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COMMENTARY: A gentle and careful history of the F-bomb in music from Alan Cross

This Feb. 28, 1968 file photo shows The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
This Feb. 28, 1968 file photo shows The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. AP Photo, File

It was somewhere around 8:30 on the evening of Sept. 7, 1977, when my young ears first heard an F-bomb sung by a rock star.

Max Webster, led by Kim Mitchell, was opening for Rush on the Farewell to Kings tour. Before launching into a song called Oh, War from the High Class in Borrowed Shoes album, Mitchell warned the crowd: “This song has a dirty word in it.” And sure enough, each time the chorus came around, there was F-bombing.

“Is he allowed to do that?” I thought.

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I’d been aware of swearing on record ever since my Aunt Olga bought me Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin album sometime around 1970. Something bad was said, but it was bleeped out on the record.

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But Webster’s performance was a revelation. Did other people use the filthiest of F-words in their music?

Turns out they did. And thus began my strange fascination with this obscure corner of rock music history.

After prehistoric humans wrote the first song, the second probably featured dirty words. Bawdy, ribald and outright obscene lyrics are as old as humanity. It’s just what we do.

Swearing helps to increase pain tolerance: study
Swearing helps to increase pain tolerance: study

Such verbal naughtiness has shown up in the oddest of places, too. Mozart, for example, loved scatological humour. The dude was so sweary in his letters, verses and musical ditties — up to 12 per cent of his writings referred to poop in some way — that some scholars say he suffered from some kind of neurological or psychological condition, perhaps Tourette’s syndrome.

By the time we got to the 20th century, there were uncountable potty-mouthed songs in addition to tunes featuring barely there metaphors referring to you-know-what-ing. But there were those who eschewed any sort of cloaking of the F-bomb.

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In 1916, Hesitating Blues (sometimes titled Hesitation Blues) was adopted from a traditional tune by songwriter Billy Smythe. As the song was covered again and again, the lyrics were modified into something more explicit. When a jazz pianist recorded the song in 1938, you can hear him omit a particularly dirty verse at the 3:25 mark. Trust me when I tell you that the lyrics circulating at the time featured a very prominent F-bomb.

However, when it comes to actually committing the F-word to record, the job fell to a woman.

Lucille Bogan was among the first female blues singers to be recorded. After making some vaudeville records for Okeh Records, Paramount and Brunswick through the 1920s, her tunes became bawdier during the Depression. She released titles like Sloppy Drunk Blues, Mr. Screw Worm in Trouble and, most notably, Shave ‘Em Dry, which was recorded twice in New York on March 5, 1935. It’s the second version that raised eyebrows because it memorialized exactly what she sang in the after-hours clubs. (Think carefully before clicking the link to the song. Best check to see if anyone is around first — especially anyone who might not want to hear the word we’ve been talking about.)

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Three years later, another woman took up the challenge when pianist Eddy Duchin recorded a version of Louis Armstrong’s Ol’ Man Mose with Patricia Norman on vocals. Not only was the song scandalous for its use of innuendo, but when Norman sang the word “bucket,” people thought they heard something else. History was made.

In 1953, The Blenders, a group that would later become a fixture on The Lawrence Welk Show, were persuaded by the owner of their label to record an alternate version of their hit Don’t Play Around With Love with the F-bomb substituting for “play.” It remained unreleased until the 1970s, much to the relief of Mr. Welk.

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The following year, The Clovers upped the ante with a song called — sorry, I can’t even type it here, but if you must, here’s a link. (If you’re not up for salty language, or are listening with kids around, consider yourself warned.) And yes, this is the same group that had a hit with Love Potion No. 9 in 1959.

Fast-forward to April 6, 1963, for an accidental F-word. A group of high school kids in Portland, Ore., calling themselves The Kingsmen paid $50 to record a version of a Richard Berry Jamaican sea shanty Louie Louie, which had become a regional hit. The band was not very well-rehearsed. When they approach the third verse, singer Jack Ely comes in too early, forcing drummer Lynn Easton to cover up the error with an extra drum fill. But a more interesting moment happens just before the one-minute mark when Easton drops a drumstick and be heard yelling “F@#&!” in the background. And because the band didn’t have the money to record a second take, this error-filled first run-through was what they released. The rest is history.

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When FBI agents examined the song for alleged dirty lyrics — an investigation that lasted 18 months — they concluded that whatever Ely was singing was so garbled (he had big braces on his teeth and was singing straight up into an overhead mic) that they couldn’t tell if the song was obscene. Their audio forensic investigation did, however, miss Easton’s curse entirely.

An accidental F-bomb also made its way into The Beatles’ Hey Jude. During what would become the master take of the song, someone — it was either Paul McCartney or John Lennon, depending on who’s telling the story — became annoyed at a wrong piano note/flubbed vocal and utters “f—ing hell” off-mic. You can hear it between the lines “The minute you let her under your skin/Oh, then you begin,” which comes up at 2:56 into the song. Ever the subversive, Lennon insisted that engineer Geoff Emerick leave it in. Once heard, it cannot be unheard.

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But what about deliberate uses of the F-word on record? It seems that the first rock group to break this taboo was The Fugs, a weird satirical garage band from New York’s Lower East Side. In 1965, they recorded a track called CIA Man, which featured half a dozen very clear uses of the word in their excoriation of covert foreign operations by the U.S. Another track, entitled Nothing, also got a little effy halfway through.

By 1969, F-bombs were coming fast and furious. The opening of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams album. Jefferson Airplane’s We Can Be Together from their Volunteers album. The Hair soundtrack

Once we got to the ’70s, F-bombs were everywhere on record. The shock value evaporated. We even started hearing it on the radio with songs like The Who’s Who Are You all the way to The Tragically Hip’s At the Hundredth Meridian to Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine.

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And today? The word is so ubiquitous, we don’t even notice.

Bonus bomb!

Mike Chapman, the producer of The Knack’s massive hit My Sharona, buried a secret F-bomb in the mix, sneaking it into a chanted background vocal. I wonder how many of the 10 million people who bought the record know that? Can you hear it?

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play