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What happened when the FBI tried to decipher The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie

With the dumbest and dumb riffs and lyrics that launched an FBI investigation, The Kingsmen’s version of Louie Louie has a history unlike any other song

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In the winter of 1963, a team of FBI agents spent their days hunched over portable record players, struggling to decode a message that threatened the morality of America’s youth. 

It wasn’t from the Russians or Castro, but a band of Portland teenagers called The Kingsmen. And the song was Louie Louie.

“J. Edgar Hoover felt we were corrupting the moral fiber of America’s youth,” Mike Mitchell, guitarist and founding member of The Kingsmen, told me in 2016. “The FBI guys came to our shows, and they’d stand next to the speakers to see if we were singing anything off-colour. It was a different time.”

Louie Louie was kept out of the Number One spot on the charts by the Singing Nun,” Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci told me with a laugh. “That ought to tell you the mentality of the country back then. I thought, ‘Gee, I know the lyrics. What’s the deal?’ It never occurred to me how repressed teenagers were sexually. They were hearing all this stuff in the song. The genie was getting out of the bottle.”

The world’s most infamous party song jumped out of the bottle in 1956. Penned by L.A. songwriter Richard Berry, the sailor’s lament had the singer pouring out his lovelorn heart to a bartender, Louie, over the girl he left across the ocean. The lyric’s sweet Calypso air includes couplets like “On the ship I dream she there / I smell the rose in her hair.”

Berry’s record was a moderate success around the Pacific northwest. But in 1959, needing money for his upcoming marriage, he sold the copyright of Louie Louie to a publisher for $750.

The song was revived in 1961 by Seattle’s Rockin’ Robin Roberts &  the Wailers, in a more raucous version. While it failed to chart, it introduced the tune’s possibilities to The Kingsmen.

They cut a version, which became a local hit. Then, in one of those moments that only happened in the early ‘60s, a DJ in Boston named “Woo Woo” Ginsburg locked himself in a studio and spun The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie for three hours straight on the air. The phones lit up. 20,000 copies were sold in a week.

At the same time it started breaking out as a national hit, the rumours began. As with any urban legend, it’s impossible to trace the origin. But the story was that The Kingsmen concealed “dirty” words that could be deciphered only by playing the 45 rpm single at 33 1/3. Soon, kids across the country were comparing notes on who was doing what to who in the song.

The lyric was hard to make out. The pidgin English in Berry’s original had been rendered even more incomprehensible by a few factors. The night before they recorded it, The Kingsmen had played a marathon gig, which left lead singer Jack Ely’s voice in ragged condition. Mitchell said, “The boom microphone was fixed too high for Jack. He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach it. Also, he wore braces, so his diction wasn’t great anyway. On top of hat, what we thought was a rehearsal run-through turned out to be the only take of the song!”

The uproar over Louie Louie reached fever pitch in the spring of 1964. First, the song was banned from the airwaves in the entire state of Indiana. And then, stoked by a wave of complaints from parents, teachers and clergymen, the FBI began an investigation into the supposed obscene lyrical content. The thought of Hoover’s G-Men bent over hi-fis, struggling to decode a half-speed version of the song, is risible. 

Though they would abandon their inquiry a year later, many of the transcriptions of what they thought they heard in the lyric are now declassified documents. Couplets like “And on that chair, I lay her there / I felt my boner in her hair” perhaps say more about the overworked FBI agents than The Kingsmen.

The song’s original chart run was only the beginning. The single was re-released for three consecutive years, charting again in 1966. Over the next 10 years, it became the unofficial anthem for garage bands around the world. By 1978, when John Belushi belted it out in Animal House, it had been recorded in over 800 versions and translated into 20 different languages. 

In 1983, Rhino were able to release a “Best Of” Louie Louie compilation that gathered together Berry’s original and the Kingsmen’s cover alongside recordings by the likes of the Rice University Marching Owl Band and the brilliantly named Les Dantz & His Orchestra. A second volume followed in 1989.

By 2000, the song had thoroughly inundated every aspect of pop culture, appearing in major motion pictures, TV shows, cartoons and commercials, in novels and nonfiction (rock critic Dave Marsh wrote an entire book about the song), and even in the work of one modern painter. There are several Louie Louie bars, cafes and restaurants around the world, as well as a cocktail that bears the name.

“The whole record was a fluke really,” Mitchell said. “It’s taken on its own life and still has its own life. 

“There was a raw honesty and intensity about it,” Gallucci added. “It caught a kind of raucous energy that people were really dying for.”

Finally, there was a happy ending for songwriter Richard Berry. In 1992, Berry regained the rights to his song. The following year, he got his first royalty check for it, in the amount of $2 million. He passed away five years later. 

In 1993, the Kingsmen emerged from their own long court battle, with ownership of their Louie Louie master, which they had naively signed away back in 1964. Fronted by original drummer Dick Peterson, the group still plays on the oldies circuit, and in 2021, when Mitchell passed away, band members and friends gathered at a tribute show to play a hilariously extended version of the song. Fittingly, it was as ramshackle as the Kingsmen’s. 

Source: loudersound.com