Its iconic lead line is that of pure and unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll legend, Link Wray’s effortlessly cool ‘Rumble’ is a song so doused in danger that it remains the only instrumental track to ever be banned from the radio. The song that made the kids “go ape” and was routinely highlighted as one of the most visceral songs of the century.
In the sixties and seventies when putting together songs that inflamed the dark side of teenage fans, many artists relied on evocative lyricism and scandalous performance. Link Wray, however, just used his reverb-dripping fuzz to generate the fury of the establishment and let his ominous arrangement of the classic song ‘Rumble’ do all the talking.
Wray and his band, The Wraymen, produced a track so deeply entrenched with the midnight risks of adolescents that they didn’t need words to get themselves banned from the radio, they just needed their simple rhythm and Wray’s generation-defining guitar. But while there are no lyrics to speak of, the title of the track offered everything you needed to know.
Once described by Rolling Sone as sounding “like an invitation to a knife fight,” the track’s title, ‘Rumble’ struck fear into the hearts of parents across America in the 1950s as its mood filled the room of every place it was played. A fear perpetuated by the gang violence of popular entertainment like The Wild One, West Side Story and many others.
The name of the song originated from the stepdaughter of Archie Bleyer, the head of Cadence Records who was releasing the song after saying it reminded her of West Side Story. In truth, it was a song born out of impromptu artistry rather than blood-stained riots or raucous behaviour.
The very first time the rock and roller played the tune at a dance in Fredericksburg, Virginia, back in 1957, the band were hit with the request to play a song they didn’t already know how to play. Instead, Wray began strumming out the now-iconic chords on the spot. Knowing he was on to something, Wray was keen to bring the track to the recording studio.
When he got there, the work to recreated the hall’s sound began. While engineers worked tirelessly, Wray famously punched holes through his amp and, in effect, created the first fuzzbox. A moment rock and roll will thank him for forever.
“It influenced Peter Townsend from The Who very much in his writing and pre-figured everything you heard after from AC/DC, the West Coast glam bands and punk rock,” forefather of punk, Iggy Pop said of the song. “And I just remember listening to it and thinking, ‘It’s simple! I could do that, that’s bad. It sounds bad.’”
Iggy Pop caught wind of the song while attending the University of Michigan in the ’60s and the juxtaposition of songs like this in a scholarly setting seemed to engage him, he continues: “And I was also thinking, ‘Why is this playing in the student union of an institute of higher learning?!’ That whole side of things interested me about early rock ‘n roll. The real raw down stuff.”
In 1958, the song was too raw for radio. The hit was banned in New York and Boston after fears grew that the track may incite gang violence. It remains to this day the first and only instrumental song to ever banned from the airwaves.
It was the epitome of rock and roll without ever having to utter a word and, surely, that is the most potent of performances.