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The FBI Plot Against "Louie Louie"

Sygma/Corbis
Sygma/Corbis

In the winter of 1963-64, a team of FBI agents spent their days hunched over portable record players, struggling to decode a message that threatened the morality of America’s youth. It wasn’t from the Russians or Castro, but a band of white-bread Portland teenagers called The Kingsmen.

“J. Edgar Hoover felt we were corrupting the moral fiber of America’s youth,” Mike Mitchell, guitarist and founding member of The Kingsmen, tells me. “The FBI guys came to our shows, and they’d stand next to the speakers to see if we were singing anything off-color. It was a different time.”

“'Louie Louie' was kept out of the Number One spot on the charts by the Singing Nun,” recalls Kingsmen keyboardist Don Gallucci. “That ought to tell you the mentality of the country back then. I thought, ‘Gee, I know the lyrics. What’s the deal?’ It never occurred to me how repressed teenagers were sexually. They were hearing all this stuff in the song. That was the state of America. The genie was getting out of the bottle.”

The infamous party song jumped out of the bottle in 1956. Penned by L.A. songwriter Richard Berry, the sailor’s lament had the singer pouring out his lovelorn heart to a bartender, Louie, over the girl he left across the ocean. The song includes couplets like “On the ship I dream she there / I smell the rose in her hair.”

Berry’s record was a moderate success around the Pacific northwest. But in 1959, needing money for his upcoming marriage, he sold the copyright of “Louie Louie” to a publisher for $750.

The song was revived in 1961 by Seattle’s Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers, in a much more raucous version. While it failed to chart nationally, it introduced the tune’s possibilities to local groups like The Kingsmen.

“It became like a northwest national anthem,” Gallucci says. “If you were auditioning for a nightclub, you had to be able to play ‘Louie Louie’ or they wouldn’t hire you.”

The Kingsmen cut a version of the song, which became a local hit. Then in one of those moments that only happened in the early ‘60s, a DJ in Boston named “Woo Woo” Ginsburg locked himself in a studio and spun The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” for three hours straight on the air. The phones lit up; 20,000 copies were sold in a week.

Dirty Words

At the same time it started breaking out as a national hit, the rumors began. As with any urban legend, it’s impossible to trace the origin. But the story was that The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” concealed “dirty” words that could be deciphered only by playing the 45 rpm single at 33 1/3. Soon, kids across the country were comparing notes on who was doing what to whom in the song.

The lyric was hard to make out. The pidgin English in Berry’s original had been rendered even more incomprehensible by a few factors. The night before they recorded it, The Kingsmen had played a marathon gig, which left lead singer Jack Ely’s voice in ragged condition. In the studio, the boom microphone was fixed too high for Ely, who had to stand on his tiptoes to reach it. His diction wasn’t helped by the braces on his teeth. On top of all that, what the band thought was a rehearsal run-through turned out to be the only take of the song.

The uproar over “Louie Louie” reached fever pitch in the spring of 1964. First, the song was banned from the airwaves in the entire state of Indiana. And then, stoked by a wave of complaints from parents, teachers and clergymen (where would rock ‘n’ roll be without them?), the FBI began an investigation into the supposed obscene lyrical content. The thought of Hoover’s G-Men bent over hi-fis, struggling to decode a half-speed version of the song, is pretty funny.

Giving Up

[via The Smoking Gun]

Though they would abandon their inquiry in 1965, many of the transcriptions of what they thought they heard in the lyric are now declassified government documents. Couplets like “And on that chair, I lay her there / I felt my bone-ah in her hair” perhaps say more about the overworked FBI agents than The Kingsmen.

Richard Berry’s comment at the time was, “If I told you the words, you wouldn’t believe them anyway.”

The Real Lyrics


[via The Smoking Gun]

The song’s original chart run was only the beginning. The single was re-released for three consecutive years, charting again in 1966. Over the next 10 years, it became the lingua franca for garage bands around the world.

By 1978, when John Belushi belted it out in Animal House, the song had been recorded in over 800 versions and translated into 20 different languages. In 1983, Rhino Records released The Best of Louie Louie, a whole record dedicated to one song (Volume 2 followed five years later). By 2000, the song had thoroughly inundated every aspect of pop culture, appearing in major motion pictures, TV shows, cartoons and commercials, in novels and nonfiction (rock critic Dave Marsh wrote an entire book about the song), and even in the work of one modern painter. There are several Louie Louie bars, cafes and restaurants around the world, as well as a mixed drink that bears the name.

Finally, there was a happy ending for songwriter Richard Berry. In 1992, Berry regained the rights to his song. The following year, he got his first royalty check for it—in the amount of $2 million. He passed away five years later.

In 1993, the Kingsmen emerged from their own long court battle, with ownership of their Louie Louie master, which they had naively signed away back in 1964. Fronted by Mike Mitchell, the group still plays about thirty dates a year on the oldies circuit.

Mitchell says, “The whole record was a fluke really. It’s taken on its own life and still has its own life. It’s nice to be associated with it after all these years.”

Don Gallucci adds, “There was a raw honesty and intensity about it. A kind of punk push. It caught a kind of raucous energy that people were really dying for.”

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Everything You Need to Know About Record Store Day
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iStock

The unlikely resurgence of vinyl as an alternative to digital music formats is made up of more than just a small subculture of purists. Today, more than 1400 independent record stores deal in both vintage and current releases. Those store owners and community supporters created Record Store Day in 2007 as a way of celebrating the grassroots movement that’s allowed a once-dying medium to thrive.

To commemorate this year’s Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21, a number of stores (a searchable list can be found here) will be offering promotional items, live music, signings, and more. While events vary widely by store, a number of artists will be issuing exclusive LPs that will be distributed around the country.

For Grateful Dead fans, a live recording of a February 27, 1969 show at Fillmore West in San Francisco will be released and limited to 6700 copies; Arcade Fire’s 2003 EP album will see a vinyl release for the first time, limited to 3000 copies; "Roxanne," the Police single celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, will see a 7-inch single release with the original jacket art.

The day also promises to be a big one for David Bowie fans. A special white vinyl version of 1977’s Bowie Now will be on shelves, along with Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78), a previously-unreleased, three-record set. Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and dozens of other artists will also be contributing releases.

No store is likely to carry everything you might want, so before making the stop, it might be best to call ahead and then plan on getting there early. If you’re one of the unlucky vinyl supporters without a brick and mortar store nearby, you can check out Discogs.com, which will be selling the special releases online.

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Jim Henson's Labyrinth Is Being Adapted Into a Stage Musical
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Henson Company

More than 30 years after its cinematic debut, Labyrinth could be hitting the stage. In an interview with Forbes, Jim Henson's son and Henson Company CEO Brian Henson shared plans to transform the cult classic into a live musical.

While the new musical would be missing David Bowie in his starring role as Jareth the Goblin King, it would hopefully feature the soundtrack Bowie helped write. Brian Henson says there isn't a set timeline for the project yet, but the stage adaptation of the original film is already in the works.

As for a location, Henson told Forbes he envisions it running, "Not necessarily [on] Broadway, it could be for London's West End, but it will be a stage show, a big theatrical version. It’s very exciting."

Labyrinth premiered in 1986 to measly box office earnings and tepid reviews, but Jim Henson's fairytale has since grown into a phenomenon beloved by nostalgic '80s kids and younger generations alike. In the same Forbes interview, Brian Henson also confirmed the 2017 news that a long-anticipated Labyrinth sequel is apparently in development. Though he couldn't give any specifics, Henson confirmed that, "we are still excited about it but the process moves very slowly and very carefully. We're still excited about the idea of a sequel, we are working on something, but nothing that's close enough to say it's about to be in pre-production or anything like that."

While fans eagerly await those projects to come out, they can get their fix when the film returns to theaters across the U.S. on April 29, May 1, and May 2. Don't forget to wear your best Labyrinth swag to the event.

[h/t Forbes]

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