As Dave Marsh recounts Louie Louie began as an innocent sea shanty about a lovesick Jamaican Sailor. It was authored by Richard Berry in 1956 and it was raised to glory status by Rockin’ Robin Roberts, Seattle’s resident Wildman. The Wailers would pack the house, 2000 strong. They would play in hamburger stand parking lots and on rooftops of drive-in theater concession stands. Just kids in hot cars drinking beer and going out to dances. It was a magic time. In the summer of 1957, Richard Berry’s Louie Louie was all the rage.
Marsh makes a bid for the middle path, it’s a rock & roll song and it’s also a calypso song and it’s also a filthy obscene mess. Love it or hate it, Louie Louie is a rock & roll treasure with that duh, duh, duh. Duh, Duh beat resting unobtrusively in many of our favorite songs.
Frank Zappa weighed-in on it from his 1989 opus The Real Frank Zappa book. He wrote that his compositions would use “stock modules” to create aural textures, among them sounds derived by the Twilight Zone, Mister Rogers, cornball bandleader Lester Lanin and things that sound either exactly like or very similar to Louie Louie. He also noted that Louie Louie is built around two basic 1950’s rock & roll chord patterns (I-IV-V).
Dave Marsh has the cajones to create a story about the history of rock & roll through a single song and to a great extent he has succeeded. At a show in December 1970 Ray Davies performed with the Kinks and declared Louie Louie as the greatest rock & roll song ever made and then proceeded to tear it up to an almost indecipherable heresy without even one obscenity. That is the magic of Louie Louie.
The most popular version of the released song was performed by the Kingsmen. Though not the best musicians on the block, the Kingsmen did it justice thanks to Jack Ely’s’ tortured indecipherable singing. You could make out “Louie Louie” on the verse and “Let’s give it to them right now” right before the instrumental break but that’s about it.
The Kingsmen transformed Berry’s low key ballad into a rock & roll rave up with twangy guitar, background chatter and Ely’s vocals. Marsh felt it was Ely’s helium vocals and that command “Give it to ’em right Now” that gave the recording its eternal greatness. Besides the Kinks, at least 1600 bands have used that tried and true riff that is so alluring, including the Angels, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Beach Boys, Beau Brummels, the Cult and Don & The Goodtimes.
Marsh could not reveal the actual lyrics written by Berry due to copyright laws. So the legend continues.
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
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.
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.
As original Kingsmen member Dick Peterson later said in an interview: "Louie Louie" was just a harmless record. Just a bunch of boys having a party, letting it all go. The F.B.I. made a big deal out of something that, those days ... well, listen to the lyrics on records today! We were tame. We were nothing. You couldn't even understand what was being said. Nowadays they're talking about killing women on records. Give me a break!”
Marsh penned a real winner here in a brief 207-page manuscript that should stand as the Holy Grail for rock journalism. Buy it on eBay it is not expensive.