Gordon Campbell On Political Can-kicking, And The“ Louie Louie” Saga

e7fb66232fe0e35b3ba2One of the more infuriating aspects of the current political debate is the way the National Party says it would be more rigorous, and more thriftily efficient in running social programmes that – left to its own devices – a National government would never have funded at all in the first place. From mental health to education, National is posturing as an inherently better manager of stuff that it totally neglected to do when it had the chance.

The latest example of this “ OK, that’s good, but we would have done it better” fantasy came a few days ago, after the government announced an all-up $88 million package of initiatives aimed at boosting student attendance, and keeping at-risk kids at school. To much the same end, the government had previously announced a $50 million contestable fund to help schools and early learning services cope with the Covid pandemic.

In response, National claims it would have done the same, only earlier, and better, and more generously and would have thrown more teaching staff at the problem while also demanding far greater accountability etc. etc. etc. Dream on:

National Party education spokesperson Erica Stanford said the Government should have made this investment, and more, at the start of the pandemic. “National have been calling over the last two years for more early intervention, more boots on the ground, more accountability, more rigour in the system to make sure that those most vulnerable children have services wrapped around them to keep them engaged in school and that just didn’t happen,” she said.

These pretences have precious little to do with resolving actual problems faced by real people. The vulnerable are merely background scenery for National’s claims to be a better manager of the economy. One hears the same thing in party leader Chrisopher Luxon’s promise that he will be going“ line by line” through every item of government spending, presumably with the same rigour he showed while CEO at Air New Zealand – where he later claimed to have “ no recollection” of the airline’s commercial deal with the Saudi military.

The pantomime of National’s allegedly greater economic competence is bound to be played out again and again in coming weeks, during the debates over the Budget. Because… Finance Minister Grant Robertson has made it clear that a very large chunk of Budget spending this year will be devoted to finally dealing with the debts racked up by DHBs over recent decades. Essentially, DHBs had been forced to borrow in order to run a modern public health system on tick, given the systematic underfunding of their operations by successive governments.

The politicians responsible for this underfunding called it “ rigour” and “efficiency.” Since the mid 1980s, a series of National and Labour governments have kicked the can down the road on many of the nation’s pressing social problems. As Hayden Munro pointed out in an excellent piece on the weekend in the NZ Herald, we’ve been living for years with the consequences of this wilfully blind devotion to short-term thinking:

It’s worth spelling out explicitly what happened here: year after year politicians put less money into the health system than they knew was needed to pay for the care New Zealanders received. In doing so, they forced DHBs to borrow money to make up the shortfall. The health sector, caught between cutting services that save lives, and putting those services on the credit card, chose the credit card… [The politicians] could pass the problem on to the future for someone else to deal with, ironically couching what they were doing in the language of fiscal discipline and responsibility.

It meant they got to stand up in election debates and campaign on “keeping a lid on spending”, “finding efficiencies” and “making room for tax relief”. So, all the while, the unpaid bill only got bigger and bigger.

As Munro says, it isn’t only in health that we have seen this same ill-fated tendency:

On issue after issue, an unwillingness to invest money when it was needed has left us facing worse problems later. We didn’t build enough houses and now we have a housing crisis that’s the number one cause of domestic inflation. We wanted to keep council rates low so we didn’t invest in our pipes and now every week there’s a new story about infrastructure failing or people getting sick. We didn’t want to invest in public transport and now our cities are choking on congestion. People are seeing that if you ignore problems, they get worse in the long run.

Signs of hope do exist. Currently, Luxon is having some problems in selling New Zealand on another fix of its opiate of choice – tax cuts – as if this amounts to a rigorous, level-headed response to the country’s problems. (It looks a lot more like the same old pathway to oblivion). If National‘s tax proposals are meant to be an example of Luxon’s level of maturity and economic competence, the country plainly can’t afford to have a fling with him. As Munro concludes:

With all the big problems facing the country right now, it just doesn’t seem like the most urgent thing we need is a $270,000 a year tax cut for the CEO of Air New Zealand. In fact, it smacks of exactly the type of short-term philosophy that led to many of these big problems building up in the first place.

Amen to that.

Celebrating “ Louie, Louie”

Sometimes, this column ends with a music clip from Youtube, or a Spotify playlist. Well, the music footnote today is bigger than the rest of the column. That’s because I’ve only belatedly made a discovery of the FBI file on their investigation into the alleged obscenity of the 1963 hit song ” Louie Louie ” by a garage band called the Kingsmen. (More on that FBI file below.)

From the outset, the odds against success had been stacked against the Kingsmen. Jack Ely, the lead singer had lost his voice at a gig the night before after doing an extended version of the song, always a crowd favourite. Ely also had braces on his teeth, and he didn’t really know all the words anyway, since he’d learned some of them phonetically.

In the studio, there was only one microphone set up high on the wall, so Ely ended up shouting/slurring at the mike in order to be heard, with the end result that the lyrics – they’re about a sailor pining for his beloved – were only occasionally intelligible.

Despite the million to one odds, the record became a massive hit that forced the FBI into action on behalf of the nation’s scandalised parents. At the time though, the Kingsmen were widely considered to be only the second best band in the smallish city of Portland, and their version happened to be the second rendition of the same obscure 1950s song to be recorded in the same studio in the same week by the same engineer, who much preferred the version he’d just done with the BEST band in town, Paul Revere and the Raiders.

One of the Kingsmen’s big breaks came six months after the initial release, when a DJ in Boston picked it for his ” Worst Record of the Week” slot. The next morning, thousands of people tried to buy the record in Boston. It has since become one of the most influential pop records of all time – e.g. the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” – and thousands of cover versions have been recorded, with almost all of them being modelled on the Kingsmen version. It has also inspired the annual “ Louie, Louie “ street parade in Peoria, Illinois. Globally, International “Louie Louie” Day is celebrated every year on April 11.

Obscenity phases and phrases

The fact the song was accidentally incomprehensible worked heavily in its favour. By the end of 1963, some enterprising US high school kids had started selling in schools a lyric sheet purporting to contain the “real” dirty lyrics that the Kingsmen were supposedly pouring into the ears of America’s youth. This set off a moral panic across the nation. Were, for instance, the Kingsmen singing this Jamaican mariner’s lament:

Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair

Or heavens to Betsy, were they really singing :

” Tonight at ten I’ll lay her again

We’ll fuck your girl and by the way

And on that chair I’ll lay her there

I felt a bone-ah in her hair..”

Room for debate, clearly. Indiana banned it from the airwaves anyway, just to be sure. The FBI was tasked with trying to decipher the lyrics. The file includes a letter written on February 7,1964 by an anxious parent to Attorney-General Robert Kennedy:

My daughter brought home a record of ‘Louie Louie”’ and I…proceeded to try and decipher the jumble of words. The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not enclose them in this letter….I would like to see these people, The ‘artists,’ the record company and the promoters prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We all know there is obscene materials available for those who seek it, but when they start sneaking in this material in the guise of the latest teen rock & roll hit record these morons have gone too far.

This land of ours is headed for an extreme state or moral degradation what with this record, the biggest hit movies and the sex and violence exploited on T.V. How can we stamp out this menace? ? ? ?

FBI operatives in several states took the Kingsmen’s 45 rpm single into their laboratories. They sped it up to 78, and played the tape back at 33. After more than two years of work running to a file of 119 pages, the FBI concluded that the record was unintelligible at any speed, and therefore could not be legally held to be obscene.

The agency had faced a quandary. If the record WAS obscene, could the FBI itself be accused of conveying obscene material across state lines? Each FBI office put on the case was told to buy its own copies to test, and destroy them afterwards. One of the many allegedly “real” lyric sheets (that inspired the moral panic) was to be kept in an envelope pre-cleared for that purpose.

One strange thing about all this is that when I’d bought my copy in the mid 1960s, there was a point where the word” fuck!” can be plainly heard. Since then, I’ve learned that the drummer, Lynn Easton, had tried to play a break and got his sticks tangled up, during the solitary rendition of the song the Kingsmen could afford. They were forced to pay for the session themselves, because their manager had thought the result was so terrible, the bill was on them.

Yet the FBI makes no mention of this audible obscenity, which suggests they somehow managed to miss it entirely.

Footnote One: At the time, the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was incredibly zealous about its mission – inherited from the BBC’s Lord Reith – to protect the nation’s youth from the morally corrosive harms posed by rock’n’roll music. There is a column in itself to be written about the bizarre rulings made by the NZBC committee responsible for the banning/purchasing decisions, which extended to putting airplay restrictions on certain children’s records.

It is therefore somewhat surprising that the NZBC didn’t ban “Louie Louie” outright. Because the NZBC took so many of its cues from the BBC, it may be relevant that the Kingsmen’s US hit peaked at only 26 on the British charts, so the moral panic never really got off the ground in the Mother Country – and therefore never happened here either. Besides, the world was besotted with the Beatles at the time, so who cared about anything else?

Footnote Two: The NZBC’s bans and airplay restrictions were truly bizarre. For example: the NZBC committee banned on indecency grounds the Manfred Mann rendition of the Bob Dylan song “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night”. It also banned Simon & Garfunkel’s “ Cecilia” for that verse about making love in the afternoon in the bedroom, what with Cecilia having replaceable lovers. Yikes, such depravity. Weirdly, “ The Twist” by Chubby Checker was also banned for unknown reasons, even though a local cover version by Herma Keil was permitted.

The children’s records? The NZBC was deeply opposed to exposing the nation’s children to American accents. Bugs Bunny was banned. So, eventually, was a popular children’s record called “Susie the Little Blue Coupe” because it featured the American pronunciation “Coop” rather than the more correctly accented “Coop-ay.” The excellent Orson Welles/Bing Crosby reading of the Oscar Wilde story “The Happy Prince” was eventually banned after parents complained that their children were being reduced to tears by it. And so on.

Footnote Three: Finally, and for the historical record, ” Louie Louie” had been written by the black Los Angeles musician Richard Berry, who based it on the intro to “El Loco Cha Cha” by the bandleader Rene Touzet. Berry’s recording was a minor rhythm and blues regional hit in 1957. For completists, that’s Richard Berry singing as“Henry” in the call and response with Etta James on her 1950s hit “ Roll With Me Henry” that was featured in the 1980s time travel film Back to the Future…

Crucially, Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” single had been taken to the Pacific northwest by another black musician called Ron Holden, and the song became a small local hit in 1961 for Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers. The song quickly became embedded in the live sets of several bands in the Portland/Tacoma region and clearly, the Roberts version( accessible here) was the template for the Kingsmen version, right down to the bratty call of “Lets give it to ‘em raht now !”

Reportedly, Richard Berry had sold the original copyright to the song for $750. By the early 1990s, Berry finally began to derive some small financial share in the millions of dollars his song had generated. Berry lived long enough to enjoy some of the benefits before he died in January 1997. Co-incidentally, he died one day after the death of Ron Holden, the guy who had taken his composition to the Pacific northwest, and put it in reach of the white kids who made it famous.

Here’s “Louie Louie” at its primal best. BTW, the expletive occurs at about 52 seconds into the track, but the band soldiers on regardless.