I’ll never forget the first time I heard the classic rock song “Louie, Louie,” by the Kingsmen (it was actually written by Richard Berry and first recorded by him in 1957). It was 1963, and a friend and I had hiked from one Army base to another in Germany, where my dad was stationed. I had a transistor radio (remember them!) and heard the song whjile we were eating sandwiches at an impromptu picnic.
I couldn’t make out the words, but later everyone said they were FILTHY. And indeed, if you listened carefully, and kept your mind in the gutter, you could hear all kinds of smutty stuff. Have a listen:
Some of the older readers might remember the kerfuffle about this song. In reality, it wasn’t a dirty song at all; the lyrics are here, and, as Wikipedia notes, “It tells, in simple verse–chorus form, the first-person story of a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see his lady love.”
I won’t recount how I interpreted the garbled lyrics, but, according to the April 29 New York Times, reporting the death of the singer Jack Ely, the ambiguity came from the song’s poor quality:
Mr. Ely persuaded the Kingsmen and the band’s manager to record the song. They booked the Northwestern Inc. studio in Portland for an hour on April 6, 1963.
“It was more yelling than singing ’cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments,” Mr. Ely recalled, according to Peter Blecha, a music historian, in his book “Sonic Boom! The History of Northwest Rock: From ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ ” (2009). He also began the third verse a few bars too soon and paused while the band caught up.
In an interview with the Oregon newspaper The Bend Bulletin in 1987, Mr. Ely recalled: “I stood there and yelled while the whole band was playing, and when it was over, we hated it. We thought it was a totally non-quality recording.”
Despite the song being completely innocuous, it was banned on many U.S. radio stations—even though it went to #2 on the charts— and was even subject to an FBI investigation. As the Times reports:
The F.B.I. began investigating after an Indiana parent wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964: “My daughter brought home a record of ‘LOUIE LOUIE’ and I, after reading that the record had been banned on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter.”
The F.B.I. Laboratory’s efforts at decryption were less fruitful. After more than two years and a 455-page report, the bureau concluded that “three governmental agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 r.p.m. to 78 r.p.m.”
Mr. Berry’s words, with a first verse that begins, “Fine little girl she wait for me/Me catch the ship for ’cross the sea,” are in fact completely benign. Whatever obscenities people thought they heard, the Kingsmen’s version hewed closely to the original — lyrically if not musically.
There’s a slight religious angle here, too. The Times notes the cause of death as this:
Mr. Ely died on Tuesday at 71 at his home in Redmond, Ore. His son Sean said that Mr. Ely was a Christian Scientist and had not sought treatment, but that he believed the cause was skin cancer.
People keep on dying because of that faith’s ridiculous belief that disease is merely a manifestation of incorrect thinking.