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January 23, 2014 5:06 PM Subscribe
About fifty years ago, the governor of Indiana received a letter complaining about obscenity in the lyrics of a rock'n'roll song, and passed that letter on to the FBI. For the following two years, FBI agents examined potential lyrics of the song (which were incomprehensible on the recording, partly due to the singer's braces) to find grounds for an obscenity prosecution. They ultimately failed, but produced a 140-page report, listing numerous possible obscene readings of what the lyrics could be, and in doing so, turned Louie Louie by The Kingsmen from a footnote into a bona fide rock'n'roll rebel anthem
Louie Louie was based on a song written in 1957 by a R&B singer named Richard Berry (of no relation to either Chuck Berry or what is now known as R&B), which in turn was based on a calypso song titled El Loco Cha Cha, written by a bandleader from pre-revolutionary Cuba. Berry had toured the Pacific Northwest, where his songs had inspired covers and imitations by local bands, a game of Telephone which eventually resulted in the Kingsmen's song of the same name.
The FBI investigation of Louie Louie, which occurred in an era of moral panic, coming in the wake of the McCarthy Red Scare and the early days of the parent-scaring phenomenon known as rock'n'roll, ironically, catapulted the song from imminent obscurity (soon after it came out, its sound would have been rendered obsolete by the tide of Beatlemania and the British Invasion) and had turned it into a bona fide rebel anthem. Over the years, interpreters such as Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins and The Clash would pick up this ditty from a more innocent age and record their own versions, filling in the blanks with mundane vulgarities of their own devising (and a few cribbed from the FBI report), to varying effects.