Lots of great guitarists have lots of different influences, but they all love Link Wray. I can’t prove it as a scientific fact, but just believe me on this. I first heard Wray’s trailblazing sound tearing up the two albums on which he partnered with Rockabilly legend Robert Gordon for his first two releases, Robert Gordon with Link Wray in 1977, and Fresh Fish Special in 1978. Man, I love both of those records! Right there, I’d say, are 20 of the most mind-blowing rock songs ever, that still sound as fierce and vital today as they did 40 years ago. And of course hearing all those killer tunes compelled me to go back to where Link Wray started, all the way back to 1958, when he unleashed the first of his many mighty instrumental hits, ‘Rumble.’ This one truly was revolutionary, and that’s no hyperbole. Officially recorded by Link Wray & His Ray Men, ‘Rumble’ popularized the “power chord,” soon the favored weapon of modern rock guitarists, and later facilitating the emergence of all kinds of other genres like punk and metal. If you can believe it, ‘Rumble’ just sounded so ferocious – without even having any words – that it was banned in New York and Boston after its release for fear it would incite teenage gang violence. True.
Over the years some fairly well-known rockers have attested to the impact of Wray and ‘Rumble.’ Pete Townshend was quoted as saying, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I never would have picked up a guitar.” Jimmy Page said Link Wray had a “real rebel attitude,” and as memorably seen in the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud he really did seem to enjoy his playing.¹ And Iggy Pop once added,“’Rumble’ had the power to help me say, fuck it, I’m gonna be a musician.”
This live ‘Rumble’ video clip is from a 1974 concert at the famed Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and although its awesomeness surely speaks for itself, I couldn’t help including a number of quotes from online commenters less acclaimed than Townshend, Page and Pop (but perhaps no less insightful). In sum: They also dug his sound, and apparently found him to be pretty cool.
“He literally came to kick ass and chew bubble gum.”
“He was cool before cool was cool.”
“An instrumental song that was banned because it was so dirty. Awesome.”
“So this is what “swagger” means.”
“That tone is just punishing.”
“Distortion + Power Chords = Rock!”
“When I first saw this cat, I told my wife “That’s what ‘cool’ looks like…Dig it.”
“Fonzie wishes he was this cool.”
“Look up ‘cool’ in the dictionary and it links to this.”
“One of the few, very rare, real, genuine, authentic, purebred, thoroughbred rockers, and he recorded this masterpiece way back in 1958. How could anyone possibly come up with such a thing in ancient times?”
“If there’s any song that personifies the true power of the electric guitar, it’s ‘Rumble.’ So simple, and yet so goddamn powerful.”
In 2005 Link Wray died at the age of 76. But two recent developments have brought him some much-deserved renewed attention. First, the award-winning 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World (Wray, I should have mentioned, was a Shawnee Native American). Check out the trailer here to see some of the artists not only influenced but awed by Wray’s eminence. And next, in April of 2018 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time began honoring individual songs in addition to artists at its 33rd annual induction ceremony. Among the 5 songs so recognized was ‘Rumble.’ In introducing this new category (and the inclusion of ‘Rumble’) Steven Van Zandt said, “We all know the history of music can be changed with just one song, one record. In three minutes we suddenly enter a new direction, a movement, a style, an experience. That three-minute song can result in a personal revelation, an epiphany that changes our lives.”
Or, Little Steven might have added, it could even wordlessly inspire teenage gangs to Rumble on.
¹Jimmy Page really likes ‘Rumble’ (and isn’t it hysterical seeing a real guitarist play air guitar?)