No Tongues — It’s Daytime!

Roughly once every fortnight the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom publishes what it calls the Broadcast Bulletin. This document is the regular log of cases it has considered as a result of complaints received from members of the public about television and radio broadcasts. It assesses each of these against the published Programme Code, and where appropriate conducts a full investigation as to whether any of the rules have been breached. I’ve always maintained that it’s a requirement for any broadcaster to study these in as much detail as they study the codes themselves. Because it is in these Bulletins that you can glean precisely what you can and cannot do, and every judgement handed down essentially forms a precedent for how not to transgress going forward.

The latest edition of the Broadcast Bulletin, published on December 3rd, 2018 contained yet another of these fascinating precedents. Because extraordinarily they have ruled that a British radio station put itself in breach of broadcasting rules by playing an instrumental song. One on which there is now effectively a moratorium on it being played on daytime radio ever again.

Anatomy Of A Moaner

Our story begins with a listener to the “Lunch With Lewi” show, broadcast on East London digital radio station 883 Centreforce. Between midday and 1pm on August 30th, 2018 the station played two tracks which raised the ire of a listener. Once upon a time the media regulators preferred to take a hands-off view of listener complaints, asking that the stations themselves be approached first before matters are escalated. Since the 2003 establishment of Ofcom they are more than happy to be the first port of call for any complaints. So the listener lodged their objections to the programme content.

The radio station were aware there had been a problem, with the live presenter realising that he had badly messed up.

The radio station had no defence to offer. Playing songs in the daytime with offensive lyrics has long been a no-no, particularly at a time when children are likely to be listening. Whilst an apology immediate afterwards is welcomed, it in no way mitigates the offence. They were caught bang to rights and knew it.

Case closed then. Don’t play the unexpurgated version of Frankie Knuckles tracks on the radio, or you will get hauled off the air by the station bosses.

Except that the original complaint referred to two songs played during this period. And in its submission the radio station had made no reference to a second track at all. Either because they were so focused on the already acknowledged dropped bollock of the Frankie Knuckles track. Or perhaps because nobody for a moment presumed that anyone would have had a problem with it.

That track was French Kiss by American producer Lil’ Louis.

Summertime Snogs

Marvin Burns was born and grew up in Chicago, placing him front and centre of the musical revolution in the mid-1980s which would lead to House music breaking out of the local clubs and shaping the sound of dance music across the western world by the end of the decade. Performing as Lil Louis’ he had released a handful self-produced singles starting in 1987 with popular American club hits Frequency and Music Takes U Away. His commercial breakthrough and indeed what would turn out to be his lifelong notoriety was all thanks to a record which tore up the rulebook not only concerning the sophistication of its production but also the received wisdom of just how a mainstream pop record was supposed to sound.

In essence, French Kiss is little more than an f-major chord and associated harmonics, played on a keyboard and repeated over and over in a nagging, pulsating and oddly exciting rhythm. The only variety comes through the drumbeats and occasional keyboard effects which drift in and out of the mix at intervals. Every so often, however, the extended groove changes up briefly and then changes back down again, teasing the listener almost, until exactly halfway through — just at the moment when you wonder if it is ever going to go anywhere — it slows down. And becomes slower. And slower still. At this point, a new sound enters the mix, the unmistakable tones of a female steadily reaching the moment of sexual climax, one she achieves just as the melody of French Kiss comes grinding to a complete halt. As she gasps for breath, the music picks up again, the tempo rising faster and faster before expiring in what is itself a quite frantic climax. In 1989 this was the boldest and audacious club record ever conceived, a musical depiction of the pace, rhythm and heartbeat of sexual intercourse.

It was the last record you would expect to become a summertime smash hit, but perhaps out of sheer novelty value, or maybe just because it sounded so delightfully rude, the single crashed straight into the Top 10 the moment it became commercially available. The instant chart success was all the more surprising given that the track was initially only available as a premium-priced 12-inch single.

Indeed French Kiss became the first hit single in history to require Radio One to produce their own edited version for play on the Sunday evening chart show as at first the full 10-minute take was the only one available to play. A more playlist-friendly four-minute radio edit did not arrive in the shops until the single had established itself near the very top of the charts. Surprisingly given its past reticence to even countenance daytime airplay for records that dared to mention sex, the network declined to be prudish and left the track’s money shot intact — although as its central selling point it could surely hardly be avoided. Complaints were minimal. Almost as if nobody could truly believe just what it was they had heard. French Kiss would peak at Number 2 in midsummer, only prevented by Jive Bunny from becoming one of the most extraordinary and noteworthy Number One singles of all time. It would also rank as the 28th biggest-selling single of 1989, shifting more copies than both Sealed With A Kiss by Jason Donovan and Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx.

A More Enlightened Age

Let’s contemplate that detail again, because it is an important one. Radio One created their own edit of the track for play on the weekly teatime chart show, because in its originally available form it was simply too long. In chopping it in half, the network’s producers left intact the most provocative bit. The panting, moaning woman. And nobody batted an eyelid. Whilst the hardcore club hit wasn’t exactly the kind of track which would go into rotation on golden oldies stations, nobody had ever had any issue with hearing it on the radio at any time.

Until just before half past midday on August 30th, 2018. When 883 Centreforce chose to give it an airing in the middle of the school holidays. Drawing the ire of the Ofcom regulators.

It meant the radio station were found to be in breach of Rule 1.3 of the Programming Code: “Children must be protected by appropriate scheduling from material that is unsuitable for them…”

Not airing inappropriate songs during children’s listening hours is generally a no-brainer. You steer clear of tracks with swearing in them, and record labels are more than happy to submit “radio edits” of pop hits for daytime consumption. For example, the current Number One single from Ariana Grande features the lyric “so fucking grateful for my ex” which is neatly muted in the version you hear outside of the evening on specialist stations.

But French Kiss doesn’t have any lyrics. It’s essentially an instrumental, the only vocalising taking place is the problematic orgasmic moaning. The sighs that Radio One felt compelled to leave intact back in 1989 because they represent the entire point of the piece of music. 29 years on the broadcast regulator have overruled such artistic concerns. It is the first ever “instrumental” track deemed unsuitable for children.

When I tweeted about this on Monday lunchtime, it prompted some commenters to note that Ofcom had effectively “banned” the track from airplay. Although it is a fine point, they don’t truly have the power to do so. You are still free to air French Kiss by Lil Louis any time you wish, and indeed as long as you don’t air the song during the times Ofcom deems that children are listening (specifically 0600–0900 and 1500–1900 Mon-Fri during term times, and 0600–1900 at weekends and during school holidays) then there should be no issue.

But because it isn’t really possible to present the instrumental in a family-friendly form you are taking a huge risk outside of those times. Because IF you play the track and IF someone hears it and takes offence to it and IF they choose not to call the studio line and express their opinion and instead complain to Ofcom, then you too will be found in breach of Rule 1.3.

All because 883 Centreforce played it back in August. And turned a smash hit from nearly 30 years ago into something you cannot mention in front of the children.

For the full judgement, you can read Issue 367 of the Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin below. The French Kiss case starts on Page 14.

Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 367