FBI Spent Years 'Researching' The Lyrics To 'Louie, Louie' Before Realizing The Copyright Office Must Have Them

from the really,-now? dept

Last week, as you may or may not have heard, a guy named Jack Ely passed away at the age of 71. The name may not be that familiar, but the voice almost certainly is. Jack Ely was — fairly briefly — the lead singer of the Kingsmen, and happened to do a cover song in a single take under poor conditions, that created one of the most memorable songs in rock and roll history, also known as Louie Louie:

You know the song. You also know the lyrics are completely indecipherable. However, with Ely’s death, there’s been renewed attention to the fact that the FBI spent nearly two years investigating the damn song. It is just as ridiculous as it sounds, but the FBI has released the file on its investigation and it’s a rather hilarious read. It turns out it wasn’t just the FBI, but involved the FCC and the Post Office:
Apparently, the government was being inundated with claims from people (some of which you can see in the file) insisting that they had heard the indecipherable lyrics were actually “obscene.” If you want to see the supposedly “obscene” interpretation of the lyrics, there’s one set on page 14 [pdf] of the document, though I warn you, even the falsely heard “obscene” lyrics are not particularly obscene by today’s standards (and I’m at a loss as to how they’re that obscene by the standards of 1963, frankly). On page 22, there’s another, mostly different set of falsely heard “obscene” lyrics that at least includes the word “fuck.” On page 35, yet another version with both “fuck” and “bitch.”

There are lots of documents about the FBI playing the record, repeatedly, at different speeds, and all coming to the conclusion that you and I and everyone else already knows: the lyrics are basically indecipherable.

And again:
There are a few more times this determination was made, in part because after the FBI had already gone through the whole investigation, J. Edgar Hoover reopened it after a concerned parent wrote him a letter — complaining that whether or not the real lyrics are obscene, it doesn’t matter because teens can hear the obscene lyrics and “every teenager in the country ‘heard’ the obscene not the copywritten lyric.” There are also letters to Attorney General Robert Kennedy that include lines like “these morons have gone too far,” and “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace? ? ? ?” Really.
But, in the end, as everyone knows, the song is simply indecipherable, rather than obscene.

And that’s because the band was in a tiny studio with just three mics, played a single take of the song and Ely had to scream at a microphone on the ceiling trying to have his voice heard above the instruments (a task he basically failed at doing). But, the idea that there was a mystery to the lyrics is kind of ridiculous for a few reasons, the first one being that the song is a cover song, and the FBI could have easily listened to a few of the earlier versions of the song, such as the original by Richard Berry, or another popular one by Rockin Robin Roberts and The Fabulous Wailers (the one that inspired the Kingsmen to do the cover). You can hear both those and another one right here. Their lyrics are a lot more intelligible in all of those versions, and you can pretty quickly tell that the lyrics to the Kingsmen version is supposed to be the Rockin Robin Roberts version.

Also, as Marc Randazza notes, it took nearly two years for someone in the FBI to think, hey, isn’t the song registered at the Copyright Office down the street? Maybe we should send someone over there to find out what it says? This was after the FBI had reached out to the record label (who gave them the accurate lyrics) along with the original author of the song, Richard Berry, who told them the lyrics. Oddly, apparently, the FBI never bothered to ask Ely himself what he sang, though I’m sure he would have said the same damn lyrics, which are below:


Still, what a bizarre story of moral panics, FBI and governmental overreach, the First Amendment… and a bit of copyright thrown in just for fun.

Oh, and as a general postscript, for all the hand wringing about possible obscenities in the song… there actually is one. Just not in the lyrics. At 54 seconds into the song, the drummer Lynn Easton actually fumbled his drumsticks banging them together and yells out “fuck.” The FBI never caught on to that, but you can actually hear it if you listen…

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Comments on “FBI Spent Years 'Researching' The Lyrics To 'Louie, Louie' Before Realizing The Copyright Office Must Have Them”

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48 Comments
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Good. Now square up the inane intrusiveness, banal malevolence and regulatory capture omnipresent in our beloved federal government with your support for the governments jurisdiction over stronger net neutrality rules.

Do you support the First Amendment, or do you see that as “intrusive government interference”?

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It is only intrusive to those types of people when they do not like what is being said, otherwise none of the overly offensive crap people say on a daily basis is of no concern to them.

I agree, but I’d say it further in that it is only intrusive to those types of people when they cannot control the person who says something they do not like being said.

People say things I don’t like all the time. I don’t care. It might get me upset, it might bother me, but I am not the type of person that likes to control the thoughts and actions of others, and really it isn’t the end of the world. Sticks and stones, and all that. There are many things I can control, but someone’s ideas and thoughts, I cannot control and don’t want to either. The best I can do is explain my position, hope for the best, and then walk away. And even then, it usually isn’t worth my time or effort to even say anything.

But there is a large section of the community that isn’t happy when they aren’t in control of other’s thoughts and ideas (or even actions.) To them, this is entirely intrusive and they do everything to “make the person listen,” “make the person change their mind,” or even “make the person mute if they can’t say the things I want to hear.”

For those, I can only :-(.

Shane says:

Re: Re: Re:

Mike A said

“Good. Now square up the inane intrusiveness, banal malevolence and regulatory capture omnipresent in our beloved federal government with your support for the governments jurisdiction over stronger net neutrality rules.

then Mike Masnick said:

“Do you support the First Amendment, or do you see that as “intrusive government interference”?”

I suspect you didn’t get the point. He is talking about the politicians actions, you are talking about the rhetoric the politicians use to sell their actions to the public.
Freedom of speech is very important. I suspect that Mike A, you and I all agree on this. The question that Mike A. seems to be asking is this: Can we trust the same govt that has been colluding with big business against the community at large to, at the same time, keep big business from suppressing free speech? Is that not what many grass root supporters of Net Neutrality are concerned about?
But the way Net Neutrality will be written and enforced will be by the govt and their big business partners (not you or I). If Net Neutrality (as enforced by govt/big business – not you or I) is so dangerous to big business, then why are so many corporations backing it?
Corporate lobbyists (not you or I) will be writing the legislation and influencing how it is enforced to protect their interests. Big businesses hire lobbyists at top dollar because they understand how the system works and know the new laws can be used against them so they are getting heavily involved in “supporting it” in order to subvert it toward their own benefit. This is Realpolitik. A hundred or so years ago we called this phenomena Mercantilism. But now that term is no longer used. In fact the red squiggles show up as if it is an invented term. As a result Mercantilism is lumped in under the free market label, causing a lot of wasted conflict by people who are actually opposed to the same thing but call it different names.
Here are some examples of Mercantilism in modern times. Tax laws are routinely written for billionaires by billionaires. Established businesses like Monsanto have their “former” employees and major stockholders sitting in high level positions in the FDA (which is supposed to regulate businesses like Monsanto). NAFTA was written by large international businesses and excluded the interest of small businesses. Uncounted amounts of money has been spent (and has continued to be spent to bail out the banks while lower class people (who the govt pays lip service to protecting) get kicked out of their homes.
Concerns over any group, corporate or government, interfering with people’s free speech is a valid concern. But there are those who do not see Net Neutrality (as implemented with today’s form of government) as being trusted with that role of preventing it.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

I always thought the big stink over Louie Louie was hilarious. I played in bands as a kid in the 60’s and when everybody would play this song we would try to come up with the dirtiest lyrics we could. Maybe the FBI should have investigated us instead of the Kingsmen. We were almost sure we heard the line “Stuck my finger in the hole of love” and another line included “across the bed”. The real lyrics were eventually released back then so we sang them when our audience was not appropriate for the dirty versions and kept the nastiest lyrics for frat parties.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: lyrics if today.....

As freaked out as they are about terrorism you would think they would be interested in them since some of them endorse killing cops and other violence. That is, if you are some famous rapper and not some 16 year old kid posting them to his Facebook page. Then you get hit with a felony that follows you all your life just for being a stupid kid.

ral says:

In 1963, a great deal of early morning discussion at a school busstop in Farmington, Michigan, was devoted to the topic of whether or not the word ‘fuck’ was in the lyrics of Louie, Louie.
The older boys were certain that it was and had to say it a lot while arguing their point – which no one was disputing. It was a hot topic that could be rehashed endlessly.
There wasn’t much else to do at the bus stop.

Ron says:

FBI unchanged

The important things to remember about the FBI are, one, that they have always been a national political police as much or more than they have been a national criminal police force, and two, that as ridiculous as this story seems, they are still doing things like that. Only, just as investigating rock-n-roll made sense in the context of the 50s and 60s, the insane stuff they are doing today only look normal in the context of current assumptions. They are murderers and thugs, and always have been.

Charles Fernandez says:

Where America Was in '59

The radio station mentioned in the released FBI document, WKXY, was my father’s radio station. The station actually “cleared” the song for air play by requesting the lyrics from the publisher. The Sarasota parents that complained to the station called the FBI when my father refused to bow to outside influences regarding the programming of his radio station. Then the FBI investigated the radio station. This report published here was release more than a few years ago. The fact of the matter is, the song was actually recorded in a garage, not professionally produced, using sub-par recording microphones and the result was a lyrically untintelligible rock n’ roll classic. It’s where America and we were in ’59.

flarn2006 says:

Why does the FBI care?

Even if the lyrics are obscene, how is that a crime? Song lyrics are protected speech. While there is a definition of “obscenity” that is held to fall outside of the protections of the First Amendment, things meeting that definition are not automatically illegal. It simply means that a law banning such materials is not necessarily uncontitutional.

Velouria says:

not surprising

I could see this happening today. So much time is wasted on dumb frivolous stuff like this, and the whole “won’t anyone THINK of the CHILDREN!” mentality is alive and well. Did you ever read those FCC complaints about Saturday Night Live? Old biddies complaining about Dick in a Box being offensive, when it was merely unfunny.

Anonymous Coward says:

people hearing lurid lyrics in that wash of sound reminds me a little of the old story of the lady who complained that the man next door parades around in the buff.  so the cops dutifully sent an officer to check it out.

‘where are you able to see this man?’

‘kitchen window.’

so the cop jingled into the kitchen, but all he could see was the wall of the building next door.

‘all i see is bricks.’

‘well, you have to stand in this chair here and lean way out over the sink with your cheek next to the screen. squint just right and you can see him.’

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