Unintelligible at any speed

Satan's little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

Satan’s little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

In my younger days, my father often expressed concern that I was becoming prey to a languid intellectualism that he feared would leave me ill-equipped for life in the Real World in the unlikely event that I should ever shamble into it. In retrospect, he was probably correct: fortunately, he had a plan to address the problem.

Jobs. Lots of jobs.

No job was too small, too filthy, or too ill-suited to my temperament (which was, admittedly, opposed to work in almost any form) as long as it paid. From the moment I was old enough to get a work permit, Dad was unsparing in his efforts to get the most out of the twenty-dollar fee. Loading hay, working on a garbage truck, cleaning offices, flipping burgers: I was a busy boy.

One job that occupied me for a long winter when I was about sixteen involved working in the concession stand of a drive-in movie theater.  The owner of this particular picture-palace was our next-door neighbor, a gentleman with the unlikely name of Goggins. Three nights a week I would pile into the car with Mr Goggins and his son (a classmate of mine, although not someone I associated with otherwise) and we would go pop popcorn and serve up syrupy Cokes and Sprites to the masses who came out to shiver in their cars for such epics as “Reflection of Fear” and “The Candy Snatchers”.

Mr Goggins was an odd duck. He was convinced that the permissive sixties had left a stain on society that was going to overwhelm us all (rather like the skin that oozed out of the satanic skeleton upon exposure to water in “The Creeping Flesh”) without the constant vigilance of right-minded folk. His children (all of whose names, like those of both parents, began with the letter “R”) were at tremendous risk due to the hours every day that the older ones spent in school, away from the security of the family nest; every word, every gesture they made while at home were carefully scrutinized for signs of moral rot.

This attitude was a bit difficult to reconcile with the material being screened at the drive-in. The buxom stars of such titles as “Ginger” and “Sabrina in Prison”, while popular with audiences, were rarely more than lightly burdened with dialogue or clothing, and the moral import of “White Cannibal Queen” was totally lost on me.

One Saturday night that December, as we made our way out to the theater in Mr Goggins’ dusty Chevy Caprice, Goggins (Junior) turned on the car radio, perhaps not realizing that the AM radio station that played Gospel music throughout the week devoted two hours every Saturday evening to popular music of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The song that leaped out of the dashboard speaker was “Louie, Louie”.

The ensuing brouhaha was easily on a par with the pie-eating scene from the second reel of “I Drink Your Blood”. Goggins (Senior) flew into a frothing condemnation of the pornographic/satanic/communist nature of the Kingsmen’s quirky hit, while his son — never articulate even at the best of times — grunted and hissed like Professor Saxton’s alien anthropoid in “Horror Express”.

Obviously there was a significance to “Louie, Louie” that had somehow escaped me over the years.  What Mr Goggins knew and I did not was that in 1964 the FBI had launched a full-bore investigation of the song, J Edgar Hoover and company having become concerned that the song was, indeed, some kind of Trojan Horse by means of which free love and drug use — and probably Communist ideology — was being delivered to America’s impressionable young people.

In 1963 the Kingsmen, a garage band from Portland, Oregon, recorded the song under less than optimal conditions, playing and singing into a single microphone hanging from the studio ceiling, the lead singer wearing new braces that prevented him from speaking clearly, and no one able to quite recall which verses went where. The band was allowed only one take. The result was a disaster that became one of the most popular songs ever recorded.

Federal agents talked to a bewildered Richard Berry, the man who had written and recorded the song in the mid-fifties, only to have it come and go without a ripple. They interviewed executives from the record label that released the 1963 remake. FBI laboratories spent 31 months playing the song at varying speeds and backward, searching for the pornography or propaganda that had so horrified dozens of parents.

 There is an apocryphal story that during the recording of “Louie, Louie” the drummer dropped one of his sticks at a critical moment and blurted an expletive that might — had anyone been able to distinguish it from the background noise — have provided some justification for the excitement surrounding the song. It certainly would have kept it off the air for at least a decade or so.

Forty-nine years ago today, on May 17, 1965, the FBI released their report: Although there may or may not have been something pernicious hidden in the song, they certainly couldn’t make it out. They concluded that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”, and therefore posed no threat to the children of America.This did not prevent the governor of Indiana from banning the song anyway, but in the eyes of the law there was nothing more to be done.

Shortly after the “Louie, Louie” debate was so dramatically brought to my attention I gave up my job at the drive-in to take up a somewhat less hectic post stocking shelves in a mom-and-pop hardware store. I listened to the Kingsmen’s one and only hit several times after that, and found it catchy but, indeed, unintelligible.

What, exactly, was all the fuss about? We’ll probably never really know. Sudden erratic distractions are a part of our national identity — sometimes manufactured for a purpose, sometimes not. A lot was going on in the middle of that decade: the number of US troops in Vietnam was ramped up by two-thirds; the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted; Malcom X was assassinated; a Unitarian Universalist minister was beaten to death in Birmingham by white supremacists; the Watts riots devastated Los Angeles; a nuclear device was detonated in a weapons test in Alaska… the list goes on.

And all the while, the collective consciousness of the men and women of America was riveted on the dangers of allowing their sons and daughters to hear:

Three nights and days I sail the sea
Think of girl, constantly
On that ship, I dream she’s there
I smell the rose in her hair.”

— Richard Berry, “Louie, Louie”, 1955