Rolling Stone Censorship Article


Interviews & Articles

Radio: One Toke
Behind the Line

April 15, 1971

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Whatever the FCC meant to do when it issued its “public notice” regarding the broadcast of dope lyrics, the immediate results are clear: Rock stations, AM and FM, are scared shitless.  Interpreting the Commission’s indirectly-worded notice as a warning to ban all pro-drug songs many station managers have appointed themselves censors and are pulling dozens of songs.  And, depending on their ears and the amount of space between them, the results have been funny, not so funny, and, quite often frightening.


The first major casualty is a good example of the mentalities set loose by the FCC: “One Toke Over The Line,” a single by Brewer & Shipley that had been cleared by the trades and programming tipsters, and began a steady cruise up the charts – until the FCC issued it’s “reminder” (FCC’s word) to broadcasters to know the meaning songs that “tend to glorify or promote the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana, LSD, speed, etc.” again, the FCC’s wording.  Now, at least half a dozen Top 40 stations have dropped the single because of the word “toke”. 

“I frankly didn’t know what ‘toke’ was,” said Jeff Kaye program director of WKBW, in Buffalo.  “So we did a street survey, and 90 percent of the kids said it had to do with marijuana.”  So Kaye dropped the song, along with “White Rabbit,” “D.O.A.,” by Bloodrock, “Monkey Man” by the Stones, and “Eight Miles High,” which Roger McGuinn has always maintained was a song about a plane trip to London.  The blacklisted songs said Kaye, “went beyond the boundaries of good taste.”

“One Toke” is on Buddah Records, and Neil Bogart, president of the label, sounded pained as he rolled off the list of stations banning his record: KFJZ in Fort Worth (“where it was number six”); KLIF in Dallas (“number 18”); WFUN in Miami and WKBW in Buffalo; (In Chicago, WCFL matched Jeff Kaye by pulling “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces in addition to “One Toke.”  They heard that “Itchycoo” is the name of a London hangout for smack addicts.)

“If airways fully belong to the people,” Bogart asked, “how do you justify pulling a record that’s so heavily requested by the people?”

Tom Shipley, who wrote the song with Mike Brewer, issued a crisp statement: “In this electronic age, pulling a record because of its lyrics is like the burning of books in the Thirties.”   Brewer, in Boston, explained the song, which is more about waiting for a train than anything connected to dope.

“You know people are always going to be reading whatever they want into a song whether it’s there or not …. One day we were pretty much stoned and all and Tom says, “Man, I’m one toke over the line tonight.”   I liked the way that sounded and so I wrote a song around it.”  But he doesn’t deny the meaning of ‘toke’.   In fact, in concert, Shipley introduced the song as “our cannabis spiritual.”  The issue is self-appointed censors interpreting, then banning a song to be in line with a warning/reminder/notice from a governmental agency.

Tracy Westen, the young lawyer specializing in broadcast censorship at the Stern Community Law Firm here, is staking the issue to US District Court.  On behalf of various community groups, disc jockeys from WCBN in Boston (acting without the station’s approval), and Steve Leon, recently fired from WDAS in Philadelphia for acting and speaking out against the FCC action.   Westen will seek a ruling on the notice as invalid and unconstitutional and an injunction and restraining order stopping an enforcement of the notice.

“This is an insidious and underhanded form of censorship,” said Westen, a former administrative aide to FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson (the only dissenter in the issuance of the notice), “because the FCC has not had the guts to come out and say what they really mean.  They are trying to scare private stations into doing the censorship themselves and avoid the rap.”  Westen wants all parties interested in joining the plaintiffs to contact him (the law firm is at 2005 L. St. NW, Washington DC 20036).   “We also need a plaintiff station, but most stations want to stay out of (licensing) trouble and make money.”

One such station: WDAS-FM in Philadelphia, where a staff  “collective” had been hopefully formed just two weeks before the FCC hit the fan.  Management – Steve Leon’s father, Max Leon, and Steve’s brother-in-law Robert Klein, immediately ordered up a list of verboten dope songs from Harvey Holiday an ex-Top 40 DJ.  Songs included “I Am A Walrus”, “Let It Bleed”, “Comin’ Into Los Angeles,” “One Toke Over The Line,” “Small Circle Of Friends” and “Needle And Spoon” (by Savoy Brown).  Also, a memo warned announcers about even discussing the FCC notice.

Steve Leon didn’t take warmly to all this.  Since 1968, WDAS has been “underground,” but usually more with its wallet and mouth than its head.  Hy Lit, another Top 40 refugee, was the first director and had a good assortment of former “good guys” and “bosses” by his side, while all the time Steve, hired by his father, was running farting contests and quitting or getting fired.  Soon Metromedia began a progressive station and flattened DAS’ ratings, until finally Max Leon turned the programming over to Steve, who’d pieced together the collective and received a promise from management:  Freedom of political speech, no censoring of songs or talk, and “community access to microphones.”  All that dissipated with the FCC’s late entry into Steve Leon’s contest.

The 28-year old fought against the ruling and, on one program – his last – played a number of songs relating to drugs – including alcohol.  He’d just gotten to Arlo Guthrie’s “Comin’ Into Los Angeles” when brother-in-law Klein pulled the plug.

Steve reportedly took out his cock and waved it at Klein.  He was fired for good.  The next day, two other announcers quit, and WDAS was ready to announce a change in format: to “progressive soul.”  Their AM outlet is already the market’s leading black-oriented station.

Three Collective members were still on the air last week: the blacklist was rescinded right after the three others left.  The younger Leon, meantime is a chief plaintiff in Westen’s case against the FCC.  He expects to win.  “Then,” he exulted, “we’ll have some really free radio, just like Lenny wanted it.”

Elsewhere, most broadcasters said they’d been following anti-hard drug lines before the FCC notice and that they neither needed nor welcomed the reminder.  In New York, novelist Jerome Weidman, president of the Authors League of America, wrote the FCC on behalf of “lyricists publishers, and record companies: and lyrics that “are fully entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.  Some broadcasters may avoid the danger [of losing their licenses] by excluding any lyrics which might, by the wildest stretch of the imagination, fall within the vague boundaries of the commissioner’s order.  Moreover, it is likely that some stations will not undergo the expense of examining the lyrics of the innumerable records they perform daily and will accede to the demands of private censorship groups who will gladly furnish them with blacklists of suspect lyrics.”

He’s right.  Just listen.  Or check out the list below.

Psst – Wanna Hear
Some Drug Lyrics?

CHICAGO – The Illinois Crime Commission , which used to deal with such out-dated local problems as the Syndicate, became relevant last December when they held public hearings “on the narcotics and dangerous drugs problem.”  Here is their list of “drug-oriented rock records,” and their annotations:

  1. “Let’s Go Get Stoned” Joe Cocker: “lyrics have a double meaning , referring to alcohol but also to drugs.”

  2. “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” Procol Harum: “Mind-bending characteristics of the psychedelics.”

  3. “Hi-De-Ho (That Sweet Old Sweet Roll),” Blood Sweat & Tears: “Joys of smoking marijuana.”

  4. “With A Little Help From My Friends”: “Recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brash (sic) 66 on A&M Records … implying that those using narcotics, marijuana, or psychedelics share these drugs with one another.”

  5. “White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane: “Extolling the kicks provided by LSD and other psychedelics.”

  6. “Yellow Submarine,” Beatles: “Street jargon for yellow, barbiturate capsules.”

  7. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” Beatles: “The initial letters in the title form the word LSD.  The song depicts the pleasure of LSD.”

  8. “Puff The Magic Dragon,” Peter Paul & Mary:  “Smoking marijuana and hashish.”


  Rolling Stone cover 4/15/1971

One Toke Over The Line