"If I told you the words, you wouldn't believe them anyway." -- R. Berry
July 30, 2013 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Louie Louie is a song with a curious history. Inspired by (and/or partially copied from) El Loco Cha Cha by Rene Touzet and Havana Moon by Chuck Berry (YouTube), the original song by Richard Berry and The Pharaohs (YT) is a mix of calypso, cha-cha, and rhythm & blues. The next version was by Rockin' Robin Roberts & The Wailers (YT), which added a certain rock and roll swagger that will sound more familiar to most folks. But the vocals are all wrong, as they're too sharp, too easy to understand. The Kingsmen made the version everyone was talking about, with concerns of obscene lyrics getting the FBI involved (choice excerpts on The Smoking Gun).

Though the Kingsmen's version of Louie Louie came a decade after the peak of the FBI's obscenity monitoring efforts, the public concern over what was initially treated as a novelty record by radio DJs (Google books preview), the FBI responded to volumes of letters inquiring into the actual lyrics, which some people thought were dirtier (or at least, easier to understand) when played at a slower speed. The FBI file includes an assortment of imaginary lyrics, actual lyrics, copies of record labels, letters from concerned parents, and government forms, which all concluded inconclusively: "unintelligible at any speed."

But why were the vocals so unclear? Lead singer Jack Ely's vocals are almost incoherent because of poor microphone placement and he was wearing braces that were recently adjusted. And the song was recorded in one take.

The Kingsmen's version was brought back to prominence in 1978 thanks to Animal House (YT clip), and has been covered by numerous bands (including a number of variations by Frank Zappa). There are even a few different CDs compiling various covers, as well as an LP. Oh, and there was that crazy 63 hour marathon of covers.

On Friday night, August 19, 1983, at 6:00 pm, KFJC began the broadcast of the world’s longest Louie Louie marathon, which ran for more than two and a half days. The original vocalist for the Kingsmen, Jack Ely, flew down from Portland, Oregon, to meet Richard Berry for first time, and Berry performed the song. There were also more than 15 versions by unknown artists, which you can help ID (#445 was identified).

If that's not enough Louie Louie for you, there's the dated Louie Louie dot net (linked previously), and the updated Louie Report blog (previously), plus eplouie's YouTube videos.

You can now consider yourself prepared for April 11, International Louie Louie Day.
posted by filthy light thief (49 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Obligatory old Straight Dope column.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:43 PM on July 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh, and coming full circle, a sculpture of the chords of Louie Louie now hangs in the lobby of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. The sculpture was made by Tim Bavington. The EG-WW fed. building is in Portland, home to The Kingsmen.
"Few songs have a more storied history," Bavington says. "And it's not only the FBI investigation; it's the conclusion that the song was unintelligible. For a lot of people, that's what fine art is.

"But if it makes you dance, you dance. That's what good art is like. If visually you like it, you don't need to know the lyrics; you enjoy."
Here's a larger image of the piece, on The Oregonian's Photo of the Day tumblr.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:44 PM on July 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Awesome post!

High school band taught me that this song is a dream for trombone-tuba players who don't like to read sheet music but do like to go BLAT.


Repeat forever, unnecessarily loud, waving your instrument around and drunkenly slurring the notes. Possibly drunkenly for reasons of alcohol consumption. I'm not going to say we were great at making music but we had a great band.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:45 PM on July 30, 2013 [13 favorites]

High school band taught me that this song is a dream for trombone-tuba players who don't like to read sheet music but do like to go BLAT.

As a former tuba/sousaphone player, my moment in the sun was the opening to the Barney Miller theme song in middle school symphonic band.

posted by Celsius1414 at 9:56 PM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

nicely done!

Back in the day, (1965 or so), I used to make a weekly trip to a local business that leased pinball machines and juke boxes to bars. They had a small storefront where they had tables of 45's that had stopped producing revenue and had been replaced by vinyl that was more likely to bring in a few dimes.

I would spend an hour a week flipping though records and purchasing the ones I wanted for 25 cents each. Since they had only been handled by jukeboxes, they were typically in pretty good shape.

Over three or four years that I was buying 45's (before I left town to attend college) , I accumulated a couple of box fulls of classic rock and roll, and one of the prize finds was a copy of the Kingsmen's Louie Louie. I played it through high school and college, and eventually it ended up, with the rest of the 45's, in my Mom's basement.

Somewhere around 1982 someone donated a non-working 50's era Wurlitzer Jukebox to the nonprofit youth agency I was working for, it sat in a garage for 6 years or so and, eventually, my boss asked me to arrange to have it hauled off to the dump.

Really??? Absolutely not! That weekend my son Sean and I drove the old VW bus to the garage and, between the two of us, got it loaded in and took it home.

We lived in a small house, the only place to put it was in Sean's room. With the help of the wife and my youngest son, Wes, we got it out of the VW, lifted it up the three steps of the porch and got it in the door, through the living room and down the hall, to find that it was too wide to fit through the door.

We examined the situation and started taking the trim off the Wurlitzer, and took the door out of the frame, and, with a fraction of an inch to spare, we got it into Sean's room.

I really didn't have time to fool with the Wurlitzer, but Sean, who was in High School at the time, said that he wanted to try and get it working. With nothing to loose, I said "OK".

For the next few months Sean would spent a few hours a week taking it apart and cleaning, it was covered with dust, inside and out, the electronics were vacuum tubes and old fabric covered wire, everything was disintegrating and falling apart. He replaced wire, found an electronics store that could still test the vacuum tubes, and, generally, got it looking pretty good.

Eventually Sean came to me and said "We need a needle"... Lots of research later, we found a supplier that had needles and ordered a couple.

It was ready, I dug out my box of 45's and we loaded it up, hit the switch on the back and watched the lights come on. Sean punched two buttons, the mechanism started to work, picked up a 45, place it on the turntable, and we listened to that Wurlitzer spit out Louie Louie, a record I had purchased used over 20 years ago.

Sean kept the Wurlitzer in his room until he went to college. In 1990 Sean was killed in a motorcycle accident. The Wurlitzer sat in that room for another 10 years, I don't think it was ever turned on.

I sold the house about 2000, moving the Wurlitzer was a pain, but we got it to the new house and I stuck it in the barn, too many emotional triggers to bring it in the house. Five years later my youngest son, Wes, called and asked "Do you still have the jukebox?". He was living out in California and was doing well. "Yep, it's in the barn.".

"Get it ready to ship, I'm going to arrange to have it brought out here."

A week later a truck pulled up. They packed the Wurlitzer and moved it out to Pasadena, I packed up all the 45's, including Louie Louie, and UPS'ed them out to Wes.

He had to replace a tube or two, he loaded the records, hit the toggle switch, the lights came on, and Louie Louie, 40 years later, came out of the speakers of that old Wurlitzer.
posted by HuronBob at 10:03 PM on July 30, 2013 [347 favorites]

Dwee li'l friskies. /Bloom County
posted by Brocktoon at 10:08 PM on July 30, 2013 [15 favorites]

I came here to post exactly that, Brocktoon
posted by hippybear at 10:17 PM on July 30, 2013

Fun fact: The record lathe that was used for thet song is now used by Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows.

From the wiki:
Fred Cole engineered most of the band's recordings and mastered them on a mono lathe that was used for The Kingsmen's version of "Louie Louie".
posted by wcfields at 10:21 PM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know how this got to be the default version that plays in my head, instead of the ubiquitous Kingsmen version:

Motörhead - Louie Louie
posted by not_on_display at 10:25 PM on July 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Beautiful story, HuronBob. I'm very sorry for the loss of your son.

We have a jukebox, too -- not a Wurlitzer, a 60s Seeburg. And it doesn't have "Louie, Louie" in it. But it's a fun machine. I hope I never have to move it.

My favorite part of this history is the Cuban roots. Everything has Cuban roots if you look long enough!
posted by Fnarf at 10:31 PM on July 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Real Lyrics

posted by ShutterBun at 10:43 PM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by Pope Guilty at 10:45 PM on July 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

tho I should note that Black Flag generally made up their Louie Louie lyrics on the spot and that's just what happened to make it onto First Four Years
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:51 PM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Play all three at the same time for some weird cacophony!
posted by XhaustedProphet at 10:52 PM on July 30, 2013

Great post!
posted by quazichimp at 11:31 PM on July 30, 2013

For me, other than the Kingsmen, the quintessential version will always be The Sonics' rendition from 1965.

If you haven't heard The Sonics before, start digging on Youtube. Incredibly raw, influential stuff (probably the most influential band most people don't know about).

Such a great song- awesome post!
posted by Old Man McKay at 12:45 AM on July 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I covered this, and actually song the 'official' lyrics. felt like i was doing it wrong, even when i freaked out on the choruses
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:51 AM on July 31, 2013

Interesting how this song seems to really be ingrained in the US consciousness yet this side of the pond hardly anybody knows about it.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:40 AM on July 31, 2013

Old Man McKay , that is what I came in to say. The Sonics version is what lives in my Wurlitzer.
wcfields, one more reason for me to love Dead Moon!
Excellent post Filthy light Thief, I have a lot more to talk about now than just " do you remember when WA state tries to make Louie Louie the state song?"
posted by slothhog at 1:42 AM on July 31, 2013

I'm amused that in the picture of a Top-5 from the era linked to above (in the link about the sound sculpture) the title of the album is "Louis, Louis."
posted by chavenet at 1:46 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: Okay, let's give it to 'em, right now!
posted by ob1quixote at 2:08 AM on July 31, 2013

My default version of Louie, Louie is the theme tune to California Games in all its eight bit glory.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:57 AM on July 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have an old R. Berry 45 of Louie Louie packed away downstairs with records I haven't played since college. My sister's landlord was cleaning out the attic in the old Victorian house, and asked if we wanted anything. In with an old box of 78's was a copy of Berry's 45. Bingo!
posted by R. Mutt at 3:37 AM on July 31, 2013

Here is the Motorhead version
posted by Renoroc at 3:53 AM on July 31, 2013

My favorite is Paul Revere & the Raiders' version. I will brook no disagreement on this.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:04 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

All right, nobody will dispute that's your favourite. Though gods know why.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:06 AM on July 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

(I think it's also called Psychotic Louis Louis in some pressings).

Since someone beat me to Lemmy.

You can now consider yourself prepared for April 11, International Louie Louie Day.

Missing it by *that* much, chief Filthy Light Thief.
posted by Mezentian at 4:14 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always thought Todd Snider's "The Ballad of the Kingsmen" tells this story in an insightful way, connecting it to Marilyn Manson and Columbine and even Eminem.
posted by Robin Kestrel at 4:17 AM on July 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

What's the big deal? In 5th grade my neighbor Craig swore HE knew the REAL words, but wouldn't tell them to me because he didn't have to.

Still, perhaps the greatest rock song of all time.
posted by cccorlew at 7:42 AM on July 31, 2013

My favorite reference will always be Ian Curtis saying "You should hear our version of Louie Louie" on Joy Division's Still live record. I used to have a vinyl bootleg of them actually playing the song, but it's long gone.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 7:47 AM on July 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

According to Kurt Cobain, "'Teen Spirit' was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or 'Louie, Louie.'" And it's true. If you listen for "Louie, Louie" in there, you can hear it right on the surface.

Also, Honey Ltd.'s take on "Louie, Louie" is smooth like butter if girl groups are your thing.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:48 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

.kobayashi. - Dave Marsh's Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock 'n Roll Song has a great take on the Paul Revere version of the song and how it competed/compares with the Kingsman version. According to him, Revere and his various Raiders had been cooking with this song for quite some time, the Kingsman recorded their version the same week, and after a week or two of the Raiders on the chart, the Kingsman just blew by them. (My memory might be a bit off, it's been years since I read it...)

Great read, for anyone that is interested in this post...
posted by Old Man Wilson at 7:50 AM on July 31, 2013

Heh. One of the very first things that happened when I started reading Usenet in the mid-80's was that I stumbled upon a post that included the words to "Louie, Louie". Suddenly being able to access this kind of super-secret information felt incredibly cool at the time...
posted by ariel_caliban at 7:52 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, that Honey Ltd. version is something else. Really takes it places. My favorite's still Toots and the Maytals. For a while I was convinced it was the original version, they make it sound so much like they lived there all along.
posted by echo target at 8:12 AM on July 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

I love the Motörhead version so much, because Lemmy very, very clearly enunciates the lyrics, even though he often does not on many other songs. But, what's not to love about Motörhead?
posted by Cookiebastard at 8:17 AM on July 31, 2013

Aw, echo target beat me to it; Toots and the Maytals' cover is one of the greats. Always in heavy rotation on low key party playlists.
posted by catch as catch can at 8:28 AM on July 31, 2013

Robin Krestel: that's exactly what I was thinking while looking at this post. The only thing I could hear was Todd Snider. But, as with all Todd Snider songs, the better version are usually the live versions because they get more of Todd's storytelling and quips, so I would have posted one of the live versions.
posted by dios at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

My favorite's still Toots and the Maytals

posted by slkinsey at 8:59 AM on July 31, 2013

Robin Kestrel - Glad to see you posted Snyder's song. Everything I know about Louie Louie I learned from Todd Snyder.
Along with just about everything else I know about being some guy in this world.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:21 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Toots and the Maytals' cover is one of the greats. Always in heavy rotation on low key party playlists.
posted by modernserf at 10:28 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great post, thanks for reminding me of The Sonics.

I like Iggy's version.
posted by marxchivist at 10:53 AM on July 31, 2013

Plastic people! Oh, baby, now you're such a drag!
posted by NedKoppel at 12:21 PM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mom, who grew up in Seattle and graduated from high school in 1962, told me "We thought the FBI thing was ridiculous! Every kid in the Pacific Northwest knew the words to Louie Louie! And every band played it!"

(My uncle was the drummer in one of the first bands to play the song.)
posted by litlnemo at 1:56 AM on August 1, 2013

Okay, it's been five years: does anyone remember this commercial?
posted by danb at 6:31 AM on August 1, 2013

For me, other than the Kingsmen, the quintessential version will always be The Sonics' rendition yt from 1965.

I thought the Sonics' version of the song would sound good as the opening music for Louis CK's sitcom.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:58 AM on August 1, 2013

We actually got hold of the cassette version of the lots-of-covers compilation album (linked to in "an lp" link above); I think it was being given away by some beer company or something and my father got it for a laugh. And I remember us having a lot of fun listening to the first few covers, marveling at how "different" they sounded, but gradually...it started to get a little monotonous, and by the middle of the second side we had all reached Peak Louie and I don't think anyone played it again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:01 PM on August 3, 2013

Oh - and Iggy's cover was used to great effect at the end of Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, over the credits.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:05 PM on August 3, 2013

I have a soft spot for Julie London's version—some may consider it sanitised, but I actually think it's still pretty filthy in its own way.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 8:53 AM on August 5, 2013

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