Certain Songs #839: The Kingsmen – “Louie, Louie”

Album: The Kingsmen in Person
Year: 1963

While the number of cover versions of Richard Berry’s original 1955 version of “Louie, Louie” number in the hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions at this point, none of them will ever top the Kingsmen’s iconic version. None of them.

That’s because it might literally be the most awesome artifact of pure snottiness ever recorded. From the first drawn-out electric piano note to the last drum crash, everything about this recording says “fuck you.”

No wonder so many successive generations punk rockers have utterly loved it: it might not be the first punk rock song, or even the best. But there isn’t anything that expresses the ethos more purely. And because of that, it’s one of the most pivotal records ever made. Even the backstory of “Louie Louie” is utterly awesome.

For example, lead singer Jack Ely quit the band after this recording. Sure, it may have been for other reasons, but it’s also possible that deep down, he realized that he was never to contribute anything else to human history that would top his manic “OK, let’s give it to them right now!!” just before the guitar solo.

In fact, he was probably still so stoked at how amazing that shoult was he forgot where he was supposed to come in after the solo, he started the “See Jamaica moon up above” verse a measure too early before being shut down by a manic drum roll by drummer Lynn Easton, whose drum rolls throughout made no damn sense and were only topped by his very audible scream of “fuck” after the second chorus.

Ironically, that wasn’t why “Louie, Louie” was investigated by the FBI for obscenity. It was because Ely was miked so poorly, people couldn’t understand any of the words outside of the chorus, and somebody — possibly a publicist for the band itself — started the rumor that the words were obscene, despite the fact that they were basically about a sailor wanting to be with his girl.

And speaking of that FBI investigation: it took 31 months, which is an insane waste of taxpayer dollars. I mean, why didn’t they just look the lyrics up on the internet?!

Meanwhile, there’s also the matter of the guitar solo, isn’t there? Even with the electric piano playing the riff instead of a sax as on contemporary versions by The Wailers and Paul Revere’s Raiders, and even with the manic drum rolls and Ely’s out-of-control, it’s Mike Mitchell’s guitar solo that truly — well “elevates” isn’t the right word — solidifies “Louie, Louie” once and for all.

For one thing, it totally leaps out of the mix: you really can’t even hear the guitar, and then — all of a sudden, it’s the loudest thing in the universe, like Mitchell had walked into the room while they were playing the song, and just reached down to turn his amp on as Ely was screaming “right now.” It’s a rolling tumble of notes that is continually falling apart and goes on for an uncomfortably long time, as well, and as much a pure expression of “fuck you” attitude as the rest of the song.

Ever since, garage bands all over the world have listened to that solo and realized that it isn’t about the virtuosity as much as the expression: in a way, Mitchell’s guitar solo is the thing that should have been investigated by the FBI for obscenity, as it fucked with way more heads that even the most obscene of lyrics would have.

(Including, no doubt, the head of the teenage lead guitarist of the song I’m writing about tomorrow.)

Of course, “Louie, Louie” was recorded in one take. And thank the gods, because another take would have ruined it forever.

In any event, “Louie, Louie” became a massive hit — good for you early 60s kids! — probably on account of the “obscene” lyrics and will remain with us forever. My high school band played it. So did yours. I’d like to think that somewhere right now, there’s a group of kids drinking beer they’re too young to drink and bashing it out, making up their own words.

“Louie, Louie”

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2 Responses to “Certain Songs #839: The Kingsmen – “Louie, Louie””

  1. Ira says:

    This is one of your best. For my part, I still can’t hear “Louie Louie” without filling in the lyrics from that one Bloom County strip.

  2. Jim Connelly says:

    Thanks Ira!

    I have the same problem with BLOOM COUNTY and “Every Breath You Take.”

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