Artist: The Kingsmen
Title: Louie Louie
Release date: 1963
First heard: 1979
The most recorded song all time, thought to have been covered over 1,500 times since its composer Richard Berry’s original recording in 1957, there really is no topping the Kingsmen’s drawling blueprint. The oldest record currently in The 143 at time of writing*, I can pinpoint my first exposure to its near-narcotic singalong catchiness to 1979, as that was the year I turned 14 and became eligible to see a “AA” at the cinema. Ceremonially, this was National Lampoon’s Animal House, which felt to me like forbidden fruit, with its gross-out larks, bare breasts, rude words, equine heart attacks and anarchic tendencies. But beyond all the adolescent rites of passage, it introduced me to Louie Louie.
In the film, it’s playing on a Rock-Ola jukebox in Delta House during the ritualised “hazing” of Kent Dorfman and Larry Kroger. The collective frat boys sing boozily along to the Berry original. It caught my ear at the time. I must have filed it away. (It never crossed my radar but John Belushi recorded a version for the soundtrack and released it as a single.) Animal House is set in 1962, a year before the Kingsmen’s version was released, but this will have gone over the head of the 14-year-old me; I didn’t know that contemporaneous family favourites Grease and Happy Days were set in the past, either. I just assumed life in 1970s America was just like that – milkshakes, college jackets, convertibles, jukeboxes – and to a degree, for all my provincial naivete, I think I was right.
Historically, the America portrayed in Animal House is one of sharp racial divisions; there are no black students, but the white kids are hip to black music, hiring Otis Day & The Knights for a frat party, and subsequently falling foul of unofficial segregation when they enter a night club to see the band play and find themselves in a conspicuous white minority and run out of the parking lot. It will not be lost on historians that in 1962, Louie Louie by the black Richard Berry might not have even been on the jukebox, as it was only a regional hit in Los Angeles. It took a white group, the preppy Kingsmen from Portland (by way of a prior cover by Tacoma’s Wailers), to have a smash hit with it.
My eventual appreciation of “garage rock”, the movement of which the Kingsmen were an unknowing part – not even called “garage rock” until after it had faded away – came about in the early 21st century during that whirlwind romance with ancient music at the infant 6 Music, where my magpie producer Frank would constantly shove spicy compilations under my nose: ska, reggae, blues and all points inbetween. The Wailers, the Sonics, the Kingsmen, the Seeds, proto-garage kingpin Link Wray – it was at this point that I made the eureka musical link back to the psychobilly I’d dabbled in as an art student in the mid-80s. (I felt sure that one of the Klub Foot compilations I taped at college had a version of Louie Louie on it, but I can find no record of this. I was, however, getting into the dirty early years of the Kinks at the same time, and one of their recordings may have found its way onto a TDK cassette.) It floods the heart when synaptic connections like these are retrospectively made. It’s why I feel sad for youngsters growing up today when all music is available, and thus all music is potentially worthless.
The song itself is a copper-bottomed, no-arguments classic. (Berry sold the rights to it in 1959 and didn’t become the millionaire he had every right to be until the 80s when the Artists’ Rights society tracked him down for a signature to allow its use in a wine cooler advert. He died in 1993, apparently not even in the least bit bitter.) What’s to add? From that seductive organ intro, offset by the warning-sign of a single offbeat on the snare, the arrangement crashes through the wall, fully formed, driven by a rhythm that must have sounded deeply satanic, even played by middle-class white boys. It was recorded in one take, of course. But not in a garage.
Jack Ely’s mewling vocal is so unaffected and so felt, ranging from fired up to disinterested in a beat and perhaps thus encapsulating the confusion of the American teenager at a time of George Wallace and John F Kennedy, Clemson University and Betty Friedan, the Space Race and the Cold War, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline. What I love about the vocal is that it’s so comprehensively buried among the racket of drums, keyboard and guitar, it barely qualifies as a lead until Ely shrieks, “OK, let’s give it to them, right now!”
The guitar solo is squeaky and humorous, and Ely comes back in too early – one of the great recorded mistakes in all of rock – whereupon he pauses and drummer Lynn Easton covers with an improvised fill. Let’s do the show right here. All is well wherever your ear alights within these two minutes and 42 seconds of history. Rarely has so little variation or virtuosity given so much reward. And all captured for $50, the cost of the session. Two years later, I was born into a post-Louie Louie world.
And there’s no comma. Richard Berry said so. And he, as they say in Portland, the man.
*Subsequently preceded by Woody Guthrie, Dave Brubeck, Patsy Cline and the Shirelles.