Thursday, April 19, 2012

You Heard it On American Bandstand

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Considering the death of Dick Clark yesterday, the editors of Critics at Large realized that we had no writings about him, or how his long-running TV show American Bandstand contributed to our awareness of American pop music. Like the best music, Dick Clark never seemed to age. So it seems impossible somehow to consider that he's gone. We've decided then as some kind of tribute to run Kevin Courrier's post about a song that certainly did find its audience on American Bandstand.

The World's Most Obscene Pop Song: The Story of Louie Louie

Thoreau believed that an American popular tune could be quoted meaningfully in a symphony in the same way that an American colloquialism could work in a sentence. But it's unlikely that Thoreau would have considered "Louie Louie" a worthy example of this. While "Louie Louie" began as a lovely calypso tune written and recorded by Richard Berry, one of Los Angeles' most influential R&B performers, his composition would soon become the ultimate sex-joke song -- and it dogged his career. Although it was considered obscene because of its barely intelligible lyrics (and recorded by just about everyone: The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Barry White -- even Iggy Pop), the lewd interpretation is due to The Kingsmen, a Top 40 cover band from Portland, Oregon.

One night in 1963, during a concert date, Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely witnessed a group of people dancing in orgiastic ecstasy around the jukebox before the band hit the stage. The song playing was something called "Louie Louie" by The Wailers (no relation to Bob Marley's group). The Kingsmen decided that they wanted some of that same action, and so they set out to learn the song. Ely made a mistake, however, by giving the band the wrong arrangement of the Wailers' interpretation. The arrangement was crude with a relentlessly thumping beat pounded out on the guitar and organ. Nevertheless, the song had the desired effect at The Kingsmen's concerts. The band cut a single of "Louie Louie" in May 1963, with the hope of having their first hit song. With its famous opening notes of DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA -- DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA, and Ely slurring every insinuating word he could dream up, the only recognizable lyrics were the song's title.

By the fall, "Louie Louie" had already climbed to #94 in the Billboard charts when a rumour got started that it was obscene, and that Ely's mangled vocals were actually masking some unimaginable sexual fantasies. By the end of the year, the song was banned from some radio stations in Indiana. The FBI and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) even conducted an investigation in which they played the song at various speeds to determine what the lyrics meant. Many heard words much farther out than anything in Jack Ely's imagination:

At night at ten/I lay her again
Fuck you, girl/Oh, all the way
Oh, my bed/And I lay her there
I meet a rose in her hair.

Oh, Louie Louie/Get her down low.

In the end, the FCC determined that they "found the record to be unintelligible at any speed." But the notoriety sent the song soaring up the charts, where it sold more than 8 million copies. Rock critic Dave Marsh wrote a quirky book about the track called Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock & Roll Song. He noted that its disrepute and success comes right out of America's puritan consciousness. "In a culture that interprets puberty as a tragedy of lost innocence rather than a triumphal entry into adulthood, the possibility of someone actually giving vent to sexual feeling remains deliriously scandalous," he wrote. "Sex is bad, and somebody singing about it would be really bad."

Richard Berry, on the other hand, didn't foresee his soon-to-be-salacious tune ever turning into the monster hit adopted by bar bands across America. He was so certain, in fact, that years earlier, he had sold the rights to pay for his wedding. Berry had written "Louie Louie" in 1955 inspired by a song called "El Loco Cha Cha Cha" that Rick Rivera & the Rhythm Rockers (a group he was playing with) performed. The salsa-flavoured tune featured a persistent dut-dut-dut musical figure weaving through it. When he couldn't get the riff out of his head, he created a story about a bartender named Louie who is listening to a customer telling him how he intends to sail to Jamaica (a story partly based on "One For My Baby"). Unlike Ely's interpretation, Berry's lyrics are quite intelligible:

Louie Louie/Me gotta go
Three nights and days/Me sail the sea
Me think of girl/constantly
On the ship/I dream she there
I smell the roses/in her hair.

The flavour of the song was cured by both his current group and Chuck Berry's beautifully lilting "Havana Moon." Berry didn't expect much from "Louie Louie." He included his recording in 1957 as the B-side of the more popular standard, "You Are My Sunshine." "Louie Louie" might have even fallen into obscurity were it not for The Kingsmen and Jack Ely turning it into a ridiculous frat-rock joke.

- originally published on May 18, 2010 in Critics at Large.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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