As an organisation, it would seem that the FBI has seen more well-manicured arseholes than every one of the late Hugh Hefner’s pool parties combined. To any mind outside of the brain box headquarters of American law enforcement, it would appear that launching an investigation into a song for obscenity is perhaps the greatest PR stunt that you could ever inadvertently pull.
If teenagers love one thing more than a bit of iconoclasm, then it’s the sort that comes with a federal stamp of disapproval. Beyond the groove, catchy riff, and scream-along chorus, the FBI ensured that ‘Louie, Louie’ entered the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history, by subjecting it to an 18-month investigation and sealing its fate as the most misunderstood song ever written.
The song itself is the sort of old rock ‘n’ roll standard that anyone with a guitar, or even a tennis racquet and a lively imagination, was having a go at covering in the late fifties and early sixties. Then, just as ‘House of the Rising Sun’ had been bumbling about for a century before finding a place to call home in The Animals back catalogue, Kingsmen delivered the quintessential version of ‘Louie, Louie’ in 1963.
For the track, the group went for a befitting slack-jawed vocal style that has proved butcher-proof for the millions of drunken karaoke imitations that have followed. This drawled out drunken style made the lyrics basically incomprehensible and, when it came to the FBI in that era, anything incomprehensible was a sworn enemy of the state. The counterculture movement was a rising force, and this had J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies on high alert. Just because they couldn’t understand the lyrics didn’t mean that the youth in revolt weren’t picking up on some subversive sonic code in the commercial jangly tune.
Thus, Hoover responded by deploying FBI agents to tirelessly listen to the song over and over for 18-months at various different speeds and frequencies. Now the dream of being a secret agent is one that many young kids share, under the James Bond proviso that you skirt the underbelly of the world as some sort of besuited benevolent guardian of society, not that you endlessly twizzle a frequency nob while listening to a kid from the Portland, Oregon, in the vague hope that something unknown but nefarious has been seeded into a lo-fi rock recording.
The conclusion that the FBI reached following their investigation, which also involved a spy ghosting the young band when they embarked on a tour, was that there was simply no knowing what the hell they were trying to say. In the process, they ensured that the song was a hit that charted for an unprecedented two summers in a row. They also gave us a musical paradigm for the strange ways of the FBI in the swinging sixties
Remarkably, it would seem that nobody bothered to check the lyric sheet all along. The track was first written by Richard Berry in 1957 based on a Latin song named ‘El Loco Cha Cha’, but Berry sold the rights to Flip Records Label for $750 dollars in order to buy an engagement ring. This is, as I’m sure you’ve already worked out, another prime example of the costly toll of tying the knot.
Thereafter, the song made its way around the States and ultimately to a brace clad bunch from Portland. The Kingsmen’s proto-garage rock recording is incomprehensible out of pure happenstance more so than design. They had a studio, with three measly microphones booked for one hour and one hour only. ‘Louie, Louie’ was recorded in one take; it features the drummer shouting “fuck” when he dropped his stick, the singer Jack Ely coming in on a verse so early that it leaves enough time for Rocky to pick himself up off the canvas, and so much upbeat attitude that it could whisk Nelson off his column and have him jiving in Soho.
As Ely said himself regarding the incomprehensible vocal take, “It was more yelling than singing because I was trying to be heard over all the instruments.” Not to mention the fact that he had to lean back to sing into a microphone dangling from the roof above an amp, and singing with the sort of rudimentary 1960s Orthodontic mouthpiece that was the equivalent of having a model railway line nailed across your gnashers. It turns out he was even singing into the wrong side of the mic. All in all, the single cost them $50 bucks to make, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.
As for the incomprehensible verse, well, in the Berry original it reads, in a very Yoda like style, as follows: “Three nights and days I sailed the sea/Me think of girl constantly/On the ship, I dream she there/I smell the rose in her hair/Louie, Louie, oh no, me gotta go, yeah, yeah.”
While this whole ordeal might sound absolutely absurd, it did get me curious. I began fiddling with my record player, and lo and behold if you play it in reverse, at the right frequency and RPM, you hear it loud and clear, the message: “Louie, Louie”.