Rubbish, piffle, tommyrot, drivel and utter bilge

Friday, April 30, 2010

100 Records That Shook The World, #73

In Inglewood Park Cemetery in California lies the grave of one Richard Berry, probably one of the most important names in rock. He is remembered not for his deep bass voice on Etta James'  first big hit The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry), not for his work with The Flairs, The Dreamers or the Pharaohs, nor his menacing introduction on The Robins' Riot In Cell Block #9. So what is he remembered for? Writing this song:
Louie, Louie
The Kingsmen
When Berry left the Flairs to form The Pharaohs, he continued working as a singer and songwriter with other groups. Among these was a band called Rick Rillera and The Rhythm Rockers, a Latin R&B outfit. In 1955, Berry was inspired to write a new calypso-style song, "Louie Louie", based on The Rhythm Rockers version of René Touzet's "El Loco Cha Cha", and also influenced by Chuck Berry's "Havana Moon". Richard Berry and the Pharaohs recorded and released the song as a B-side on Flip Records in 1957. It became a minor regional hit, was re-released as an A-side and, when the group toured the Pacific Northwest, several local R&B bands began to adopt the song and established its popularity. "Louie Louie" finally became a major hit when The Kingsmen's raucous version – with little trace of its calypso-like origins other than in its lyrics - became a national and international hit in 1963. The nearly unintelligible (and innocuous) lyrics were widely misinterpreted as obscene, and the song was banned by radio stations and even investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The song has been recorded over 1,000 times, but, because Berry sold its copyright cheaply in 1959, he received little financial reward for its success for many years. 

The song's lyrics are a first-person story of a man and his lost love, told to Louie (a bartender, we assume) much in the same vein of One For My Baby, And One More For The Road.
So what are the actual lyrics, I hear you cry? Well, I was hoping you would ask.


Louie Louie, oh no
Me gotta go
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said
Louie Louie, oh baby
Me gotta go

Fine little girl waits for me
Catch a ship across the sea
Sail that ship about, all alone
Never know if I make it home


Three nights and days I sail the sea
Think of girl, constantly
On that ship, I dream she's there
I smell the rose in her hair.


Okay, let's give it to 'em, right now!


See Jamaica, the moon above
It won't be long, me see me love
Take her in my arms again
Tell her I'll never leave again


Let's take it on outa here now
Let's go!!

There are several things that contribute to the myth of the supposedly obscene lyrics. Take the words of rock critic Dave Marsh:
Back in 1963, everybody who knew anything about rock 'n' roll knew that the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" concealed dirty words that could be unveiled only by playing the 45 rpm single at 33-1/3. 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. Eventually those ultimate authoritarians, the FBI got involved, conducting a thirty-month investigation that led to "Louie"'s undying - indeed, unkillable - reputation as a dirty song.
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. Nobody - not you, not me, not the G-men ultimately assigned to the case - knows where the story started. That's part of the proof that it was a myth, because no folk tales ever have a verifiable origin. Instead society creates them through cultural spontaneous combustion.
In retrospect, it's easy to identify the aspects of the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" that made the "filthy lyrics" myth even a tiny bit plausible.  The pidgin English narration of the lyrics was unusual enough, and comprehension difficulties were compounded on the Kingsmen's recording by several factors:
  • Lead singer Jack Ely had strained his voice participating in a marathon 90-minute "Louie Louie" jam the night before the session.
  • Ely was singing with braces on his teeth.
  • The boom microphone in the studio was fixed way too high for Ely, who had to stand on tiptoe and sing up into the mike.
  • What the band thought was a rehearsal run-through turned out to be the one and only take of the song.
Some of this seems unlikely, however, since it was recorded by trained technicians and engineers in a professional recording studio, but it makes a good story, and clearly, just adds to the mystique of the song.
    The mean and moody Kingsmen.
    However, the song made #1 on the Cashbox chart and #2 on Billboard's Hot 100. The song is ranked at #55 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

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