Just as a penchant for pink trousers is a prerequisite for the upper classes, you can’t make good music without an inherent love of the artform; like Tom without Jerry, one simply cannot exist without the other. Over the year’s Bob Dylan has celebrated music in a very meta sense. With tracks like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘A Murder Most Foul’, he has crafted some of the most poetic odes to music and its essential place in our lives that have ever been written.
Paradoxically, however, he has often been guarded about heaping praise on specific songs and records. The Beatles might have called him an “idol” and a “hero”, but he did not openly return the favour. Instead, he reservedly kept his admiration close to his chest so as not to cause a big love-in and only retrospectively remarked: “I just kept it to myself that I really dug them.”
There is one track, however, that just about every musician under the sun has adorned with praise. Just as Dylan’s beloved Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said of the late Russian Literature explosion, “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat,” it would seem that Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ trampled the ground like a sordid storm from the upper reaches of some rarefied realm we call energy and atmosphere, and up jumped the hip creatures with a finger to the pulse of music and an ear for melody.
Bob Dylan is far from the only one to celebrate Wray’s Promethean sonic force. When it comes to the proto-everything song ‘Rumble’ from 1958; he joins a long list that includes Iggy Pop, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mark E Smith, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend… in lauding the only instrumental ever to be banned.
In fact, Iggy Pop even remarked: “There was a guy named Link Wray. I heard this music in the student union at a university. It was called ‘Rumble’ and it sounded baaad.” For Iggy Pop, this crystalising moment prognosticated his future in a sonic crystal ball and, needless to say, that his future didn’t involve going to university. “I left school emotionally at the moment I heard ‘Rumble’,” he concludes.
Dylan likewise would leave university when he saw that the birth of pop culture was the place to be. There were many artists who steered Dylan towards Greenwich Village and thereafter to pave the path into the future, but Wray is among the most important. Dylan not only dubbed the song the “finest instrumental ever”, but he also opened all five of his London shows in 2005 – shortly after the death of Link Wray – with his own rousing interpretation of the song that heaved a generation towards the heavier side of music.
Dylan has continued to pay tribute to the late great Link Wray throughout his career. On a few occasions, he has transposed ‘Cry Awhile’ to the tune of the classic ‘Rumble’. And in New York at the Beacon Theatre in 2018, he raced through this collision of song with the lightning strike introduction of: “The air is getting hotter, there is a rumbling in the skies.”
Few tracks in history have dealt the same cultural wallop as ‘Rumble’. And even though it is instrumental and Dylan rattles off words like a rapper of short stories, there is definitely a kinship between the voice of the generation and the voiceless song that helped to make millions sing; that same daring trailblaze into the future and the biblical atmosphere is at play. Dylan might have driven the freight train of pop culture forward with deepening introspection, but ‘Rumble’ helped to get the wheels in motion with a purified dose of rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere.