CLOSE
Original image
Sygma/Corbis

The FBI Plot Against "Louie Louie"

Original image
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.”

Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios