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When The Kingsmen's 'Louie Louie' Topped FBI's Most Dangerous Song Chart

Music | May 20, 2019

Left: Rock and roll band "The Kingsmen" pose for a portrait in circa 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Right: Text from the letter to Robert F. Kennedy that started the FBI investigation of 'Louie Louie.' Source: FBI

What gets a rock song investigated by the FBI?

"Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen is one of the great party anthems of all time. Featuring an ultra-groovy organ riff with slurred lyrics and a chorus that means next to nothing, it was the perfect tune for shouting at the top of your lungs at a college party back in 1964. It was ok if you didn't know the lyrics -- nobody did. But this odd party hit, almost a novelty song because of its ragged garage appeal, earned the scrutiny of the FBI in the mid-'60s. J.Edgar Hoover's crew, it seems, worried that it might be unwholesome, if not subversive.

In early 1964, the song sat at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the rival Cashbox chart. Something had to be done.


Before The Infamous Song, There Was The COINTELPRO

'The Kingsmen In Person,' the group's debut album, released on Wand Records in 1963. Source: discogs.com

To understand why the FBI would investigate a pop song, it's important to understand the FBI's COINTELPRO. In 1956, J. Edgar Hoover formed the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, in order to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” groups that threatened the status quo. The FBI had given itself license to invesitgate and harass virtually anyone or anything that it didn't like, and the history of COINTELPRO includes many shady activities that have been condemned in years since. One of its early targets, "Louie Louie" was a song.

The Original Artist

Source: (ultimateclassicrock.com)

Richard Berry wrote "Louie Louie" in 1955 and released it in 1957 as a B-side. The song is a story of a man who is sailing back to his love. The tune was influenced by calypso, and the lyrics seem to imitate a Jamaican patois. Berry took the song’s riff from “El Loco Cha Cha” by René Touzet. The song was initially popular on the West Coast, but that popularity waned. Berry sold the rights to the song and some of his others so he could buy an engagement ring.

The Song Is Recorded By The Kingsmen

The Kingsmen performing on the pop-music showcase 'Shindig!' Source: (louielouie.net)

The Kingsmen formed in high school and played around Portland, Oregon; during the '60s they would record several albums and release a number of singles that did hit the charts, although none reached the success of "Louie Louie."

The Kingsmen, who were quite young, recorded the song in one take and released it in 1963. That recording was notoriously terrible, with the lead singer Jack Ely singing into the wrong side of the microphone. He was wearing braces at the time and they had been tightened recently.

Ironically, their recording gained popularity when a dj played it after calling it the worst record of the week. It hit number two on the charts. 

The Letter

The letter from a concerned parent, from the FBI file on 'Louie Louie.' Source: FBI

A concerned parent contacted Robert Kennedy, who was then the Attorney General, to express concern about the lyrics. The letter reads, in part:

Dear Mr. Kennedy,
Who do you turn to when your teen-age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the ‘teen age’ market in every city, village and record shop in this nation?
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 cannot enclose them in this letter.
… these morons have gone too far.
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????

Parents also contacted the governor of Indiana. The government took swift action and the FCC, the U.S. Postal Service, the DOJ J. Edgar Hoover, head of the F.B.I. investigated the song for close to two years and discovered several potential obscene lyrics.

The Investigation

J. Edgar Hoover. Source: (history.com)

In the FBI file, which has been released under the Freedom Of Information Act, there is a supposed transcript of the lyrics that would certainly qualify as obscene by mid-'60s standards. But were these the actual lyrics? Could it be proven?

To conduct their investigation, the FBI listened to the song sped up and slowed down, and found that no matter what speed they played it at, the song was unintelligible. In the end, they released a report that was over 100 pages long. They found that yes, if a person had a copy of the obscene lyrics in front of them while listening to the song, the words would seem to match. But objectively, the "dirty" lyrics weren't intelligible on their own.

Because no one could understand what the singer was saying, the lyrics were open to interpretation. At some point after the song was released, dirty lyrics written on scraps of paper circulated in the schools. Throughout the time of the investigation, the F.B.I. did not contact Jack Ely.

The Song Lives On

'Louie Louie' is one of the most-covered rock songs; artists including Black Flag, the Pretenders, the Fat Boys, Clarke/Duke, and Motorhead have given the old party hit a whirl. Source: discogs.com

In the end, the F.B.I. did not exonerate the song or find it guilty. About 55 seconds into the recording, the drummer yells an F-bomb when he hit the rim of his drum. Ironically, the F.B.I. did not pick up on this, the only real obscenity in the song.

The song continues to be covered by bands and to receive recognition.

In 2007, Rolling Stone declared the recording the “#4 most influential recording of all time.”

The FBI investigation aside, "Louie Louie" holds another interesting distinction -- it was the last American-made rock hit at or near the top of the chart before the Beatles came along and changed everything. "Louie Louie" was at #2 behind Bobby Vinton's "There, I've Said It Again" -- which is not rock 'n roll -- the week of January 25, 1964; the Beatles would have the top hit on the chart from February 1 through May 2 with "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," and "Can't Buy Me Love."

What Were The Lyrics To 'Louie Louie' Anyway?

Here are the lyrics as written and published by Richard Berry. The Kingsmen's version of the song departs from these a little, though despite the best efforts of the FBI, we can't say exactly how much.

Louie, Louie, oh, oh, me gotta go
Louie, Louie, me gotta go
Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
Me sail the ship all alone
Me never think me make it home
Louie, Louie, oh, me gotta go
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 rose in her hair
Louie, Louie, me gotta go
Louie, Louie, me gotta go
Me see Jamaica moon above
It won't be long, me see my love
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again
Louie, Louie, oh, me gotta go
Louie, Louie, me gotta go
I say, me gotta go
I say, me gotta go

Tags: A Brief History Of... | FBI | Louie Louie | Obscenity | The Kingsmen | What Did They Do?...

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!