Link Wray, a brief appreciation – by Ian Johnston

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“I used to have this thing about Link Wray, I used to play him every Saturday, God bless Saturday.” Lyric from ”˜Neighbourhood of Infinity’ by The Fall

Neil Young has been quoted as saying: “If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Raymen.” I would have to concur.

Frederick Lincoln ‘Link’ Wray Junior, a half-Shawnee Native American who passed out of this world just over five years ago on 5th November, 2005, aged seventy-six, shaped the course of what was once called Rock ‘N’ Roll. In these dark days of celebrated musical mediocrity, empty ‘artistic’ pretension, asinine stupidity and grovelling compromise (insert the names of your currently most despised bands/performers/’celebrities’ here), the memory of the late, great Link Wray, with his jet black quiff, black shades, black leather jacket and iconic Danlectro Longhorn guitar in hand, is perhaps even more potent.

Link Wray wasn’t here to mess around. He was here on business. Link Wray’s trade was distorted volume and he was still successfully plying his wares throughout America during his last summer. Like such Promethean talents as Johnny Cash, Ronnie ‘Rockin’ Bones’ Dawson or Hasil ‘She Said’ Atkins, all sadly departed, Link Wray didn’t have to pretend to be anything. Wray was simply a very cool but crazy individual with a rock solid original Rock ”˜N’ Roll vision. He was the real deal, one of the last of the good guys.

It was Link Wray’s grinding and utterly malevolent 1958 instrumental
‘Rumble’ that ignited his career and sent shock waves throughout popular music: ‘DRANG, DRANG, DRANG!’ A slow, tense, overdriven fuzz riff, which had the apt working title of ‘Oddball’, ‘Rumble’ defines the very essence of Rock ‘N’ Roll music; sex, violence and all manner of delinquent behaviour: ‘DRANG, DRANG, DRANG!’

‘Rumble’ must have presented every God-fearing, white, middle class, middle aged American parent who had the misfortune to hear it with visions of switchblade fights, greasy motorcycle gangs from ‘the wrong side of town’, leather jackets, chrome hot rods, bike chains and their precious sons and daughters seduction into a seedy underworld of vice, petty crime and reefer madness. In other words, their sweet offspring where mixing it up with non-Anglo, working class and underclass youth for elicit kicks. For younger ears that caught the tune, it embodied freedom and escape. Many radio stations refused to play ‘Rumble’. The few DJ’s who did play the track, such as Dick Clark, refused to even mention the title – “Here is a slow instrumental from Link Wray…” Such was the power of ‘Rumble’. Think about that for a while.

Against all odds, the record broke through. ‘Rumble’ by Link Wray and his Ray Men (sometimes billed Wraymen or Raymen), a highly ”˜uncommercial’ instrumental tune on the small independent Cadence records, receiving little airplay or support, was predictably a huge hit. A Capitol Records company rep had previously described a tape of ‘Rumble’ as a “death dirge” (accurate and a good alternative title, but he wasn’t being complimentary), while a Decca Records man offered the more esoteric assessment that the track sounded like “spaghetti strings.” As usual, those ‘in the know’ knew nothing. As the wise, ancient saying goes – opinions are like arseholes, everyone’s got one.

When Bob Dylan learnt of Wray’s death during his 2005 UK tour, the singer and his band played ‘Rumble’ at his opening night in Brixton. Dylan described the song as “the greatest instrumental ever written.” Perhaps Dylan had heard Wray’s spirited 1965 single cover of the songwriter’s classic ‘Girl From The North Country’ and this was payback time. Or maybe ‘Rumble’ had just helped changed the course of his life.

‘Rumble’ is so utterly simple that it manages to incorporate a descending Blues scale that would be included during the first lesson on the guitar and could be played by almost anyone. But consummate stylist Wray’s thrash execution and initial conception is everything. As Miles Davis was to the trumpet, Charles Mingus to the double bass and Jerry Lee Lewis to the piano, so Link Wray was to the electric guitar. It was part of his very being, an instrument through which he conveyed emotions that could not be so articulately expressed in either the written word or speech, such as on Wray’s bittersweet reverie, ‘Summer Dream.’ Or even in his definitive cover of Neil Hefti’s immortal ‘Batman Theme’.

Wray bridged the divide between the earliest mid 1950’s ‘white’ Rock ‘N’ Roll and just about all that would follow. There had been flash Rock ‘N’ Roll guitarists before, including Chuck Berry, Elvis’ Scotty Moore (Link Wray’s biggest hero and inspiration was always ”˜The King’) and Gene Vincent’s mighty Blue Cap ‘Galloping’ Cliff Gallup, but nobody had ever possessed the savage and brutal edge of Wray’s then innovative power chords. So the story goes, at the age of eight, growing up in Dunn, North Carolina, Link Wray was taught to play guitar by ‘Hambone’, a black bluesman who travelled with the
Barnum and Bailey circus. Apocryphal or not, the anger, sensitivity,
gallows humour and jubilation of the blues always underpinned Wray’s
timeless and utterly distinctive expression of Rock ‘N’ Roll.

Link Wray rarely sang. This was due to the fact that he had contracted TB while serving with the US Army during the Korean War in the early 50’s, leading to the removal of one of his lungs. Yet he did possess a fabulously ripped apart Rock ‘N’ Roll voice. Now I’m willing to bet that’s not a sentiment you would have read before in the spate of eulogies that followed Link’s demise. But just listen to his exhilarating savaging of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’ and Ray Charles’ ‘Mary Ann’ from his years on the major Epic label (1958-1961), signed in the wake of his success with ‘Rumble’. Or his explosive reading of Roy Brown’s ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, recorded during his arguably most artistically rewarding period on the Swan label (1963 – 1967). Wray’s high soprano delivery at the songs climax insures his version rivals both Brown’s, Wynonie Harris’ or Elvis’s interpretations of the number.

The ultimate vocal Swan recording must be Wray’s assault upon Willie Dixon’s ‘Hidden Charms’. This completely frenzied version, recorded when Wray was 36,threatens to spontaneously combust at any moment. Wray’s singing on ‘Hidden Charms’ is so impassioned that the track
could easily be placed on the first Stooges album and no one would be any the wiser. The unhinged ‘Hidden Charms’ rivals the flat-out Rock ‘N’ Roll madness of Herbie Duncan’s ‘Hot Lips Baby’, The Sonics ‘Psycho’, The Swamp Rats’ ‘Louie Louie’, James Luther Dickinson’s version of ‘Wine, Wine, Wine’ or The Killer’s ultimate rendering of ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, from his momentous Live At The Star-Club album. Yes, Wray’s whacked out, fucked up ‘Hidden Charms’ really is that good.

In fact, the only track that comes near it also features Link Wray on guitar and fellow Raymen the redoubtable Shorty Horton on bass and younger brother Doug Wray on drums. The song is the truly berserk 1962 recording, ‘The Girl Can’t Dance’, recorded by Link’s elder brother Vernon and featuring the unforgettable vocal talents of the obviously crazed former black Gospel singer/ award winning pugilist, Bunker Hill. Heaven help anyone who faced this man in the ring. Forget any hardcore punk bullshit, this is the very quintessence of wanton abandon. The Raymen sound as if they are quickly
falling down a very steep flight of stone stairs while Hill screams
incessant gibberish, as if his very life depended on it. Maybe it did: “AAAHHHH!!!!! WELL EVERYONE SAYS THE GIRL CAN’T DANCE, SHE’S MINE, ALL MINE….” Crazy, man, crazy.

Wray did produce some classic instrumentals on Epic, the ultra cool ‘Slinky’ (the title says it all), the stomping ‘Comanche’ and ‘Guitar Cha-Cha’ (a track that still gets them moving on the Lady Luck dance floor). But the label unwisely tried to reign in his ornery creative drive by forcing him to imitate Duane Eddy’s infinitely more conventional sound. This wasn’t for Wray and he bailed as soon as he could. After Link’s shot at his own label failed (Rumble Records – what else?), Swan Records of Philadelphia gave Link Wray And His Raymen their artistic freedom, resulting in his third big smash in 1963, the devastating ‘Jack The Ripper.’ A slew of incredible singles followed: ‘Turnpike U.S.A’, ‘Run Chicken Run’, ”˜The Shadow Knows’ (Link’s tribute to Orson Welles’ radio show with it’s spoken intro: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…”), ‘Branded’ and ‘Ace Of Spades’, to name but a few.

By the end of the Sixties, Link Wray stopped performing live for a period because he “didn’t want to be playing to a bunch of acid heads.” This of course was highly understandable. Studio classics still kept coming though: the harrowing ‘Genocide’ (perhaps a reflection upon what had been perpetrated against his ancestors), the plaintive ‘The Earth Is Crying’ and the remarkable ‘Growlin’ Guts.’ Wray would return in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the general musical climate was a little more palatable to his impeccable tastes.

Wray’s significance in Rock ‘N’ Roll is pivotal, in much the same way as Miles Davis is in Jazz or Robert Mitchum in movie acting. Without Wray there would have been no electric Dylan, no Sonics, Trashmen and every 60’s garage band thereafter. No Who, no Velvets, no Stooges, no Led Zeppelin, no New York Dolls, no Ramones, no Sex Pistols, no Fall, certainly no Cramps…. in short, no fun.

Viva Link Wray.

If you’re unfamiliar with Wray’s work and looking for the man’s music check out Ace Records’ seminal LP Early Recordings (compiled by Ray Topping) or their CD The Original Rumble. Rollercoaster Records have a fine single disc CD The Swan Singles Collection, while Norton offer a double CD set of all Wray’s Swan recordings and a series of vinyl treasures including Bunker Hill’s ‘The Girl Can’t Dance.’ Sundazed’s CD double set Slinky covers his Epic years and Link Wray Live At The Paradiso gives a taste of late 70’s madness.

First published in 2006 in Loose Lips Sink Ships Issue Six.

Copyright © Ian Johnston


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9 comments on “Link Wray, a brief appreciation – by Ian Johnston”

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    (If that track floats your boat, whole gig for legal download here by the way…

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