Monday, November 11, 2019

The Strange Case of Louie, Louie (and the Profanity You Missed)

When I was a kid I had a couple of books by Dave Berry, a humor columnist for The Miami Herald, and I remember one joke in particular that I didn't get until years later.

I don't recall the context, only the punchline: that readers should submit an essay on whether or not the song "Louie, Louie" had any swear words in it.

Being a column for the general public, and printed in a widely circulated, mainstream newspaper, most of Dave Berry's humor was easily, readily accessible, and it was rare for me not to get a joke.  But this one flew over my head.  I discovered Berry's books when I was only ten or so, and that joke wasn't meant for my generation, but for Berry's.  Berry is a boomer, born in 1947, and would have remembered when the song was catapulted to number two on the Hot Billboard 100 in the early 1960s, ultimately selling over a million record copies and getting banned from being played on the radio in the state of Indiana.

It's been about twenty years since I read Dave Berry's challenge to write an essay about "Louie, Louie," but better late than never.  Without further ado, I present my answer to the question, "Does Louie, Louie contain any swear words?"

(But not the way you think.)

Let's start by talking about which version of "Louie, Louie" we're even talking about.  The original was recorded by Richard Berry (no relation to Dave Berry) in 1957.  Like many great rock songs of the time, it was a calypso song that had been refitted into an R&B pop style with a strong brass section. Berry more or less stole the riff from the Rhythm Rockers' "El Loco Cha Cha," but don't worry, the Rhythm Rockers borrowed the riff from RenĂ© Touzet.

And Berry was heavily influenced by other artists of the time who were taking Calypso-style songs and turning them into R&B hits.  Look no further than Chuck Berry's Havana Moon.  (No relation to Dave Berry or Richard Berry.) (Another great example of this strange trend: the 1965 Dixie Chicks recording of "Iko Iko.")

But back to "Louie Louie."  It was put on the B-side of Richard Berry's album, "You Are My Sunshine," and received little attention.  Berry sold the copyright for $750 in 1959 to pay for his wedding.  The marriage lasted 11 years.

Louie, Louie went on to become the most recorded song of all time, with about 1,600 known covers by popular artists.  The version you're probably familiar with, by the Kingsmen, is arguably the most popular because of what Wikipedia called "its nearly unintelligible (and innocuous) lyrics, widely... misinterpreted as obscene."

The only lyrics you probably remember are "we gotta go," "we gotta go now," and the screeched, "Alright, let's give it to 'em, right now!"  If you listened to Richard Berry's version then you were treated to the gentler and more intelligible (though not more intelligent) lyrics, which include such lines as, "Me sailed the ship all alone / Me never think I'll make it home," and, "Three nights and days I sailed the sea / Me think of girl constantly."

There was never any swearing in the song lyrics; it was a case of people hearing "Paul is dead" when there was nothing to be heard.

But in fairness to the listeners of the 1960s, the Kingsmen's recording is truly completely unintelligible.

It all began when the Kingsmen heard it on a jukebox in 1962.  Remember, this was after Richard Berry had already sold the rights.  The cover heard by the Kingsmen was by Rockin' Robin Roberts, the earliest known cover of Berry's original, recorded in 1960.  It was a dance hit, and the Kingsmen decided to learn it for their own gigs.

 They were correct in their estimation that it was a dance hit.  It was the 1960s version of The Macarena.  People loved this song.  In fact, on April 4th, 1963, the Kingsmen played a 90-minute "Louie Louie" marathon at the Chase club in Oregon.  That marathon had two major consequences:

1) Their manager, Ken Chase, owner of the club, decided to book them a recording session the very next day.

2) Their lead singer, Jack Ely, blew out his vocal chords.

 Jack Ely is the one with braces.

The band staggered into the Portland recording studio at 10 a.m. for a one-hour session, paying $36 (or $50, depending on who you ask) to cram into a tiny, three-microphone room.  Their warm-up went disastrously; Jack Ely throat was ruined and he was screaming to be heard over the instruments in the tight space.  His timing was off, too; he went too quickly, forcing the drummer to struggle to match the time frame.  When the warm-up was over, the band discussed out they would do better next time.

Unfortunately, there was no next time, because that was it.  The recording session covered only a single take and their "warm-up" was what they got.  The band was dissatisfied with their performance but they didn't have another $36.

They needn't have worried.  The song's mysterious, garbled lyrics quickly became the stuff of legends, with people insisting the lyrics were obscene and requesting plays on the radio for specifically that reason.  The song was a hit.  In fact, it was so successful that it ended up with its own FBI investigation to determine if the lyrics were obscene or not.  (You can read the 119 pages of declassified files here.)

When all was said and done, the Kingsmen's version of "Louie, Louie" was - and still is - regarded as one of the most popular and influential rock n' roll singles of all time, with recognition by Rolling Stone, VH1, the National Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, NPR, and the Grammy Hall of Fame.  There's an International Louie Louie Day (April 11th), and have been Louie Louie parades, festivals, and street fairs.  Louie, Louie has an hell of an origin story and has had an incredible impact on pop culture, and it deserves an essay to be written about it.

"But wait," you say.  "...wasn't the point of this whole thing to talk about the naughty words that were supposedly in the song?  You said there were.  You promised us profanity."

The ultimate conclusion of the FBI investigation of the song was that it was "unintelligible at any speed."  Aside from being unable to determine what the hell Jack Ely was saying in the popular Kingsman version, they interviewed the original artist, Richard Berry, who handed over the simple and inoffensive lyrics.  In the end there was, they determined, no cause for concern.

However - and here's my favorite part of the story - remember how I mentioned the disastrous recording session, wherein Jack Ely began the third verse three bars early and rushed through the song, frustrating the other members of the band, in particular the drummer, Lynn Easton?  If you listen right at that error, you can hear, in the background, Easton yelling "FUCK!"  Turn up your volume all the way; it's at the 56-second mark.  People are so used to hearing the garbled, rushed version by the Kingsmen that every subsequent recording made for radio and public use has re-created the errors, including the background noise.  So Louie, Louie does have at least one swear word, which has been played on the radio for over fifty years ago and was somehow missed by the FBI investigation.

Just another classic case of missing the forest because of all the trees.  Sometimes, what you were looking for was right beneath your nose all along.

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