It’s truly odd, but true: the renowned rock song “Louie Louie” and the history-making book about car safety by Ralph Nader, titled Unsafe At Any Speed, are connected by both a quote and by a date.
“Louie Louie” was written in 1955 by the pioneering American R&B singer and songwriter Richard Berry (1935-1997).
In a nod to the popularity Calypso music was enjoying in the mid-1950s, Berry gave “Louie Louie” a Caribbean flavor by writing the lyrics in an island-style patois.
It’s basically a love song.
A Jamaican sailor explains to some guy named Louie that he misses his girlfriend. He can’t wait to sail home, take his “fine little girl” in his arms and tell her “I never leave again.” In the chorus he says dolefully: “Louie Louie, me gotta go.” (As in, go home.)
Berry recorded “Louie Louie” with his group the Pharaohs in 1957. Their version was a modest regional hit in the Northwest, where it became a popular party song covered by many local rock bands.
One of those bands was a group of white kids from Portland, Oregon who called themselves The Kingsmen. They made a raucous, poorly-recorded version of the song in 1963.
It was released in May and entered Billboard’s Top 40 singles chart on November 30, 1963.
The fuzziness of the recording and the garbled attempt at Jamaican patois by The Kingsmen’s lead singer, Jack Ely, made the lyrics notoriously hard to understand. Nonetheless, their catchy cover version was a huge hit, selling over a million copies.
By 1964, “Louie Louie” was being gleefully sung by teenagers nationwide, often using salacious Mondegreen variations of the words.
For example, in the original lyrics the second verse starts with: “Three nights and days we sailed the sea. / Me think of girl constantly.”
In raunchified versions, those words were turned into things like: “Each night at ten, I lay her again / I f--k my girl all kinds of ways.”
It was soon rumored that the hard-to-understand lyrics on The Kingsmen record were themselves obscene. This caused much moral harrumphing by parents, the press, politicians and bureaucrats.
Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh declared the record to be “pornographic” and banned it from the state’s airwaves. (And he was a liberal Democrat!) Some radio stations in other states also banned it.
Federal investigators grilled Richard Berry and Jack Ely and listened intently to the Kingsmen record played forward and backward at various speeds, including 33 rpm, 45 rpm and 78 rpm.
In February 1964, one exasperated FCC official uttered what became a legendary rock history quote when he reported:
“We found the record to be unintelligible at any speed.”
Around that same time in 1964, lawyer Ralph Nader was working as an advisor to a U.S. Senate subcommittee that was investigating car safety (or, more accurately. the general lack of safety features in cars built at the time).
Armed with the knowledge he gained from that work, Nader wrote a shocking book on the subject. He titled it Unsafe at Any Speed.
It became a bestseller, gave Nader his initial fame as an industry gadfly and led to many improvements in car safety we now take for granted, such as seat belts and anti-lock brakes.
The similarity between Nader’s book title and the FCC official’s quote about “Louie Louie” suggests that Ralph was either aware of the FCC quote — or blissfully unaware that his title was an ironic echo of “unintelligible at any speed.”
What makes the connection even odder is the fact that Unsafe At Any Sped was published on November 30, 1965, exactly two years to the day after The Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” entered the Billboard Top 40.
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Further reading and listening…