Before there was grunge, there was garage rock. In the early 1960s, a garage rock band from Portland, Oregon changed the sound of rock ‘n’ roll with a misunderstood song called “Louie Louie.”
“Louie Louie” was released in 1963, and by January 1964, the song had reached No. 1. While the song is interesting enough with its almost impossible to understand lyrics and danceable beat, “Louie Louie” has one of the most extensive histories in terms of cover songs. Three versions of the song, by The Fat Boys, Motörhead, and Otis Redding stand out.
What’s it about: “Louie Louie”
The song is about a man on a voyage and looking for his woman in various places around the globe. It details how the narrator misses her and how he has to go on looking.
When it was first released, “Louie Louie” was banned for having questionable content. The problem was, no one knew what the content was. The assumption was that the lyrics were muffled to hide the offensiveness. According to more than one source, (vault-fbi.gov; npr.org) even the FBI got involved. Eventually, the song was deemed harmless.
It is ironic that “Louie Louie” is known for how many cover versions exist of the track. The song itself is a cover song. It was originally recorded in 1955 by Richard Berry.
Further, though the song doesn’t contain explicit lyrics, there is at least one bad word in the recording. Right before the second verse, it sounds as though someone shouts in the background. That is exactly what is happening. The Kingsmen’s drummer dropped an “F-bomb” when he found he had missed a cue. The error adds to the raunchy, party feel of the song.
Another part of the song’s appeal might be the lyrics. When they are finally deciphered, the lyrics prove to be making up its own rules about language. Sometimes the pronoun “me” is used instead of “I” and that adds to the uncouth character of the song. That most people can barely make any of it out, is another part of the mystery.
Cover story: “Louie Louie”
There is something about “Louie Louie” that appeals to various performers. Artists, as varied as the Fat boys to Motörhead, have all put their individual spins on the song. In all, at least 10 popular bands have covered “Louie Louie.”
Most of the covers remain somewhat true to the original, others do put their own stamp on the garage rock classic.
Fat Boys and “Louie Louie”
The Brooklyn-based rap group’s take on the song is the biggest departure from the original because it is rapped, not sung. Instead of making the song about their version of events (based on The Kingsmen’s version), the group makes the song about their discovery of the original. They even cover the part about the FBI investigation. The growling chorus is an interesting touch. The song is so different from the songs in the Fat Boys’ catalog that were played on the radio, that it is almost sad in retrospect to learn that they were capable of more than novelty and self-deprecation.
An unlikely pair: Motörhead and “Louie Louie”
As I was researching versions of “Louie Louie” I thought Motörhead had gotten into my results by mistake. I couldn’t imagine that the band that brought the world “Ace of Spades” would have tried their hand at a danceable piece of garage rock. But they did.
“Louie Louie” as done by Motörhead remains high energy and full of guitars. One of the differences that makes the British hard rock group’s version stand out is singer and bassist the late Lemmy Kilmister’s treatment of the song’s title. His pronunciation sounds like “looee-looeea” or something like that. It is close to the original, but not quite. The song is given a ramped up, heavy metal treatment, with Kilmister’s voice only slightly less gravelly than usual. “Louie Louie” appears on Motörhead’s 1979 album, “Overkill.”
Otis Redding takes on “Louie Louie”
Given Redding’s association with rock ‘n’ roll, that the late soul singer had taken a turn at the classic wasn’t terribly surprising. What was interesting, though, was to find that Redding had completely re-worked the idea of the song. Instead of the track being about a man at sea missing his woman, Redding turned it into a saxophone- and guitar-rich track about a man looking for a woman in a nightclub on a Saturday night. The second verse depicts a man who declares he loves every woman he sees out on the street. Redding vamps in the song. He repeats “Let me sing this song now,” as if to acknowledge that the tune is an unexpected one for him.
“Louie Louie” is a song with a storied life. Each band or performer that covers it adds a bit to the track’s legend. Whether it crosses genres or remains a rock song, “Louie Louie” is a unique example of American rock ‘n’ roll. Its ribald passion and energy tempt artists of all kinds to make it their own.