Link Wray’s 1958 song “Rumble” remains the most dangerous-sounding instrumental blues vamp ever recorded, unmatched in its raw, slinky cool until, perhaps, John Lee Hooker’s Endless Boogie or the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. But unlike Lou Reed, Wray didn’t need lyrics about heroin addiction and sadomasochism to freak out the parents and turn on the kids. All he needed was his fuzzed-out guitar, soaking in reverb and tremolo, and a rhythm section with the minimalist instincts of Bo Diddley’s band, who were making a similar kind of sound at the same time “Rumble” hit the airwaves. But where Diddley’s songs invited listeners to dance, Wray’s “ragged, ominous chords, overdriven and dragged to a crawl,” wrote Rolling Stone, “sounded like an invitation to a knife fight.”
The song’s title capitalized on fifties panic over juvenile delinquency and gang violence, anxieties responsible for the popularity of entertainments like The Wild One, West Side Story, and Blackboard Jungle. Wray’s menacing, seductive song made the kids “go ape,” he said, the very first time he played it, improvising on the spot at a 1957 dance in Fredericksburg, Virginia, after the band received a request for a hit song they didn’t know how to play. Instead “Rumble” was born. In order to recreate the raucous, distorted sound of that first night in the studio, Wray famously punched holes in the speaker of his guitar amp and turned it into a fuzzbox, the first of its kind.
The gritty tune is said to be, writes critic and curator at the Library of Congress Cary O’Dell, “the connecting force between early blues guitarists and the later guitar gods of the 1960s (Hendrix, Clapton, Page.)” Wray was “the father of distortion and fuzz, the originator of the power chord and the godfather of metal. He seems to be as well the reason the world ‘thrash’ was invented, or at least applied to music.” These are large claims indeed, but Wray’s raunchy, shimmering guitar sounds like nothing that had come before it, and a harbinger of so much to come. Jimmy Page has described hearing “Rumble” as a pivotal moment. Iggy Pop credits it as the reason he became a musician.
Like all the best rock and roll, Wray’s brief masterpiece had the power to shock and upset the squares. The song was banned from radio stations in New York and Boston for fear it might actually incite gang violence—the first and only instrumental song to be banned from the air. “Rumble” acquired its name from the stepdaughter of Archie Bleyer, who released it on his Cadence Records. It reminded her, she said, of West Side Story’s gang fights, portrayed in the memorable Act I dance scene called “Rumble.” No other piece of music lived up better to radio network Mutual Broadcasting System’s 1958 description of the “distorted, monotonous, noisy music” they wanted to get rid of. The network meant these as derogatory terms, but they are high virtues in so much great rock and roll, and few songs have embodied them better than Wray’s biggest hit.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
One thing unmentioned is that Link Wray was from Memphis TN a city heralded for the blues and the birthplace of Rock n roll but some of its later musical inventiveness has been over looked such as Link Wray as the godfather of heavy metal. (as mentioned here) Big Star as the godfather’s of alternative rock and lets not forget 3 six mafia as the godfather’s of trap. Memphis’ musical legacy runs much deeper than more heralded music cities such as Nashville or Austin, you might wonder why that is……
Love the Danelectro Longhorn guitar in the photo.
I’m sorry guys but please tell me that you know that the title to this piece is wrong…it should be ‘the only instrumental song EVER banned from radio, not EVERY! Am I losing my mind here? Is it bots writing, or just super non native speakers, I’m ok with either, just fix it.
“…the popularity of entertainments like The Wild One, West Side Story, and Blackboard Jungle.”
Presumably reference is to the 1957-1959 Broadway stage production of WSS (Cadence Records was in NYC) — the film version of the musical play didn’t come out until 1961.
Link was from North Carolina/ Virginia, not Memphis.
On this wonderful site I have just discovered I listen to an old familiar sound. In the 70s when I was living near Wash DC I used to go this bar/lounge (somewhere near the canal in Georgetown and under the highway) whose name I have forgotten. There I would revel in the likes of Link Wray. Back then the place was known for Rockabilly, another thing Wray was the father of. In the 70s THE guy was Robert Gordon and there was another one with some name like Wild…..something. I could not find his name online anywhere. Even younger I listened to Ricky Nelson whom I still mourn but he certainly sounds tame in comparison to the others. You can still get Rumble on Spotify. Thanks.
If anyone wonders where they’ve herd it more recently… Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos, Independence Day, etc.
Link was born in Dunn NC, began playing music in Portsmouth VA, before heading to the D.C. area to make a name for himself.
Link Wray was ahead of his time. Maybe next year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will finally catch up to him.
For more on Link – LinkWray.com
The riff was so good, Richard Thompson nicked it for his 1982 stunning track Shoot out the Lights
Do you mean Webb Wilder?
Geeeeze . . . I have this album!
He lived in Accokeek Maryland for quite a while. His brother had a barbershop there.
One slight, nerdy exception I have to make. It’s not fuzz, it’s distortion. Believe it or not, there is a difference.
I love it. Too bad it did continue into infinity. I’ll have to do something about it.