Home > Uncategorized > Obscenity is in the ear of the listener

Obscenity is in the ear of the listener

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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