The BBC’s Banned Songs Of The Gulf War


The tunes considered too dangerous and subversive to be played on national radio during Desert Storm.

The BBC has long been a curious cultural contradiction. On the one hand, it is woker than woke, a liberal leftie organisation from top to bottom, ever on the cusp of whatever intersectional thinking might be the new thing. On the other, its left-wing leanings give way to forelock-tugging for the Royals and the voice of tradition. The battle for the Beeb’s soul has perhaps never quite been so fierce – look at the kerfuffle over the Proms last year as the battle on all things Empire raged over Rule Britannia. But we should never doubt that when push comes to shove, the BBC will be the voice of authority.

In 1991, when the first Gulf War broke out, the BBC stepped up to its responsibility as the voice piece of Britain and the supporter of the nation in its time of crisis. Perhaps for the last time, a conflict with British involvement was declared beyond criticism – perhaps the experience of this brief skirmish or simply an awareness that our global aspirations are no longer beyond question has allowed more nuanced opinion of later Middle Eastern wars, but in 1991, there was still the hangover of the Falklands War, when the BBC when into full State Broadcaster mode. Not only would the BBC be the voice we all turned to for information, but it would also be the one that would never allow questions or doubt. Like any good propaganda broadcaster, the Beeb silenced dissent and made sure that nothing – but nothing – would be allowed to bring the mere idea of war – any war – into question. Even one that only lasted a month.

As part of that, there would be a determined cleansing of the radio airwaves. Obviously, any song that was decidedly anti-war in nature – say, Edwin Starr’s War, Kate Bush‘s Army Dreamers, Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance – were booted from the airwaves, lest they sap the public moral. But things went way beyond that, to the point of hysteria. Any song that mentioned war, fighting, dying or killing was banned, regardless of context – Eric Clapton’s I Shot the Sheriff (but not Bob Marley’s), Pat Benatar’s Love Is A Battlefield and other songs were forbidden. So were songs or bands that had the words ‘bang’ or ‘fire’ in their name, anything referencing peace (because God knows, no one wants that during a war) and anything that even hinted at an old adversary, even if they weren’t the country we were fighting – so goodbye to the BeatlesBack in the USSR and Abba’s Waterloo. Blondie’s Atomic and Skeeter Davis’ The End of the World were banned, which hinted at a certain ambition as to where this conflict was headed, while some banned titles suggested a certain awareness of the sheer folly of the entire proceedings – Rick Nelson’s Fools Rush In and Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World were perhaps a little too on the nose.

What’s as fascinating as the songs that were banned are the ones that slipped the net – like the Video Nasties list, this selection of forbidden titles seems rather random, given the sheer number of both explicitly anti-war songs and those that hinted at violence, destruction or chaos. Where, for instance, is Eve of Destruction on this list? It has the feel of something rushed into place by a panicked organisation that fretted about how many listeners would be upset at hearing Lulu’s Boom Bang-A-Bang or The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by Joan Baez (but not the version by The Band).

Here’s the entire list that was exposed by Channel 4 and The New Statesman (of course, the BBC have been reluctant to acknowledge the ban beyond the suggestion that ‘a few’ songs were pulled during the war), should you care to enjoy the vicarious thrill of subverting the wartime spirit.

10cc – Rubber Bullets
ABBA – Under Attack
ABBA – Waterloo
A-ha – Hunting High and Low
The Alarm – Sixty-Eight Guns
The Animals – We Gotta Get Out of This Place
Arrival – I Will Survive
Joan Baez – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian
The Beatles – Back in the USSR
Pat Benatar – Love is a Battlefield
Big Country – Fields of Fire
Blondie – Atomic
The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
The Brook Brothers – Warpaint
Kate Bush – Army Dreamers
Eric Clapton – I Shot the Sheriff
Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
Cutting Crew – (I Just) Died In Your Arms
Skeeter Davis – The End of the World
Desmond Dekker and the Aces – The Israelites
Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms
Duran Duran – A View to a Kill
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Oliver’s Army
Jose Feliciano – Light My Fire
First Choice – Armed and Extremely Dangerous
Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly with His Song
Eddie Grant – Gimme Hope Jo’Anna
Eddie Grant – Living on the Front Line
Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting
Elton John & Millie Jackson – Act of War
Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Two Tribes
Johnny Hates Jazz – I Don’t Want to Be a Hero
John Lennon – Imagine
Jona Lewie – Stop The Cavalry
Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town
Lulu – Boom Bang-A-Bang
Bob Marley – Buffalo Soldier
Martha and the Vandellas – Forget Me Not
M*A*S*H* – Suicide is Painless
McGuinness Flint – When I’m Dead and Gone
Mike and the Mechanics – Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)
Maria Muldaur – Midnight at the Oasis
Rick Nelson – Fools Rush In
Nicole – A Little Peace
Billy Ocean – When The Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going
Donny Osmond – Soldier of Love
Queen – Flash Gordon
Queen – Killer Queen
Paper Lace – Billy Don’t Be A Hero
Plastic Ono Band – Give Peace a Chance
B.A. Robertson – Bang Bang
Tom Robinson – War Baby
Nancy Sinatra – Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
Spandau Ballet – I’ll Fly for You
The Specials – Ghost Town
Bruce Springsteen – I’m on Fire
Edwin Starr – War
Status Quo – Burning Bridges (On and Off and On Again)
Status Quo – In the Army Now
Cat Stevens – I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun
Rod Stewart – Sailing
Donna Summer – State of Independence
Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World
The Temptations – Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)
Stevie Wonder – Heaven Help Us All

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