It’s just plain odd that the classic rock song “Louie Louie” and Ralph Nader are connected by both a quote and a date. But it’s true.
“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 tells some other guy named Louie that he’s been missing his “fine little girl.” He can’t wait to sail home, take her in his arms and tell her “I never leave again.” Which is why he says “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 favorite party song of local rock music 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. But their catchy cover version was a huge hit, selling over a million copies.
By 1964, the song was gleefully being sung by teenagers and rock bands nationwide, using many 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 obscene, which caused much moral harrumphing.
Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh declared the record to be “pornographic” and banned it from the state’s airwaves. Some radio stations in other states also banned it.
Federal investigators grilled Richard Berry and Jack Ely and played the Kingsmen record 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 looking into car safety.
Armed with the knowledge he gained from that work, Nader wrote a historic book on the subject. He titled it Unsafe at Any Speed.
It became a bestseller, gave Nader his initial fame and led to many of the modern improvements in car safety we now take for granted (such as seat belts).
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…