The unlikely hit that was ordered by J Edgar Hoover

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The Independent Online
THE FBI and its director, J Edgar Hoover, investigated one of America's most famous pop songs for two years in a vain effort to prove its lyrics were obscene. Copies of 'Louie Louie' were sent in a package, marked 'Obscene', to the FBI laboratory in Washington to be played backwards and forwards at different speeds, and run through a computer to see if the words were as dirty as informants claimed.

Agents turned up at concerts by the Kingsmen, who recorded the most famous version of the song in 1963. But the investigation foundered because neither the agents nor the FBI's technical experts could make out the words.

A 120-page dossier, released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows how the FBI examined claims that the dirty lyrics could be heard if the 45rpm record was played at 33 1/3 rpm.

In 1964, a woman in Crown Point, Indiana, told the FBI a friend had given her a list of what were claimed to be the obscene words. When she played the record at the slower speed, 'the lyrics seemed to follow very closely the words on the typewritten sheet'. On such flimsy evidence, the song was banned in Indiana, and the dirty lyrics myth persisted, despite the original's bland words:

Louie Louie . . . Oh yea, away we go,

Yea, yea, yea, yea, yea.

Louie Louie . . . Oh baby, away we go.

A fine little girl - she wait for me

Me catch the ship - across the sea.

I sailed the ship - all alone

In the version recorded by the Kingsmen, however, most of the words are incomprehensible. 'They were an amateur band just out of high school,' says the rock journalist David Marsh, author of Louie Louie, to be published by Hyperion in August.

The Kingsmen produced only a thousand copies of the record, and it took several months to sell the first 600. By the end of the year it was a hit. Marsh says: 'The energy level of that record is astonishing, and if there is ineptitude, there is also a certain grace.'

The record's sales were also boosted by the constant rumours about the lyrics. The FBI dossier, obtained by Eric Predoehl, who puts out a newsletter called the Louie Report, shows that the agents and their informers shared the assumption that rock 'n' roll and pornography have a lot in common. Hoover wrote to one informer (whose name is blanked out in the documents released by the FBI): 'Such material cannot help but divert the minds of young people into unhealthy channels, and negate the wholesome training they have already been afforded by their parents.'

A teacher in Sarasota, Florida, reported on 10 February 1964 that the record was popular with his students, who had given him a copy of the dirty words. He found that 'it sounds like the lyrics are identical with the enclosed obscene lyrics'. The FBI office in Tampa sent the record and the alleged lyrics to the laboratory:

Oh, Louie Louie, oh, no,

Get her away down low.

Oh, Louie Louie, oh, baby,

Get her down low.

A fine little girl waiting for me

She's just a girl across the way.

Well I'll take her and park all alone.

She's never a girl I'd lay at home.

No amount of scientific expertise applied to the original recording could make sense of the words, however, or show that they matched those circulating among Florida students.

The FBI continued to interview systematically any person connected with the song, but no evidence of obscenity could be found. A frustrated correspondent asked Hoover whether this mattered: it was what people thought they were hearing that was important. To the informer, the actual words sung by the Kingsmen 'seemed rather irrelevant' since they were capitalising on its obscenity, and every teenager in the country was 'hearing' the obscene, not the copywritten lyrics.

At the end of 1966, the investigation petered out. The Kingsmen never had another hit, but the group still exist and still play 'Louie Louie'.

Ironically, Marsh says there is an obscenity on the record that the FBI missed. He found it after listening with sensitive equipment at the highest volume. It is a single swear-word uttered by the band's drummer at the beginning of the record . . . when he drops his drumstick.

(Photographs omitted)