My sneaky crusade to play “Louie Louie”, and why it failed

Jack Ely died last week. Jack who? The guy who sang “Louie Louie” for the Kingsmen, back in 1963. His rendition was so garbled the CIA investigated the song for seditious content. Which was a bit of a waste because actually, there’s nothing to the lyrics of ‘Louie Louie’. I mean – nothing. They’re moronic. So’s the music, which is a three-chord ostinato riff.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.
The panel of one of my analog synths. Hard to play ‘Louie Louie’ on as it’s monophonic.

It’s a few years now since I went on a crusade to sneakily play it on famous public instruments – you know, the glockenspiel in the clock tower at Brugges, (No!), the 200-year old piano in the commander’s house at Port Arthur, Tasmania (No!), and so on (No! No! No!).

And yet – and yet – Berry’s little ditty’s gone down as one of the enduring classics of the rock era. It’s been covered by just about everybody – Motorhead, Black Flag, The Troggs, Led Zepp, and somewhere in my dusty CD collection I’ve even got the funk version Stanley Clarke and George Duke released in 1986.

The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ is the exact same I-IV-iv chord progression. So is Frank Zappa’s ‘Plastic People’, but with one extra note. And so is Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Socks Spirit’. Played backwards, it turns into Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ or the opening riff to ‘Joy To The World’ (same chords in reverse order).

How come? Well, the clue’s in the fact that a 35,000 year old bone flute, dug up a little while ago in Europe, is quite capable of playing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. It didn’t have to be, but the cave-dwelling types who made it put the stop-holes in exactly the right places to play music built around today’s twelve-tone scale. And the theory is that this isn’t coincidence. Humans, arguably, are hard-wired to like music built around those pitches.

Richard Berry’s three-chord anthem, in short, hit the spot. The lyrics – which, truth be told, are a vapid story of some guy named Louie trying to get back to Jamaica to reunite with his girl – didn’t matter a jot.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “My sneaky crusade to play “Louie Louie”, and why it failed

  1. I saw the Kingsman play at the Wonder Bar in Casper Wyoming, in about 1986 or so. I was in college at the time, and a girl I was then dating and I went down there just for something to do, not knowing that they were there. It turned out a local high school was having its 20th reunion and had induced the Kingsman to play.

    I’m sad to say that it was a deflating experience, as at least in 1986, they weren’t very good. But I have heard Louie Louie played by the band that made it famous.

    1. Very cool and awesome experience! It’s often the way that a classic band from way back turns up and aren’t as sharp as they were in their prime. I’ve had a few experiences of that. But it doesn’t take away the fact of the experience of seeing them.

      1. In an odd way, it’s stood as a reminder for me that our perception of eras is remarkably fluid. When I saw the Kingsman in 86, they seemed to have come from an impossibly ancient era to me, even though one of my cousins was in the Class of 66 and was there that night. If Louie Louie was played on the radio, it was played as an “oldie”.

        Now, however, local radio will play music 20 years old or older as if it’s contemporary. I think it was the tiny sound of recording and the Pre Hendrix, Pre Clapton, Pre Janice Joplin nature of it that made it seem so old.

        Likewise, World War Two and the Korean War, while a long while back, seem part of our own era. World War One seems even now to be on the fringe of our own era, and when we look at photographs of it, it doesn’t seem to come from a clearly distant epoch. But there are more years that have passed now between the start of World War One, than had passed between the Civil War, Little Big Horn, or the Spanish American War, at the time I was born, and yet they’ve always seemed very long ago.

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