OR . . .
Why What You Hear Is Rarely What You Thought You Heard
Earlier this past week, Rich Maloof, writing on MSN*Living’s “Daily Dose,” confided to his online audience that for two years during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation spent time and money “probing” a perceived threat to American Society.
No, it wasn’t Kruschev, even though ol’ Nikita was the single most feared person in my childhood world, right after Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West.
It wasn’t Castro, even though the Cuban Missile Crisis was breaking news at the time.
Nor was it Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, whose “nyuck, nyuck” laugh was thought to have constituted a veritable covert assault on the morals and ethics of Young Americans across the country.
It was the one-hit wonder of a group of guys who happened to record and release an old drinking song performed in a Jamaican patois engineered so poorly that nobody could be quite sure what they were even singing about.
It was the Kingsmen.
It was “Louie, Louie.”
And, in retrospect, it was ridiculous.
We’ll let Maloof pick up the story at this point…
It was a citizen’s complaint that first called the FBI’s attention to “Louie Louie,” the rock ‘n’ roll staple that was a hit for The Kingsmen back in 1963.
In a letter of Feb. 7, 1964, addressed to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, an outraged parent (name withheld) exclaims, “My daughter brought home a record of ‘Louie Louie’ and I, after reading that the record had been banned from being played on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter.”
JP’s Editorial Aside: Isn’t it remarkable how many people are prepared to ignore the obvious in order to support their own pre-determined conclusions? Consider: the outraged parent was so prepared to be offended, he or she never paused to ask a few simple questions, such as…
- How did such an obscene song manage to get recorded, manufactured, promoted, shipped, and sold in the first place? How could nobody else have heard or noticed the lyrics?
- How could nobody else have objected? And if nobody else has objected,
- Why am I the only one who has?
It’s worth noting that all this takes place in what we then liked to call “The Age of Space,” meaning there was a generally rampant recurring theme in popular culture of the last individual fighting the good fight against a herd mentality that had seduced society at large (witness the recurring “Last Man on Earth” motif that played on the anxiety of atomic weapons and post-war relativistic morality.)
But I digress. Let us get back to Mr. Maloof and his narrative…
So began a two-year investigation by the FBI, which to this day is involved in fighting obscenity. According to the FBI case file, The Kingmen’s record was sent to the FBI Laboratory for analysis to “determine its obscene character,” in part by playing the 45 rpm single at the slower speed of 33 1/3 rpm.
(JP again: At the time this “investigation” was being undertaken, I was independently hitting upon the selfsame method of inquiry to determine how Ross Bagdasarian and Alvin and the Chipmunks must have sounded in real life…)
Page 14 of the report shares one listener’s determination of filthy lyrics, which is entertaining but can’t be shared on a nice family blog such as ours. However, the FBI apparently failed to contact Kingsmen singer Jack Ely, who committed the lyrics to tape. Neither did they ever reach Richard Berry, who wrote the original song in 1955.
Singing along to “Louie Louie” continues to be a major challenge for any cover band, due in large part to Ely’s slurred performance. The vocalist has explained that he was yelling to be heard over other instruments in the recording session, and also that he was wearing braces at the time, which contributed to his infamously incomprehensible delivery.
But when the record was banned by the governor of Indiana on accusations of obscenity, the continued popularity of the song and the band was guaranteed.
The parent’s letter to AG Kennedy rants on: “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace????”
(JP in another editorial aside: Have you personally ever felt especially obligated to undertake a task just because a written request or plea included serially-multiple punctuation marks? I’m just curious… Would Bobby Kennedy or J-Edgar Hoover have dismissed the letter as the paranoiac pleadings of a hysterical crank if that last sentence had ended in only a single question mark? Well, would they????)
Ultimately, the FBI couldn’t determine what the lyrics were, but the agency never charged nor exonerated “Louie Louie” for obscenity. Check the actual song lyrics here, and let us know who really had the dirty mind:
me gotta go.
me gotta go.
A fine little girl, she wait for me;
me catch a ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone;
I never think I’ll make it home
Three nights and days we sailed the sea;
me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose, in her hair.
Me see Jamaica moon above;
It won’t be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.
Tip of the hat to Smithsonian.com for flagging this story.
Here’s the link to Mr. Maloof’s original work on MSN*Living: