#3. Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen
If you drop a handful of children into a single room with a piano, it would only be a matter of time before one of them started pounding out the three chords of Louie, Louie. The progression is so deeply rooted in our collective consciousness and so intrinsic to our idea of music that you'd swear it wasn't composed, just handed to humanity, fully formed.
"Here, just ... just do something with this. I can't get it out of my head."
In 1956, singer Richard Berry released an R&B cover of You Are My Sunshine. For the B side he recorded a song he had written after swiping the riff from a Latin swing number called El Loco Cha Cha and using a mock Caribbean accent inspired by Chuck "No Relation" Berry's song Havana Moon.
Former R.E.M. drummer Bill, though often confused as kin, is also not related.
This song, a sea chanty, has a lonely sailor telling a barman named Louie about how much he misses his girl back home in Jamaica. The record-buying public responded to the release of yet another, version of You Are My Sunshine with a collective "meh" but after an enterprising DJ started playing the flip side, the record became a modest hit.
Berry, deciding the song had run its course, sold off his share of the rights for a whopping $750.
He then set that money on fire and declared himself the Anti-Scrooge.
In his defense, he would have been right if singer Rockin' Robin Roberts hadn't discovered a copy of the song in a Seattle shop's bargain bin. His version became a regional hit in the Northwest, but more importantly, it became the go-to song for every wannabe rock 'n' roll band in the area. In 1963, one of those wannabe rock groups was The Kingsmen. They weren't particularly fond of the song themselves, but the public seemed to like it, so they scraped together $36 for a one-hour recording session.
This session was, by anyone's standards, a disaster. For starters, singer Jack Ely had sung himself hoarse doing a concert the night before. Another problem was that, in those pre-lyrics-online days, he had taught himself the song by playing it a couple of times on a jukebox and hadn't really caught all of the words. More crucially, when he taught the song to the band, he got the beat wrong, changing the original's 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2 to a punchier 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2. Thereby accidentally creating one of the greatest riffs in rock history.
The biggest problem, however, was that the band didn't realize that their first stab at the song in the studio wasn't a practice run; it was the only take they were going to get.
The result was a glorious mess. Listen at just before the two-minute mark where the singer starts to come back in from the solo a beat too soon and the rest of the band scrambles to cover it.
The song was released and sold indifferently until rumors started flying that Ely's incomprehensible shrieking was a deliberate ploy to obscure the lyrics. The reason? The lyrics must be filthy. Soon there were hundreds of versions scribbled on pieces of paper of what everyone though they heard.
"We understand, Louie. From our wrath, the world shall all be born anew."
For the record, these are the real lyrics.
And here's one version of what people were hearing:
At night at ten I lay her again
Fuck you girl, oh, all the way
Oh, my bed and I lay her there
I meet a rose in her hair.
So what was a concerned parent to do? If you said, "Contact the goddamn FBI," then you're goddamn right.
Apparently 1963 was a slow year for kidnappings, and bank robberies, because the FBI actually decided it was a worthwhile use of resources to launch a full investigation into whether a record had some dirty words on it.
In the spring of 1992, the FBI permanently disbanded. No word as to why.
A bewildered Richard Berry was hauled in for questioning by agents who repeatedly demanded he tell them the "real" lyrics. The offending record, meanwhile, was played at every conceivable speed and direction in the bureau laboratories as technicians tried to decode any of it. The result of this scandal was predictable: Every kid in the country was trying to get his/her hands on the legendary dirty record. Sales soared until eventually, it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, its rise to the top curbed only by The Singing Nun's Dominique.
We wish we could say we were joking about that. We were not.
As for the FBI, they came to the conclusion that the record was incomprehensible at any speed and therefore, they had no reason to prosecute. By then, of course, Louie, Louie was firmly embedded in the national consciousness and went on to be one of the most covered songs of all time. Also worth mentioning: The FBI had been so focused on trying to decipher the lyrics that they failed to notice that, at about 55 seconds in, the drummer shouts a muddy "Fuck!" in the background.
By way of a happy ending, nearly 20 years later an artists' rights group helped Richard Berry recover his rights to the song eventually, netting him around $2 million.
OK, one more, but if you drop this one, that's it.
#2. Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless) by The M*A*S*H Singers
Set in the Korean War, the television series M*A*S*H famously ran for four times as long as the actual conflict. Its 1983 finale still remains the highest-ever rating for a television program that doesn't involve people falling on footballs.
And Jamie Farr did the whole damn thing in women's clothing. Not even the women of the show did that.
Few people remember though, that before the series, M*A*S*H was actually a highly successful film (of course, in this post-literate age, even fewer people realize that it was also a novel). The 1970 film is a dark comedy satirizing the then-current war in Vietnam.
One crucial incident in the film occurs when the camp's dentist kills himself (did we mention that this film is a comedy?). For the scene depicting his actual attempt, director Robert Altman wanted a song to help jolly things along. According to his director's commentary, Altman intended to write the lyrics himself but was having difficulty capturing the required tone before deciding there was no one more qualified to write a song about suicide than a teenage boy. And for the second time, angsty teen poetry directly affected the shape of modern music.
Wait, between that and Jamie Farr, we can finally explain Marilyn Manson!
Altman's 14-year-old son, Mike, was set the task and he duly delivered a little ditty titled Suicide Is Painless, the lyrics of which read exactly as you would expect a poem by a 14 year old boy to read. The scene, shot as a parody of da Vinci's "The Last Supper," was a great success but, more than that, Altman was so pleased with the song he had it given the full orchestral treatment and made it into the theme for the movie.
Mike Altman had only wanted a new guitar in payment for his work but the producer insisted on giving him his full authorship rights. The use of a jazz version of the song for the television series theme ensured that he received royalties for years to come and to date he has earned an estimated $2 million from the song.
For comparison's sake, if you stacked $2 million worth of hundred dollar bills, it would look roughly like that.
Robert Altman, on the other hand, had been offered a percentage of the films profits but had turned that down after an argument with the producers. In the end, he received a flat directing fee of $75,000 for his efforts which must have led to some interesting dinner table conversations in the Altman household.
#1. Tutti Frutti by Little Richard
Little Richard, alongside Elvis and Bill Haley forms the foundation of rock 'n' roll. As Little Richard says himself, "A lot of people call me the architect of rock 'n' roll. I don't call myself that, but I believe it's true." (Also, just for the record, he does occasionally call himself that).
His breakthrough single Tutti Frutti was named by MOJO Magazine as the most influential rock 'n' roll song of all time beating out the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Elvis. In the buttoned down and repressed early 50s, Tutti Frutti's opening scream of 'A wop lop a do wop alop bam boom" must have sounded, at worst, like the opening battle cry in a cultural war between adults and teens, and at its best like a "a torrent of filth wailed by a bisexual alien."
You aren't American, Little Richard ... You are America.
Of course, as you've probably already guessed, this nearly didn't happen. By 1955, Richard had been shuffling around the music scene for half a decade without any notable success. Now on a new and bigger label, he had been hoping for greater things but so far his first recording session wasn't going well. With his new producers trying to mold him in a style somewhere between Ray Charles and Fats Domino, his songs were coming out dull and uninspired.
And "dull and uninspired" are two things Little Richard absolutely refuses to be.
During their lunch break, a frustrated and pissed off Richard wandered over to a piano and started hammering out Tutti Frutti, a song he had been performing regularly in clubs. His producer heard it and immediately realized that this was exactly the kind of thing they should be recording.
There was just one tiny hitch.
If you're not already, you might want to make sure you're sitting down for this next part.
The venues in which Little Richard had been playing and perfecting the song were gay clubs, and the original lyrics demonstrated that:
A wop bop a loo mop, a good goddamn!
Tutti frutti, loose booty
If it don't fit, don't force it
You can grease it, make it easy.
Now this was 1955. Down South, they were still lynching black men for looking too hard at white women. What they would do to an at best sexually ambiguous black man singing about the joys of anal sex doesn't bear thinking about. A lyricist was quickly summoned to rework the words, and by the end of the afternoon it was done.
The song made it as high as No. 17 in the Billboard charts. An unheard of feat for a black musician back then, but this was sadly trumped by Pat Boones anemic cover which made it all the way to 12. Little Richard was convinced that white kids were buying Pat Boone so they could show the Boone record cover to their parents while they were actually listening to Richard's version. He would gleefully attempt to make all his follow up songs too high pitched and too fast for Boone to be able to cover.
John has no Web presence of his own but his flatmates do have this delightful Web comic.
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