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Louie Louie disk

How the FBI worked with radio to investigate the song “Louie Louie”

Our regular Welcome to Night Vale correspondent Aidan Herrick has written an excellent research paper (pdf) on the 1960s era Federal Bureau of Investigation’s investigation of the song “Louie Louie.” Why the probe? Because parents across the United States were complaining to the government that The Kingsmen’s 1963 remake of the Richard Berry song contained obscene lyrics (and, of course, guardians of morality had long warned that Rock ‘n Roll encouraged teenage promiscuity, race mixing, unregulated happiness, and worse). Herrick wrote the essay for the FBI history course that I teach at UC Santa Cruz. I had no idea how many times the tune already received government scrutiny before it got to the desk of Director J. Edgar Hoover’s minions. Aidan writes:

Before the FBI began its investigation in 1964, Louie Louie had already been investigated by the Federal Communications Commission, the Justice Department, and the Post Office. The first investigation was prompted by a letter from Indiana containing a copy of the “real” lyrics, addressed to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, on February 4, 1964. Three days later, it was the FBI’s problem. The Indianapolis field office interviewed the redacted letter- writer’s daughter six weeks later, she having been the one who purchased the record. She informed the agents that obscene words were audible if the 45 RPM disk were played at 33 1/3 speed. Lester Irvin, the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) for Indiana, advised that it may legally be obscene,26 and therefore illegal to send through the mail. Matthew Welch, the governor of Indiana, had already unofficially banned the song from airplay in the state about two weeks before the FBI received the letter, though he was never approached or contacted by the FBI for this action. An Indianapolis prosecutor argued that it didn’t even matter if the song contained obscene lyrics: the whole song, from the style to the recording quality, was “an abomination.”

You can go through the Bureau’s entire probe of the song via the FBI’s vault.fbi.gov research pages. I’m particularly fond of this missive below, in which one of the agency’s correspondents apparently wandered around local high schools, where students told him that if you listened to the 45 rpm of the tune at 33 rpm you could pick up the dirty parts. From this point of departure he contacted a radio station:

Louie Louie

As you can see, there were no obscene lyrics to the song “Louis Louis.” Eventually the government figured this out—after an investigation that lasted around 18 months. Your tax dollars at work. More radio related FBI files here. Learn more about “Louie Louie Day” at KFJC here.


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