The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”

According to one of our preferred musical sources:

"PEAKED: #2 on December 14, 1963

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: The Singing Nun’s “Dominique

This column is at the request of Stereogum donor Brett Gurewitz, the founder/owner of Epitaph Records and the guitarist for motherfucking Bad Religion, one of the best punk rock bands that has ever walked the planet. Here’s what Mr. Brett writes about his choice:

I don’t really know what songs made the Billboard Hot 100. Do you have some kind of a list I can choose from? If not, feel free to choose for me. I don’t want to be difficult, but most of my favorite songs never came close to a Billboard chart, and I don’t have time for a research project right now.

So Brett Gurewitz didn’t actually choose a song! He left it up to us! I could’ve written about any fucking thing here! I could’ve written about “Gangnam Style”! I could’ve decided to break all the fucking rules and go to hell like Superman and die like a champion, ya-hey! Instead, I did make time for a research project. I looked into cover songs that Bad Religion have played live over the years and checked how many of them had ever made the Hot 100. (I make a difference, too.) There have been a few!

Before I get into that whole project, I should point out that Bad Religion fucking rule, and not just because Gurewitz donated to Stereogum. Every Bad Religion album kicks vast amounts of ass, including Into The Unknown, the proggy 1983 synth-punk LP that the band almost immediately disavowed. Suffer and No Control and Against The Grain are all indisputable classics that changed the sound of punk forever, and all three came out in consecutive years, a wild thing to think about. I shoplifted a cassette copy of 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction when I was in ninth grade, and I played that shit so many times. I once got in trouble in school for reasons involving the band’s crossed-out-cross logo. Bad Religion affect me, they infect me, etc.

Bad Religion have never charted on the Hot 100. (I thought about writing this column about Frank Ocean’s 2012 classic “Bad Religion,” but that didn’t chart, either.) But Stranger Than Fiction reached #87 on the album charts on its way to going gold. The band sent a gold plaque to Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, for reasons that probably have something to do with this review. When I worked with Christgau at the Village Voice, that plaque was the only decoration in the man’s cubicle. After the Voice fired Christgau — an early outrage in that paper’s long, drawn-out death march — he left that plaque in his empty cubicle. Every single time I walked past that cubicle, I thought about stealing the plaque. Never did. Big regret.


At Epitaph, Brett Gurewitz also signed Rancid, my favorite band of all time. He’s produced most of Rancid’s albums, including 1994’s Let’s Go, probably the one record that has had the single greatest impact on my life. Gurewitz also produced NOFX and L7 and Pennywise records that I really love. As the head of Epitaph and its various associated labels, he’s put out great albums from Tom Waits, the Dropkick Murphys, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, the Bouncing Souls, Refused, Touché Amoré, Deafheaven, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Converge, Girlpool, Dinosaur Jr., Title Fight, Atmosphere, Total Chaos, Hot Water Music, the Coup, and a whole lot of others. Suffice to say: I like the work that Brett Gurewitz has done! He doesn’t seem to care too much about this column, and he might not ever read it, but there it is.

Anyway. Back to those songs that Bad Religion have covered. Setlists.fm tells us that, at various points over the decades, Bad Religion have covered Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” (peaked at #47), Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ “Refugee” (peaked at #15), the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” (peaked at #2), and Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman.” (Fleetwood Mac’s version of “Black Magic Woman” didn’t chart, but Santana’s 1970 cover peaked at #4. It’s a 9. “Start Me Up” is a 5.) But Bad Religion are a punk band, which means they played “Louie Louie” live at least once — at the Skylite Club in Long Beach in March of 1983. They butchered the shit out of it, too.

When we sent him a list of options, Brett Gurewitz chose “Louie Louie.” So let’s talk about “Louie Louie.”

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“Louie Louie” is a song with a long, complicated story — a saga too big to be covered in a single column. You could write a whole book about it. Dave Marsh did write a whole book about it; he published Louie Louie: The History And Mythology Of The World’s Most Famous Rock ‘N’ Roll Song in 2004. The song is a testament to the power of catchy riffs and raw sloppiness. For years, it existed as a sort of telephone game. A band would hear the song, play it back from memory, and release their own version. Then another band would hear that version and record their own take on it. On and on it went.

  

The first version of “Louie Louie” came from Richard Berry, the man who wrote the song. Berry was a Louisiana-born R&B singer who’d grown up in Los Angeles. In the pre-rock ‘n’ roll days of the early ’50s, Berry had sung for a bunch of different LA vocal groups like the Flairs and the Robins, both of which had worked with the hitmaking duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Berry is the bass voice on the Robins’ 1953 single “Riot In Cell Block #9.” He also sang the responses on Etta James’ breakout single “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry),” an R&B hit in the pre-Hot 100 days of 1955. (James’ highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1967’s “Tell Mama,” peaked at #23.)

In 1955, Berry and the Rhythm Rockers, a Mexican-American group from Southern California, played shows together in Anaheim. Berry heard the Rhythm Rockers doing a cover of “El Loco Cha Cha Cha,” a 1956 record from the Cuban-American bandleader René Touzet. Richard Berry was inspired by both that song and by “Havana Moon,” a 1956 single from past Number Ones artist Chuck Berry. (No relation.) Richard Berry tried to write his own Latin-style song. After hearing the famous version of “One For My Baby” from Frank Sinatra, another past Number Ones artist, Berry gave his song a similar structure — a conversation between a guy and a bartender.

Berry wrote the fake-patois “Louie Louie” lyrics on a roll of toilet paper while waiting to go onstage one night. Using the “El Loco Cha Cha Cha” riff, he recorded it with his group Richard Berry And The Pharaohs, and he released it as the B-side to his version of “You Are My Sunshine.” The single never charted. In 1959, Berry sold the publishing rights for some of his songs, including “Louie Louie,” to the label Flip Records for $750, so that he could buy his girlfriend an engagement ring.

Berry’s original “Louie Louie” wasn’t a hit, but it gained a certain regional popularity when he toured the Pacific Northwest. Rockin’ Robin Roberts, a local R&B fan who sang with a Tacoma group called the Wailers, recorded his own version of “Louie Louie” in 1961, and that version — slightly cruder, slightly rowdier — was a local hit in the Pacific Northwest. Pretty soon, every local rock ‘n’ roll band in Washington and Oregon was learning the song’s easy chord progression. The Kingsmen happened to be the band who got lucky with it.


Portland kid Jack Ely had been singing Elvis covers at vaudeville shows since the mid-’50s. Around 1959, he and a high school friend named Lynn Easton got together to form a band called the Kingsmen. Ely sang. Easton played drums. Eventually, a few other kids joined. They played local functions, and they eventually noticed that Rockin’ Robin Roberts’ version of “Louie Louie” was playing on a loop in every jukebox in the area. So the Kingsmen learned how to play “Louie Louie.” Ken Chase, a Portland radio DJ, started up a teen dance club called the Chase, and he booked the Kingsmen as his house band. At the Chase, the Kingsmen would just play “Louie Louie” over and over again, for 90 minutes at a time.

In 1963, Chase, who’d become the Kingsmen’s manager, booked them some time in a recording studio, and they knocked out “Louie Louie” in one take. The Kingsmen’s version of the song is sloppy and raw, with actual mistakes in there. At the time, they thought they were just warming up by playing the song, but Chase told them that their one-take version was the one. There were only three microphones in the room, and one of them hung from the ceiling. Jack Ely sang into that one, bellowing the lyrics at the ceiling. The band played loud, so Ely had to scream to be heard. Since he had braces on his teeth, the words came out slurred and incomprehensible.

That sloppiness, while unintentional, is the magic of “Louie Louie.” The riff is simple enough that it imprints itself on your brain the first time you hear it. The recording is muddy, but it’s electrically muddy. All that grimy murk in the mix suggests that this is all happening at a chaotic party. There’s a wild exuberance in the drums, in the guitar solo, in Ely’s jumped-up yowl. The whole thing is just elementally fun. It’s not the kind of song that carefully constructs what it wants to say. It’s a giggly, horny adrenaline rush, a beautiful stupid frenzy.

The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” is Latin music as interpreted by a Black R&B songwriter from Los Angeles, then interpreted by a white garage band from Tacoma, then interpreted by a different white garage band from Portland. Ely’s voice on the song is a sort of Caribbean patois thrice removed. Each new version of the song is looser and sloppier than the last, as if the song could only achieve true perfection when it became an absolute fucking mess.

The shittiness was the appeal. According to legend, “Louie Louie” went nowhere until a Boston DJ named Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg played it on the radio, calling it the worst record of the week. But everything that supposedly made the song bad was what people liked about it. The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie” competed with another rendition from Paul Revere & The Raiders, another Portland garage band. (Eight years later, Paul Revere & The Raiders would score a #1 hit.) The Raiders recorded their “Louie Louie” in the same Portland studio a few days after the Kingsmen cut theirs. But while the Raiders’ version is still plenty anarchic, it’s not quite as unhinged as the Kingsmen’s take.

Jack Ely’s scream-slur delivery might’ve made all the difference for the Kingsmen. Kids thought maybe the lyrics were dirty. Parents thought the same thing. Indiana governor Matthew Welsh declared the song pornographic and demanded that the Indiana Broadcasters Association ban it from the radio. At a middle school in Sarasota, kids wrote down what they thought they lyrics were and passed that filthy interpretation around. A teacher at that school wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, complaining about the “extreme state of moral degradation” that the song exhibited and demanding the prosecution of the “morons” who had recorded it. At the letter’s behest, the FBI began an inquiry into “Louie Louie.”

The FBI’s investigation of the song lasted years, and it’s simply delightful to think about G-men sitting around in sweaty offices, debating whether Jack Ely is gargling “I smell the rose in her hair” or “I feel my boner in her hair.” The FBI even interrogated a member of the band, who insisted that there was no obscenity. (The Bureau never consulted Richard Berry’s copyrighted lyrics, which would’ve been on file somewhere.) Eventually, after 31 months, the Bureau concluded that the lyrics were incomprehensible, and they dropped the inquiry. Later on, drummer Lynn Easton admitted that there actually is a cuss word on the song — the moment at the 54-second mark where he drops his sticks and screams fuck.

By the time “Louie Louie” reached its chart apex, the Kingsmen weren’t even the same band anymore. While the song was on the ascent, Lynn Easton decided that he wanted to be the band’s singer, and that he wanted Jack Ely to be the drummer. Easton’s mother had registered the trademark for the group’s name, so she owned it. Ely quit the band. Ely then started his own version of the Kingsmen, and this led to a legal battle between him and Easton. Easton won the rights to the band name, but part of the settlement was that he had to stop lip-syncing to Ely’s “Louie Louie” vocal at live shows. Ely played in a few more bands, served in Vietnam, got addicted to drugs, got clean, and became a horse trainer. He died in 2015, at age 71.

With Easton as the singer, the Kingsmen scored one more top-10 hit: The enjoyably stupid 1965 novelty song “Jolly Green Giant,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.) The Kingsmen also showed up in a 1966 movie called How To Stuff A Wild Bikini. The band stuck around until 1967, when Easton quit to host a Portland TV dance show and to work in advertising. Easton reportedly died a few months ago.

“Louie Louie” keyboardist Don Gallucci had also been kicked out of the Kingsmen. When the record blew up, he was 15 years old, too young to tour. He formed his own band Don And The Goodtimes, and they went on to peak at #56 with the Beach Boys-esque 1967 single “I Could Be So Good To You.” Later on, Gallucci produced Fun House, the classic 1970 sophomore album from the Stooges. At live shows, the Stooges played a version of “Louie Louie” that the FBI definitely would’ve considered obscene.

“Louie Louie” reached its chart peak mere weeks before the Beatles arrived in America, and its giddy, guttural energy could be considered an early warning for what was about to happen. But the legacy of “Louie Louie” goes way beyond that. It became emblematic of the garage-rock revolution to come — the boom of American bands who would try to be the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and who would often come up with their own grimy, slapdash takes on that sound. Some of those bands were just local sensations. Some of them briefly crossed over to tremendous pop success, as in the case of ? And The Mysterians’ 1966 chart-topper “96 Tears.” A whole lot of those bands had their own versions of “Louie Louie.”

“Louie Louie” became a garage-rock standard, then a punk-rock standard. Otis Redding and the Beach Boys and the Kinks recorded versions of “Louie Louie,” but so did plenty of bands that would never approach that level of fame or professionalism: the Standells, the Sonics, the Beau Brummels, the Swingin’ Medallions, the Flamin’ Groovies. The Stooges’ version of the song probably belongs in that lineage — and that’s the same lineage that takes “Louie Louie” to Motörhead, the Clash, Johnny Thunders, Black Flag, Bad Religion. (Barry White also covered “Louie Louie” in 1981, but I’d argue that his version isn’t really part of that continuum.)

In the mid-’80s, a drink company called California Coolers wanted to use “Louie Louie” in an ad, and their legal department said that they’d need Richard Berry to sign off on it. They found Berry in South Central LA, living in his mother’s house and studying for a degree in computer data entry. He’d been on welfare for years. An Artists’ Rights Society investigation found that Berry should’ve been getting “Louie Louie” royalty checks for decades. Berry got the rights to “Louie Louie.” He died of heart failure in 1997, at the age of 61. At the time of his death, Berry was a millionaire." - Stereogum.com

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