The Roots of Indie: Link Wray
Proto-punk: the primordial ooze from which the Rottens, Strummers and even the Billie Joes crawled. There is no punk without the Stooges and the Ramones, for example, but those bands had their influences, too: Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Dick Dale, the Who ...
Punk rock is inextricably tied to early rock and roll. As Jim Heath, a.k.a. the Reverend Horton Heat, told us recently, "Punk rock was a way for rock and roll to come back" from its dalliances in sub-genres like folk rock and prog. Where was the attitude? Where was the menace?
Look no further than Link Wray.
When "Rumble" was released in 1958, many radio stations banned it for fear that it may contribute to juvenile delinquency -- not bad for an instrumental. The song started life as "Oddball," but was renamed after Everly Brother Phil Everly suggested that it sounded like a street fight.
Wray's career began 10 years earlier, playing with a country swing outfit named Lucky Wray and the Lazy Pine Wranglers along with two of his brothers. Sometimes they went out as Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands, but it was the same band.
By the mid-'50s, brother Vernon was out on his own, and Link formed the Ray Men, who became the backing band for Washington D.C.'s Milt Grant Show. It was during one of these performances that "Rumble" was born. The Link Wray website describes the moment:
The legend goes that the Ray Men were backing up The Diamonds for one of Grant’s Record Hops, at the Fredericksburg Arena, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Link has said, when the band was onstage, Grant asked them to play a stroll. (“The Stroll” was one of The Diamonds’ hits.) Link said, “I don’t know no stroll,” but Doug started playing a stroll beat on the drums. According to Link, he said it was then that his “Jesus God” zapped “Rumble” into his head. The crowd went wild and the band played the instrumental four times that night.
One of the most sacred legends in rock and roll is that Kinks guitarist Dave Davies invented distorted guitar in 1964 when he took a razor blade to the cones in his amp before recording "You Really Got Me." With "Rumble," we have a precursor to that influential sound, and Wray got it in much the same way. When the band hit the studio to record their instrumental, the guitarist jabbed holes into the studio speakers with a pencil, and the distorted guitar was born.
The number of guitarists influenced by that track is, well, let's just round up to all of them. Iggy Pop told Stephen Colbert: "There was a guy named Link Wray and I heard this music in the student union at a university. It was called 'Rumble' and it sounded bad. I left school emotionally at the moment I heard 'Rumble.'"
The band's follow up single, "Rawhide," sounds like the Clash meet the Surfaris:
Wray's mother was Shawnee. He was proud of his Native American heritage, recording tracks with titles like "Comanche" and "Apache," and the Native American community reciprocated with an induction into the Native American Music Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hasn't been quite so generous, though he did make their list of nominees for 2014.
Like most of the freshman class of rock and roll, by the late '70s Wray's career was on the down slope, but that doesn't mean he wasn't productive. He hooked up with singer Robert Gordon and helped to get the rockabilly revival rolling. Give the drummer in this clip a little love, too: that's Anton Fig, longtime sideman for David Letterman.
In the '90s Wray got another trip around the board courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, who featured both "Rumble" and "Ace of Spades" in 1994's Pulp Fiction. He was still performing in his seventies, but heart failure took him down in 2005, age 76.
When Rolling Stone listed Wray at number 44 on their list of 100 greatest guitarists, they quoted the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach: "He was f----ng insane. would listen to 'Some Kinda Nut,' over and over. It sounded like he was strangling the guitar – like it was screaming for help."
In that same issue, the magazine quoted Pete Townshend as saying that ""If it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar." And if Pete never picked up a guitar there wouldn't have been a Who, and without the Who; well, that's a Roots of Indie story for another day.