Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Album: Louie Louie: The Kingsmen In Person
This was written by an R&B singer named Richard Berry in 1955. With his group The Pharaohs, he was also the first to record the song; it got some airplay in some cities in the Western US when it was released in 1957. Various garage bands heard it and started covering the song until it became a phenomenon with the Kingsmen’s 1963 version. While much of the song’s notoriety comes from the indecipherable lyrics, in Berry’s original version words are quite clear: The song is about a sailor who spends three days traveling to Jamaica to see his girl.
Dwight Rounds, author of The Year The Music Died, 1964-1972, writes:
The words to “Louie Louie” are almost impossible to understand, and are rumored to be obscene. No question that this added significantly to the sales of the single. There was probably a leak somewhere that the lyrics were obscene; otherwise no one would have realized it. It could be the most ingenious marketing scheme ever. The FBI tried to track down Richard Berry, The Kingsmen, and various record company executives. They were never able to determine the actual lyrics used. The Kingsmen insisted they said nothing lewd, despite the obvious mistake at the end of the instrumental, where Jack Ely started to sing the last verse one bar too soon, and can be heard yelling something in the background. Ely also said that he sung far away from the microphone, which caused the fuzzy sound, and that the notoriety was initiated by the record company. The words sound much more like the official version seen below, especially the word “rose” instead of “bone.” The lyrics rumor could indeed be a sham. The official lyrics are listed below in plain print, with one of the many alternative versions in italics.
Chorus: “Louie, Louie, oh no. Me gotta go. Aye-yi-yi, I said. Louie Louie, oh baby. Me gotta go.”
“Fine little girl waits for me. Catch a ship across the sea. Sail that ship about, all alone. Never know if I make it home.”
“Three nights and days, I sail the sea.” Every night and day, I play with my thing.
“Think of girl, constantly.” I f–k you girl, oh, all the way.
“Oh that ship, I dream she’s there. On my bed, I’ll lay her there.
“I smell the rose in her hair.” I feel my bone, ah, in her hair.
“See Jamaica, the moon above.” Hey lovemaker, now hold my thing.
“It won’t be long, me see my love.” It won’t take long, so leave it alone.
“Take her in my arms again.” Hey, senorita, I’m hot as hell.
“Tell her I’ll never leave again.” I told her I’d never lay her again.
The FBI launched an extensive investigation into this song after Indiana governor Matthew Welsh declared it “pornographic” in early 1964 and asked the Indiana Broadcasters Association to ban it. The investigation spanned offices in several states, with technicians listening to the song at different speeds trying to discern any obscene lyrics. None could be found; the FBI eventually figured out what happened when they contacted the FCC. The report details this correspondence:
“She explained that for approximately two years her company has been receiving unfounded complaints concerning the recording of ‘Louie Louie.’ She advised that to the best of her knowledge, the trouble was started by an unidentified college student, who made up a series of obscene verses for ‘Louie Louie’ and then sold them to fellow students. It is her opinion that a person can take any 45 RPM recording and reduce its speed to 33 RPM and imagine obscene words, depending upon the imagination of the listener.”
Many bands in the Northwest US played this at their concerts. The Kingsmen lifted their version from The Wailers, a Seattle band who missed out on the song’s success.
The Kingsmen version of this song was prominently featured in the 1978 film Animal House, starring John Belushi, even though the song was released in 1963 and the movie is set in 1962.This cost $50 to record. The Kingsmen went to the studio after a radio station executive in Portland saw them perform it live and suggested they record it.
Paul Revere and The Raiders, also on the Northwest touring scene, recorded their version the day after The Kingsmen at the same studio. Their version was superior musically, but was just a regional hit because they could not generate the publicity The Kingsmen did.
This was the only Kingsmen song with lead vocals by Jack Ely. Before it became a hit, he quit when band leader Lynn Easton assumed vocals and ordered Ely to drums. On TV performances, Easton would lip-sync to Ely’s vocals.
Ely later tried to capitalize on the success of “Louie Louie” by releasing similar songs on his own, including “Louie Louie 66,” “Love That Louie,” and “Louie Go Home.”
In the FBI report, the alleged dirty lyrics were submitted by some concerned citizens, which the agency compared against the copyrighted published lyrics. The offensive lyrics FBI lab workers were listening for were:
Lou-ai Lou-ai Oh, no
Grab her way down low
This line least clear
There is a fine little girl waiting for me
She is just a girl across the way
When I take her all alone
She’s never the girl I lay at home
Tonight at 10 I’ll lay her again
We’ll f–k your girl and by the way
And… on that chair I’ll lay her there
I felt my bone… in her hair
She had a rag on, I moved above
It won’t be long she’ll slip it off
I held her in my arm and then
And I told her I’d rather lay her again
This became a national hit when a disc jockey in Boston played it and declared that it was the worst song he ever heard.
According to lead singer Jack Ely, the studio had a 19-foot ceiling with a microphone suspended from it. Ely claims that was the cause of the “garbled” lyrics, but Paul Revere and the Raiders recorded their version of “Louie Louie” in the same studio the day after the Kingsmen’s session and their partly ad-libbed lyrics are clearly heard.
On August 24, 2003, 754 guitarists played this at “Louie Fest” in Tacoma, Washington. The event was held to raise money for music programs. Dick Peterson from The Kingsmen was one of the guitarists.
The “see” in the line “see Jamaica” comes in one line too early and is repeated.
This was used in the 1996 movie Down Periscope with Kelsey Grammer. As a submarine captain in a series of war games, Grammer and his crew sing this song loudly to confuse their pursuer’s radar into thinking that they were a fishing trawler full of drunk fishermen.
Iggy Pop recorded a version with new lyrics for his 1993 album American Caesar. His band The Stooges would often play the song and change the words to the supposedly offensive lyrics. This version of the song was the last one they played at their February 9, 1974 show at the Michigan Palace, which would be their last until a reunion in 2003.
According to Kenny Vance, who was the musical director on Animal House, John Belushi sang in a garage band that used to perform this song at fraternities. Belushi would sing his version of the dirty lyrics, which he did in the studio while recording his vocals for the movie. Sadly, the tape of Belushi singing his dirty version of the song was lost in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy wiped out Kenny’s home in Queens.
In the 1990 movie Coupe de Ville, Patrick Dempsey, Arye Gross and Daniel Stern star as brothers who have an argument over the meaning of this song. They debate if it is about lovemaking, or if it is a sea shanty.
In 1966, The Sandpipers took this song to #30 in the US. Another notable cover: The West Coast punk band Black Flag recorded it in 1981 and released it on their album The First Four Years.
This was used in a 1986 commercial for California Cooler wine coolers. The beachgoers in the clip sing along to the tune.
This is one of the most famous rock songs of all time, but The Kingsmen were not museum material. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took this on by inducting “Louie Louie” into a “singles” category in 2018 along with five other songs performed by artists who were not in the Hall:
“The Twist” – Chubby Checker
“Rocket 88” – Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats
“Rumble” – Link Wray
“A Whiter Shade Of Pale” – Procol Harum
“Born To Be Wild” – Steppenwolf
Ray Manzarek told Rainer Moddemann of The Doors Quarterly that the first song Jim Morrison ever performed on stage was Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie.” This was while Manzarek was in Rick & the Ravens; Morrison wasn’t yet part of the band, but Manzarek called him up to sing it after he repeatedly yelled from the back “sing Louie Louie!”
Morrison was always intrigued with this song after hearing the lyrics were dirty. He went onstage and sang himself hoarse.