originally published March 9, 2013

Not a lot of songs are so generously packed full of interesting tidbittery to warrant a thousand words. Three-hundred fifty-one days ago, I devoted an article to what I have yet to be convinced is not the worst song of the 1980’s, “We Built This City” by Starship. Today’s song is even more mired in infamy, though not due to a question of quality. “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen may be the most notorious record in the annals of rock ‘n roll history, spawning an FBI investigation, a number of local bans, and an incalculable bounty of inspiration to future rockers.

The song was written in 1955 as a Jamaican love ballad by a very non-Jamaican guy named Richard Berry. His version received a fair amount of airplay on the west coast, but never cracked the Billboard charts. He sold his rights to the song for $750 in 1959. At the time, that probably seemed like a great deal. A 1961 version by the Wailers became a big hit in the Seattle area.

On the evening of April 5, 1963, Seattle band the Kingsmen, fronted by guitarist Jack Ely, performed a 90-minute version of “Louie Louie” at a local gig. This predates the era of jam rock, so either these guys were ahead of their time and skillful enough to keep this groove interesting for an hour and a half, or they wanted to drive the patrons out the door. The fact that they devoted a chunk of their recording session the next day to laying their cover down on wax would suggest the former.

As you might deduce by listening to the record, crisp, professional production was not the key focus of this session. According to Jack Ely, the band set up in a circle with an overhead microphone dangling in the middle. Ely had to strain his neck back to sing up to the mic, and that fact – coupled with the braces he’d allegedly just had strapped to his teeth – rendered the lyrics almost unintelligible. This would prove to be the most lucrative muddling of a song in music history.

Take one included a glaring mistake: after the frantic guitar solo, the band was supposed to play the famous riff twice before kicking into the last verse. Ely jumped in early with his vocals, at which point drummer Lynn Easton tried to cover the blunder with an aptly crunchy drum fill. Despite this, the Kingsmen decided no take two was necessary, and the single was pressed.

Released in May, the single didn’t do much. The band broke up, with Easton taking over on vocals (he had the rights to the Kingsmen name) and Ely doing his own thing. In October, Boston DJ Arnie Ginsburg played the record as the “Worst Record of the Week” feature of his show. Subsequently, it became a hit, finally escalating to top-ten status in December and January. Its popularity was no doubt in part due to its garage-raunch-rock sound, but it also resonated with teens because of the lyrics.

Because nobody knew what the hell the lyrics were.

Kids circulated their hushed-tone interpretations of Ely’s muffled words, which transformed the story from a guy telling a bartender about the girl he loves and wants to get back to, into a guy telling a bartender about the girl with whom he has explicit sex. Bartenders love those stories.

In February 1964, right around the time most American parents were panicking over their children’s Beatle-induced shrieks, an angry parent wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, demanding the Kingsmen be prosecuted for having written and recorded a song with such profane lyrics. The FBI, who didn’t have enough to keep them busy with that pesky presidential assassination four months earlier, was sent to investigate.

Radio stations refused to play the song. Indiana governor Matthew Welsh prohibited the song in his state. This was a fantastic early lesson for legislators: ban a record, and you’ll make it popular to the point of legendary. Over 1500 versions of “Louie Louie” have been recorded, by artists like Paul Revere & The Raiders (whose version was recorded in the same month at the same studio as the Kingsmen’s version, and for a while competed with it for hit status), Motörhead, Black Flag, and the Stooges. The song’s popularity exploded again in 1979, when it served as the perfect accompaniment to frat-house debauchery in the movie Animal House. Audiences simply overlooked the fact that the film takes place in 1962, months before the Kingsmen recorded it.

In the mid 1980’s, a local Seattle television personality named Ross Shafer jokingly suggested that “Louie Louie” should replace Helen Davis’ “Washington My Home” as the official state song. A motion was introduced in the State Legislature to make this official, and also to create a Louie Louie County within the state. Sadly, this never came to pass, though the state Senate did declare April 12, 1985 to be “Louie Louie Day”, and invited the Wailers, Kingsmen and the Raiders to perform the song on the steps of the state capitol before a crowd of four thousand.

Meanwhile, in the slums of Los Angeles, songwriter Richard Berry was living at his mother’s place, cashing his welfare checks and just barely scraping by. That $750 he’d earned in 1959 by selling the rights to the song simply hadn’t carried him through the next few decades somehow. Things weren’t looking good.

Then a company called California Cooler wanted to use his song in a commercial. They needed Richard’s signature to make that happen, so they had a lawyer track him down. That lawyer mentioned that Richard could take action to reclaim his rights, and take action he did. The publishers didn’t want an extended court case; they settled for an undisclosed amount somewhere in the millions.

So what about those lyrics? What exactly did kids hear, then covertly write on sheets of notepaper and pass around to their peers, invoking a collective titter of titillation? Was Jack Ely really riffing on vulgar themes, injecting slurred profanity and sexual imagery in order to launch his record into infamy? Here’s a variation on what people thought they might have heard. Pop on the song (if for some reason you don’t have a copy handy, use this one) and see if this sounds right to you:

Louie, Louie,

Grab her way down low.

Louie, Louie,

Grab her way down low.

A fine little bitch, she waits for me;

She gets her kicks on top of me.

Each night I take her out all alone;

She ain’t the kind I lay at home.

Each night at ten, I lay her again;

I fuck my girl all kinds of ways.

And on that chair, I lay her there;

I felt my boner in her hair.

If she’s got a rag on, I’ll move above;

It won’t be long, she’ll slip it off.

I’ll take her in my arms again;

Tell her I’d rather lay her again.

And, for those of you who want the mystery spoiled with the song’s actual lyrics, you can use these to sing along with. Warning: it’s not quite as much fun.

Louie, Louie,

Me gotta go.

Louie, Louie,

Me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she waits for me;

Me catch a ship across the sea.

I sailed the ship all alone;

I never think I’ll make it home.

Three nights and days we sailed the sea;

Me think of girl constantly.

On the ship, I dream she there;

I smell the rose in her hair.

Me see Jamaican moon above;

It won’t be long, me see me love.

Me take her in my arms again;

I tell her I never leave again.

One thought on “Day 434: 50 Years Of Feeling The Boner In Her Hair

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