Friday, April 8, 2011

April 8: The Kingsmen, "Louie, Louie"

Artist: The Kingsmen
Song: "Louie, Louie"
Album: Louie, Louie (single)
Year: 1963

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Often times throughout the long course of music history, the reason why a song was so significant can be lost due to a large number of reasons.  Perhaps the sound of a song does not seem as "edgy" due to changes in music trends; or maybe it was due to the societal realities of a certain time that pushed the song to its fame, but there are situations where one must step back and re-evaluate the impact of a given recording.  Yet there is one song and one group that had a long-reaching impact, and yet when one looks at their most memorable musical achievement, it is almost baffling to think that the song in question holds such an iconic spot.  Though they are not often given credit for their influence on the punk and "DIY" movements, there is no question that The Kingsmen were one of the "fathers" of these styles of music.  While the band only lasted for a few years, going through a large number of changes in lineup, they were able to release a pair of hit singles, with their first remaining one of the most well known songs in all of music history.  Yet within this legendary single, there lives a moment in music history that goes against nearly everything that one assumes "must" be present for a song to find success.  However, from the unique tone to the unmatched level of energy to the unforgettable riff, there is simply no other song in history that can measure up to The Kingsmen's iconic 1963 single, "Louie, Louie."

Though there are many riffs throughout the history of music that cannot be mistaken, few have kept such a status across generations as one hears in the opening notes of "Louie, Louie."  The riff, played by keyboardist Don Gallucci and guitarists Mike Mitchell and Jack Ely, is as simple as they get, and yet within it there is some intangible element that helps it seem like something far more complex.  Perhaps it is the spirit that can be felt through the playing, as there is no question that The Kingsmen are playing something far more defiant that the "standard" rock style of 1963.  The way that this sound combines with the deep bounce of bassist Bob Nordby is where "Louie, Louie" finds its unique dance rhythm, and makes it a bit understandable why the song was embraced as widely as it was upon first release.  Yet it is drummer Lynn Easton that becomes impossible to ignore, and the rough, echoing sound of his playing give the song a tone like nothing else in history.  It is this rough, unpolished feel that the entire band presents which makes "Louie, Louie" so special, and this sound would develop into the "DIY" movement that rose to prominence in the early 1980's.  The fact that the mix on the song is so strange is due to the fact that there were only three microphones used for the recording, with the majority of the sound being picked up by a microphone hanging from the ceiling of the studio.  The fact that this odd sonic balance manages to somehow become endearing is the "magic" behind the appeal of "Louie, Louie," and also the reason no other band has been able to match the sound of The Kingsmen's recording.

However, one cannot overlook the fact that the tone and swagger that Jack Ely brings to the vocals are surely what pushed the song to the top of the charts, as the attitude he conveys is "exactly" what teenagers still look for in their music.  Bringing a growl and a shout, the volume of his voice seems to waver at times, and this was again due to the microphone situation during the recording.  As legend has it, Ely had to stand on his tip-toes and "push" himself up toward the microphone on the ceiling to record his vocals, and one can hear this "movement" at various times throughout the song.  Yet it is also his singing that brought a great deal of controversy to "Louie, Louie" shortly after it was released, and there was a time when the band was being investigated by the FBI for "indecent" performance.  However, the lyrics are as tame as any other recording of "Louie, Louie," aside from what remains the most often overlooked "f-bomb" in music history.  This occurs about a minute into the song, when you can hear Lynn Easton accidentally knock his drum sticks together, and he swears in frustration.  Again due to the nature of the microphones in the studio, his voice is quite clear (if you listen for it), and you can even sense a giggle in Ely's voice has he begins the next verse.  Even today, most radio stations play the song without an edit, as most are unaware of this rather clear vocal addition.

Strangely enough, the "f bomb" is not the only "screw up" that can be found on "Louie, Louie," and the fact that the song was still released with a number of "problems" is in many ways the true essence of the punk rock ethos.  As the band approaches the third verse, it becomes clear that they are not on the same page, as Ely seems to enter the verse section too early, and quickly cuts off his singing.  This is "covered" by Easton playing the "fill" two times in a row, before the band slides back into the song.  The fact that the group kept this blatant error on the final recording makes the song all the more endearing, as it is clear that they were more concerned about the "feel" of the song than about playing it perfectly.  Then again, the band spent less than an hour recording the song, paying just under forty dollars for the studio time.  Furthermore, the released version of "Louie, Louie" was recorded in only one take, and the slightly sloppy feel of the song is on many levels "what" rock and roll is all about.  Yet The Kingsmen were not the first or last artists to record "Louie, Louie," and yet it is their version that remains definitive nearly half a century later.  In fact, many of the "errors" that appear on their recording have become "part" of the song, with many later artists purposefully copying these odd instances.  This is the final piece of evidence that proves just how significant and influential a song one can experience within The Kingsmen's recording, and while many assume that hit singles must exhibit perfection, it is the 1963 recording of "Louie, Louie" that proves that attitude and musical honestly can be far more appealing, and since that time, there has never been a recording of equal impact.

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