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Obscenity is in the ear of the listener

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

I caught a BBC news report today that Jack Ely, lead singer of The Kingsmen in the 1960s, had died at the age of 71. The Kingsmen were best known for their song ‘Louie Louie’ – though I confess the song never registered with me until I heard a version of it by punk band Clash. I caught them at a gig sometime in the mid-80s so I’m guessing that’s where I first heard it.

One notable thing about the original version of the song was that the lyrics were sung fairly incoherently, apparently because the sound engineer wanted to create a ‘live’ atmosphere and put the mic above the singer, not in front of him. I guess that allowed for more of the guitars and drums to get picked up on the vocal mic and perhaps added a bit to echo and distortion?

At any rate, the other notable thing was that the song was fairly quickly reported to the FBI for ‘obscene’ lyrics, and a lengthy investigation followed. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised at that. Despite the advent of hippy and alternative culture in the 60s, it was still a time of rather conservative religious and political (or at least anti-communist) views and conservative individuals and groups seem to have regarded the odd investigation and prosecution for obscenity as a way of arresting the moral decline of the nation.

We’ve had other prosecutions since, both in the US and UK, for obscenity and other charges. They range from Lenny Bruce in the 1960s to 2 Live Crew in the 1990s (in the US), to the unsuccessful prosecution in 1990 of a Cincinnati museum for displaying a Robert Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition  and the 1997/8 investigation in the UK of whether a book containing those same photographs, in a UK university library, could be ruled obscene. In the UK, there have been more recent attempts to prosecute bloggers and social media users for a variety of offences including issuing ‘terrorist threats’ that turned out to be irate individuals whose planes were cancelled (e.g. the ‘Twitter joke trial’) and of course the older, 1982 attempt to prosecute a London play for obscenity.

We shouldn’t, I guess, be surprised that there are still people out there looking at social media, music and other areas of culture with a view to prosecuting what they regard as obscene – and of course increasingly to make accusations of terrorism. I could rant on about all this at some length, including the way prosecution decisions based on social media are apparently made and whether the current legal provisions really help people who are the victims of social media hate campaigns. But that would be a digression too far.

So, back to ‘Louie Louie’. The FBI carried out extensive tests on the record. The lyrics are, these days, available at places like Lyrics On Demand and the verses (I’ve omitted the chorus and some other bits) are in the left-hand column below. According to material in the now-published FBI file, the there were several complainants who believed they heard obscene lyrics and one example is the verses in the right-hand column below.

Fine little girl waits for me Catch a ship across the sea Sail that ship about, all alone Never know if I make it home Three nights and days I sail the sea Think of girl, constantly On that ship, I dream she’s there I smell the rose in her hair See Jamaica, the moon above It won’t be long, me see me love Take her in my arms again Tell her I’ll never leave again There is a fine little girl waiting for me She is just a girl across the way Then I take her all alone She’s never the girl I lay at home Tonight at ten I’ll lay her again We’ll fuck your girl and by the way And on the chair I’ll lay her there I felt my bone in her hair She had a ring on, I moved above It won’t be long, she’ll slip it off I held her in my arms and then I told her I’d rather lay her again

The FBI concluded that the lyrics weren’t understandable words when played at any speed, because they were too mumbled to make sense from them. They had a point, if you listen to the track without having any kind of crib sheet to tell you what lyrics to expect.

That said, the complainant’s version does seem weak, with ‘Tonight at ten’ versus ‘Three days and nights’, ‘She had a ring on’ versus ‘See Jamaica’ and so on. Later on in the file, in fact, there are other transcriptions of the lyrics by other people, some of whom had also played the vinyl single (normally designed for play at 45 rpm) at the vinyl album speed of 33 1/3 rpm, and they’d come up with different but still allegedly obscene versions.

Conclusion: it appears almost anything can be interpreted as obscene if the listener (or viewer, or whatever) has it in mind that it might be, and there is any room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. On the other hand, someone with a more surrealist cast of mind might come up with a different set of misheard lyrics.

None of this is particularly surprising, I guess. Just have a listen and see if you, like the surrealist version I’ve linked to, come up with lyrics concerning wigs and goats. The one surprising thing is probably that no artist has yet re-recorded the song with clearer vocals and using one or other version of the ‘explicit’ lyrics.

EDITED to add: after I originally posted this I stumbled across a version that did indeed have, if not ‘obscene’ lyrics, then explicit anti-capitalist ones. It’s by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I guess it’s a deliberate nod at the original controversy, though it contains lines like: ‘the communist world is fallin apart / the capitalists are just breakin hearts / money is the reason to be / it makes me just wanna sing louie louie’ and, later, ‘life after bush & gorbachev / the wall is down but something is lost / turn on the news it looks like a movie / it makes me wanna sing louie louie’. See all the lyrics of this version at AZ lyrics.

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The truck that couldn’t be unloaded

April 3, 2015 Leave a comment

I’m sure if you work in the construction industry this will be a familiar story. But it happened yesterday and I’m still slightly bemused by it.

We’re changing some of the back garden around and part of the process is installing a new path. This involved ordering 3 tons of gravel (well, technically not gravel but Cotswold stone chippings) for the path itself. When it arrived, it was loaded into large 850kg bags on pallets.

Previously we’ve had this kind of stuff delivered by a lorry with a crane, and it’s just craned over the front garden wall and onto the front garden. This time it was a curtain-sided lorry and one guy with a pallet trolley, the kind that slots into the pallet and has a handle you pump to raise the pallet off the ground. Whoever loaded the pallets, presumably with a regular forklift, had placed the edge of one pallet onto the corner of another. One couldn’t be moved because of the additional weight and the other couldn’t be moved because the pallet trolley couldn’t be slotted into it and jacked up to raise it.

Oh, and another bag was a problem because it was loaded on one edge of the pallet.  It was almost impossible to shift because whichever side you approached from, you were lifting an uneven load that just tipped the pallet trolley over. It was considerably more difficult than, say, transporting a coffin on a bicycle (which I have done: don’t ask). The fourth bag – the pallet itself had broken and the pallet trolley wouldn’t fit under it until we’d done a quick and dirty fix with hammer and nails.

Solutions could have included shovelling the gravel off the lorry into a pile outside the house (would have taken at least an hour, possibly two); splitting the bags and sweeping the mess off the side of the lorry; and probably a few others. We’d then have needed to get the gravel off the road and pavement. The driver called his firm, who weren’t very interested. Presumably they figured this would empower him by encouraging him to use his initiative. The solution, though, was just to refuse the load as undeliverable and ask them to bring it again, properly loaded, this morning.

That happened. Unbelievably (to me anyway) the load arrived back this morning in another truck – but the tailgate lift wasn’t working properly. A segment of it was out of line with the rest, and raised up enough to stop the loads being trollied onto it. Again, it was almost an hour of messing with the equipment to get the stuff off the lorry.

If anyone wants to know what’s wrong with British industry, I guess this is one clue (no doubt there are many others). Give your workers the equipment they need, preferably in functioning order and without the need to spend stupid amounts of time doing ad hoc fixes to make it work.

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