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QI and Louie Louie
(Or When are the Kingsmen NOT the Kingsmen?)

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

At the beginning of 2014, QI, the popular BBC comedy/panel show, had navigated nearly halfway through the alphabet. That year they started their "L" series, and so far (happily) QI shows no signs of abatement.

But we must point out eins mehr that no educational resource is perfect, not even QI. And as there is no better show on television, CooperToons' occasional and slight - nay, miniscule - criticisms are made to further enlighten, not to belittle. On the other hand, we must admit that some of the - ah - "mistakes" - seem rather strange given the mental power behind the show. And some strange occurrences are strange indeed.

For instance....

On Episode 11 of the "L" series - titled "Lumped Together" - the panelists - David Mitchell, Ronni Ancona, Jimmy Carr, and Alan Davies, demonstrated their buzzers as they always do ("demonstrating your buzzer" is not a euphemism, by the way). On this show the buzzers were excerpts of some popular songs that begin with the letter "L".

Stephen had also warned the panelists that one of their buzzers had been investigated by the FBI. It wasn't clear just what Stephen meant until David pressed the button and the strains of "Louie Louie" came wafting over the air.

Perhaps because of their relative youth, the panelists had considerable trouble coming up with the answer. David didn't even know the name of the song, and it took some prompting from Stephen before Jimmy mentioned the song had been indeed the subject of an FBI investigation.

David Mitchell

David Mitchell

Jimmy, though, said the FBI thought the song was about drugs. But the correct answer - well known to all who navigated adolescence during the 1960's and a topic of which Stephen elaborated - the FBI had investigated the song because there were people who thought the lyrics were obscene.

It's hard for people raised in the Internet Era to understand how difficult it was to find lyrics of popular songs before the early 1990's. Today, of course, a click of the mouse can show us that the original lyrics written by Richard Berry are perfectly innocuous. In fact if you listen to Richard's own recording (released in 1957) there is nothing improper about the words at all. But it was the 1963 version of the Kingsmen - at least one of which was still in high school in Portland, Oregon - that became a hit despite of - or rather because of - their incomprehensible lyrics.

The reasons for the lack of verbal clarity has been given variously as 1) lead singer Jack Ely was wearing braces at the time and 2) the microphone was misplaced and 3) the recording studio was designed for voice-over work rather than recording music. Jack Ely himself said to make the recording simulate a live performance, the band was set up in a circle with the microphone placed high above the band. Jack stood in the center and had to tilt his head back to shout toward the mic. It wasn't just the widespread paranoia of the 1960's era adults that started the rumor that the barely recognizable English were "dirty lyrics", particularly when the song returned to the charts a second time around 1966. The kids did indeed buy the record and play it at slower speeds to find what the words "really" were.

Probably the biggest misconception is that the song was widely suppressed. Although there was some outcry against the lyrics, the actual banning of the song (or enforcing the ban) was rare. The truth is virtually all radio stations continued to play the recording with no interference and some even joked about it. One DJ on a famous station of the Southwest once introduced the song by saying "Now's the time for a little adult entertainment ...". Many parents weren't even aware the song existed.

Jimmy Carr

Jimmy Carr

Stephen was correct, though, when he said the FBI investigated the song. Although the FBI's own website says the investigation lasted from February to May 1964, the actual file - also available online - has memos going on until nearly 1966. The FBI's lab quickly determined the words were unintelligible and no evidence merited any official action. But people kept complaining, some writing to J. Edgar Hoover directly. So the investigation dragged on for almost two years until it finally fizzled out.

To illustrate how a perfectly innocent song about a man wanting to sail to Jamaica became an imagined threat to the Security of the United States and a Corrupter of American Youth, Stephen displayed the original lyrics of one verse.

Ah, on that ship
I dream she there
I smelled the rose
Ah, in her hair

He then pointed out that many people heard the words as something like:

Ah, on that chair
I lay her there
I felt my boner
In her hair

Stephen then had the verse played to let the audience and panel confirm that the lyrics on the recording do indeed sound like the improper version. Sure enough, the song sounded a lot like the spurious lyrics. Everybody laughed.

At this point we should point out that it's only the Kingmen's version that had the muddled words. Other recordings - whether it's Richard Berry's original 45 platter or the renderings by Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Beach Boys, and many, many other artists - are easily understood. So what we heard on QI was clearly (no joke intended) the Kingsmen's version.

Wasn't it?

Well, there is a wee bit of a problem.

Stephen also added that if you play the song while reading to the right lyrics you can say "Oh, yes" and understand what was really written.

But that he didn't show.


Now here's the kicker. A discerning ear will note that the recording played on QI has subtle differences compared to the original 1963 record. For one thing, the words belted out by the QI-Kingsmen sound a bit too much like the spurious lyrics. There is a hint of an "n" at the end of "rose" on QI, but not on a copy of the original 1963 release. Some musical connoisseurs who also do double duty as cognitive scientists, though, may argue that this is simply the power of suggestion and that "rose" is really what is said.

But also note that the percussion is much more noticeable in the original recording than what was played on QI. And if you listen to how the cymbals are struck, they are not quite the same on the two versions. For instance, there is a noticeable cymbal strike on the world "smelled" in the original Kingsmen song but the loud strike occurs just before the word "I" on the QI-song and not on "smelled (felt)".

If this type of nit-picky analysis is too obscure to be convincing, then we can cite two absolutely conclusive and objective proofs that the recordings aren't the same. First listen not just to the words, but the rhythm of the words. In particular note where the "ah" appears just before the words "in her hair".


What you'll hear is that in the original Kingsmen recording, the "ah" occurs on the upbeat. Or in transcription:


But the QI-Kingsmen sing "ah" on the downbeat.


Doing this, of course, makes "rose - ah" sound more like "boner".

(Note: At this point we might quibble a bit with the "rose/boner" interpretation. Although "boner" for - well, Proud John Thomas - was attested at least in the 1950's - it was not common in the United States until decades later. Instead what 1960's kids in the US heard was "I felt my bone - ah - in her hair". Again this interpretation is more natural when the "ah" occurs on the upbeat.)

The last proof of the lack of identity of the original vs. QI Kingsmen is simply the opening verse. Now anyone who tried to determine the lyrics in the 1960's heard the lyrics begin as:

Ah, Louie Lou-ay
Oh, no,
I say, we gotta go.

On the other hand, the original lyrics, very clearly sung on the original Richard Berry release are:

Louie Louie
Me gotta go.

And on QI? Well, the lyrics were "Me gotta go". Listen and then go back back to the original Kingsmen version. The We/Me distinction is quite distinct.

So what, we ask, can explain the discrepancy between the Kingsmen singing in 1963 in Portland Oregaon, and the QI-Kingsmen singing in 2014 on the BBC?

Well, for one thing, we may be making assumptions. Stephen never mentions the Kingsmen. After all, "Louie Louie" supposedly has been recorded by more groups than any other song (although some Beatles' songs also claim that honor). Maybe we're not supposed to think we're hearing the Kingsmen.

This explanation, though, falls apart on further consideration. Given the incomprehensibility of the lyrics, we are clearly supposed to believe we are hearing the original Kingsmen.

But if the recording isn't actually the version first released, where did the QI-Louie Louie come from?

An obvious possibility is QI was playing an alternate take of the Kingsman's famous session. But that cannot be correct. If you read the definitive history of the song - a quite good book by writer David Marsh - you'll learn there was only one take of the recording.

Another possibility is that it was a recording of the Kingsmen singing on a later TV show or at a concert. So a minor variation in the rhythm would be easily explained. That, though, is not likely either. The television broadcasts of the original Kingsmen group (with Lynn Easton taking over as lead singer) often had the group lip-syncing over the original recording. You can tell this because on these broadcasts you can hear one of the group shouting some word (some people think it is that word) in the background about 55 seconds into the song.

Later when Lynn quit lip-syncing - as on the famous 1965 "Shindig" broadcast (which the author of CooperToons remembers watching) - you could understand the words quite clearly. So the "Shindig" recording is not what you heard on Qi. And recordings from two other live performances that are still extant - one in 1983 and another in 2013 - were also not what we heard on QI.

Which makes us wonder.

Could someone have "doctored" the song up using modern technology? That is, by digitalizing the original and every so carefully shifting the syllables around so the lyrics sound more like what people thought the lyrics were?

There is yet another - and lower tech - possibility. This is that somehow, somewhere, someone recorded some Kingsmen imitators who were actually singing words deliberately slurred for ambiguity. Certainly not impossible nor without precedence. After all, in the 1960's your typical adolescent local rock band had to get the lyrics from the recording. So they would inevitably sing some version of the words appropriately slurred. One such performance happened during a junior high school pep rally around 1965 in one of the most conservative of the United States. Naturally all the kids in the audience heard what they believed were the blue words and responded with approbation. But the teachers with the tin-ears of the 1960's adults just heard typical incomprehensible rock and roll and sat and smiled to show the kids they were cool.

So all this discussion now leads to an astounding conclusion. That is ...

No, no. That couldn't be possible.

Could it?



Qi, "Episode 11: Lumped Together", BBC, December 19, 2014.

Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock 'N' Roll Song, Dave Marsh, Hyperion, 1993.

"Interview with Jack Ely", The Jack Handelman Show, March 12, 2006, Jack's account of the recording session. He says he was 20 at the time of the recording while the youngest member of the band was 15.

"Louie Louie: The Song", The FBI's page about the song and has a pdf of the report. One memo mentions that someone - the name was redacted - stated the song was a calypso song. But the memo adds that if you read along the words sound like the obscene lyrics "enclosed". So the FBI launched their investigation.

The file is quite large and the memos highly repetitious. But there is the original letter written by an irate parent of a student at Sarasota High School in Florida to the then Attorney General Robert Kenney which kicked the investigation off. Of course the parent's name is deleted. Various memos also have the supposed lyrics which differ from memo to memo.

Ultimately the FBI traced the spurious lyrics to a rumored (as yet unknown) college student who began circulating the verses. The FBI obtained the original lyrics and a taped recording from the publishers and said there was nothing objectionable to them. Finally after the FBI laboratory concluded the words "unintelligible", the investigation was dropped.

However, letters from Parents Out to Save the World didn't end with the investigation. In June 1965, a lady who was a member of the Generalized Federation of Women's Clubs sent a letter to J. Edgar Hoover complaining about the lyrics of "Louie Louie". Edgar responding with a typical the-FBI-is-taking-all-appropriate-measures letter and sent her copies of "Poison for Our Youth" and "Combating the Merchants of Filth"

Later she said wrote back and thanked Edgar for the two reports. She added that she had played the record between 45 and 33 1/3 and and claimed she could hear the "obscene lyrics". You wonder if doing so corrupted her moral judgement.

Ironically Edgar's correspondent mentioned she realized there were "dual lyrics". In her opinion it didn't matter which lyrics the Kingsmen actually sung as they were capitalizing on the infamy of the song. So although she acknowledged that the Kingsmen's version could very well be an innocent calypso song, she still seemed to feel that the song was still somehow obscene in spirit and should be banned.

So, kids, if sometimes it seems your parents are acting stupid, it might be because they are acting stupid.

American Slang: The Abridged Dictionary of American Slang, Robert Chapman with Barbara Ann Kipfer, Collins-Harper, 1998. States that boner with that meaning is from at least the 1950's.

Shindig, June 23, 1965. This episode not only had the Kingsmen's rendering of "Louie Louie" that you could understand, but also featured performances by Melinda Marx (Groucho's daughter), the Everly Brothers, Willy Nelson, The Righteous Brothers, the Byrds, Roger McGinn, Billy Preston, and David Crosby.