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Perennial Rock 'N' Roll Hit : 'louie, Louie' Keeps Kingsmen Going

September 26, 1986|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

OCEANSIDE — Mike Mitchell has built his entire career in music around a single song.

The song is "Louie, Louie," a primitive package of garbled vocals, sloppy guitar riffs, and a relentless dance beat that has been called the greatest rock 'n' roll party record of all time.

Mitchell and his band, the Kingsmen, first took it to No. 1 on the national sales charts in November, 1963.

Since then, the song has simply refused to die--and so have the Kingsmen.

Throughout the 1960s and early '70s, "Louie, Louie" kept reappearing in the national Top 40. The Kingsmen kept reappearing in arenas, auditoriums, and nightclubs.

In 1978, John Belushi sang his own version of the song in the movie "Animal House." The Kingsmen, after a five-year layoff and with Mitchell as their only original member, went back to singing their hit version on the concert trail.

Six months ago, California Cooler hired the Kingsmen to record a new version of "Louie, Louie" for a series of nationally televised wine cooler commercials.

And once again, public response was so great that, under the beverage maker's sponsorship, the Kingsmen promptly hit the road one more time for a series of concert tours.

This Sunday the Kingsmen will introduce a whole new generation of rock fans to "Louie, Louie"--as well as their other mid-1960s hits such as "Money," "Little Latin Lupe Lu," and "Jolly Green Giant"--on the sands of Oceanside Harbor Beach, capping the five-day Stubbies Pro International Surfing Tournament.

The concert starts at 2 p.m., but from 8 a.m. until show time, progressive rock station XTRA-FM (91X) will broadcast, more than 200 versions of "Louie, Louie" that have been recorded, over the years, by everything from a marching band to hard-core punk rockers Black Flag.

On top of that, the week before the event, the station is asking listeners to record their own versions of the song. The winning band, chosen by listener call-ins, will get to open the show for the Kingsmen.

Lead guitarist Mitchell, now 42, said he doesn't mind one bit that his band's entire reputation is based on a single three-minute record that's almost 23 years old.

"Actually, I'm as amazed as anyone that the song has continued to be so popular," said Mitchell, who between gigs is hard at work in a Portland, Ore., recording studio on the Kingsmen's first new album since 1968.

"It's nothing more than a good party song: simple, basic garage rock 'n' roll that somehow appeals to people and makes them want to dance.

"We've never pretended to be anything other than a party band. That's all we ever were, and that's all we are today. And the fact that the song itself has always been much bigger than the band doesn't bother me because it's enabled us to stay on the road for all these years, just playing and having fun."

Originally, Mitchell said, "Louie, Louie" was a minor rhythm-and-blues hit for its writer, Richard Berry, in 1956.

By the late 1950s, he said, garage bands all over the country were playing and recording their own interpretations of the song. In 1961, a fast-paced version by the Wailers, a Seattle band, became a jukebox hit in the Northwest.

A year later, Mitchell recalled, the Kingsmen--fresh out of high school in their native Portland--recorded what was to be the hit version of "Louie, Louie" in a tiny three-track recording studio.

Ironically, he added, the fledgling group's sole purpose for recording the song was to make a demonstration tape that they hoped would help them land a summer job on a cruise ship.

They never got the job, Mitchell said, laughing. Instead, the demo tape wound up in the studios of a local radio station--and within months after it had first been played, it began to shoot up the national charts in Billboard magazine.

Although Mitchell attributes the song's instant success to its simplicity and the infectiousness of what he calls its "animalistic" beat, he believes its durability is due mostly to the mystery surrounding its lyrics.

Because the Kingsmen originally intended to record the song as an instrumental, he said, the vocal tracks--added later in the studio, almost as an afterthought--came out indecipherable.

That immediately raised suspicions that the words were garbled because they were obscene, Mitchell said. Within months of its release, the record was banned in several cities and states--including Indiana and Michigan--and the band was paid a visit by the FBI, which ordered them to provide the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with a copy of the lyrics.

"It all ended two years later, in 1965, when a Superior Court judge ruled that the lyrics were 'unintelligible at any speed,' " Mitchell recalled. "The bans were lifted, but by that time the song was even more popular than it had been when it first came out.

"So if anything, we benefited from all the controversy. Anytime you ban something, it only makes people want to hear it more; in fact, the song was already going down the charts when the controversy started, but as soon as word got out that the lyrics might be obscene, it went right back up to the top."

Still, Mitchell said, the lyrics were never made public--and even though the matter has long ago been resolved, "people still wonder, even today, what we're actually singing about."

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