The Song Remains The Same (Or Not) - The Legend of 'Louie Louie'

Joe Maccoll owns 800, yes 800, versions of the garage rock classic and he's not even the biggest obsessive. There's a fella in America who owns 1,500...
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Joe Maccoll owns 800, yes 800, versions of the garage rock classic and he's not even the biggest obsessive. There's a fella in America who owns 1,500...

'Louie Louie'

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Several days leading up to my assignation last weekend were filled with a combination of mystery and fascination. After a couple of previous false starts, I finally got to hook up with Joe Maccoll, a former band mate from 14 summers ago. The premise? To discuss his mania concerning a peculiar ‘Choon’, originally released on vinyl in1957 (but written 2 years previously).

Like all good rock stories, the controversy surrounding this song is legendary.

There are many well trodden paths that envelop record collecting, and without me labouring the point about the connected history, the tune in question has huge appeal the world over. And it’s true that one person’s trivia can have a treasure chest-like allure to another. Subsequently, in the last week I’ve read hundred’s of reference points and myths regarding the associated recordings and although it’s been enlightening, I’m not about to reiterate in detail.

I recall one day in the late 1990’s on a (kindred) spirited trip to London, to explore seemingly endless vinyl shops within Camden, London with drummer Joe, a shared experience that could easily have been subject matter for Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’, minus the incessant ‘lists’ of course. Joe has had a reputable eclectic music collection which I still hold in high regard. But back then I was vaguely aware of a particular sub-set within his accumulation. The theme was fatal. Joe had an obsessive ‘Louie Louie’ disorder.

To some critics, the song is throw away junk. It certainly appeared as “worst record of the week” [US DJ Arnie Ginsburg, in 1963]. But to me it plays a crucial role in pop culture, a song that stands the time test. To its credit, one variation is featured in the Rolling Stone magazines top 500 singles at #54. As Dave Marsh states in his book ‘Louie Louie’, “Duh duh duh. duh duh is a mnemonic so powerful…”.

800 copies though? “I know, I know. There is a guy [I’m in contact with] in America, who has over 1,500 copies. I suppose he makes me appear less mad."

Anyways, back to last Saturday. As well as the occasional toe-dipping into live music behind the drum kit, Joe’s day/evening/weekend job is as a Chef at his local pub in North-East Northamptonshire. It’s a bright early afternoon and there’s a handy vinyl/CD sound-system assembled in the back room of the Ship Inn where we sift through his collection and chat/sip a modest selection of fine beer, whilst he hand picks about 50 versions of ‘Louie Louie’ to play.  Joe has been on a self imposed quest for well over 20 years now and has acquired 800 recordings of the garage-rock classic. Interestingly, he has also brought along various peculiar related objects including framed pictures of the original performer and song-writer Richard Berry, original sheet music for both Berry and the Kingsmen (to many people, the quintessential version), several battery-operated ‘performing’ toys (one track Juke-Box; 50’s style truck; and a dancing Hamster – the add-on market must have been huge) and the paramount bombshell of all, a signed copy of one of Richard Berry’s ‘live’ recordings. To say I’m surprised is an understatement…

Firstly, I asked my friend to choose versions to reflect the recording diversity across the 1950’s to the present, to give as much variety to the session as is possible. Play that music, Joe.

Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh. Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh …

We begin with a couple of songs that obviously inspired Richard Berry’s own doo-wop/calypso sea shanty. Two obvious influences are Havana Moon (Chuck Berry) and El Loco Cha Cha (Rene Touze), which are the best revelations to me. These were vital before embracing some of the cherished standards: Richard Berry’s classic (Flip records), Rockin Robin Roberts & the Wailers (Sax intro/great vocal inspiration for the Kingsmen), the inevitable Kingsmen version (initially released on Jerden then later on Wand). Richard Berry’s cut is something special, it’s simple yet 50’s cool. Unfortunately, as a struggling artist he was forced to sell his share of the publishing rights in 1959, to Flip records for $750.

Also, Joe tells me, it is claimed that Nirvana borrowed the guitar riff for ‘Smells like teen spirit’.

Next, we journey through some notable examples: Beau Brummel (1966 with defining crash cymbals, great harmonies, a steady beat); a garage effort from the Swamp Rats; the familiar drawl of Ray Davies of the Kinks; Maureen Tucker?!?; Simba (with excellent ‘Santana’ style Latin counter-rhythms); a late sixties cha-cha beat delivery from Mongo Santamaria; the Beach Boys (hear the obvious key change); the Rice University Marching Owl Band; A spunky seventies version from Charlie & the Tunas; the Hallelouie Chorus; Angel Corpus Christi (a Lou Reed tribute); A 100 MPH version from all girl group the Angels; A typical Atlantic/Stax sounding contribution from Otis Redding; Toots & the Maytals (1974); nice soul-driven bass from the Kids; A medley by Patti Smith; Van Morrison sound-a-likes the Wig; the Vibrators (John Ellis); Motorhead; A distinctive Sisters of Mercy; a Japanese interpretation from the Hot Nips – (do they really sing ‘rouie rouie’?); the Headcoats (featuring Billy Childish on the sympathy label).

Lest we forget the guitar-led instrumental from Travis Wammack; Letz Dance & his Orchestra (a David Bowie Pee-take); a bleating psychedelic offering from neighb’rhood childr’n; Actor David McCallum conducting an easy listening adaptation; another mid tempo from the Sandpipers; Jan & Dean; a stomping version with fine vocals from the Messengers; 3 Amigos with a  Hammond inspired big beat (similar to US3); more Hammond from the Bad Habits; Fat Boys (featuring samples and a fun reworking) and even a version from the Edinburgh Student Charities appeal (1964).

So, why ‘Louie Louie’ Joe? “I always liked the Kingsmen’s version, found myself a copy and discovered that many of the bands I admired had also recorded it”.

800 copies though? “I know, I know. There is a guy [I’m in contact with] in America, who has over 1,500 copies. I suppose he makes me appear less mad, ha. There are more than 2,000 known recordings. In 1983, an event was staged by KFJC, a radio station in USA which played unique versions, back-to-back for 63 hours.”

Joe has an impressive array of original labels, particularly the Berry version on Flip and the Kingsmen’s recordings for Jerden and Wand. He talks me through some general interest too… I’m informed that as a rule USA bands tended to sing the title as ‘Lou-ee Lou-ee’ where as, by contrast, groups from the UK pronounce it ‘Lou-ee Lou-aye’, “a distinct nod to the Kingsmen classic.” I learn that, allegedly, when singer Jack Ely left, the rights to the bands name were bought by drummer Lynn Easton which caused a rift between 2 entities of the fragmented band. Also, Joe tells me, it is claimed that Nirvana borrowed the guitar riff for ‘Smells like teen spirit’.

The definitive ‘Louie’ recording? “I really like the original (Richard Berry), but for me it has to be the raw energy of the Kingsmens’ version which makes it the greatest. Ultimately, it’s the one that got the collection started”.

Like all good rock stories, the controversy surrounding this song is legendary. Though the principal milestone hangs around the neck of that garage band called the Kingsmen. Back then, amplified geetar sounds or the mere sight of Elvis’s gyrating hips were sufficient material for the coast-to-coast US media to whip up ignorant hostility, in a considered attempt to outrage a nation. If the band’s internal turmoil wasn’t enough for them in 1963, the FBI (under J Edgar Hoover’s watch) began a persecution lasting 2 ½ years that involved cross-examining all and sundry attached to the Portland based recording. Everyone that is, apart from singer Jack Ely, who had left the band shortly after the release date. The investigation was initiated due to reports that the lyrics had a sexual content, something which was disputed by the band and never proven, consequently a seemingly wasted 5 year (costing $1.3 million) law suit followed.

After this bizarrely calculated furore, it was deemed that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”…  But as Dave Marsh suggests, were the FBI genuinely acting on the behalf of US citizens to prove this was “… a piece of filth undermining the values of the nation…”? Perhaps one of the more hilariously tenuous suggestions in this context concerns Hoover’s concealed love of garage music. Apparently, he contributed and often wrote reviews for Village Voice, Creem and Rolling Stone magazines under such pseudonyms as “Chip Duggins”, “Scooter Merriweather” and “Sludge Gunderson”. Judge for yourselves!

Me gotta go

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