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PORTLAND, MULTNOMAH COUNTY; 1960s:

Bad recording technique led to FBI investingation

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By Finn J.D. John
December 22, 2013

IN THE SUMMER of 1963, Ken Chase, the program manager at KISN Radio in Portland, had a problem. Two years earlier, in Seattle, a group called The Wailers had recorded a version of Richard Berry’s 1957 hit single, “Louie Louie,” and it had gotten very popular. It was getting played a lot on Portland radio.

But all that airplay was happening on rival radio station KGON. KISN was not authorized to play The Wailers’ song.

So Chase asked the house band at the dance club he owned if they’d be up for recording a version of the song.

The second pressing of The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" record, on the Wand label. (Image: thedailypipe.blogspot.com)

Chase’s house band was a group of five Portland teenagers who played a sort of rough-hewn party music in the “Mersey Beat” British-invasion style popularized by bands like The Beatles and The Zombies. They called themselves “The Kingsmen.”


Recorded on the cheap

SOMEWHAT ODDLY, AFTER helping the group get set up with an hour of time at a recording studio on the corner of Northwest 13th and Burnside, Chase left it to the band to pick up the tab for the $50 session. Band members pitched in equally to pay the fee.

Another set of fan-generated lyrics for "Louie Louie," shown side-by-side with the original for comparison . The curse word redacted in red in this image appears in plain text in the FBI's file. (Image: FBI)

The poorly-mixed, lo-fi, monophonic result, pressed on a 45-rpm vinyl single and hastily released under the “Jerdan” label, fixed KISN’s competitive problem. It also inspired a two-year-long FBI investigation and catapulted the five young Portland lads to national stardom.

The quality may have been terrible, but the song was catchy, and the Kingsmen had substantially transformed it. That their version was something new and special was immediately clear. However, other aspects of the song were not so clear — most notably the singing. Vocalist Jack Ely was doing his best to sound Caribbean despite not really knowing what a Jamaican accent sounded like; his braces had just been tightened, further weirding out his pronunciation; and producer Ken Chase, hoping to capture the energy of a live performance, had dangled the mic from the ceiling so that Ely had to more or less shout upward at it.

A third, considerably inferior, set of fan-generated lyrics to "Louie Louie," from the FBI file. (Image: FBI)

The result was a clean, catchy beat-music ditty with utterly unintelligible lyrics.

A few months went by. Then an influential DJ in Boston got his hands on a copy, played it, shook his head with disbelief and presented it to his listeners as the “Worst Record in America.” It caught on.

Ironically, a somewhat better known Portland band, Paul Revere and the Raiders, recorded a version of Louie Louie in the same studio under the tutelage of another producer from the same radio station (KISN). Their version was much cleaner, better mixed and generally superior. But it wasn’t really in the then-pistol-hot “Mersey beat” musical style, and of course it lacked the distinction of “Worst Record in America,” so it didn’t get nearly as much attention – although Paul Revere and the Raiders went on to become by far the more successful band.


Vague lyrics and dirty minds

AS THE KINGSMEN'S song went nationwide, a number of people started wondering what exactly those lyrics were. The record wasn’t distributed with a lyric sheet, and most people had no way of getting their hands on one. So naturally, as fans do, some of them started playing the record very carefully, trying to decipher them.

Some of these would-be lyrics transcriptionists turned out to have rather dirty minds.

Soon local governments, having heard the rumors, were banning The Kingsmen. Then the governor of Indiana banned it, making headlines nationwide. And by early in 1964, outraged letters were coming in to the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI.


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The Kingsmen at their gold-record ceremony for “Louie Louie.” From left to right: Norm Sundholm, Mike Mitchell, Lynn Easton, Dick Peterson and Barry Curtis. (Image: Millie Bessey/ RILM)

“My daughter brought home a record of 'Louie Louie' and I, after reading that the record had been banned from being played on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words,” wrote an angry parent in a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which found its way into the FBI’s file. (The FBI redacted the letter-writer’s name.) “The lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter … I would like to see these people, the 'artists,' the record company and the promoters prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”


Bait and switch with dirty words
?

FOR THE FBI, it was easy enough to get a copy of the lyrics and listen to the record. Sure, they matched up. But by that time, the suspicions of parents all across the country had been aroused. Now the theory was that those rascally Kingsmen were actually singing the nasty lyrics, keeping them vague and muffled so that nobody could prove anything, and publishing the clean ones that Richard Berry had originally written with the song.

“We became aware of a dual set of lyrics, and that without a doubt, someone had masterminded an ‘auditory illusion,’” wrote a member of the Flint, Michigan, Junior Women’s Club in a letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “Our prosecuting attorney with whom we consulted said, in his opinion, there was nothing legally that can be done since he believed you cannot prove which set of lyrics they are singing. This seemed rather irrelevant since they were capitalizing on its obscenity, and when every teenager in the county ‘heard’ the obscene (words), not the copyrighted lyrics.”

A side-by-side comparison of the official lyrics of "Louie Louie" with one of the sets of obscene lyrics, apparently compiled by a fan. The curse words have been redacted from this image, but they appear in plain text in the FBI file. (Image: FBI)

Anyone familiar with the hasty, bodged-together conditions under which the song was recorded probably found such “mastermind” suspicions pretty amusing.


Your tax dollars at work

THE FBI CONTINUED to investigate the song for two years, amassing a 140-page dossier on the matter. In the meantime, the two founders of The Kingsmen, Lynn Easton and Jack Ely, parted company in a fairly acrimonious dispute over who got to be the group’s lead vocalist. For several years Ely, who’d sung the vocals on “Louie Louie,” fronted his own band (“Jack Ely and the Kingsmen”) while the original Kingsmen — with Easton handling the vocals — continued playing concerts with Easton lip-synching to Ely’s pre-recorded performances. Legal action followed, and Easton had the upper hand because his mom had registered the band’s name; so a year or two later, a judge ordered Ely to change his band name and Easton to quit using Ely’s pre-recorded voice.

That hurt the remaining Kingsmen at first, since concertgoers were mostly there to hear “Louie Louie,” and with a different vocalist the song sounded like a different band. But the band did go on to score several other hits, including a version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” as well as “Death of an Angel” and “The Jolly Green Giant.”

Fifty years after “Louie Louie” was performed, Los Vegas artist Tim Bavington unveiled a glass-and-acrylic sculpture that now hangs on the wall in the new Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland. It’s a brilliantly colorful 10-foot-tall wall of wiggly neon lines, intended to represent the sound waves of the chords to the song.

As Oregonian writer Sara Hottman wryly noted in her feature story about the sculpture, that brought The Song that Launched a Dozen FBI Agents back full circle — there on the wall at the Federal Building, it’s now “back in front of the feds.”


(Sources: Hottman, Sara. “The Kingsmen’s infamously innocent ‘Louie Louie’ …”, Portland Oregonian, 25 Jul 2013; https://vault.fbi.gov/louie-louie-the-song; Love, Matt. Citadel of the Spirit. South Beach, Ore.: Nestucca Spit Press, 2009)

TAGS: #CRIMES: #wronglyAccused #lawEnforcement :: #PEOPLE: #showmen #journalists #politicians #schmucks #artists :: # #cultureClash #irony #showBiz #1stAmendment #famous #luckyBreak #underdog :: LOC: #pdx :: #266

 

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