“Link Wray and Gene Vincent… two of the great unknowns of rock ‘n’ roll.” – John Lennon
Few tracks have the influence and life experience of the only instrumental song in existence ever to be banned. If you can garner red tape and a tribe of musical disciples through a simple riff and drum roll, then you know you are propagating something sordid from the upper reaches of the rarefied realm we call energy and atmosphere.
“There was a guy named Link Wray,” Iggy Pop begins, “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 future didn’t involve the university. “I left school emotionally at the moment I heard ‘Rumble’,” he concludes.
The story behind the song is cast in legend. Apparently, Link Wray was playing at some sort of fare in an early incarnation of his known as The Ray Men. A DJ asked his band to play ‘The Stoll’ by The Diamonds, Link Wray agreed, but having never heard of the song he and his bandmates found themselves in a sink or swim predicament. Thus, in a glorious ratification of the old adage of ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, if you wanted to be bold you could easily declare that the necessity of invention spawned one of the most influential cornerstones in rock history – and you don’t have to take my word for it, there’s a legion of the biggest stars in music in line to back me up.
Wray’s brother, Doug, who in various corroborated reports sounds like a sticksmith who drummed louder than a hurricane passing over a rattle factory, beat out a rhythm with the wrong end his sticks and Wray strummed out a few heavy sustained vibrato-laden chords which is how he imagined a song called ‘The Stroll’ to sound (it doesn’t). In order to hear the guitar over the pounding beat that Doug was mercilessly concocting, a microphone was placed in front of the punctured amplifier and the blown-out sound caused a frenzy amid the exhilarated crowd as they basked in a sonic boom that would later become known as ‘Rumble’. Although the song would weave its own mystic journey thereafter, it was eventually foisted upon the world in 1958 and it has been blowing minds and amps ever since.
In the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page risks the potential embarrassment of an air guitar to show just how enamoured he is with the track. “I would listen to anything with a guitar on as a kid, anything that was being played and all those different approaches and the echoes, but the first time I heard the ‘Rumble’, that was something that had so much profound attitude to it.”
While the occult-fascinated Page doesn’t mention anything about the inherent “bad” sound that Iggy Pop elucidated earlier, Pete Townshend seconded its perturbing power when heralding the track in an interview: “I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard ‘Rumble’, and yet very excited by the guitar sound.” Adding on another occasion, “He is the king, if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar.”
If you need any more proof that of the sheer monolithic influence that Link Wray had in inventing the vocabulary of modern guitars then how’s about this praise from Neil Young: “If I could go back in time and see any band, It would be Link Wray and the Raymen.” And even Mark E. Smith, one of rock’s true misanthropic iconoclast who has even slandered the ever-giving rays of the sun, heaped praise on his hero when he met him in person: “You kept my head together for fuckin’ years, Link, when I was a teenager and in my 20s. You know, I like Elvis, I like Gene Vincent, but you were the one that kept me together. It is spiritual, it’s that Indian thing: DAANNNG! DA-NA-NAANNGG! If ever I thought about packing the business in, I’d put on ‘Rumble’, full fuckin’ blast.”
Need we say any more?