Saturday, May 30, 2015

The federal government's investigation into "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen

The FBI and a few other federal agencies spent almost two years on a bumbling investigation of whether there was "obscenity" in the lyrics to "Louie Louie."

This is a good reminder that government restrictions on free speech are bad not only for all the obvious reasons, but also because enforcing those restrictions uses up a lot of money that could have been spent on something more important.

The singer, Jack Ely, died last month at age 71. The New York Times reports:

Jack Ely would later insist that as a 19-year-old singing “Louie Louie” in one take in a Portland, Ore., studio in 1963, he had followed the original lyrics faithfully. But, he admitted, the braces on his teeth had just been tightened, and he was howling to be heard over the band, with his head tilted awkwardly at a 45-degree angle at a single microphone dangling from the ceiling to simulate a live concert.

Which may explain why what originated innocently as a lovesick sailor’s calypso lament to a bartender named Louie morphed into the incoherent, three-chord garage-band cult classic by the Kingsmen that sold millions of copies, spawned countless cover versions and variations, was banned in Indiana, prompted the F.B.I. to investigate whether the song was secretly obscene, provoked a legal battle and became what Frank Zappa called “an archetypal American musical icon.” . . .

The F.B.I. began investigating after an Indiana parent wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964: “My daughter brought home a record of ‘LOUIE LOUIE’ and I, after reading that the record had been banned 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.”

The F.B.I. Laboratory’s efforts at decryption were less fruitful. After more than two years and a 455-page report, the bureau concluded that “three governmental agencies dropped their investigations because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 r.p.m. to 78 r.p.m.”

[Richard] Berry’s words, with a first verse that begins, “Fine little girl she wait for me/Me catch the ship for ’cross the sea,” are in fact completely benign. . . .

Asked to account for the song’s popularity, [Peter Blecha, a music historian,] replied, “You could dance to it, and as kids, with the rumors that there was something nefarious going on, you couldn’t grab our attention with anything better than that.”

(Note: That video shows a different singer, who replaced Ely — but he's lip syncing to the original recording with Ely's vocals.)