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.
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