In the mid-1950s, rock 'n' roll music was widely condemned as a public nuisance and threat to public safety, and the junk science of the day claimed that teens were "addicted" to the music. Police officials across the country—in Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and other states—blamed juvenile delinquency and general unrest on rock 'n' roll. Minneapolis in 1959 banned a show hosted by Dick Clark "for the peace and well-being of the city" because the police chief was convinced that it would spark violence. It was not an isolated overreaction. Other cities that banned rock 'n' roll shows based on public safety concerns included Boston, Massachusetts; Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut; Asbury Park, New Jersey; Santa Cruz, California; and Birmingham, Alabama.
A 1955 Los Angeles Times article described rock 'n' roll as "a violent, harsh type of music that, parents feel, incites teenagers to do all sorts of crazy things," and it quoted a psychiatrist who opined that rock 'n' roll was a "contagious disease." Others in the psychiatric field concurred. Dr. Francis J. Braceland, an internationally known psychiatrist who testified at the Nuremberg trials and would serve as president of both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Psychiatric Association, called rock 'n' roll "cannibalistic and tribalistic," comparing it to a "communicable disease." The Washington Post in 1956 quoted Dr. Jules Masserman, another former president of the American Psychiatric Association, as saying that rock 'n' roll was "primitive quasi-music that can be traced back to prehistoric cultures." The notion that this music was dangerous and could exert some mysterious power over young minds was not out of the mainstream.
Such pronouncements may help explain the bizarre overreaction by authorities to a 1963 song with almost unintelligible lyrics recorded by a Portland, Oregon, garage band called the Kingsmen. The song, "Louie, Louie," was written in 1956 by rhythm and blues artist Richard Berry, but it came to prominence in the early 1960s after being recorded by several bands, including Paul Revere and the Raiders and, more notably, the Kingsmen. It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor's lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen's lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in "Louie, Louie" stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation. The controversy made "Louie, Louie," in the words of rock critic Dave Marsh, the world's most famous rock 'n' roll song.
A letter from one panicked mom to then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy captured the general tone:
My daughter brought home a record of 'LOUIE LOUIE' and I…proceeded to try and decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter….I would like to see these people, The 'artists,' the Record company and the promoters prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
We all know there is obscene materials available for those who seek it, but when they start sneaking in this material in the guise of the latest teen rock & roll hit record these morons have gone too far.
This land of ours is headed for an extreme state or moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace? ? ? ?
She was not alone. Indiana's Democratic governor, Matthew E. Welsh, claimed that the record was so obscene it made his "ears tingle," and he announced a statewide ban on both radio play and live performances of the song. (It was not an "official" ban. The governor merely reached out to his contacts at the Indiana Broadcasters Association to make sure that the record was not played in his state.)
Official or not, the controversy triggered a two-and-a-half-year investigation that involved efforts by six FBI field offices, several U.S. attorneys, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into the supposedly corrupting lyrics of "Louie, Louie." FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover corresponded with an anti-pornography activist about the song, and he was kept apprised of the inquiry. Record label personnel were questioned, and even the song's composer was interviewed (although not, apparently, Jack Ely, the supposedly obscene performer). Some who were interviewed were read their rights, according to the FBI's notes to the file. Recordings were shipped off to FBI laboratories where the records would be played back at various speeds, with FBI agents straining to pick up a dirty word somewhere in the mix.
United Press International (UPI) reported (prematurely) that the FBI, the Post Office, and the FCC had dropped their investigations in February 1964 "because they were unable to determine what the lyrics of the song were, even after listening to the records at speeds ranging from 16 rpm to 78 rpm." That report was wrong in a couple of important respects: The investigation was far from over—it was just getting underway, really—and it was never clear that the Post Office was involved (although this may have been a subconscious nod to Anthony Comstock, the Victorian-era anti-vice crusader and "special agent" for the Post Office who famously used his power over the mails to oppose obscene literature, among other vices).
The UPI report that FBI investigators could not understand the words was accurate, however, as reflected in correspondence from the FBI laboratory returning materials submitted for review by the Tampa field office: "The Department advised that they were unable to interpret any of the wording in the record and therefore could not make any decision concerning the matter." Yet the investigation would drag on for almost two more years.
A June 1965 Justice Department memorandum summarizing the Detroit office inquiry, which included input from the record company, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the FCC (each of which found the complaints to be baseless), may have come closest to the truth. The FCC official, after approximately two years of receiving "unfounded complaints concerning the recording 'Louie Louie,'" concluded 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." But the fact is that no one knows for sure how it all started.
The rumor of "dirty lyrics" persisted, passed on by word of mouth, fueled by Ely's inarticulate vocals and Gov. Welsh's tingling ears. Perhaps the rumormongers can be forgiven their mistake. As FBI investigators put it, "with this type of rock and roll music, a listener might think he heard anything being said that he imagined."
The FBI was a year and a half into the investigation before someone thought to check out the lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office. Here is what they found:
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
A fine little girl, she wait for me;
me catch a ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone;
I never think I'll make it home
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Three nights and days we sailed the sea;
me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose in her hair.
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Me see Jamaica moon above;
It won't be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.
According to one source interviewed for the FBI's file (whose identity was redacted), "it is obvious [that] the lyrics to this record are not pornographic or objectionable in any way."
Nevertheless, reports in various other FBI files contained different variants of the "schoolyard" version of "Louie, Louie," such as:
Oh, Louie, Louie, Oh, No,
Get her way down low,
Oh, Louie, Louie, Oh, Baby,
Get her way down low,
A fine little girl awaiting for me
she's just a girl across the way
Well I'll take her and park all alone
She's never a girl I'd lay at home
At night at 10 I lay her again
Fuck you girl, Oh, all the way
Oh, my bed and I lay her there
I meet a rose in her hair.
Ok Let's give it to them right now!
She's got a rag on and I'll move above
It won't be long she'll slip it off
I'll take her in my arms again
I'll tell her I'll never leave again.
Get that Broad out of here!
Needless to say, the imagined words of "Louie, Louie" bore little resemblance to the actual lyrics. Time and again, FBI investigators scrutinized the song and each time reached the same conclusion: They couldn't make out the words.
None of this mattered to those demanding FBI action. One anti-porn activist from Flint, Michigan, wrote to Hoover in June 1965 out of concern over "the alarming rise in venereal disease, perversion, promiscuity and illegitimate births in the teen groups." She said that her organization knew about the "dual set of lyrics" associated with "Louie, Louie," and she claimed that the Kingsmen had masterminded an "auditory illusion." So it was irrelevant whether you could prove which set of lyrics was being used to perform the song, "since they were capitalizing on its obscenity" and "every teenager in the county 'heard' the obscene[,] not the copyrighted lyric." In other words, the song must be obscene if enough people became convinced that they had heard something "bad," no matter what words had been sung. Hoover wrote back to assure the correspondent that the FBI was actively investigating the matter and kindly enclosed copies of two Bureau publications—Poison for Our Youth and Combatting Merchants of Filth: The Role of the FBI.
The activist responded the following month to say that her group had conducted its own investigation of "Louie, Louie" and had played back the original recording at various speeds. She reported that when the record was played "somewhere between 45 and 33-1/2 RPM…the obscene articulation is clearer." Her group compared the record with a recording of the song taken from a televised performance by the Kingsmen and reported that when "the copywritten lyric" was performed "intelligibly," then "by no stretch of the imagination is the obscene lyric audible." It is hard to tell what the zealous informant was trying to say. Was it that the Kingsmen performed a "clean" version of "Louie, Louie" for television but that the record was a subliminal "dirty" version? It is impossible to know what Hoover thought of this "field report." He wrote a cordial letter back (enclosing more FBI anti-smut pamphlets), but also had the Detroit office investigate the woman and her group. Agents reported back that the Bureau had "nothing derogatory concerning [the] correspondent."
The FBI finally closed its investigation on October 10, 1966, with a brief, nondescript memo from the FBI labs to the New York office returning the recording and the lyrics sheet. But here's the oddest part. For all the scrutiny devoted to this song and its lyrics, the countless hours that FBI agents and lab technicians spent listening to the record at different speeds, and the many fans (and critics) obsessively searching for something dirty, no one seemed to notice that Lynn Easton, the Kingsmen's drummer, fleetingly uttered the word "fuck" just under a minute into the song. He had fumbled with his drumsticks and spontaneously vocalized his frustration at the mistake. But because the song was recorded in one take, the accidentally improvised expletive stayed in, indistinct and in the background. There is a lesson about human nature in this: People rarely find what they do not seek, but, quite often, they can clearly see what they are looking for—even when it isn't there.
The whole "Louie, Louie" episode bore the hallmarks of a classic Comstockian debacle—it originated in a moral panic about nothing and was driven by apocalyptic rhetoric about the mortal dangers threatening youth; the would-be censors ultimately were embarrassed by their actions; and, in the end, the controversy only magnified public attention and interest in the work. The FBI files documented this effect: One September 1965 memorandum said that when first released on the West Coast, record sales were poor, but after Indiana's governor issued his "ban" and the obscenity rumor spread, sales soared and hit the 2 million mark. Whether to quell the rumors or to capitalize on them, the record label offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could substantiate the reported obscenity. No one ever did.
Welsh came to regret that "Louie, Louie" would be the only thing for which he would be remembered. He tried to downplay the incident in a 1991 interview, calling it "a tempest in a teapot," and he emphatically denied being a censor. He never banned the record, Welsh told Marsh for his definitive book on the subject. He had merely suggested to Reid Chapman, president of the Indiana Broadcasters Association, "that it might be simpler all around if it wasn't played." But "it doesn't take a First Amendment scholar to see the contradiction," Marsh concluded, for "if a record isn't played at the suggestion of the state's chief executive, it has been banned."
After all this, Anthony Comstock's ghost still lingers, and Welsh would not be the last public official to be burned by wading into the "Louie, Louie" controversy. In May 2005, school superintendent Paula Dawning of Benton Harbor, Michigan, decreed that the middle school marching band could not perform "Louie, Louie" in the town's Grand Floral Parade. She explained that her decision was because of the song's "degrading" and "vulgar" lyrics even though the band was to perform an instrumental version. Her decision was reported nationwide—and roundly mocked—and Dawning ultimately relented. She stood by her decision, though (both of them), telling reporters that her real concern was "parental influence." She initially issued her ban, she explained, "because one parent questioned the appropriateness for that particular song," but rescinded the decision after "listening to a majority of the McCord Renaissance Middle School band parents." Dawning said that she was merely guarding "the right of parents to set standards for their children." She did not mention whether the coast to-coast ridicule she had received or a public official's constitutional obligation not to succumb to a heckler's veto were factors.
In the end, defenders of "Louie, Louie" got the last laugh. April 11 is listed in the National Special Events Registry as International "Louie, Louie" Day, and the states of Washington and Oregon have proclaimed their own observances of "Louie, Louie" Day. The city of Seattle has done the same, and Tacoma, Washington, sponsored an annual "LouieFest" from 2003 to 2012. Peoria, Illinois, hosts an annual "Louie, Louie" parade and festival (answering the age-old question: Will it play in Peoria?), and Philadelphia had "Louie, Louie" parades from 1985 to 1989 (until the annual event was canceled due to rowdiness). In 1985, Washington considered making "Louie, Louie" the state song, but the effort fizzled. Still, the song is played during the seventh-inning stretch at all Seattle Mariners home games. Politicians (for the most part) now embrace the once-taboo song, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire even danced to the tune at her inaugural ball in 2005. She did not say whether it made her ears tingle.