The Kingsmen, The Kinks and trombones
By Trevor Moore
The thing about pandemics, and I am making a generalisation here based on a sample size of one, which might make me a good politician but in real life is probably unwise … anyway, the thing about pandemics is that things slow down and in spite of oneself a degree of lethargy washes over one. I was brought to my senses this week by two people. One protested that I must have stopped reading for I had not written a book review for many moons. The second said that he had missed my occasional musical musings. This second person made this comment when we were at the gym and, as I gathered my phone for the inevitable checking-out intercourse with the Service NSW app, I noticed that Jim Steinman had died. As it happens, I do not propose to write today about Steinman who, as I commented to my friend Macman (listen to him each Wednesday on 2EARFM), is or was one of the five finest songwriters of all time. He is, in my view, up there with Lennon and McCartney, Dylan, Paul Brady and Warren Zevon. I am not sure that Macman agreed with this assessment but then he will have to live with his opinions, even if they are flawed.
Jim Steinman, 1947 - 2021 So, I will not write of Jim Steinman’s passing for there was another, equally sad, death this last week. Mike Mitchell, who founded The Kingsmen, died earlier this week at the age of 73. And, oddly enough for those of us who enjoy rock ’n’ roll trivia, Mitchell’s death was not unconnected with a conversation that I had had with Macman while we enjoyed several glasses of Big Niles’ fine ales (the Hell Raiser at 8% is a very tasty drop but then whatever Cam brews is good). Macman was looking for trivia for his weekly 2EARFM show and I told him a story about The Kinks and their recoding of their 1966 single, Dead End Street, a release sandwiched between Sunny Afternoon and Waterloo Sunset. The connection between The Kinks and Mike Mitchell and The Kingmen is the song, Louie Louie.
Richard Berry, 1935 - 1997. Louie Louie is a song with a bit of a background. It was written in 1955 by a fellow called Richard Berry who is now largely, and perhaps unfortunately, forgotten. He played with a couple of close harmony groups in the 1950s, in particular The Flairs and The Robins. Do not worry if you have never heard of these groups. Few of us have. He made an uncredited appearance on Etta James’ first record The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry). Louie Louie is his finest legacy – he died in 1997 – and the song has been covered by many artists over the years. The song is the story of a Jamaican sailor returning to the island to see his lover. Richard Berry’s version is clearly doo-wop influenced, but it is a relatively pedestrian recording though it trots along nicely. You can understand the lyrics, and this point is significant in the song’s history. Berry’s version did not chart and, in 1959, Berry sold the rights to the song to pay for his wedding. This, as it turned out, was not a smart move. But then none of us has a crystal ball.
The Kingsmen: 1963 "Louie Louie" line-up
In 1960 Rockin’ Robin Roberts, whose backing band was The Wailers, released Louie Louie as a single. Roberts has a baritone sax playing the main riff and it features a guitar solo as well as Roberts’ and-lib ad-lib "Let's give it to 'em, right now!!” which may have caused The Kingsmen some trouble later. I suppose that every budding guitarist growing up in the 1960s would have played Louie Louie … certainly I did. The riff is 2 bars long and repeats throughout the song. For the young aspiring guitarist just coming to terms with barre chords, it is an excellent song to learn and practise on. The Kingsmen’s version is clearly inspired by Rockin’ Robin Roberts and The Wailers though without the saxophone. If you haven’t heard The Kingsmen playing this song, then your life has very definitely been wanting. It is, I believe, required listening for anyone who wishes to be considered a fully paid-up member of the human race. It is raw and simple; it is so pared back that you would suppose it was recorded in your front room. And it pretty much was. It was recorded in a single take on three microphones for about $50. It’s almost impossible to record a five-piece rock band with 3 microphones – almost impossible but not quite.
Louie Louie: the riff The band never liked the recording and that’s understandable. It is an awful production, but it is a brilliant recording. The band had to crowd round one microphone to sing and as a result the lyrics are pretty much undecipherable. The recording is full of mistakes. Mitchell’s guitar solo draws heavily on Richard Dangel’s (of The Wailers) guitar solo. The lead vocalist, Jack Ely, shouts “OK, let’s give it to them, right now” (at 1:26 if you’re listening) and Mike Mitchell comes in with a solo that is so beautifully simple it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The solo runs for 30 seconds and at 1:57 Jack Ely comes back in but realises he is 8 beats to early: we get a single syllable and then a rescuing drum fill before they all recover. There are apparently bands who cover the song with the mistakes, because the mistakes add to the rawness of the song. The only comparable performance I can think of for sheer energy and enthusiasm is XTC’s performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test of Statue of Liberty.
There's nothing like an FBI investigation to improve a song's popularity. But The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie spent six non-consecutive weeks at number two on the US Billboard Hot 100 though it only reached number 27 in the UK and did not chart in Australia (I suspect it was not released here). A major contributor to the song’s success was an FBI investigation into the lyrics which were suspected to be obscene. But after several laboratory investigations, the song was declared "unintelligible at any speed" and cleared of being obscene in a 200-page report. The whole thing was set off by the father of a teenage girl who had brought the record home and wrote to the Attorney General (then Robert Kennedy) that “the lyrics are so filthy that I cannot enclose them in this letter. How can we stamp out this menace?" My word: how can we make history?
The Kingsmen followed Louie Louie with a version of Money, the R&B song written by Tamla founder Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford which was covered by The Beatles and then wonderfully in 1979 by The Flying Lizards. The Kingsmen’s version reached number 16 on Billboard and after that the band never found that difficult third single. The band has continued in one form or another since then. Mike Mitchell was always a member. But Louie Louie lives on. There’s an energetic version by Iggy Pop (well it would be energetic, I suppose) and a lovely version by the highly underrated late 70s new wave band, The Fabulous Poodles (for a long time John Peel’s favourite band).
But I do need to return to Macman’s and my beer-fuelled conversation about The Kinks, so I do not leave you hanging. At the end of Dead End Street there is a trombone solo. I had heard that the story was that when The Kinks were recording Dead End Street they tried several instruments for the solo but none worked. In desperation they repaired to the pub “and returned with an unsuspecting trombone player who Grenville had discovered just as the pub was beginning to close. He had been doing another session nearby and although he was clearly in an inebriated state, [Ray Davies] considered this to be a perfect condition for [his] purpose. The trombonist heard the fade-out once and said, 'Let's go for It. I can still get another pint before they shut.' He recorded a perfect solo in one take and in ten minutes was back in the Mason's Arms better off by a session fee gratefully paid in cash.” I understood that they never even knew his name but Macman’s extensive research suggests that he was called John Matthews though he is not credited. But there you go. That’s what a couple of pints of Cam’s beers can do for you.
And RIP Mike Mitchell. An absolute inspiration.
1. Big Niles Brewing Co. is located at the corner of Mort Avenue and Acacia Close in Dalmeny.
2. The quote about the trombonist is from Ray Davies’ autobiography X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography (1994).
3. Listen to The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie on Spotify (spotify:track:0iA3xXSkSCiJywKyo1UKjQ).
4. Watch XTC’s unforgettable 1978 performance of Statue of Liberty at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_Zg_ZWfYkg.