Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Best of Louie Louie, Vol. 2

The first volume of Rhino's Best of Louie Louie compilation, which I bought on vinyl back in high school, has the original 1956 version by Richard Berry (my favorite, actually), the famous 1963 version by The Kingsmen, and an intermediate 1961 version by Rockin Robin Roberts and the Wailers, but not the version The Kingsmen's crosstown rivals Paul Revere and the Raiders released simultaneously to The Kingsmen's version (it was recorded the next day in the same studio, according to the extensive liner notes). It also has versions by Black Flag, some Joy Division ripoff band called The Last, a marching band, a choir singing it to the tune of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, and "Les Dantz and his Orchestra" playing it to the tune of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." And, as I said, very extensive liner notes tracing the history of the song through those first four versions and beyond. Unfortunately, the liner notes are in such tiny type that they can only be read a few paragraphs at a time, followed by a 5 minute break for your eyes.

Volume 2 seems to be from the end of the 80's, dated by its liner notes that reference the wine cooler advertising wars (I think they still make wine coolers, but it's probably considered bad taste to advertise the fact). The liner notes this time are pretty useless, although they offer a happy ending to one of the most tragic stories from the first volume's notes. Richard Berry, who had sold off the publishing and copy rights to his minor hit to make some quick cash in the late 50's, did finally win those rights back in court, in time to get majorly paid for the use of the song in California Cooler ads.

Predictably, this volume starts with the Paul Revere version, correcting the oversight of the first volume. It starts with a saxophone, and the singing is much more accomplished. If the two versions really were recorded in the same studio, the Raiders got a much better sound out of it. It is probably fortunate that it was the Kingsmen version that became a hit. If it were the Raiders record that everyone knew, would the garage rock movement, the Velvets, Stooges, and Punk never have happened? Or not sounded quite as raw? Interesting speculation. It's also interesting that the guitar solos in the two versions sound almost identical. I went back to the first volume, and found that they are both virtually transposed from the Wailer's version.

Most of Vol. 2 is stupid novelty versions. Red State performing Louie Louie with Russian lyrics (and combining metal guitar and accordian), Tyme Code doing an electro version, Peter Fountain with a muzak version from 1966, all pretty lame. The tune fits awkwardly into the surf instrumental mode on The Shockwaves' "Surfin' Louie," but actually sounds quite good played by Mongo Santamaria, bringing out the Latin and Jamaican inflections Richard Berry originally had in mind. You'd think hearing The Kinks, whose early hits were clearly influenced by the riff, doing Louie would be at least interesting, but they really fail to do much with it other than robbing it of life. It does not contain, as the cover suggests, a version played by two guys in tuxedoes on two double basses.

So the versions I do like. First of all, a 1964 version by girl group The Angels, who add two syllables (they sing it "Louie Lou-I-A") and even mimick the Kingsmen's false start on the last verse after the solo, give it the teen spirit that you need to make a song like this work. Stanley Clarke and George Duke submit an 80's funk version with vocals that sometimes sound like a duet between EU and Bootsy Collins, and a funky bass solo. Not amazing, but at least pretty interesting.

One of my favorites from the first volume is The Sonics. Their version is not a standout in the Sonics catalog by any means, but I like their sound so much that it stands out amongst versions of Louie Louie. I feel about the same way towards the Ike and Tina Turner version that closes out vol. 2. It's from 1968, but sounds much later due to a Moog in the back of the mix.

What's most interesting, throughout the two volumes, is the liberties everyone feels free to take with the lyrics, perhaps because no one can understand what The Kingsmen are actually saying. Tina Turner sings about digging for pirate's gold and dancing to the music Jamaicans play, Black Flag ask "Who needs love, when you got a gun?", Iggy Pop (on the Stooges Metallic KO live album) follows "I smell a rose down in her hair" with "Her ass is black and her tits are bare," Clarke/Duke conclude that "The moral of this story is, if you sail the 7 seas/take your woman with you, set your mind at ease." And yet there are elements of the lyrics, such as the narrative of the trip across the sea, or the Jamaican motif, that survive in every version (maybe not Black Flag's). "I see Jamaica moon above" seems to be preserved in most versions (even Frank Zappa's "Plastic People" uses this line, and Iggy follows it with "It won't be long before she takes it off," which sounds like it could actually be the correct line). I guess it's just a great line.

These compilations are interesting, but I can't help but think they miss the point. What's interesting about Louie Louie is not all the artists that have directly covered it, but all the artists that have ripped it off. It's the way Louie Louie became Wild Thing, You Really Got Me, I Wanna Be Your Dog, Blitzkrieg Bop, Smells Like Teen Spirit, the whole history of rock n roll in three chords. The way the riff changes over time could be a fascinating topic to explore, rather than the amusing novelty that this project represents. I've already decided that the next book I read (when I finish Absalom, Absalom, which could take a while) is going to be Dave Marsh's book on Louie Louie, which will hopefully provide more satisfying insight.


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