The Null Device
Fifty years ago, the governor of Indiana received an obscenity complaint about the (all but incomprehensible) lyrics of a rock'n'roll song, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, which he passed to the FBI. Before they could prosecute those involved, they were faced with the problem of determining what the lyrics (which had been derived from a calypso number from 1957, originally in a cod Caribbean patois, but rendered incomprehensible by the braces worn by the Kingsmen's lead singer) actually meant, and prove that it was actually obscene; and so began an exhaustive investigation, in which the valiant G-men strove, with McCarthyite zeal, to uncover the sinister plot against America's youth by deciphering exactly what kind of filth the lyrics might be:
The subsequent report on the song – unearthed in 1984 by video producer Eric Predoehl – runs for more than 140 pages. The records of the FBI's various attempts to work out the exact kind of obscenities that Louie Louie supposedly contained make for fantastic, demented reading. You can picture agents slowly going nuts as they desperately struggle to pin something, anything, dirty on the lyrics, regardless of whether or not that something makes any sense or actually features in the lyric. "Oh my bed and I lay her there, I meet a rose in her hair," suggested one interpretation. "We'll fuck your girl and by the way," offered another, failing to answer the fairly obvious question this provoked: what, exactly, is by the way? Some of the interpretations were quite lyrical – "Hey Señorita, I'm hot as hell" – although others were not: "Get that broad out of here!"One ad-hoc translator thought it was about masturbation: "Every night and day I play with my thing." Another particularly creative agent seemed to think it centered around the subject of performing cunnilingus on a woman who was menstruating – "She's got a rag on, I'll move above" – which, with the best will in the world, seems a spectacularly improbable topic for any rock band, no matter how raunchy, to be addressing in 1963. Another, more creative still, seems to have actually invented a perversion to fit the garbled vocals: "I felt my bone … ah … in her hair."
In fact, the bureau's persistence says less about the Kingsmen than the era in which it took place. Intriguingly, the concerned letters about Louie Louie and the start of the FBI's investigation coincide with the Beatles' arrival in the US: I Want To Hold Your Hand began its seven-week run at No 1 on 7 February, their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – watched by 73 million people and considered a seismic event in US pop culture – came two days later. These days, we tend to think of the moptop-era Beatles as uncomplicated, unthreatening and universally adored, but to a certain kind of reactionary mind, the Beatles were anything but uncomplicated and unthreatening. Their very appearance marked them out as unfathomably strange and alien (in one extreme version of this response, far-right British politician John Tyndall, described the Beatles in 1963 as "effeminate oddities … looking for all the world like the members of some primitive African tribe", before accusing them of ushering an era of "weirdness in the male type"). Furthermore, after several years in which rock'n'roll appeared to have been entirely denuded of its provocative power – its initial rawness streamlined and diluted with parent-friendly intimations of pre-rock pop by Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell et al – you only had to look at the reaction the Beatles were getting to know that rock'n'roll was suddenly an incredibly potent force once more.The investigation failed to produce anything more than paranoid fancy, but did have the unintended consequence of transforming an incomprehensible, otherwise forgettable rock'n'roll ditty—one which would have almost certainly been swept from history by the tide of Beatlemania months later—into an anthem of pure rock'n'roll rebellion by fiat, a sort of Necronomicon of the moral panics that spanned the gap from the McCarthy Red Scare to the Satanic panic of the Reagan years, its very lack of definition allowing interpreters to read their own demonologies of choice into it. And many, amongst them Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins and The Clash, did versions, filling in the blanks with mundane vulgarities of their own devising (and a few cribbed from the FBI report), to varying effects.