Friday, 29 April 2011

1: The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie” (no.26, 1964)

Everything one might demand of an essential pop record: pounding rhythms, nonsense lyrics that might easily be appropriated for use of chanting on drunken nights out, a knotty guitar solo, the vaguest insinuation of misbehaviour. The recording was banned upon its first release by the then Governor of Indiana, for fear there was a call to sexual impropriety buried somewhere in the words; it may, too, be one of the few tracks on which the FBI opened a file, although - after a 31 month investigation - its final report concluded only that the single was “unintelligible at any speed” - the best damn review the record ever got.

Time and time again, “Louie Louie” restates its claim to a place in musical history, is rediscovered as a touchstone by artistes attempting to start anew. A relic from that period when (white) rock and roll was just starting to take over from (black) rhythm and blues - originally recorded by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs seven years earlier - it was there on standby as punk broke (part of the setlist at the Sex Pistols’ epochal Manchester Free Trade Hall gig), again as rap emerged (care of the Fat Boys), and then again at the dawn of the age of dance in the form of a Three Amigos remix, though we don’t talk so much about that.

The nonsense lyrics, of course, lend themselves very easily to the cause of those attempting to create a new musical language, one thus far known only to the singer, yet quickly disseminated to the listener: whatever else “Louie” is, it’s sure catchy. As for the Kingsmen themselves, they were a touring club act (apparently fronted, as this clip suggests, by the Radio One DJ Mike Smith) - another conduit, in other words, through which this most timeless of songs would pass. Yet it’s their version that gives “Louie Louie” the chaos and energy that has made it a party anthem for the ages: listen out for the stumble singer Jack Ely makes just after the guitar break (at the 2:02 mark in the above video), or the more pervasive sense matters were being hurried along, made up on the hoof, before the next set of jobbing troubadours came into the studio.

After “Louie”, The Kingsmen as we know them from this legendary recording were to squabble and disband; they were to reassemble in different permutations over the years, trying to recapture musical lightning in a bottle, and still exist as a touring outfit today, albeit as a thin shadow of their former selves: all the Kingsmen couldn’t put pop majesty like this back together again. If the band was to have no further hits in the UK, we can’t say we weren’t warned. We gotta go, they sang, in practically the only comprehensible part of the lyric; then, like the coolest fuckers at pop’s eternal party, they left.

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