For visitors to easy-going, freewheeling Spain, where same-sex marriage is legal and a third of children are born out of wedlock, it’s hard to believe that only 40 years ago it was a fascist dictatorship in the grip of a moral code laid down by the Catholic church.
Immediately after General Franco came to power in 1939, books, newspapers, radio broadcasts, theatre and all other cultural activity was censored. The explosion of pop music in the 1960s and the growing permissiveness reflected in song lyrics and album covers meant the censors had their work cut out.
From 1960 to 1977 the four censors working the afternoon shift at the Directorate of Popular Culture in Madrid banned a total of 4,343 songs on grounds of their sexual, blasphemous or politically subversive content.
A new exhibition in Barcelona, Vibracions Prohibides, documents the often absurd and hilarious justifications for these bans. It takes its title from the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, a song that didn’t conjure images of beaches and blondes in the censor’s imagination: “These lyrics come from the underclass of drug addict bands in the USA whose philosophy is based on sex … the vibrations are associated with orgasm. I believe it would lead to many young people dancing in a lewd fashion. It should not be authorised.”
The song Donna from the musical Hair includes the line “there was a 16-year-old virgin” and was banned because “it presupposes a mentality that says there are hardly any virgin girls around”.
The censors were not native English speakers and constantly struggled with innuendo. Poor English is probably the only explanation for outlawing Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman on grounds of its “homosexuality”.
It was perhaps also a poor grasp of English that led to the conclusion that the Velvet Underground’s anxious junkie song Waiting for the Man was about a girl waiting for her boyfriend. The same band’s Heroin wasn’t banned for being an ode to drugs, but because the word “foiking” appears (Lou Reed is actually singing “for the kingdom”). The censor complains: “I can’t find the word in any dictionary but believe it is a misspelling of ‘fucking’.”
But sex and drugs weren’t the only problem, and pop music’s constant recourse to religious imagery was a headache for the censors. In American Pie, when Don McLean refers to “the father, son and holy ghost”, he’s lamenting the loss of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a plane crash – the day the music died. In the Spanish version, the reference is bleeped out.
When they weren’t removing all trace of nudity and Christian imagery from album covers, the censors were on the alert for political subversion. Thus Joan Baez’s We Shall Not Be Moved was banned, as was Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young because it criticised the police killing of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators.
The Beatles’ The Ballad of John and Yoko was axed because it referred to the couple’s wedding in Gibraltar at a time when Franco was claiming sovereignty over the Rock.
To most ears, John Lennon’s Imagine is about tolerance and peace but what the censor heard was: “a totally negative song that suppresses everything, even religion, in the hope that everyone will join in with the idea.” Prohibited!
Vibracions prohibides, is at El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria, Barcelona, until 28 August