This Legendary Rock Anthem Is A Perfect Mess

February 3, 2023 | Jamie Hayes

This Legendary Rock Anthem Is A Perfect Mess

In 1957, lifelong friends Lynn Easton and Jack Ely, barely teenagers, decided to form a band. Ely sang and played guitar, with Easton on drums. The fresh-faced duo liked the music of Elvis Presley and mostly played simple R&B tunes. They soon brought Mike Mitchell and Bob Nordby in to fill out the group, and they dubbed themselves the Kingsmen.

For Those About To Rock

Louie Louie EditorialGetty Images

The band took work where they could find it. They played yacht club parties, fashion shows, supermarket promotions—a gig was a gig. They mostly avoided the newfangled "rock n' roll" music for more songs more palatable to their general audiences. But soon, the 50s passed into the 60s, and with it came a new generation of teenagers who wanted to rock.

In 1962, the Kingsmen played a gig at the Pypo Club in Seaside, Oregon. While there, they couldn't help but notice that a song called "Louie Louie" kept playing on the jukebox, and the crowd just couldn't get enough. Whenever it came on, it seemed like the entire club had to get up and dance. Ely knew a hit when he saw one, and he convinced the Kingsmen to quickly learn the song.

"Louie Louie" quickly became the Kingsmen's staple song at dances. They landed a gig as the house band for local DJ Ken Chase's dance club, with Chase also signing on as their manager. Pretty soon, Ely was begging Chase to let them record their version of "Louie Louie". Chase had seen the way the kids danced to the tune, so he booked them an hour-long session at Northwestern Inc. studio.

The session...was a total mess.

Rock Can Be Messy

Jack Ely, with a mouth full of braces, had to shout his lyrics up to a mic hung high up on the ceiling. The fact that the band had just played a 90-minute marathon of the song at a local show probably didn't help either. He slurred the lyrics so that half of the words were completely unintelligible, and he came in too early after the guitar solo, with the false start remaining on the record.

It doesn't end there. The band messed up the tempo, and Easton fumbled a drum fill and swore audibly. Unfortunately, the Kingsmen were not the kind of band that had the luxury of multiple takes. They desperately wanted to re-record a new version without all the mistakes, but Chase told them he liked the energy on the track (maybe he just didn't want to cough up for another recording).

Like it or not, this was the track that they had to work with.

Louie Louie EditorialGetty Images

The Worst Record

With all the mistakes, I doubt the band was particularly surprised when the record failed to set the charts on fire. "Louie Louie" was such a flop at first that the Kingsmen thought about hanging up their instruments and disbanding. To add insult to injury, a few months after its release, Boston's biggest DJ, Arnie Ginsburg, spun the song as his "Worst Record of the Week".

But then something funny happened. Audiences heard the "Worst Record of the Week"...and they loved it. Warts and all, "Louie Louie" had a raw energy that couldn't be denied. The Kingsmen started working their way up the Billboard charts until they had a bonafide hit on their hands. Though it only ever peaked at #2, it sold a million copies within a year of its release.

Some posit that Billboard refused to give "Louie Louie" the top spot due to a lack of "proper decorum". If that's the case, they weren't the only ones to think so.

Louie Louie EditorialGetty Images

What Is He Saying??

Ely's unintelligible lyrics, messy as they sounded, only added to the song's allure. Soon, teens around the country heard a rumor that Ely mumbled the words to cover up graphic, profanity-laden lyrics about a sailor and his lady. The kids couldn't get enough, but their parents were horrified. When Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh heard the song and the rumor, he tried to have "Louie Louie" banned.

Controversy around the song soon grew big enough that the FBI began a 31-month investigation into the song. After all that time, what did they determine? That they were "unable to interpret any of the wording in the record". Coulda told you that much...

The truth? Jack Ely just had a mouth full of braces and he was tired from just singing the song for 90 minutes straight. But it didn't matter. Even with, or maybe even because of the mistakes, "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen holds up as one of the first truly great rock 'n roll recordings. Just don't ask me what the heck he's saying.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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