How the Garage-Rock Anthem “Louie Louie” Became the Subject of a Lengthy FBI Investigation (1964)

Rock and roll his­to­ry is built on hap­py acci­dents, moments where enthu­si­asm and raw tal­ent exceed the lim­its of tech­nol­o­gy. Dis­tor­tion, the sine qua non of mod­ern rock, came from bro­ken ampli­fiers and mix­ing boards, and speak­ers slashed to rib­bons. Such excess­es can be threat­en­ing. Link Wray’s grit­ty 1958 instru­men­tal “Rum­ble” earned a ban from the air­waves for its alleged men­ace. Since then, rock has sur­vived one cru­sade after anoth­er, launched by par­ents, church groups, and scare­mon­ger­ing char­la­tans.

One clas­sic case illus­trates the norm: parental over­re­ac­tion to teenage rumors, incom­pe­tent response from author­i­ties, and, as above, a tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tion that led to a styl­is­tic rev­o­lu­tion. The incom­pre­hen­si­ble vocals in the Kingsmen’s 1963 record­ing of “Louie, Louie” are leg­endary, cov­ered and imi­tat­ed by garage bands and rock stars since, and going down “in pop his­to­ry,” Anwen Craw­ford writes at The New York­er, “as one of the medium’s more endear­ing (and endur­ing) moments of ama­teurism.”

The per­for­mance “was a result of acci­dent rather than design.” The Kings­men record­ed the song into a sin­gle micro­phone sus­pend­ed sev­er­al feet above singer Jack Ely and the band. “Ely was wear­ing den­tal braces,” notes Craw­ford, “and his band­mates, who were gath­ered around Ely in a cir­cle, played their instru­ments loud­ly.” The band had learned the song from the Wail­ers, whose 1961 ver­sion cov­ered song­writer Richard Berry’s orig­i­nal, both of which had been region­al hits in the Pacif­ic North­west.

The Kingsman’s “Louie Louie” became an instant garage-rock clas­sic, hit­ting No. 2 on the Bill­board sin­gles charts, despite the fact that no one who had­n’t heard the ear­li­er ver­sions had a clue what it was about. Since the lyrics could have said almost any­thing, it seemed, they pro­voked imme­di­ate spec­u­la­tion about obscen­i­ty. Rock crit­ic Dave Marsh describes the phe­nom­e­non:

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.

The FBI inves­ti­ga­tion into “Louie Louie”’s lyrics began when out­raged par­ents wrote let­ters to attor­ney gen­er­al Robert F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. Off and on, for two years, the Bureau inves­ti­gat­ed the record­ing. They played it “back­wards and for­wards,” says Eric Pre­doehl, direc­tor of a doc­u­men­tary about the song. “They played it at dif­fer­ent speeds, they spent a lot of time on it–but it was inde­ci­pher­able at any speed.” Why they both­ered is real­ly any­one’s guess. Agents final­ly had to give up and close the case, after a mean­ing­less expen­di­ture of gov­ern­ment resources.

They nev­er both­ered, dur­ing their inves­ti­ga­tion, to lis­ten to the ear­li­er record­ings of the song. (The band swears Ely sung the lyrics as writ­ten ver­ba­tim.)  They nev­er inter­viewed Ely him­self. Nor did any­one have the bright idea to walk down to the Bureau of Copy­right, where they would have found un-sala­cious lyrics to “Louie Louie” on file. Rumor and innu­en­do were as good as evi­dence. Read the Full FBI report at NPR. “Read­er beware,” they cau­tion, “the doc­u­ment describes lis­ten­er the­o­ries that the lyrics of ‘Louie Louie’ were secret­ly vul­gar, and includes the sup­posed vul­gar­i­ties.” 

via Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear the Only Instru­men­tal Ever Banned from the Radio: Link Wray’s Seduc­tive, Raunchy Song, “Rum­ble” (1958)

A Brief His­to­ry of Gui­tar Dis­tor­tion: From Ear­ly Exper­i­ments to Hap­py Acci­dents to Clas­sic Effects Ped­als

Two Gui­tar Effects That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Rock: The Inven­tion of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Ped­als

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.