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Long Live Louie Louie

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"


Few songs have had as much impact on rock music as Louie Louie, the calypso-beat mid-Fifties song by Richard Berry that mutated into the raucous 1963 version by The Kingsmen, and then became a popular part of pop culture.  It’s a Jekyll and Hyde of a song, performed by as varied an array of singers and groups as imaginable. One minute it’s loud, brash and in your face, the next soft and mellow, all sugary and wispy. Whichever rendition turns you on, that’s fine by me. Its variety is its strength.

When The KIngsmen’s opus first hit the scene in spring 1963 it caused quite a stir, in more ways than one. The lyrics were difficult to make out but the incessant beat drove the record on, a constant repetitive riff imposing itself on the listener.  The record so incensed some people that even the FBI took on investigating allegedly lewd lyrics. Critics swore blind that the band was using vile and disgusting words. Rather than harm the song, it added to its notoriety. After all, if there were any hidden obscenities mixed in among the muddled vocals then they were there to be found.  

But, of course, nothing came of it, despite two years spent trying to decipher the words. No one seemed able to prove anything other than an indistinct blur of language that was open to any interpretation that took ones fancy.

My own view at the time was that Louie Louie was simply a raw, animalistic chant combined with a powerful beat. It had everything going for it. It served you well at parties, getting everyone singing and dancing along. It irritated parents and so made it even more of a top choice among teenagers searching for something different that they could call their own. Its energy and verve was hypnotic and along with the majority of my friends I was happy to fall under its spell.

 I recall hearing The Kinks’ version later and thinking how good the band sounded. They captured perfectly the nitty-gritty template laid down by The Kingsmen. It proved a worthy addition to the canon.

Another rendition that makes it to my list of Louie Louie greats is by The Beach Boys. I was a big fan of the band, so I took to their 1964 version right from the start. It was one of the best things on the album from which it originated. Mike Love and Carl Wilson shared the vocals and a great job they did too.

In 1966, a young Reg Presley added Louie Louie to The Troggs’ output, giving the song a fresh twist thanks to his vibrant vocal style. Presley, who sadly died earlier this year aged 71, had made his mark with Wild Thing, which along with Louie Louie is often cited as being a launch pad for aspiring garage bands.

Then in 1968 a laid-back melodic Louie Louie by Honey Ltd came to my attention. I was bowled over by the girls’ harmonies. They sounded superb. I wasn’t aware at first that the four girls were from Detroit, home of Motown. I thought they were as musical magnificent as any of the Motown female outfits and I was surprised that they weren’t just as big and successful. Their Louie Louie was a million miles away from the heavier versions but it was the soft soulful sound and mellow feeling that was a winning combination. Vive la difference!

Undoubtedly, one of the more unusual manifestations of Louie Louie was by the folksy group The Sandpipers. It was sung in Spanish! It had a certain charm about it and at the time I couldn’t help wondering rather cheekily whether they’d added some naughty words to the mix! Of course they hadn’t. The version was as innocent as could be. Nevertheless it did give yet another fillip to the classic.

If anyone in the Sixties was capable of stretching the song to new limits and stamping his authority on it, then look no further than Otis Redding. He had the voice that held your attention from the off and always imbued his work with a heartfelt sincerity. No more so then on Louie Louie. He embraces the song, registers every bit emotion, and in so doing makes it his own personal search for a lost love. The song comes alive. Long live Louie Louie, 50 years young.

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.


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