Boomers Gave the Peace Sign More Than a Chance

One of the most recognizable symbols of 1960s Baby Boomers was the peace sign. It was a circle divided vertically in half, with each side having an angled division forming an inverted “v” about a third of the way up from the bottom. Many people, however — including boomers — may not know the origins of this ubiquitous symbol of our Generation.

The peace sign, as we call it, didn’t start out as a symbol for peace at all, but rather, a symbol for nuclear disarmament. After World War II, the Soviet Union set about building their own nuclear weapon, and was successful in 1949. The United Kingdom became the third country possessing nuclear weaponry in 1952, while France jumped in as the fourth country to possess nuclear capabilities in 1960 and China became the fifth country in 1964. As each country wanted their own nuclear device, in the thinking that that would act as a deterrent against another country’s aggression, each country acquired more, prompting the other countries to increase their stockpile. This rapid rise of nuclear stockpiles — especially between the U.S. and Soviet Union — lead to the Arms Race.

This world-wide activity was not universally accepted by the masses in each country, so a grass-roots protest movement began to rise to remind people of the horrors inflicted with the use of the weapons against Japan. In England, a group called the Direct Action Committee, in conjunction with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament planned a protest march in April of 1958 from London’s Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. One member of the group, Gerald Holtom, was an artist and designer who thought that a common symbol worn by the marchers would help unify the movement. He drew the now famous symbol, based on the “n” and “d” of semaphore flag signaling, grabbing the initials from the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” In this messaging system, the sender positions two flags to indicate letters. The letter “n” is formed by holding both flags downward at an angle. The positioning for the letter “d” is one flag straight up, and the other straight down. Combine the semaphore “n” and “d” and you have the “peace” symbol. Holtom drew a circle around it to balance the design. Eric Austen took Holtom’s drawing and made ceramic badges for the group to wear. These circular buttons were composed of a white glazed background with the nuclear disarmament symbol painted in black glaze. A thin black circle surrounded the edge of the button. Holtom’s original design now resides in the Peace Museum in Bradford, England.

original peace symbol with variations
The first drawing by Gerald Holtom (as pictured by Mister B in the top left) had little flares capping the ends of each line, and a thinner circle encompassing the design. Once it was adapted in the U.S. all types of variations were born, from simple straight lines within a same-thickness circle to oval-shaped symbols made into pendants, and elaborate colorations in stickers and buttons.

So how did this nuclear disarmament symbol become the symbol of the American anti-war movement? In 1958 an American pacifist named Albert Bigelow — himself a World War II Navy captain — sailed his boat the Golden Rule in the vicinity of nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands, with the symbol on his sail. The U.S. Coast Guard intervened and he was briefly jailed.

In 1960, a student form the University of Chicago named Philip Altbach was in England to meet with British peace groups as a delegate from the Student Peace Union (SPU). On his return to the U.S., he persuaded the SPU to adopt the symbol for their own purposes since it had not been trademarked or patented. They did so by producing buttons to sell as a fundraising effort for their cause. Between 1960 and 1964, the group sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses across the country. As TV coverage of protests rose, the symbol became synonymous with demonstrators who wore the buttons and drew the symbol on banners. It had made the transition from “nuclear disarmament” to a more widespread anti-war sentiment, which then made its way back to Europe and rest of the world.

Mister Boomer knew back then that the symbol we called a “peace sign” was actually intended for nuclear disarmament. He used to remark how the symbol looked like a missile on a launch pad. He did not know the details of the story, though, until now!

What was your connection to the peace sign, boomers? Did you buy a button, wear it on a t-shirt or around your neck as a pendant?

Boomers Loved the Mystique of “Louie Louie”

Richard Berry wrote “Louie Louie” in 1955, a song about a sailor from the Caribbean pouring his heart out about missing his faraway love to a bartender named Louie. Originally performed in the style of a Jamaican ballad, the song was performed by many different groups. As was the custom in the 1950s and ’60s, groups would record other songwriters’ material, putting their own stamp on the performance.

In October of 1963 The Kingsmen from Portland, Oregon, released their version of “Louie Louie” on the Jerdan/Wand label. It turned the Jamaican ballad into a slapdash, raucous, garage-rock sound with a distinctive guitar line and raspy vocals. Lead singer Jack Ely has stated that the record was cut in one session, with a single microphone suspended above the band, which resulted in the record’s raw sound.

At first, the record wasn’t going anywhere. The band was so distraught over the poor sales that they considered disbanding. Then a Boston DJ named Arnie Ginsburg featured it as his “Worst Record of the Week,” and instead of deriding it, the public took notice. By end of October it was charting. Soon after, it hit number one and spent 16 weeks on the Hot 100 Cashbox list, and became a favorite at teen parties.

Then the controversy began. Word spread among teens that the lyrics to the song were actually dirty. Supposed lost copies of the “real” lyrics surfaced from coast to coast, as teens passed copies of imagined lyrics to one another in classrooms. When the daughter of a teacher in Sarasota, Florida brought the record home, her father decided he’d better see what his daughter was listening to. His conclusion was the song was “obscene,” so in January of 1964 he wrote a letter to the Attorney General of the United States, Robert Kennedy.

Here is a copy of the actual letter sent to Attorney General Robert Kennedy from the FBI archives, along with Mister Boomer’s copy of The Kingsmen’s 45 rpm record.

The teacher’s letter ended with:“This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of 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???” Echoes of how rock ‘n roll was destroying our society from parental protests in the 1950s were still fresh in the minds of many older people — and government officials.

Buzz continued to build that the song was obscene, so it was banned by many radio stations across the country, and personally banned by the governor of Indiana. The Attorney General had no choice but to turn the case over to the FBI for investigation of its alleged “hidden pornographic meaning.” For the next 31 months the FBI conducted an intense investigation, interviewing the original songwriter Rick Berry, Kingsmen band members — including singer Jack Ely — and parents of teens. The FBI labs also played the song repeatedly at different speeds. The result 119 pages later? The official report lists the lyrics as “unintelligible at any speed.” The government ruled on May 13, 1964, that there was no basis to the allegations, but complaints persisted to J. Edgar Hoover.

Paul Revere & the Raiders recorded the song before The Kingsmen in April 1963. After a slow start, it was re-released in June 1963 and got to be number one in the West and Hawaii, but Columbia Records pulled the recording back at the insistence of Mitch Miller, then a Columbia A&R man, who hated rock ‘n roll. Even though the song was charting, it was not as popular as The Kingsmen’s version was to be six months later — and with no public controversy attached to it.

Lyrics notwithstanding, the song as recorded by The Kingsmen was extremely influential in the world of rock ‘n roll. It has been said that “Wild Thing” by The Troggs was an attempt to capture that raw energy exuded by “Louie Louie.” Ray Davies of The Kinks has written that when he wrote the hit, “You Really Got Me,” he was really trying to work out the chords to “Louie Louie.” The lead-in guitar line is one of the most memorable in rock history. Certainly boomers can name that tune after hearing just the “ner, dut dut dut, dut dut…” opening.

The song has been recorded more than 1,600 times, and continues to be popular, but the history of the song in our boomer years transcended mere music. The writing was on the wall that rock ‘n roll was here to stay.

Did you see — or pass around — a copy of the “real” “Louie Louie” lyrics, boomers?