“It is the best of songs, it is the worst of songs,” writes rock journalist Dave Marsh in his indispensible 2004 tome Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ’n Roll Song. Marsh’s assessment is spot-on, of course, and on April 11—a date registered with and recognized by the National Special Events Registry and Chase’s Calendar of Events as officially being International “Louie Louie” Day—let us celebrate rock’s ultimate alpha-and-omega party anthem properly.
First, take a listen to the original calypso-tinged R&B sing-along “Louie Louie” by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs from 1957. Berry not only sings “Louie Louie,” he wrote it. His birthday is April 11, prompting its demarcation as International “Louie Louie” Day.
“Louie Louie” – Richard Berry and the Pharaohs
Inherent in Berry’s initial recording is an entire universe of musical possibilities. That luminous alpha-and-omega quality has also made “Louie Louie” the definitive go-to for bands to cover, ranging from the group just learning their instruments in a basement next door to superstars packing stadiums all over the planet.
For International “Louie Louie” Day, then, here’s a playlist of 11 killer covers, each one of which is a full-tilt rock-and-roll blowout in and of itself. Party on, everybody!
1. The Kingsmen (1963)
The first Pacific Northwest garage rock cover of “Louie Louie” to hit vinyl was by Tacoma, Washington’s Rockin’ Robin Roberts and the Wailers in 1961. While the record remained only a local hit, Roberts forever imprinted “Louie Louie” going forward with his own impromptu blurt, “Let’s give it to ’em, RIGHT NOW!”
Roberts’ version is the one on the minds of Portland, Oregon rabble-rousers the Kingsmen two years later when, for $50, nailed the definitive “Louie Louie”—as well as the Rosetta Stone for all garage rock to ever follow—in a single take.
Building off Don Gallucci’s Hohner Planet electric piano squeal, the Kingsmen collapse into a mighty heap of proto-punk perfection marked by Jack Ely’s bizarre vocals (“Lou-eye, Lou-EYE!”), Mike Mitchell’s shambolic guitar, and the gloriously psychotic drumming of Gary Abbott, who blows his entrance cue halfway through the song, prompting the band to distinctively cover for him.
That sonic misstep forever made “Louie Louie” the Kingsmen’s own, as future covers would typically recreate the odd timing as just part of the song. Abbott also managed to get a just barely audible “F—k!” on the record at the 0:56 mark, reportedly after he dropped his drumsticks.
The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” became the stuff of instant legend. Because the lyrics were so indecipherable (a fact credited to the studio mic being hung too high, as well as Jack Ely wearing braces), kids made up their own dirty words as they sang along. This epidemic kicked off a four-month FBI obscenity investigation, the final conclusion of which was that nobody could understand what Ely was singing.
As the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” took flight, the group’s Pacific Northwest friendly rival garage groups rushed out their own versions. The Sonics, from Tacoma, do a great version, while the Oregon-based Paul Revere and the Raiders pull off a take that almost rivals the Kingsmen’s—almost.
“Louie Louie” – Paul Revere and the Raiders
2. The Beatles (1969)
Ranked high because of its rareness and because, you know, it’s the Beatles, the group fell into an off-the-cuff exploration of “Louie Louie” during their notoriously tense Let It Be recording sessions. There’s not a whole lot here but, again: the is “Louie Louie” by the Beatles!
3. Led Zeppelin (1972)
During a loose moment during a concert in Los Angeles, Robert Plant introduces John Paul Jones on keyboards, and the mighty Led Zep takes full-strength flight into the heady pleasures of “Louie Louie.”
Plant honors the Kingsmen’s “Lou-EYE” pronunciation while Jimmy Page is all cascading guitar eruptions, and John Bonham goes full Gary Abbott. The interlude ends with Jones playing a bit of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” followed by some lovely improvisation on the organ.
4. Motörhead (1978)
Motörhead debuted on Bronze Records with a fairly straightforward cover of “Louie Louie.” Of course, it’s straightforward in the Motörhead sense of the term, meaning that it’s a punk-metal firestorm of “Fast” Eddie Clarke’s monster guitar, Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor recreating a dinosaur stampede on drums, and Lemmy up top, imbuing Richard Berry’s lyrical tale of romantic woe shared with a bartender with his one-of-a-kind dragon-fire vocals.
5. Joan Jett (1981)
Joan Jett’s landmark 1981 LP I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll reignited the pop charts with pure garage punk raunch, making “Louie Louie” a natural for her to cover during that period with the Blackhearts. Joan’s take on “Louie Louie” didn’t make the initial vinyl LP, but it was a popular rarity track and got included on the album’s 1992 CD reissue.
6. The Troggs (1966)
Proto-punk sludge beasts the Troggs turn their 1966 take on “Louie Louie” into a heavy-metal-forecasting feast of filth, fuzz, and greatness The Troggs’ signature anthem “Wild Thing” stands as the first huge rock staple to effectively rework “Louie Louie”’s unmistakable chord progressions into a glorious creation of its own perfect being.
Other famous tinkerings with the endlessly malleable bedrock “Louie Louie” formula of A-D-Em-D (x2) include “Hang on Sloopy” by the McCoys, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Rainbow, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
7. The Kinks (1964)
Among the aforementioned category of classics that initially sprung forth from “Louie Louie”’s foundation, the Kinks’ first hit, 1964’s “You Really Got Me.” towers most high.
In fact, Kinks leader Ray Davies says that he came up with the song’s famous power-intro while trying to hammer out the chords to “Louie Louie.” Just a few months after their breakthrough, the Kinks issued their own “Louie Louie” proper, and it rocks.
8. Black Flag (1981)
Hardcore buccaneers Black Flag emerged from the same primordial pool of off-the-rails wildman rock that first begat the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” It’s natural, then, that SoCal’s premiere punk-metal pioneers would tear through the song in concert and even laid down a blistering permanent take in 1981.
Black Flag’s “Louie Louie” first appeared as a single with Dez Cadena on vocals, adding his own lyrics that include the amazing couplet, “Who needs love/when you got a gun?/Who needs love/to have any fun?”
The song remained a staple of the group’s live set, and the band’s most familiar singer, Henry Rollins, added his own improvised-word version to the band’s 1986 parting shot of a live album, Who’s Got the 10½?
9. Iggy Pop and the Stooges (1976)
The raucous revolution launched from the Pacific Northwest by “Louie Louie” famously burned its way into the Midwest with the late-1960s arrival of hard rock brawlers on the first-class order of Alice Cooper, the MC5, and, of course, Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
In tribute to the primordial transformative power of “Louie Louie,” the Stooges included a version on their 1976 love album, Metallic K.O. It appears as the final song on the final record issued by the Stooges prior to their 2003 reunion. What a perfect parting shot.
On his 1993 solo album American Caesar, Iggy Pop covered “Louie Louie” again, this time swapping out imagined dirty words for a lyrical snapshot of the era’s political doings.
10. The Clash (1980)
The Clash recorded “Louie Louie” while making their sprawling 1980 triple-album, Sandinista! The finished version didn’t make the record’s final cut, but the Clash’s “Louie Louie” became a popular outtake after it landed on the bootleg compilation, Louie Is a Punkrocker. Other first wave punk titans who took a crack at “Louie Louie” include Blondie and the Patti Smith Group.
11. John Belushi (1978)
One of the key moments in the classic comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House depicts John Belushi as head fraternity animal Bluto Blutarski leading his Delta brothers in a falling-down-drunk “Louie Louie” sing-along.
For the soundtrack album, Belushi recorded his own studio version of “Louie Louie” that was released as a single and actually made it to #89 on the Billboard pop chart. A year or so later, Belushi’s rock star dreams would come more realistically true upon his donning the guise as half of the Blues Brothers.