A Tale Of Two Trainwrecks

Why the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and Asia’s “Heat Of The Moment” are cosmic musical brethren

If you aren’t aware of the back story behind the Kingsmen’s classic and ridiculously controversial 1964 hit, “Louie Louie,” let me clue you in because it’s both hilarious and key to understanding the main thrust of this post.

The Kingsmen were a group basically born of two high school friends, singer/guitarist Jack Ely and drummer Lynn Easton. Ely heard an earlier version of “Louie Louie” when it got played on a jukebox in a local bar over and over. Noticing the response it got, he convinced the rest of the band to record the song. The recording of the song that we all know and love was a supposed warm-up, complete with a blown re-entry coming after the solo section. With only three microphones in the studio, Ely was forced to lean back against the wall and basically scream the song, a task made more difficult by the fact that he was wearing braces at the time. And so a garbled, indistinct practice take became a stone rock ‘n’ roll classic. You probably know some version of this story already.

What you probably didn’t know is that around the time “Louie Louie” began to climb the charts, Easton’s mother, who had registered the name of the group, decreed that her son was to be the group’s lead vocalist and frontman, and Ely – the singer and person who brought the song to the group – would be relegated to the drums. Ely understandably quit, and the aftermath of “Louie Louie” brought about various legal wranglings between the two parties which happily were resolved at least partially in Ely’s favor – he got a label credit and Easton had to stop lip syncing his performance.

Who You Are Is How You Play

Now something that many musicians quickly find out is your playing style is very much an extension of your personality. If you are one of the rare 18 year-olds who doesn’t need to project your ego and understands that playing tastefully with good time and tone is more important then shredding, you are likely going to find yourself employed early, often, and for most of the rest of your life. Most of us weren’t that evolved at that age, and well-balanced people tend to not go into the entertainment industry, so music expression tends to manifest as various subtle and not-so-subtle ego projections. Some are entertaining. Some aren’t. And so goes rock ‘n’ roll.

Every time I go into a music store, be it here or in Asia, I’m presented with incontrovertible evidence that most nascent musicians are only interested in how much they can show off ineptly. Never does a drummer get try out a kit with a tasty, Al Jackson, Jr.-type 2/4 beat. Nahh. It’s some kind of wanna-be Primus triplet-on-the bass drum wankery.

So, what does this have to do with “Louie Louie”? Well, if you have a young man behind the drums who wants to be the lead singer so badly that he is ready to throw out the guy that brought them their one and only hit, that’s gonna manifest in his drumming.

Now of course “Louie Louie” is a situation where everyone is bashing away and we can’t expect a Wrecking Crew-like sense of precision from the band. But there’s a basic job that a drummer has: keep time. And of all places, what is the one place that a drummer should not go off on a Gene-Krupa-falling-down-the-stairs routine? When someone else is taking a solo, and thus breaking time themselves.

So now let’s return to “Louie Louie”, a song you’ve heard a million times already, but focus your attention on something you may not have noticed. If I’ve coded this right, the video will start at the beginning of the guitar solo (1:27). Ignore that and zero in as best you can on what the drums are doing behind that. I’ll wait.

Finished? OK, now depending on how good your ears are, you may or may not have noticed that throughout the guitar solo there is also ONE CONTINUOUS DRUM SOLO, where Easton repeatedly drops the beat and/or finishes the fill on something other than the “1” of the bar. This section goes on for more than 30 seconds, or about 20% of the entire recording.

Now even by the standards of a young band doing a warm-up take in a studio in the early ’60s, this is a WTF moment. I mean, come on, your buddy is taking a solo and you decide rather than holding down some semblance of a beat you need to take a solo too? For the entirely of the passage? If it weren’t for Don Gallucci’s heroic and insistent comping on the Wurlitzer electric piano, the entire track would completely fall apart at this point, and if the mics had been balanced a bit differently so that Easton’s ineptitude wasn’t drowned out by the guitar solo, “Louie Louie” might never have come to pass either. (Gallucci incidentally was also forced out of the group around this time, as was bassist Bob Nordby, though the former later had a distinguished career as a musician/producer, notably for the Stooges – he and Ely wrote “Louie Louie’s” B-side but Easton – surprise – claimed label credit)

“Louie Louie” is a story of an accidental rock ‘n’ roll classic, still one of the most vital records of all time. But it’s also the story of a drummer that wanted to be a lead singer and failed at job one, which was keeping time and shutting up when someone else in the band was taking a solo. If one of those three microphones had been placed a little closer to his kit, it might have prevented the hit.

Easton was just a young man at the time, not even a professional musician really. I’m sure he grew into a fine man whose kids and grandkids loved him. Any young man, excited by the thrill of being in a studio to cut a record could get caught up in, ahem, the heat of the moment. Surely a more experienced player, in a more sophisticated, corporate-controlled era, would never make the same mistake. Surely…

Telling Me What Your Heart Meant

In the 20 years that followed the fateful session of “Louie Louie,” rock ‘n’ roll had moved on in increasingly technically proficient ways, giving rise to the antithesis of garage rock’s sloppy but concise abandon: bands like Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant and King Crimson pioneered a new genre of instrumentally fluent, precise, complex (and it must be said often tiresome) music form that came to be known as progressive rock. Then in 1976-79 came yet another revolution rejecting that approach in favor of the more basic rock ‘n’ roll that bands like the Kingsmen helped define. Punk rock and new wave pushed aside the “dinosaur”, “bloated” acts of the 1970s, and at the dawn of the ’80s, these musicians faced questions about how to ply their trade in the new environment.

Record companies also wanted in on this action, because despite changing music trends, there was still a huge fan base, and thus punters to sell to, if these legacy musicians could be repackaged in some way that fit in with the cultural zeitgeist. This led to many reimaginations, some controversial but intriguing (Trevor Rabin’s Yes, King Crimson’s reinvention as a quirky pop band), some wildly successful but anaethema to the band’s original mission statements (looking at you Genesis, and I’d argue even Chicago – pretty proggy at the beginning – fits this definition), and some simply patently absurd (hello, GTR, or Yes In Name Only’s Union album).

Somewhere at the beginning of this transmogrification, and falling towards the latter end of this spectrum, came a band called Asia. This band included members of the entire big three of prog rock: King Crimson, ELP, and Yes, and record company sales divisions rejoiced mightily. This was one of the first of a new wave of purpose-built supergroups that had as much to do with marketing as it did with music expression.

Asia’s mission, such as it was, was to merge the florid playing styles of prog rock with the more concise technology-driven sound of ’80s pop-rock that was beginning to emerge. Their first album came out in March 1982 and immediately yielded a huge and enduring cheesy hit: “Heat Of The Moment.”

Much like the Kingsmen, the lead singer of this and the hits that followed, bassist John Wetton, was forced out of the group within a year, leaving Asia to soldier on for a few more years (with Greg Lake of ELP, natch, first taking Wetton’s place) in various cobbled-together forms before breaking up in 1985. Also like the Kingsmen, they reformed later in the ’80s and continue to play on into the present day in various confurations. I am, of course, leaving a lot out for the sake of brevity and because as worthy as John Payne et al may be, it’s beyond of the scope of this little blog.

No, let’s get back to the main point, which is why “Heat Of the Moment” and “Louie Louie” have more in common than just being the first and best-remembered hits by unstable bands with likely ego issues.

Emerson, Lake and Easton

By the time of “Heat Of The Moment,” drummer Carl Palmer had had a distinguished and long career as the polyrhythmic progressive propulsion (ooh! alliteration!) behind the trio of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (see “ELP” above), not to mention a stint backing English eccentric Arthur Brown.

One would thus assume that Palmer, at age 32, was a seasoned pro who knew what to do behind a kit…and failing that, in the increasingly corporate world of early ’80s music biz, whoever was manning the boards would ensure that the various prog musicians that amalgamated to make the first Asia album would be able to at least hold the groove together…particularly on their crucial first single.

Ah, but let’s enjoy “Heat Of The Moment” again, shall we? Like “Louie Louie,” you’ve heard it a million times. But let’s again focus in on the guitar solo. We begin at Palmer’s fill at 2:40, which with its continuous, gratuitous use of toms and general rushing of the beat may sound vaguely familiar to those of you that clicked on the “Louie Louie” link above. And instead of focusing in on Steve Howe’s solo, pay attention to Palmer’s non-anchoring underneath.

OK, so let’s be fair: Palmer isn’t exactly soloing all the way through the guitar solo, but neither do we have Don Gallucci’s pounding Wurlitzer to give us some sense of exactly where the beat is. There’s a mushy wall of keyboards and rhythm guitars failing to articulate any pulse (though it does sound like there’s some sort of unnecessarily lurching keyboard rhythm buried deep underneath it all, so even at the track’s root there’s no straight time happening), and a Howe solo that alternately meanders and then, at the end, collapses into a cascade of notes that is as far behind the beat as Palmer is ahead, barely articulating in the time allotted.

Now, it’s not that Howe’s solo sucks. It wanders around, more like a series of unrelated ideas that follow on one another than an actual composition (which it must have been), but it’s at least interesting. It doesn’t, however, follow very strict time. It demands some sort of frame of reference and a degree of attention to really focus on it. Something like a driving 2/4, a straight bass drum pulse, quarter notes on the ride…somebody in the band keeping f**king time.

And with the bass trebly and inaudible (as was the wont in the ’80s), what do we get from Palmer throughout?

BOOM tap! BOOM BOOM dadaladda da, with just enough variation on the snare “dadaladda da” paradiddles to prevent any actual repetition from happening, so that the listener can never get any kind of bearings as to WTF is going on.

This transpires all the way through Howe’s solo, getting fractionally ahead on each bar, until it ends with a busy fill exactly at the time Howe’s trying to finish up with as many notes as possible. Where in the hell is the beat here? As egregious as Easton’s grandstanding on “Louie Louie” is, at least there’s no question as to where the quarter notes fall (even as Easton is ignoring them). With everyone playing at once, and Palmer crowding time throughout, it’s as clumsy as arythmic as any week warrior bar band.

But it gets worse. Give Easton this: When “Louie Louie’s” solo part is over, he offers us an impressively apocalyptic fill that brings the band crashing back into the verse (albeit finishing early, but whatevs). As soon as that happens, “Louie Louie” is right back on the money. However, as soon as the solo section theoretically ends on “Heat Of The Moment,” the horror just compounds itself.

Wetton comes back in to sing the song’s catchy chorus, with its satisfying block harmonies, but Howe and Palmer don’t stop. Howe continues to noodle in increasingly ridiculous fashion while Palmer’s stuttering non-beat also continues to rush the groove until the song mercifully (and quickly) fades out. If you listen closely to the backing keyboards, it’s a bit comical to hear them trying desperately to establish some sense of rhythmic clarity on the changes, but sorry to say, a string patch is no match for a Wurlitzer in that regard.

The closing minute of “Heat Of The Moment” is an utter musical trainwreck, a close cousin to the near-collapse that’s the centerpiece of “Louie Louie.” Except in Asia’s case, it was perpetrated by experienced musicians with expert production. And unlike Kingsmen, they never reeled it back in. The catastrophe just goes on and on until the song fades into oblivion, and from the sound of it, the engineer got those faders down as fast as he possibly could, capturing another ridiculously inappropriate Palmer fill as he did.

And…both songs were monster hits. So in the immortal words of Bill Murray, “it just didn’t matter.”

But now you know why to me, “Louie Louie” and “Heat Of The Moment,” while miles apart in terms of style and aesthetic, are close musical cousins – hit songs where, for a significant part of the song’s duration, the band’s members forget to pay any attention to what the other is doing, or to the rudimentary restrictions of 4/4 time, and resolutely wander off into their own little worlds.

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