Hear the Only Instrumental Ever Banned from the Radio: Link Wray’s Seductive, Raunchy Song, “Rumble” (1958)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Gui­tar Effects That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Rock: The Inven­tion of the Wah-Wah & Fuzz Ped­als

The Bizarre Time When Frank Zappa’s Entire­ly Instru­men­tal Album Received an “Explic­it Lyrics” Stick­er

A His­to­ry of Rock ‘n’ Roll in 100 Riffs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (15) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (15)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Chris says:

    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.…..

  • Wayne Jordan says:

    Love the Dan­elec­tro Long­horn gui­tar in the pho­to.

  • Jeremy says:

    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.

  • outsiderart says:

    “…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.

  • Suburban kid says:

    Link was from North Carolina/ Vir­ginia, not Mem­phis.

  • Daniel Fulmer says:

    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.

  • Mark W says:

    If any­one won­ders where they’ve herd it more recent­ly… Pulp Fic­tion, The Sopra­nos, Inde­pen­dence Day, etc.

  • Greg Laxton says:

    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

  • Dave Walmsley says:

    The riff was so good, Richard Thomp­son nicked it for his 1982 stun­ning track Shoot out the Lights

  • William Lever says:

    Do you mean Webb Wilder?

  • jerry tschudin says:

    Geeeeze … I have this album!

  • Tom halpin says:

    He lived in Acco­keek Mary­land for quite a while. His broth­er had a bar­ber­shop there.

  • Details says:

    One slight, nerdy excep­tion I have to make. It’s not fuzz, it’s dis­tor­tion. Believe it or not, there is a dif­fer­ence.

  • J Rod says:

    I love it. Too bad it did con­tin­ue into infin­i­ty. I’ll have to do some­thing about it.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.