Happy Birthday, "Louie Louie"

Forty-six years ago today, a group of teenagers gathered in a Portland, Oregon, studio to record a ridiculously simple anthem that would go on to become one of the most influential - and most misunderstood - songs in rock history. The group was the Kingsmen - none of whom was over age 17 - and the song was, of course, "Louie Louie," which sent shockwaves through the music world that are still being felt to this day.

As ubiquitous as it is now, "Louie Louie" spent the first decade of its life in obscurity. Written and originally recorded by L.A. session musician Richard Berry in the mid-'50s, the song became a modest regional hit on the West Coast, and for whatever reason, caught on the most in the Pacific Northwest. It gradually pricked the ears of bands like Portland's Paul Revere and the Raiders, who recorded a cleaner, less successful version at almost the exact same time (and in the exact same studio) as the Kingsmen.

The Kingsmen, though, learned it from the Wailers, a Seattle group who began playing "Louie Louie" in the early '60s. The Wailers' rough marriage of R&B and rock and roll was a heavy influence on fellow Washingtonians the Sonics, generally regared as one of the originators of "garage rock" as we know it and who, unsurprisingly, also cut "Louie Louie."   

The convoluted history of "Louie Louie" - exhaustively captured in one of the few books ever written about a single rock and roll song, Dave Marsh's 1993 opus Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock and Roll Song - begins almost immediately after the Kingsmen's version was pressed onto wax. The version by Revere and the Raiders, who went on to enjoy hits like "Kicks" and the 1971 No. 1 "Indian Reservation," was the bigger success out of the gate, becoming a hit on the West Coast until its momentum abruptly stalled - reportedly because Mitch Miller, head of A&R for the Raiders' label, Columbia Records, couldn't stand rock and roll and squashed it before it could catch on in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, the Kingsmen's version barely even broke the Portland airwaves and went nowhere until late 1963, when a popular Boston DJ - presumably motivated by the nearly unintelligible vocals and the extremly sloppy playing - played the song as his "Worst Song of the Week." His listeners disagreed, burned up the request lines and soon the song was enjoying a multi-week run on the Billboard singles chart, peaking at No. 2. On the Cashbox chart, which monitored jukebox play coast to coast, it reached the top spot.

As would happen to countless other bands in the future, the unexpected success of a slapdash recording split the Kingsmen in two; by 1965, two separate groups were touring and recording under the name. One was led by singer/guitarist Jack Ely, whose near-unintelligible lyrics were at least partially a result of having his braces tightened either the day of or the day before recording "Louie Louie." The other was headed up by drummer Lynn Easton, who claimed rights to the name, basically, because the group rehearsed at his parents' house. Easton's mother had registered the name, so the drummer's claim won out in court.

Easton's Kingsmen had other hits in the mid-'60s, including "Little Latin Lupe Lu" (later done by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels) and "The Jolly Green Giant." By this time, the British Invasion was in full swing, and "Louie Louie" had helped start that revolution. The Kinks' Ray Davies wrote that band's breakthrough, "You Really Got Me," as a byproduct of trying to learn the "Louie Louie" chords. There's no telling how many other hit songs came about the same way, but there's no doubt the song - and its success - marked a definite sea change in rock and roll.

"To me, "Louie Louie" is pure rock and roll in the most democratic way. Up until then, the majority of the hits were by pros - guys like Chuck Berry who had been playing forever," says Houston's "High Priest of the Oldies," Allen Hill, who would read Marsh's book "once a year" if he could. "There was Ricky Nelson  with James Burton on guitar, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers was basically a professional demo singer. All [their] hits were [by], for the most part, pro musicians, and they were all great, but it was either session players or some management company was pulling all the levers."

"Louie Louie," on the other hand, derived most of its appeal from its sloppiness - from being, in other words, exactly the sort of thing five teenagers with only a rudimentary knowledge of their instruments could knock out in one take. Long before punk rock, it was the first song that made it sound like anyone could play guitar - and have a hell of a time doing it. 

"It's one of the first songs every rock and roller learns," says Hill. "I don't think anybody, including the Kingsmen, has ever played it like it was played on this day 46 years ago. My memory is foggy, but I think it's one of those 'We have this much tape left' kind of deals. I've never heard anyone, even the Kingsmen, play drums like that. It sounds like to me that at any given point, it's one fine hair away from falling off a cliff and devolving into nothingness.

"It sounds like [Easton] is about to fall off of his stool for the minute and 58 seconds that song lasts," Hill adds. "The organ riff, just all of it, and the guitar solo - in one song you have in my opinion what are two of the greatest rock and roll performances on tape. And it [happened] when there was still mystery in rock and roll about what makes a hit. There was no computer program that could predict 'Louie Louie' would be a smash hit and rise to J. Edgar Hoover's desk. The kids loved it and the parents hated it."

Oh yeah, the lyrics. Though they're as innocuous as they come - a sailor telling a bartender he's headed back to Jamaica to be with his lady, a narrative structure Berry borrowed from Frank Sinatra's "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" - Ely's garbled vocals led to all manner of lurid speculation, leading "Louie Louie" to be banned - personally - by Indiana governor Matthew Welsh, which didn't exactly hurt the song's popularity (or notoreity) in the other 49 states.

Then, long before the notoriously uptight Hoover ordered his agents to keep tabs on John Lennon, the FBI took 31 whole months to conclude the song was harmless, that they were "unable to interpret any of the wording in the record," that - despite legends that the obscene words were easier to make out if the song was slowed down - "Louie Louie" was "unintelligible at any speed." According to urban-legend chronicle's "Louie Louie" entry, here's one verse of what folks like Welch imagined America's youth to be hearing (as perpetuated by John Belushi in Animal House, among others):

"A fine little bitch, she waits for me;

she gets her kicks on top of me.

Each night I take her out all alone;

she ain't the kind I lay at home."

Out of the more than 700 occurences of "Louie Louie" on - more than 15 pages - some of the names that stand out are the Beach Boys, Black Flag, the Fat Boys, Flamin' Groovies, Grateful Dead, Iggy & the Stooges, Joan Jett, the Kinks - who must have finally figured it out - Motorhead, Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, the Pretenders, Otis Redding, the Sandpipers, the Sonics, the Standells, the Surfaris, Sisters of Mercy, Johnny Thunders, Toots & the Maytals, the Troggs ("Wild Thing"), Ike & Tina Turner, the Ventures, Barry White - no shit - Johnny Winter and Frank Zappa.

Still, the Kingsmen's version remains the definitive "Louie Louie" - the list of complilations including the song takes up almost three pages of that allmusic list, from 1988's Best of '60s Party Rock to 2002's Red, White & Rock. Without the Portlanders' accidental brilliance, rock and roll as we know it would be a lot different - and, no doubt, a lot less fun.  

"People request it all the time," says Allen Hill. "It's one of those "Maybe we'll get to it, maybe we won't" songs. But it's the ultimate party dynamite - when we've already played 'Double Shot of My Baby's Love' and are trying to figure out, 'How are we going to make it more insane than this?'

"Like, 'How do we get this party to be like Animal House in three minutes or less?'"

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray