May 17

This Day in History

Music

May 17, 1965:

The FBI Laboratory weighs in on the "dirty" lyrics of "Louie Louie"

Based on outcry from parents who bought into what may have started as an idle rumor, the FBI launched a formal investigation in 1964 into the supposedly pornographic lyrics of the song "Louie, Louie." That investigation finally neared its conclusion on this day in 1965, when the FBI Laboratory declared the lyrics of "Louie Louie" to be officially unintelligible.

No one will ever know who started the rumor that "Louie Louie" was dirty. As written by Richard Berry in 1955, the lyrics revolve around a sailor from the Caribbean lamenting to a bartender named Louie about missing his far-away love. As recorded in crummy conditions and in a single take by the Kingsmen in 1963, lyrics like "A fine little girl, she wait for me..." came out sounding like "A phlg mlmrl hlurl, duh vvvr me" Perhaps it was some clever middle-schooler who started the rumor by trying to convince a classmate that those lyrics contained some words that are as unprintable today as they were back in 1963. Whatever the case, the story spread like wildfire, until the United States Department of Justice began receiving letters like the one addressed to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and dated January 30, 1964. "Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold...in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?" that letter began, before going on to make the specific assertion that the lyrics of "Louie Louie" were "so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter."

Over the course of the next two years, the FBI gathered many versions of the putative lyrics to Louie Louie. They interviewed the man who wrote the song and officials of the record label that released the Kingsmen's smash-hit single. They turned the record over to the audio experts in the FBI laboratory, who played and re-played "Louie Louie" at 78 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 1/3 rpm and even slower speeds in an effort to determine whether it was pornographic and, therefore, whether its sale was a violation of the federal Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material law. "Unintelligible at any speed" was the conclusion the FBI Laboratory relayed to the investigators in charge on this day in 1965, not quite exonerating "Louie Louie," but also not damning the tune that would go on to become one of the most-covered songs in rock-and-roll history.

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