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The FBI Plot Against "Louie Louie"

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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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Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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