later, the Troggs found their song “I Can’t Help Myself” banned from British television shows on both the BBC and the independent networks; but Australia totally blacklisted the disc even for sale (Altham 1966). In each case, the BBC found other countries and programs to hold even more prejudicial standards than their own, leading to an internal dialogue questioning whether they needed to tighten their standards.

The Beatles and Censorship

During much of 1964, Bob Dylan’s music had preoccupied John Lennon, and meeting the American in New York that summer reinforced the influence. In addition to introducing the Beatles to marijuana, Dylan instilled in Lennon the importance of lyrics. In turn, the Beatles’ recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had impressed Dylan in part because he had misheard the text, thinking they sang, “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide.” He wondered how they had gotten the song past the censors and he told them so. Thus, like schoolboys, as the Beatles began to fall under the spell of what they euphemistically (p. 542) called “tea” and played with the notion of slipping things under the noses of officialdom, the phrase “I feel fine” may have had an alternative meaning for them. Paul McCartney, for his part, thought it would become the “catch phrase” for the season (Nicholl 1964, 11).

Over the next few years, they would embrace the idea of duping the most immediate representative of the establishment: their producer George Martin. At first, their attempts were simply naughty adolescent pranks. For example, in 1965 during their sessions for the album Rubber Soul, the song “Day Tripper” sought to depict a woman who disingenuously implied interest in sex. McCartney claims that “big teaser” replaced “prick teaser” (someone who took you “half the way there”), a phrase he expected his friends to get but the general public to miss (Miles 1997, 209). Not long after the “Day Tripper” sessions, he and Lennon grew bolder, introducing the word “tit” as part of the backing vocals to Lennon’s song “Girl.” The producer stopped them at one point and asked, “Was that ‘dit dit’ or ‘tit tit’ you were singing?” To which they replied, “Oh, ‘dit dit,’ George, but it does sound a bit like that, doesn’t it?” (Apple 2000, 276.)

Lennon and McCartney also admit that tripper had a meaning beyond that of a vacationer, referencing someone who took hallucinogens and providing another inside reference for their coterie (Miles 1997, 209; Apple 2000, 199). Letting a common phrase describing someone who took a day trip overlap with a newer meaning that could slide past corporate gatekeepers represents what McCartney has described as one of the advantages of collaboration, where the partners would push the envelope with a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” (Miles 1997, 209–210). As they began work on their next album, Revolver, their use of drugs emboldened them, and the references now sat hidden in plain sight. For example, in the song “Got to Get You into My Life,” McCartney claims that he let the idea of looking for ways to bring a lover into his world stand for his marijuana craving (see Miles 1997, 190). Other drug references, however, should have been much more obvious to the BBC.

On April 1, 1966, near the one-year anniversary of a London dentist’s surreptitious spiking of his and George Harrison’s coffees with LSD, Lennon visited Barry Miles’s Indica Books and picked up a copy of Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Originally published in 1964, the book gained a broad audience as the use of LSD spread. In its pseudo-mystical prose, Lennon found partial inspiration for one of the most audacious recordings the Beatles would ever attempt: “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Leary, Metzner, and Alpert had freely adapted verses from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist treatise on the attachment to life and how to prepare for death, the ultimate detachment from worldly obsessions. Lennon’s adaptation of The Psychedelic Experience included lines like “But listen to the colour of your dreams. It is not living, it is not living,” that referenced his visual reactions to LSD while still appearing poetic enough for censors to ignore.

Throughout this period, the Beatles relied on a cooperative press to keep their private lives and thoughts separate from their public personas. Consequently, few dared to interpret the music of the giggly Fab Four as meaning anything but superficial good fun. That was about to change.

(p. 543) “More Popular than Jesus”

In the spring of 1966, as swinging London and its colorful denizens attracted the attention of Time, the managing editor of Datebook found part of a recent interview with John Lennon to be of particular interest. Articles on the Beatles had boosted sales of the American teen magazine and, with a cover story on the band, he hoped to raise circulation even more. Collaterally, a rapid disintegration of the complex identity that the Beatles management, the media, the fans, and even the musicians themselves had constructed ensued, setting in motion a number of dark forces.

An old friend (she had given them one of their first positive national reviews), the British journalist Maureen Cleave had interviewed Lennon for a series in the Evening Standard on the everyday lives of the Beatles and had questioned Lennon about his library and reading habits. He cited books about the variety of humankind’s beliefs in the sacred that had led him to an understanding of how ideas had come and gone over time. Notably, he sensed that Christianity, like other religions, had contributed good ideas, but that something else would eventually replace it too. To that end, Lennon asserted, “Christianity will go . . . It will vanish and shrink.” As his evidence, he added that currently the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” and, as a corollary of his theorem, he projected that even rock “n” roll would disappear.

His comments hardly surprised his friends. In the wake of the Second World War, their generation had openly questioned the received wisdom asserting the presence of a supreme deity, even as they sometimes embraced exotic alternatives. Attendance at British churches had dropped precipitously in the postwar years, and by the sixties, these institutions fought a losing ideological battle with sports events and the cinema. For the Beatles, their student conversations in Liverpool and debates with their college friends in Hamburg had shaped a decidedly existentialist worldview. In contrast, teenage fans in North America, particularly in the southern United States, commonly held a rather more conservative, innocent, and insular view of religion.

When Datebook published excerpts of the interview on the eve of the Beatles’ US tour, it displayed the headline, “I don’t know what will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity” as one of several quotes on the cover and as the title of the article inside. Soon, two radio stations in the American South saw the marketing possibilities of the statement and loudly banned Beatles recordings before moving on to displays that offered even more theatrical possibilities. Initially, the tempest that swirled around Lennon’s comments had the intended effect of focusing attention on the self-righteous zealots who burnt Beatles records in scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s book burnings. More menacingly, members of the Ku Klux Klan picketed performances and threatened violence, sending manager Brian Epstein into a frenzy and the Beatles into disbelief. Lennon gave the impression of a deer in the headlights at a Chicago press conference on August 11, 1966, as he tried to satisfy a press corps that smelled blood, saying, “I still don’t know quite what I’ve done.”

(p. 544) By the end of the summer’s tours, the band felt unhinged. They had received death threats from Japanese militants and physical abuse at the hands of Filipino police, not to mention experiencing extortion at the hands of officials who confiscated every peso the band had earned from two concerts in Manila. After the last Beatles concert (in San Francisco on August 29), George Harrison turned to a British reporter traveling with them and sighed, “Well, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore” (Lewisohn 1992, 214).

Harrison soon disappeared to India to study sitar with Ravi Shankar, Lennon headed first to Germany and then Spain to act in the film How I Won the War, and McCartney worked on a film score and on his reputation as an eclectic consumer of musics both popular and esoteric. More importantly, their recording contract with EMI expired that fall without even a whimper, and for the first time in years they did not release a recording for the Christmas market. In their absence and at an important juncture in their recording careers, the press began to speculate that their days were numbered and that they would soon release a statement announcing their disbandment. The blush was clearly off the bloom.

“A Day in the Life”

When the Beatles returned to the studio in November 1966 to record, they had no particular deadline and only the most general of themes. They began with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” before moving on to Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-four” and “Penny Lane.” Toward the end of January 1967, however, manager Brian Epstein concluded negotiations with EMI, locking the Beatles into a nine-year recording contract and setting them once more on a record-and-release schedule. To shore up the reputation of the band (and perhaps to appease EMI), Epstein and Martin selected the two best recordings in their current portfolio to release as a single. Unfortunately, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” confused reviewers and the public alike, and the disc would be the first Beatles single not to top all of the charts since their very first release, “Love Me Do” in 1962. Momentarily shaken but undeterred, the band and their production crew continued with a song that Lennon had brought to the studio in early January and on which he and McCartney had collaborated.

Lennon began “In the Life of . . . ” after the death of Tara Browne—the son of an Irish baron and a Guinness Brewery heir—who had lived a high-profile life in swinging mid-sixties London and had been a friend of the band (Sheff 1981, 163). The previous year Browne and McCartney had been riding mopeds at night in suburban Liverpool when the Beatle hit a hole, went over the handlebars, and chipped his front tooth. No such easy escape awaited Browne in the early morning hours of Sunday, December 18, 1966, when he and model Suki Potier left a friend’s house in Earl’s Court and headed into London, his small fiberglass Lotus Elan speeding through the streets of South Kensington. Singer Marianne Faithfull has commented that she had recently taken LSD with Browne and that all of their friends commonly drove around London while on the drug (Faithfull (p. 545) 2000, 89). Various reports have the car swerving to miss another vehicle and spinning; but Browne either missed or ignored a stoplight, sending his car crashing into a parked van. The side impact put the driver of the low-slung sports car directly in harm’s way. Potier survived; but the twenty-one-year-old father of two soon died from his injuries.

A month later, Lennon found himself in a surreal situation. A habitual reader of newspapers, the musician sat working on a song for their upcoming recording sessions while digesting the coroner’s report on Browne’s accident. Death had visited Lennon in the past when his uncle, who was also his guardian, died, followed by the deaths of his mother and his friend Stuart Sutcliffe, but Browne was younger than Lennon and seemed to have everything going for him. Indeed, they were much alike: young men with young families living fast lives between their elegant homes and London’s clubs and sampling the same drugs.

The song begins by citing the newspaper article and, without naming Browne, references the experience of seeing the gadabout’s smiling face in the picture, igniting a flickering memory of happier times. The inquest noted that Browne had failed to stop at a light and that he suffered severe head injuries, facts perhaps referenced in the song’s comments about not noticing that the “lights had changed.” In a reference to the fleeting and transient nature of fame that must have resonated with Lennon, some people probably seemed unsure whether the Browne that had died was Tara or his father, a member of the House of Lords.

Lennon brought the incomplete song to McCartney’s home in St. John’s Wood where they sat at a piano in his partner’s music room to expand on the ideas. Interestingly, McCartney claims not to have known that Lennon had Tara Browne on his mind, thinking they were describing a politician (Miles 1997, 324). They added a verse about Lennon’s experiences making the film How I Won the War (which would not see release until the next fall) and, for sheer surrealistic randomness, Lennon and McCartney pulled a news item about road repairs in Blackburn, Lancashire, not far from their Liverpool homes. The article dutifully reported the estimated number of holes (like the one that McCartney had hit the previous year) as around four thousand. Lennon’s first draft, reflecting his sarcastic whimsy, also lets slip an obliquely scatological pun, suggesting that the authorities had to count “everyone.” But, as the music for the verse changed, he needed to amend that ending, retaining the idea to say that the authorities now knew how many of these holes might be seated in the Albert Hall.

At this point, Lennon knew he needed contrasting material for the chorus and his partner thought he had a bit of music that would fit. In a narrative style McCartney had used in “Eleanor Rigby” and “Penny Lane,” the songwriter proposed an up-tempo section with words that suitably narrated the everyday experience of someone rushing off to work. The juxtaposition of McCartney’s section with the existing verses suggests that Lennon’s material constitutes part of someone’s dream, a reading underscored by the last line of this middle section in which the narrator climbs the stairs of the bus, draws on his or her cigarette, and drifts back into his or her somnambulism.

The passage that McCartney later acknowledged could refer to drug use arrived as part of the bridge material commencing first from the end of Lennon’s initial verses and (p. 546) before McCartney’s chorus and then again from Lennon’s last verse to the coda. With Timothy Leary’s advocacy and knowing the double meaning of the phrase to “turn on,” Lennon slow-trilled McCartney’s insertion of “I’d Love to turn . . . you . . . on . . . ” (Miles 1997, 325). The music that follows had an intended metaphoric meaning, with McCartney projecting the dramatic orchestral crescendo of rising-pitch chaos (achieved through a conscious imitation of American John Cage’s aleatoric composition) to reflect the spirit of Lennon’s dream (Miles 1997, 325). That is, the two orchestral transitions in “A Day in the Life” represent McCartney’s experience of the psychedelic.

Lennon’s wordplay and surrealistic contrasts create a powerful metaphoric amalgam of sound and image that his singing style further enhances. In one more symbolic touch, Lennon had the production crew treat his voice with a strong echo and reverberation while they would eventually choose to leave McCartney’s voice dry, sonically emphasizing the distinction between dream and waking states. Lennon, McCartney, and the production crew had created a richly symbolic object loaded with vaguely defined symbols. They seem to have given little thought as to how others would interpret the material.

The Beatles and the BBC

May 1967

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sat completed, awaiting only hot presses to begin producing millions of vinyl copies. And while the band already worked on its next project, the historic nature of the disc they had just completed led to leaks of unofficial prerelease versions of some tracks (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “When I’m Sixty-four” and “A Day in the Life”) making their way into the hands of disc jockeys in the United States.

During the “Summer of Love” in 1967, a war broke out in the Middle East, Red Guards set fire to the British embassy in Beijing, and Lyndon Johnson escalated American bombing in Southeast Asia. Earlier in the year, Mick Jagger had threatened to sue the tabloid The News of the World for libel, leading the authorities (with probable assistance from the paper) to raid the home of fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richards. The police charged Richards, Jagger, and art dealer Robert Fraser with a variety of drug offenses, bringing them to court on May 10, and providing the tabloid with further fuel for its outrage at the behavior of pop stars. In the United States, perhaps hoping to pick up on some of the previous summer’s press-attracting outrage and building on the news from London, a radio station in Los Angeles chose to take offense at what it perceived as drug references in “A Day in the Life.” The news reached London almost immediately.

Upon learning of the ban, Dick James, the director of the Beatles’ Northern Songs publishing venture, retorted, “I cannot understand how anyone could take exception to ‘A Day in the Life.’ Certainly this is an unusual song. There is reference to a man smoking, but it is quite innocuous. How anyone could object to it—especially in the (p. 547) Los Angeles area of all places—is beyond me.” Derek Taylor, who lived in Los Angeles but had formerly been an assistant to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, reported that the radio station had dropped the disc because the station director thought he heard Lennon sing, “40,000 holes in my arm,” a phrase he presumed to describe heroin use. But knowing that the actual words to the song referred to road repairs, Taylor opined, “Any idea that this may encourage people to use drugs is, to say the least, remote!” (Disc and Music Echo 1967a).

Almost two weeks later on Friday May 19, 1967—the day before the Beatles were to appear in a taped special on Where It’s At hosted by Chris Denning to talk about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—Roland Fox, the Assistant Head of Publicity at the BBC, circulated a memo. The note asserted that the corporation had assumed a “pretty liberal attitude” toward contemporary pop in recent years, but after listening to “A Day in the Life” “over and over again,” they had decided to exercise their “editorial discretion . . . not to broadcast this particular song.” They had concluded that the recording appeared to “go a little too far and could encourage a permissive attitude to drug-taking.” He instructed the Radio Publicity Officer and others that they should not volunteer this information, but given the likelihood that the story would break over the weekend, they should use the memo for their talking points (Fox 1967a).

The producers of Where It’s At consequently removed “A Day in the Life” from the special segment that offshore (Radio London) Liverpudlian disc jockey Kenny Everett had independently recorded. The Beatles and their entourage learned of the banning at Brian Epstein’s private press party the day of Fox’s memo and the night before the broadcast. A week later Disc and Music Echo quoted the line from the memo about drug-taking almost verbatim.5 With no more details forthcoming from the corporation, the paper approached the Beatles for their reaction. Unsurprisingly, Lennon led the attack, concentrating on the line that he thought might have provoked the censorship and sarcastically declaring that he would like to “meet the man who banned this song of ours. I’d like to turn him on to what’s happening. Why don’t they charge the Electricity Board with spreading drugs because to get electricity you have to ‘switch on?’ Hidden meanings, man” (Coleman 1967, 8). Then the songwriter cut to the core of the problem, claiming that the lyrics held no obvious declarations in favor of drug use and that the censors themselves had chosen to interpret the words that way.

The BBC’s unspecific ban also confused McCartney who focused on his passage about going upstairs on a bus and having a smoke. He first rhetorically asked, “Does THAT have to be about drugs?” before identifying a specific cigarette brand (something else that the BBC would have banned had it been in the song): “Park Drive.”6 Ultimately, he claimed that the song could have referred to “just about ANYTHING” and that the words described a “dream on the top of the bus” (Coleman 1967, 9).

McCartney put a further spin on the ban by declaring that drugs were obviously on the mind of the censors and that their ban would have a contradictory effect. “It just draws attention to a subject when all the time their aim is to force attention away from it. Banning never did any good.”7 Reflecting on the BBC’s vagueness, McCartney professed that the meaning of their declaration was “just beyond me.” He then went on to compare (p. 548) the banning of the song with another recent controversy, a failed ban of a film adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses (for its use of the word “fuck”), but noted that road repairs in Lancashire were “like images in a dream—that was what we were after” (Coleman 1967, 9).

The BBC’s decision to leave their rationale vague created a paranoiac atmosphere that left musicians and producers broadly unsure of whether records crossed the boundary. With the lyrics of songs increasingly surrealistic and employing broad abstract metaphors, the corporation’s intentions seemed to be to return pop music to something simpler, but the gates had already opened. Internally, the BBC attempted to show a united face, albeit with some ruffled feathers. Robin Scott, Controller of the Light Programme, which aired Where It’s At, complained it was a “pity that events overtook us,” acknowledging that the statement “effectively constituted a ban on the record.” Perhaps referring to an article in the Saturday Daily Mirror (Short 1967), he further complains that neither he “nor [the] Gramophone Department8 nor producer of the programme concerned was aware of what had happened until we read our Saturday morning newspapers” (Scott 1967).

Scott notes, “We obviously have to stick to our guns on this,” finding reassurance that Radio Luxembourg had agreed with the decision to ban the recording and that both it and the BBC were writing letters to record companies explaining their stance on songs they perceived as promoting drug use. He concedes, “In the process . . . some offending records will get through and some innocent ones will suffer, but there can be no doubt about the rightness of our intentions.” Fox (1967b) shot back a memo in defense of the Publicity Department to the effect that events had not overtaken them and that the Director of Sound Broadcasting had “informed the H.P. [Head of Programming] and A.H.P. [Assistant Head of Programming] about the decision on this particular ‘track’ at our routine with him on Thursday, May 18.9 We discussed the wording of a Press Office comment in case the story broke over the weekend.” Referencing the press party where the Beatles learned this news, he felt satisfied that he had contacted and warned all of the appropriate people.

The next day (May 25, 1967), the Assistant Director of Sound Broadcasting R. D. Marriott supported Fox in a memo to Scott that expressed surprise “since you both took part in the decision,” before going on to explain “matters of central policy.”10 He supported the conclusion to ban the record because of a “consensus of opinion about the dangers of drugs that makes it unlikely that the Press would criticize us.” Moreover, with the exception of comments from the Beatles and “our own disc jockey,” he notes that the press had been silent. Ominously, he remarks that he understands that the disc jockey (Kenny Everett) “is being dealt with,” suggesting that the Beatles were not the only ones censored. Unclear from Marriott’s and Scott’s correspondence is whether or not Scott had actually been part of the deliberative process.

June 1, 1967

The summer of 1967 saw numerous significant musical releases by artists as diverse as the Kinks (“Waterloo Sunset”), Procol Harum (“A Whiter Shade of Pale”), Traffic (p. 549) (“Paper Sun”), and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (“The Wind Cries Mary”). A significant number of these songs evoked ideas that had listeners deciphering the lyrics and repeatedly listening to recordings to catch even the most insignificant bit of audio symbolism. With the release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, this hyperactive interrogation of cultural artifacts went into overdrive. Peter Blake’s album-cover montage of figures selected by the Beatles as influences (Karl Marx, Stu Sutcliffe, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.), the band costumes, the insert of a cutout mustache, sergeant’s stripes, an image presumably of Sgt. Pepper himself, and the lyrics on the back cover all seemed to encourage even the most reluctant student to indulge in analysis. The adolescent audience, whom the Beatles had first attracted in 1963, had matured into students familiar with metaphor and interpretation. Even some teachers had begun choosing Lennon and McCartney’s words for class discussion.

In addition to running a “cartoon” depicting the creation of the album, the New Musical Express devoted an entire article to descriptions of each track. Allen Evans approached “A Day in the Life” in full narrative mode, creating a complete story line. Notably, when the orchestral crescendo first appears, Evans describes it as “the loudest thunderings of war noises,” presumably because it follows Lennon’s verse about the English Army (Evans 1967, 4). He also suggests that the wordless bridge material at the end of McCartney’s chorus depicts the dream referenced in the last line. Finally, he interprets the second appearance of the orchestral crescendo as “the sounds of war again which swell up and go into the sound of a plane diving, then rumblings and fading as the notes try to die but hang on and on” (4). He makes no mention of drug use or hallucinations.

The Evans interpretation, contemporary with the decisions to ban the recording from airplay in the United States and the United Kingdom for supposed references to drugs, shows that listeners could easily infer other meanings from the music. Even William Mann in the conservative Times, acknowledging the BBC’s ban, described the drug references in the song as “ambivalent” (Mann 1967, 9).

Censorship and Semiotics

The idea of “process” in culture implies an individual or a group of individuals undertaking a series of decisions and other symbolic acts that result in change, as actors and the consequences of their behavior move from one state or condition to another. Process also suggests a psychological state in which individuals make sense of information. The processes by which the Beatles created and recorded “A Day in the Life” and the processes by which the BBC enacted and then justified a ban represent musical and policy changes that occurred in the context of dichotomous social interactions. That is, in the environment of 1967 pop culture, individuals sought to maximize the advantage of their talent and/or to position themselves socially in order to reap the most rewards from the market, sometimes competing against one another and sometimes bonding to gain greater leverage against others.

(p. 550) In his description of the objects of semiology, Nattiez (1990, 15) describes creative expression as composed of “poietic processes” and its reception and interpretation as consisting of “esthesic processes.” The complex symbolic configurations that we analyze (such as the dense lyrical, musical, and sonic recordings emanating from EMI’s Studio Two) lie between these two sets of activities. The Beatles and their production team engaged in a poietic process when developing (a) the song’s melody, harmonic structure, and lyrics, (b) the performed interpretations of these materials, and (c) the acoustic realization of the performances. Roland Fox and his team at the BBC esthesically interpreted something in this realization as encouraging the use of drugs.

Cloonan (2003, 15) defines censorship as the “process by which an agent (or agents) attempts to, and/or succeeds in, significantly altering, and/or curtailing, the freedom of expression of another agent with a view to limiting the likely audience for that expression.” That is, censorship exists when someone or something in a position of power intercedes in the reception of the “traces” of creativity. Both creation and reception relate to the “material reality of the work” (the physical “trace” of the processes that created it), and thus inform how we approach analysis (Nattiez 1990, 15).

In the BBC’s decision to ban this one track from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a variety of factors influenced their decision-making process. Lennon, McCartney, and their production crew created the “trace” through poietic processes while the BBC and publications like the New Musical Express interpreted it through esthesic processes. Roland Fox and others functioned as mediators between the Beatles and audiences whose experience of popular music came primarily through BBC broadcasts. Censorship thus functioned as mediation between audiences in the esthesic process.

Did the BBC curtail the ability of the Beatles to express themselves to their intended audience? Cloonan (2003, 17–19) provides a useful starting point for this discussion by distinguishing three levels of censorship: prior restraint (the prevention of the creation of works “usually based on aesthetic or market considerations, or both”), restriction (limitations on who has access to works), and suppression (“attempts by a government or legal system to enforce a moral and/or political code”). Under these definitions, the BBC’s decision to ban the broadcast of “A Day in the Life” represents an ultimately futile attempt at limiting expression.

Although EMI had the power to prevent the Beatles from recording at their studios (prior restraint), they had no interest in surrendering the most economically profitable artists in the world. Indeed, EMI had every financial reason to encourage the band, its production crew, and its management to create a product that would earn the company significant profits. They presumed that in the poietic process, the Beatles and George Martin would self-censor to create a product that would meet their mutual expectations. The company had recently signed a recording contract with the band’s management and had subsequently provided them with access to the valuable resource of studio time and personnel, manufactured their most expensive product to date (including its color cover and insert by Peter Blake), and sold the product in their stores. They anticipated (p. 551) an album they could sell, and the Beatles delivered a product that clearly exceeded market expectations.

As for restriction, in an environment where offshore radio stations continued to broadcast the recording, the BBC’s ban limited access only to those British listeners who were unwilling or unable to change the station. Indeed, even with the impending closure of the “pirates” by an act of Parliament, patrons could still purchase the disc in stores. Nevertheless, a broadcasting ban on a recording could limit sales.

The BBC’s director of sound broadcasting, Frank Gillard, wrote to Sir Joseph Lockwood (chairman of EMI) and nineteen other record company executives to express concern “over the allegations that some pop records contain references to drug taking, and could be construed as giving encouragement to unfortunate habits and perhaps even to vice.” The executive feigns compassion for EMI by noting that catching drug references can prove “a very difficult problem . . . , since these references are often obscure and couched in language and jargon not readily understood by ordinary people” (Gillard 1967). The phrase “ordinary people” stands out. Gillard’s language carries overtones of class condescension implying that a variety of others—from lower-tier employees to listeners—through the ignorance of their birth and cultural background, would fail to catch the drug references. Illogically, he suggests that “A Day in the Life” could subliminally sway some BBC audiences to use drugs, even though they did not understand the references. Of course, Lennon and McCartney routinely included references that only their friends could understand.

Gillard in his powerful position justified editorial control by referencing the “millions of young people” who listen to BBC programming, underscoring his concern about lyrics that some could interpret as “offensive or even dubious.” Echoing parts of the internal correspondence, he reminds Lockwood and other recording executives that the BBC had moved to “liberalize” their position on recordings in recent years, but that he found it “necessary to be particularly vigilant from now on in this matter.” He then assured record company executives that, although the BBC might sometimes “penalise an innocent disc . . . , if the axe has to fall at all, it will come down only on the guilty” (Gillard 1967). In other words, even if producers created discs that had no intended references to drugs, the BBC still held the power of interpretation to determine whether or not a recording actually encouraged vice. The letter reminds record company executives of the power of the BBC and of the cultural battle in which he presumes they are reluctant allies.

In terms of suppression, the BBC had the power to ban the disc from its radio and television programs, even if shops continued to carry it, and with legislation pending that would shut down offshore broadcasters, Gillard must have felt some authority underlining his intention of applying a “moral and/or political code.” As the gatekeeper of British broadcast culture, the corporation would soon have greater ability to control what people heard on the radio. Indeed, an even more blatant example of suppression lies in the Marine, &c., Broadcast (Offences) Act 1967 itself. With this legislation and with the force of the Royal Navy, the British government completely censored offshore broadcasters, ostensibly on the grounds that they obstructed safety, but in reality (p. 552) because they challenged the authority of the BBC and of the class system itself. Given that the programming of these broadcasters consisted primarily of pop, the act sought to ban any music of which the BBC had not approved.

Deciphering a Ban

The banning of “A Day in the Life” proved a response to the quickly evolving culture of mid-sixties Britain. Fashions and language changed dramatically and rapidly, and metaphors and wordplay grew so thick that conservative institutions like the BBC grasped at interpretation. Individuals at the BBC felt compelled to decide about the appropriateness of the recording, but with abstract musical and lyrical metaphors purposefully obscuring any concrete meaning, they found themselves influenced by contemporary events.

In the second half of the sixties substantial numbers of baby boomers came into adulthood, gaining the right to vote and threatening the authority of an establishment that had ruled Western democracies since the end of the Second World War. Part of the biochemical revolution of the postwar years included the availability of drugs, which spread rapidly and globally through youth culture, championed in part by the behavior of prominent figures such as rock musicians and film stars. The establishment reacted.

The Beatles at this point in their career sought to retain legitimacy among their peers and in the eyes of their audience by pushing the envelope of what the middle class found acceptable. They had successfully evaded external censorship in the past and they felt that the text here successfully stayed on a path that allowed different audiences their own interpretations. EMI, the corporation funding and promoting their product, benefited from the sales of the album, even as they complained to Parliament about pirates not paying royalties. They relied on Lennon, McCartney, and producer George Martin to provide a product that would pass muster with the BBC and the press.

Internally, the BBC sailed stormy waters in the straits between a public that had grown tired of the musically mundane “Light Programme” and a newly invigorated conservative political force demanding a reversal in cultural trends. Emboldened by recent electoral victories in the UK, conservative forces such as the police force and publications like the News of the World actively attacked the counterculture, challenging institutions like the BBC to follow suit.

Externally, American culture continued to grow in global influence, undermining and challenging traditional British customs and the cultural hegemony of institutions like the BBC. Consequently, BBC executives found themselves justifying their actions in terms of international forces. For example, when R. D. Marriott pedantically explains banning to Robin Scott (a communication from an administrative superior to an employee commenting on how well he thinks their system works), he cites decisions by Radio Luxembourg and American stations.

(p. 553) The Beatles had long represented a safe and productive resource: an appearance by band members on any program could boost its audience. But the Beatles’ position as untouchable icons of the British pop music industry had eroded with attacks by American radio stations in response to Lennon’s comments about the relative popularity of the band and Jesus. And the contemporaneous arrest and court appearances of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on drug charges proved that the establishment could attack pop stars successfully. If the Rolling Stones could be arrested and prosecuted, why not ban the Beatles? And if Parliament could shut down offshore broadcasters, the BBC should be able to exercise a similar decision in taste in regards to a pop song. The tide seemed to be turning and the BBC would not want to be caught in the harbor.

Understanding how the BBC reacted to “A Day in the Life” involves more than a simple argument about whether or not the words of the song refer to drug use. Multivariate factors influenced the cultural environment in which BBC executives interpreted the recording, factors that were to become much more complicated.


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(1.) Thank you to Nigel Paine (former Chief Executive for Broadcast Training, BBC) and Jessica Hogg (Archives Researcher, BBC Written Archives Centre) for their assistance.

(2.) The alternative is true of films such as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), where Mike Myers brings sixties colloquialisms into a world in which they have lost their meaning.

(3.) In contrast, Americans seem never to have presumed they would be able to monitor who owned and operated radios and who did not, let alone who would be willing to pay for a license.

(4.) The BBC would repeatedly draw criticism over the years for Blackface minstrel shows, which some producers found perfectly acceptable. For instance, black-faced performers appeared on “The Black and White Minstrel Show,” which ran on BBC television from the fifties until the seventies.

(5.) London’s music papers published once a week on Fridays or Saturdays. The Daily Mirror (Short, 1967) quoted directly from Fox’s memo, while Disc’s (May 27, 1967) version replaced “could” with “might.” The New Musical Express (May 27, 1967) quoted the BBC as saying that the song “could be considered to have drug-taking implications.” The Associated Press waited several weeks (June 9, 1967) before quoting the relevant parts of Fox’s memo word-for-word.

(6.) In an interview with Melody Maker (May 27), McCartney again cites the passage about going upstairs for a smoke and notes that the ban drew further attention to the album.

(7.) McCartney would take a similar position later that year when he admitted to having taken LSD, blaming the press for reporting his use.

(8.) Anna Instone served as Head of Gramophone Programmes. Roland Fox’s memo of May 24, 1967, indicates his understanding that they had contacted her the night of Friday, May 19, and that she had expressed the opinion that she was “happy we were all in step.”

(9.) “Head of Programming” possibly refers to Robin Scott, “Controller, Light Programme”; however, Scott indicates that he was unaware of this meeting.

(10.) Marriott was involved in other instances of censorship. See Whitehead 1989, 43.