Over 40 years after Portland, Oregon’s garage rock heroes The Kingsmen turned Richard Berry’s jaunty little calypso tune about a Jamaican sailor pining away for his girl in a bar into a celestially perfect mess of rock ‘n’ roll noise and attitude, the song apparently still has the power to fog the administrative mind and chill the authoritarian soul.
Saturday’s Grand Floral Parade through St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan, could well be without the musical ministrations of McCord Middle School’s marching band unless a parental rebellion can overturn a last-minute dictate by schools Superintendent Paula Dawning that the band not play “Louie Louie” at the event.
“It’s very stressful for us to try to come up with new songs for the band,” the Herald-Palladium reports that eighth-grader Laurice Martin told the school board Tuesday night. “We’re trying to learn the songs from last year, but some of us weren’t in the band last year. Now we only have two choices, learn a new song or don’t participate in the Blossomtime Parade. And we all want to participate.”
And it’s not like the band would be singing the song anyway.
The Superintendent said she did not make the decision to hurt those in the band. “It was not that I knew at the beginning and said nothing,” she said. “I found out Thursday. I normally count on the staff to make reliable decisions. I found out because a parent called, concerned about the song being played. I’m just trying to set some standards…”
Dawning also indicated that parents should sign a petition and submit it to her, and if the majority feel the song should live on through their children, she will reconsider her decision.
What is most hilarious about the whole flapdoodle is that the FBI and the FCC determined after an intensive 30-month investigation in the mid-’60s that the lyrics were not only not obscene, but also were also, resoundingly, “unintelligible at any speed.”
Here are the original Berry lyrics, written in 1956:
“Louie Louie, oh baby, me gotta go.
Louie Louie, oh baby, me gotta go.
A fine little girl, she waits for me.
Me catch the ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone.
I never think I’ll make it home.
Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Three nights and days we sailed the sea.
Me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there.
I smell the rose in her hair.
Louie Louie, me gotta go.
Me see Jamaican moon above.
It won’t be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.
Louie Louie, oh baby, I said we gotta go”
Of course there is no guarantee that this is exactly what was sung by Kingsmen singer Jack Ely in the epochal 1963 recording, a recording the band considered a failure because of the messy sound, so messy they greatly resented the $50 it cost to record.
But it’s not like the McCord Middle School marching band was going to SING the song anyway.
I hope Ms. Dawning reconsiders and lets the kids do their thing, but it’s also somehow reassuring that some things never change, even after 40 years and the blessing of the U.S. government.
The Smoking Gun has some amusing bits from the FBI investigation here, the Louie Louie Pages has more than you will ever need to know about the history of the song and the key personalities involved, and I talk about “Louie Louie” in conjunction with its revival via Animal House here.