November 15, 1963 Unintelligible at Any Speed

In 1955, singer-songwriter Richard Berry wrote a tune about a Jamaican sailor returning home to see his lady love.  It’s a ballad, a Caribbean-flavored conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

MI0001688683.jpgIn 1955, singer-songwriter Richard Berry wrote a tune about a Jamaican sailor returning home to see his lady love.  It’s a ballad, a Caribbean-flavored conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

The song was covered in Latin and and R&B styles in the 1950s, never becoming more than a regional hit on the west coast.

“Mainstream” white artists of the fifties and sixties often covered songs written by black artists. On April 6, 1963, an obscure rock & roll group out of Portland, Oregon rented a recording studio for $50, and covered the song.   They were The Kingsmen.  Lead singer Jack Ely showed the band how he wanted it played. Berry’s easy 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 ballad was transformed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.

The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. The guitar was chaotic, the lyrics difficult to make out.  The single was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October.

Rock music is so mainstream now, it’s hard to remember the style was once considered subversive.  Decadent.  The impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation, driving sales through the 15th of November, all the way to the Billboard Top 100 chart.

louie-louie.jpgIt all went downhill from there.  “Louie Louie, me gotta go,” became in the fevered imagination, “Louie Louie, grab her way down low.”  Invented lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to downright pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales, through the roof.

Music critic Dave Marsh later wrote:  “This preposterous fable bore no scrutiny even at the time, but kids used to pretend it did, in order to panic parents, teachers and other authority figures. …So ‘Louie Louie’ leaped up the chart on the basis of a myth about its lyrics so contagious that it swept cross country quicker than bad weather.”

Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One father, a Sarasota, Florida junior high teacher whose name is redacted in FBI files, wrote to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy:

“Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter asserts “The lyrics are so filthy I cannot enclose them in this letter” and concludes with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????”

louierfk1 (1).gifDad might have taken a breath.  The pop culture scene was not so steeped in filth, as he imagined.  The top television program of the time was the Beverly Hillbillies.  The top movie the Disney animated production, “The Sword and the Stone”.

Louie4.jpgThe FBI took up an investigation under the ITOM statute in 1964, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material.  Investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward.  The relentless search for lascivious material lasted two years and in the end, came up empty.

The FBI’s archival website contains 119 pages, covering the investigation.  In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Inexplicably, G-men never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely.  He probably could have saved them a lot of time.  The lyrics never did measure up to the fevered imagination, of a Sarasota schoolteacher.

Louie Louie, with lyrics

The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Otis Redding, Motorhead, Black Flag and Young MC.  The best ever though, has got to be the Delta Tau Chi fraternity version from John Landis’ 1978 movie, Animal House.

“OK, let’s give it to ’em.  Right now”.

November 15, 1963 Louie Louie

For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

In 1955, Richard Berry wrote a song about a Jamaican sailor returning to his island to see his lady love. It’s a ballad, a conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

The song was covered in Latin and R&B styles in the fifties, but was never more than a regional hit on the west coast.

Louie3“Mainstream” white artists of the fifties and sixties often covered songs written by black artists. On April 6, 1963, an obscure rock & roll group out of Portland, Oregon covered the song, renting a recording studio for $50. They were The Kingsmen.

Lead singer Jack Ely showed the band how he wanted it played. Berry’s easy 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 ballad would be changed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.

The guitar work could only be described as anarchic, the lyrics unintelligible.  The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. It was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October, 1963. Sales of the single increased through the 15th of November, the song entering the Billboard Top 100 chart on December 7.

Rock & Roll music is so mainstream now, that it’s hard to remember how subversive and decadent it was considered to be.

Louie Louie’s impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation about what was being said.  More than a few imaginations ran wild. Fabricated lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales through the roof.

Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One parent, a Sarasota, Florida junior high school teacher, wrote to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. “Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter ends with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????
louierfk1

The FBI took up the investigation in 1964 under the ITOM statute, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material. There are 119 pages in the FBI’s archival website, covering the case.

For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty.  In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Louie4Strangely, the feds never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely, who probably could have saved them a lot of time.

The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Otis Redding, Motorhead, Black Flag and Young MC.  The best version ever, has got to be the Delta Tau Chi fraternity version from John Landis’ 1978 movie, Animal House.

“OK, let’s give it to ’em.  Right now”.