Louie Sent Me: A Listener’s Guide to Moral Decay
Published Friday, May 31, 2013 6:09PM EDT
As we reported on CTV National News, this year marks half a century since The Kingsmen recorded their famous song “Louie Louie.”
And for two of those fifty years, the track was under scrutiny by the FBI for fear that its famously unintelligible lyrics contained a hidden message, calculated to corrupt the youth of the nation.
Guardians of morality did not explain how teenagers might be influenced by words they couldn’t understand. But the song came out in 1963, at the height of the cold war and just a year after the box office triumph of The Manchurian Candidate – a film in which brainwashing turned U.S. soldiers into zombie-like slaves of the commies. So America couldn’t be too careful about the evil that might lurk in opaque rock lyrics.
As it was, when teenagers embraced rock and roll, some in the previous generation blamed an international communist “con-spy-racy” (in the words of paleoconservative evangelist Jack Van Impe) -- insisting that the primal beat would surely lead the young to hedonism and promiscuity, thereby destroying America’s will to defend itself.
Against that backdrop, when a Florida school teacher claimed to have deciphered the lyrics of “Louie Louie” and declared them “filthy,” the FBI launched an investigation.
The irony is that tracing the song’s musical history leads to a story that really does involve the corruption of youth. And to moral crusaders who should have looked more closely at their own generation instead.
But first things first: First, there is the “Louie Louie” we all know, by The Kingsmen.
According to singer Jack Ely, the muffled lyrics were caused, in part, by a record producer who thought it would sound more like a live performance if the microphone was placed on the ceiling of the studio. So Ely found himself several feet below it, screaming up into the air. But he insists he never strayed from the innocent words the composer wrote.
The composer was Richard Berry, who said the lyrics were inspired by the jazz standard “One For My Baby,” a lonely man’s monologue to a bartender. Berry explained that, in his song, “Louie” is the bartender, and a man who has been sailing for three days is telling him how much he misses his girlfriend in Jamaica.
Berry recorded the song himself with his band, The Pharoahs, in 1957. And the words are clear…
But maybe the most notable thing about Richard Berry’s original version is that it wasn’t particularly original. With its calypso style, it was a virtual knock-off of Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon,” released the year before.
That came out in 1956, a benchmark year after more than a decade of calypso music in the U.S. Harry Belafonte had the top-selling album that year. And “Havana Moon” had strong echoes of Nat King Cole’s earlier “Calypso Blues.”
With its reference to Trinidad, the Nat King Cole song gets marks for authenticity. By the fifties, the term was applied to just about anything from the Caribbean but “calypso” was populist and often political music that originated in Trinidad.
So did what is arguably the first calypso song to reach American audiences: “Rum and Coca-Cola,” made famous by the Andrews Sisters in 1945.
It’s easy to imagine the same people who railed against “Louie Louie” believing that the Andrews Sisters – a generation before – were impeccably wholesome. But, in truth, their recording of “Rum and Coca-Cola” has more than enough immorality to go around.
First, there is the cynical dishonesty of turning what was originally an indictment of the American presence in Trinidad into a celebration of it.
Second, there is outright theft. Comedian Morey Amsterdam, better known for his role on the Dick Van Dyke show, claimed to have written the lyrics to the song.
He didn’t. He stole them. The copyright infringement was so flagrant that even a late-forties, segregation-era U.S. court ruled against a famous white entertainer and in favour of an unknown black folk singer from Trinidad.
Of course, when you hear Lord Invader’s original version of “Rum and Coca-Cola,” the plagiarism is obvious. And, more important, so is the meaning of the song…
“Rum and Coca-Cola” is about prostitution. It was written after the Americans established a naval base in Trinidad during the Second World War, where they helped save the world from Hitler by building a golf course. The song pointedly decries the effect on Trinidadian youth of being boozed-up and bedded-for-cash by U.S. sailors.
In Lord Invader’s version:
“When the Yankees first went to Trinidad,
Some of the young girls were more than glad.
They said that the Yankees treat them nice,
And they give them a better price.”
Morey Amsterdam’s artistic contribution was to sugar-coat the exploitation:
“If the Yankee comes to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin' mad
Young girls say they treat 'em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise.”
Apparently, Trinidad was just a dirt pile until 30,000 American sailors made it “like paradise.”
In any case, with that fig leaf covering the open zippers of the U.S. Navy, the Andrews Sisters did not even blush when they sang the unaltered chorus:
“Both mother and daughter,
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar.”
In the sixties, the investigation into The Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” was inconclusive. After two years of work, including laboratory tests, the FBI still couldn’t understand the words. But while the hysteria over “Louie Louie” arose out of a fear that American youth were being corrupted by foreign influences, digging up its musical roots reveals a story of foreign youth being corrupted by American influences.