How Anti-Smut Activists Made ‘Louie, Louie' Famous
Reason magazine|March 2022
Censors wore out their welcome during the 20th Century’s indecency wars.
By Robert Corn-Revere

IN THE MID-1950S, rock ’n’ roll music was widely condemned as a public nuisance and threat to public safety, and the junk science of the day claimed that teens were “addicted” to the music. Police officials across the country—in Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and other states—blamed juvenile delinquency and general unrest on rock ’n’ roll. Minneapolis in 1959 banned a show hosted by Dick Clark “for the peace and well-being of the city” because the police chief was convinced that it would spark violence. It was not an isolated overreaction. Other cities that banned rock ’n’ roll shows based on public safety concerns included Boston, Massachusetts; Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut; Asbury Park, New Jersey; Santa Cruz, California; and Birmingham, Alabama.

A 1955 Los Angeles Times article described rock ’n’ roll as “a violent, harsh type of music that, parents feel, incites teenagers to do all sorts of crazy things,” and it quoted a psychiatrist who opined that rock ’n’ roll was a “contagious disease.” Others in the psychiatric field concurred. Dr. Francis J. Braceland, an internationally known psychiatrist who testified at the Nuremberg trials and would serve as president of both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Psychiatric Association, called rock ’n’ roll “cannibalistic and tribalistic,” comparing it to a “communicable disease.” The Washington Post in 1956 quoted Dr. Jules Masserman, another former president of the American Psychiatric Association, as saying that rock ’n’ roll was “primitive quasi-music that can be traced back to prehistoric cultures.” The notion that this music was dangerous and could exert some mysterious power over young minds was not out of the mainstream.

Such pronouncements may help explain the bizarre overreaction by authorities to a 1963 song with almost unintelligible lyrics recorded by a Portland, Oregon, garage band called the Kingsmen. The song, “Louie, Louie,” was written in 1956 by rhythm and blues artist Richard Berry, but it came to prominence in the early 1960s after being recorded by several bands, including Paul Revere and the Raiders and, more notably, the Kingsmen. It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in “Louie, Louie” stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation. The controversy made “Louie, Louie,” in the words of rock critic Dave Marsh, the world’s most famous rock ’n’ roll song.

A letter from one panicked mom to then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy captured the general tone:

My daughter brought home a record of ‘LOUIE LOUIE’ and I...proceeded to try and decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter....I would like to see these people, The ‘artists,’ the Record company and the promoters prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

We all know there is obscene materials available for those who seek it, but when they start sneaking in this material in the guise of the latest teen rock & roll hit record these morons have gone too far.

This land of ours is headed for an extreme state or moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace? ? ? ?

She was not alone. Indiana’s Democratic governor, Matthew E. Welsh, claimed that the record was so obscene it made his “ears tingle,” and he announced a statewide ban on both radio play and live performances of the song. (It was not an “official” ban. The governor merely reached out to his contacts at the Indiana Broadcasters Association to make sure that the record was not played in his state.)

Official or not, the controversy triggered a two-and-a-halfyear investigation that involved efforts by six FBI field offices, several U.S. attorneys, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into the supposedly corrupting lyrics of “Louie, Louie.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover corresponded with an anti-pornography activist about the song, and he was kept apprised of the inquiry. Record label personnel were questioned, and even the song’s composer was interviewed (although not, apparently, Jack Ely, the supposedly obscene performer). Some who were interviewed were read their rights, according to the FBI’s notes to the file. Recordings were shipped off to FBI laboratories where the records would be played back at various speeds, with FBI agents straining to pick up a dirty word somewhere in the mix.

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