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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Louie, Louie, Mr Tambourine Man, Dylan and His Typewriter

Dylan on the Royal Caravan in the workspace above Cafe Espresso (59 Tannery Brook Road), Woodstock, New York, 1964.
Driving home from university last evening, I heard Andrew Messenger deliver the news on ABC Radio that Jack Ely had died in Terrebonne, Oregon, aged 71. In case anyone was wondering who Jack was - indeed, who The Kingsmen were - Andrew played a snippet of the unforgettable Louie Louie, the song that in 1964 was the subject of a Robert Kennedy-instigated FBI investigation into obscene lyrics. 
This one song was even the subject of an entire book, Dave Marsh's 1992 Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock 'n' Roll Song: Including the Full Details of Its Torture and Persecution at the Hands of the Kingsmen, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and a Cast of Millions; and Introducing, for the First Time Anywhere, the Actual Dirty Lyrics
As Messenger pointed out, it was Ely, a then guitarist with the Portland band, who delivered the "lyrics indecipherable at any speed". Apparently his incoherent vocals were partly the result of his braces. In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Attorney-General Kennedy alleging the lyrics were obscene. The FBI investigated the complaint and in June 1965 its laboratory obtained a copy of the recording. After four months of investigation, the FBI concluded that Louie, Louie could not be interpreted and was "unintelligible at any speed". But drummer Lynn Easton later admitted he had yelled "F***" after fumbling a drumstick at 54 seconds into the song.
Dagenham-born Colin Larkin
Memories of writing about the Louie Louie saga myself, during a prolonged study into the history of rock and pop music more than 15 years ago, recalled the work of my then "guru", the British writer Colin Larkin, editor-in-chief and founder of the 10-volume Encyclopedia of Popular Music. The London Times described this work as "the standard against which all others must be judged". Larkin is now CEO and editor-in-chief of the "Best Things on Earth" online multi-media rating site.
The compiler of the most extensive database of popular music in Europe and the US, Larkin also wrote the All Time Top 1000 Albums in 2000, and added to this book his All-Time Top 100 Singles. I was so impressed by this latter list (that is, I agreed with almost every selection) I downloaded all 100 tracks and, as advised by Larkin, put them on five discs for the benefit of myself and some very grateful friends.
Larkin wrote of it, "The most opinionated list in this book. I will not even begin to defend the absence of Chuck Berry, ABBA, Queen, the Smiths, Frank Sinatra and so on. This is the choice of the author, as of today. The fact is that Mr Tambourine Man still does make me shiver ... Time will tell, of course. Trust me with this list, it would make a SPIFFLING 5-CD SET for the longest of car journeys."
At No 1 is Mr Tambourine Man, which was at least in large part written (well, completed anyway) by Bob Dylan on a portable typewriter while in the back of a station wagon the day after he had visited civil rights activists Bernice Johnson and Cordell Reagon in Atlanta, Georgia, in early 1964. Dylan had started writing the song at the Waldorf Astoria in Toronto, Canada, in late January-early February of that year. During a couple of days of revelry at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Dylan did some more work on Mr Tambourine Man on his typewriter.
Anyway, without further ado, here is the Top 10 of Larkin's All-Time Top 100 singles:
1       The ByrdsMr Tambourine Man (1965): "Still a rush to flatten the hairs on the forearm every time it is played on the radio. Roger McGuinn’s 12-string opener has to be the definitive. Four of the five original Byrds sound like sweet little angels on the vocals."
2       Spencer Davis Group – Gimme Some Loving (1966). It was with great delight that a few years later I got to meet Spencer Davis and we discussed how much we agreed with Larkin's choice of the original (Hammond organ and backing singer-less) version of this song.
3       Bob DylanLike a Rolling Stone (1965): "Another showcase for the Hammond organ, this time played by Al Kooper. His frills add to Dylan’s first masterpiece of the modern rock era. Truth, pathos, irony and life, dusted off in a few minutes."
4       Scarlet Party  101 Dam-Nations (1982).
5       Booker T and the MGsGreen Onions (1962): "Although the Hammond organ once again features prominently [through Booker T. Jones], the real clincher is the fruity sound it makes in combination with Steve Cropper’s Telecaster guitar. An incredible, unrepeatable piece of music, copied by millions but never remotely challenged."
6       The Kingsmen Louie Louie (1963): "It doesn’t matter what they were singing about. Richard Berry may have taken the lyrics to the grave with him, but he left us with this magnificent opus of sound. To think the Beach Boys did it as well. Take another listen to the drummer, he comes in at least half an hour late."
7       The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night (1964): "[A] perfectly constructed song. And Lennon really sounds sincere when he sings, 'You know I work all day, to get you money, to buy you things'.’’
8       The KinksWaterloo Sunset (1967): "Was it Terry Stamp meeting Julie Christie on Hungerford Railway bridge or not? Either way, millions of other couples have experienced the same sunset. Ray Davies’ most evocative song, beautifully opened by Pete Quaife’s rumbling bass."
9       Big YouthConcrete Jungle (1973).
10    The BeatlesStrawberry Fields Forever (1967): "It really is a piece of music that was 40 years ahead of its time, but that’s 'nothing to get hung about'."


Richard P said...

"Unintelligible at any speed." I love it!

DonN said...

My vote for the most endurable Kinks tune = LOLA. I believe Louie Louie was an innocuous West Indies folk tune, like the Sloop John B.

Bill M said...

I'm surprised Hey Jude is not in the top 10.

I believe after 25 years in radio that there are many songs out there unintelligible at any speed.

I've got to check out the 100 to singles and see if it is combiled from all over the world or by any certain region. In the USA I tend to trust Billboard.