More Funky Lyrics and “Louie Louie” — A Little Song That Became a Big Deal



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In this last of our lyrics series, I am focusing on one song’s lyrics that focused the nation on – what? – are these words obscene or are they even intelligible?

One of the great instances of “making a lot out of a little” was the hub-bub created by the simple little rocker, “Louie Louie” back in 1963, a trifle recorded by The Kingsmen. It was recorded for $50 and was supposed to be the B-side of an otherwise innocuous throwaway waxing. So, what happened here?

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As I mentioned in my article on “misunderstood lyrics”, this poorly produced and almost lyrically opaque tune went out of control before the concept of “going viral” was even part of our consciousness. Yes, the song is actually a seaside ditty about a sailor returning home. But an over-zealous, slightly paranoid and misunderstanding housewife took great offense at the obscene words she heard in “Louie Louie”. Incensed, she went all the way to Attorney General Robert Kennedy with demands that the song be investigated and unmasked. Unbelievably, the FBI was set on that task and in June of 1965, the FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the Kingsmen recording. After four months of investigation, they concluded that the song could just not be interpreted; that it was “unintelligible at any speed”. Which makes you wonder how the uptight parent could have heard what she heard – unless her kids were having her on, I suppose.

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Maybe the song wasn’t much but the FBI accidentally turned it into something monumental. The law of unintended consequences. Here are the dry facts of the story:

“On April 6, 1963, a rock group from Portland, Oregon, called the Kingsmen, chose “Louie Louie” as their second recording, their first having been “Peter Gunn Rock”. The Kingsmen recorded the song at Northwestern, Inc., Motion Pictures and Recording in Portland. The session cost $50, and the band members split the cost of production.”

The Kingsmen’s lead singer, Jack Ely, based his version on the recording by Rockin’ Robin Roberts with the Fabulous Wailers, unintentionally introducing a sloppy change in the rhythm as he did so.

One journalist reported the subsequent action thusly:

“A significant error on the Kingsmen version occurs just after the lead guitar break. As the group was 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 realized his mistake and stopped the verse short, but the band did not realize that he had done so. As a quick fix, drummer Lynn Easton covered the pause with a drum fill, but before the verse ended, the rest of the band went into the chorus at the point where they expected it to be. This error is now so embedded in the consciousness of some groups that they deliberately duplicate it when performing the song.”

Here’s the song with its “translated” lyrics:

Yes, it a seaside ditty about a sailor returning home.

By the way, this was a controversy that didn’t seem to want to die. The lyrics controversy resurfaced briefly again in 2005 when the superintendent of the school system in Benton Harbor, Michigan, refused to let the marching band play the song in a parade. She later relented.

Remember rock critic, Dave Marsh, who wrote an entire book on “Like a Rolling Stone” (the song) and a bio of Bruce Springsteen? He also wrote a book about the history and notoriety of “Louie Louie”, in case you want a deeper dive!

How peculiarly popular was this small tune with the big unintended pub? Well, it is estimated that over 1,500 versions of “Louie Louie” have been recorded. Hey – you can look it up on LouieLouie.net.

These were certainly not great lyrics, under any interpretation but the interpretations became the story in this truly silly misunderstood firefight over nothing. We now understand that the FBI struggles with even the most transparent investigation, but it was big news back then!

So is “Louie Louie” the last word on the subject of lyrics in our on-going series? If it is, it ends appropriate as the last word is “unintelligible”…

Check out more in our lyrics series here.

Photo credit: Billboard.

2 comments to “More Funky Lyrics and “Louie Louie” — A Little Song That Became a Big Deal”
  1. How can we stamp out this menace???? Such a bizarre letter. I think whoever sent it whipped themselves before bed every night…

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