Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17, 1965 – FBI Investigation Leads to Lyric Censorship

In 1955, doo-wop musician Richard Berry wrote a calypso-style song incorporating many of his newfound inspirations from R&B, particularly Rick Rillera and The Rhythm Rockers, with whom he worked while getting his band The Pharaohs together. “Louie, Louie” was written as a first-person lamenting of a lost love to a bartender in the Caribbean, musically referencing Latin influences as well as Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon.” Almost a decade later, the Rock and Roll group The Kingsmen would record their own cover of the song, an almost unintelligible indecency that would cause panic and government crackdown.

A rumor started somewhere in America that the popular song (holding #2 on the Billboard’s chart for six weeks) secretly held shocking and obscene lyrics portrayed in what seemed simply creative and energetic enunciation. As the uproar grew, the governor of Indiana banned the song, and parents demanded more. One concerned parent wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, dated January 30, 1964, “Who do you turn to when your ‘teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the ‘teen age market in every City, Village, and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter further explained, “My daughter brought home a record of “LOUIE LOUIE” and I, after reading that the record had been banned from being played on the air because it was obscene, proceeded to try to decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter.”

Such sentiments were echoed by others, and an investigation by the FBI was ordered. Obtaining a legitimate copy of the original 1963 recording by The Kingsmen took weeks, and it was clear how poor studio conditions had been, exacerbating the murkiness of the lyrics. Meanwhile, Kingsmen themselves were questioned, claiming according to FBI records that they were “clean, not obscene” and did not admit that “the words exist even accidentally”, merely that “those who want to hear such things have apparently interpreted an unintelligible sounding of words which were honestly inserted for harmony.”

Although later-declassified documents suggested “the FBI Laboratory advised that because the lyrics of the recording, “Louie Louie” could not be definitely determined in the Laboratory examination, it is not possible to determine whether this recording is obscene,” the ultimate decision of recommendation to prosecute was handed to Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had served in his position for twenty-eight years with another decade of experience heading the BOI. While this particular case might not go anywhere, Hoover decided that it was indicative of the increasing danger of popular rock music. He met with Attorney General Kennedy as well as Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti, a confidant of President LBJ whom the FBI had recently investigated and cleared of a suspected homosexual relationship. Similar accusations had plagued Hollywood since before the days of the Hays Code, and Valenti had been working to perfect a rating system, which would be implemented in 1968. Two years after the investigation began, Kennedy wrote to the Recording Industry Association of America, recommending government supervision of a creation a rating system for publically produced music.

The new rating system came into effect shortly afterward, immediately causing a stir as it considered how to approach the growing number of songs protesting the Vietnam War. In 1966 and ’67, Pete Seeger’s “Bring ‘Em Home” and Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” came under fire as unpatriotic and excessively critical of military command. Initially, the matter of rating and censorship was largely a legal balance, but it became increasingly important during the trial of the Chicago Seven, whose activities during the Democratic National Convention caused them to be accused of conspiracy and inciting a riot. Public view came to support the song-ratings, but the death knell of musical freedom would come with the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family being linked to The Beatles’ evocative Helter Skelter. Their confusing lyrics in it, as well as the earlier “I am the Walrus”, had come under great concern of the RIAA’s rating board, but Beatles fame had allowed them to pass, though with an Adult rating. When the murders came to public view, the songs were banned outright.

The rating system for music continues to be a political and social point in America. For decades, many argued that the ratings merely encouraged younger children to investigate advanced lyrics unnaturally soon as forbidden fruit. Others argued for further restrictions to stop even that, causing the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, what many call a blacklist as disapproved songs are rarely carried in stores. With the creation of file-sharing across the Internet, however, a new black library of unregistered music has spread from the underground, causing renewed political concern over what children are listening to these days.


In reality, the FBI found nothing pornographic in “Louie, Louie.” After researching numerous copies and potential lyrics in search of violations of federal Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material law, the song was deemed “unintelligible” and therefore innocent, and it would go on to be one of the most covered songs of all time. Music ratings would not be implemented until “Parental Advisory” stickers from the PMRC appeared in 1985.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter