In my teenage days I was inseparable from my faithful transistor radio, AM/FM car stereo, and 8 track player. I spent countless hours listening to music, and I developed an intimate relationship with my favorite recordings. The beat from these songs went straight from my tinny speakers into my ears and touched every fiber of my heart and soul. It helped me form friendships, offered me advice on girls, and alerted me to social causes and needs. In short, music quickly became the driving force of my young life.
Songs of the British Invasion, American rock nuggets, folk-rock, surf instrumentals, pop standards, movie soundtracks, and classic country -- I devoured it all. My passion for classic popular music has never subsided. I love it still and often listen to my favorite recordings today.
As was my custom with many of my rock favorite songs, I never really worried about understanding vague, even totally obscure, lyrics. I had always accepted them as creative and interesting mishmashes of imagery and specific, unclear allusions and innuendos stemming from the writer's experience.
Some of my other all-time favorite puzzling lyrics include "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," "A Whiter Shade of Pale," "The Weight," "All Along the Watchtower," and the totally indecipherable sea chanty mouthing in the Kingsmen's 1963 one-take rock anthem "Louie, Louie."
Speaking of "Louie," many thought the song broke every FCC broadcast obscenity regulation in the books. But, no matter how many times people listened to the record, no one could decipher what Jack Ely had actually recorded. The Kingsmen had recorded the song at Northwestern, Inc., Motion Pictures and Recording in Portland, Oregon. The session cost $50, and the band split the cost.
Speaking of the session much later, Ely said, "There were no professional personnel in the studio that day except maybe studio owner, Robert Lindah. We set up all our own equipment in a circle facing each other underneath an overhead microphone up by the ceiling at which I sang/shouted the lyrics." This crude method likely caused the fuzzy, far-away sound.
In addition, it has been reported that Ely had gotten braces on his teeth the day before, impeding vocalization. Other accounts claim the band thought the actual first-take recording was just a practice run through.
Ely, himself, claimed the real notoriety associated with the song was initiated by the record company. This was, perhaps, one of the most ingenious marketing schemes ever. Controversy and mystery create appeal and attention.
The record caused a lot of outrage as "right-minded," moral Americans were convinced that the devil lyrics led to fornication and God knows what other sinful activities. The FBI even tried to track down Richard Berry, who had written the song and recorded it with his group, The Pharaohs, much earlier in 1955. The government wanted to quiz him about his purpose in writing the purported filthy, obscene lyrics.
It turns out, in Berry's original version the words are quite clear: the song (with reggae overtones) is about a sailor who spends three days traveling to Jamaica to see his girl. In the song, he laments to a bartender named "Louie" that he must eventually leave for home.
The truth about the nasty obscenities? Berry and later, the Kingsmen, had recorded the song with simple, clean lyrics that were totally unoffensive to the most discerning critic. Here are the lyrics the artists recorded:
"Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair"
But, of course, all of this truth mattered little to teenage listeners like me. Our young male minds, dreaming of getting laid and scoring our first glorious home-run, and our willing bodies, dripping testosterone from every horny pore, had convinced us otherwise. We knew that Ely's pinched and strangled voice represented the perfect instrument to project our fantasies. With crystal clarity, we understood the song was the ultimate ode to the horizontal bop. We heard and sang the lyrics like this:
"Every night and day, I play with my thing
I f--k you girl, oh, all the way
On my bed, I'll lay her there
I feel my bone, ah, in her hair"
By the way, even if some of us strongly suspected "Louie" didn't contain obscenity, we liked to claim it did to allow the fable to panic parents, teachers, and other authority figures.
Our garage band, and, for that matter, every regional band in the nation, played and sang the three-chord anthem to lust. Even though we all made up lyrics (many of them raunchy) that "sounded" like the words Ely and the Kingsmen had recorded, we managed to modify the dicey content for public consumption and still push the sexual innuendos.
School dances, sock hops, swim dances, battles of bands, club performances -- American bands of the '60s playing all of these events included the mandatory "Louie, Louie" in their set list. It was THE staple anthem of the garage. Few actually listened to the lyrics of the song. They just danced to the three chords and dreamed of backseats and lovers lanes.
Ditto with the success of the recording. In total, the Kingsmen's version spent 16 weeks on the Hot 100. "Louie Louie" leaped up the charts based upon a spicy myth, and the youth loved it. The recorded version quickly became a standard at teen parties in the U.S. during the 1960s, even reappearing on the charts in 1966. Actually, the popularity has waned but has never died as is evidenced in "Louie's" inclusion in every college fraternity musical offerings.
Revered critic Dave Marsh ranks the song as number eleven out of the 1001 greatest singles ever made. He says that one moment in "Louie, Louie" gives the recording its undeniable greatness. Right before the classic "too crude and goofy, almost spastic" guitar instrumental break, Ely shouts:
"Okay, let's give it to 'em right now!"
Dave Marsh contends:
"[Ely] went for it so avidly you'd have thought he'd spotted the jugular of a lifelong enemy, so crudely that, at that instant, Ely sounds like Donald Duck on helium. And it's that faintly ridiculous air that makes the Kingsmen's record the classic that it is, especially since it's followed by a guitar solo that's just as wacky."
Whatever it is -- classic rock single, Jamaican sea chanty, primal grinding sex anthem -- "Louie, Louie" is simply too good to be forgotten. It is imperfect perfection at its best. You can find your Kingsmen record and listen to find special ineptness that serves to glorify the recording. (For your listing convenience, I also include the youtube entry at the end of this blog entry.)
Here is the most famous, often-cited account of a significant error:
"(It) occurs just after the lead guitar break; as the group were going by the Wailers' version, which has a brief restatement of the riff, two times over. Before the lead vocalist comes back in, it would be expected that Ely would do the same.
"Ely, however, overshot his mark, coming in too soon, before the restatement of the riff. He realizes his mistake and stops the verse short, but the band does not realize that he has done so. As a quick fix, drummer Lynn Easton covers the pause with a drum fill, but before the verse has ended, the rest of the band goes into the chorus at the point where they expect it to be; they recover quickly."
Whatever happened to the Kingsmen? By the time that the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had achieved national popularity, the band had split. Two rival editions -- one featuring lead singer Ely, the other with Lynn Easton, who held the rights to the band's name -- were competing for live audiences across the country.
A settlement was reached later in 1964 giving Easton the right to the Kingsmen name but requiring all future pressings of the original version of "Louie Louie" to display "Lead vocal by Jack Ely" on the label.
After a protracted lawsuit that lasted five years and cost $1.3 million, on November 9, 1998, The Kingsmen were awarded ownership of all their recordings released on Wand Records from Gusto Records, including "Louie Louie." They had not been paid royalties on the songs since the 1960s.
Famous "Louie Louie" Clips
You simply must watch these "Louie" clips, especially the controversy over the lyrics from the movie Coupe de Ville. I hope you enjoy the youtube entries as much as I do. I'm pretty sure you will if you are a baby boomer or just a fan of seminal rock.
* Interesting Note -- According to Kenny Vance, the musical director on Animal House, John Belushi sang in a garage band that used to perform this song at fraternities. Belushi would sing his version of the dirty lyrics, which he did in the studio while recording his vocals for the movie. Sadly, the tape of Belushi singing his dirty version of the song was lost in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy wiped out Kenny's home in Queens.
The Famous Original Kingsmen Recording (Richard Berry Cover 1963)
The Original Richard Berry "Louie Louie" Recording (1957)
Animal House Soundtrack: John Belushi - "Louie Louie" (LP 1978)
"Louie Louie" Controversy Coupe de Ville (1990)