Monday, 18 October 2010

Godfather of Rock

Link Wray must be the most unknown, influential figure in modern popular music. Although actively touring until his death in 2005, his major creative years spanned from the mid-50s to mid-60s. A fine guitarist, his output consisted mainly of twangy, reverb-heavy surf music instrumentals. His major contribution was the introduction of the power chord (without which heavy rock would not exist) and the first use of distortion and feedback in recording. Both innovations were introduced in the seminal instrumental "Rumble" in 1958.

Funnily enough the backstory on the genesis of "Rumble" is not on wikipedia or anywhere else on the web but I remember reading it in an interview in a guitar magazine about 25 years ago (where the fuck did the time go?). Since, if memory serves me well, these were Link Wray's actual words I guess we have to take them at face value as a primary source.

The story goes that while performing at a dance, there was a clash between rival gangs, (hence the title), where one of the gang members was stomped to death in front of the band. To their distress, the band was forced to keep on playing to prevent a full-scale riot from breaking out. This incident affected Wray deeply and found expression in "Rumble". Unfortunately the primitive amplification/recording techniques of the day were inadequate for him to aurally depict the menacing, brutal impressions that the incident had left on him. In frustration he stabbed the exposed speaker of his amplifier with a pencil and found to his satisfaction that the now heavily distorted sound emanating from the crippled speaker captured his feelings perfectly and thus history was created. "Rumble" was only a minor hit commercially, but as with all good music, it finds its audience and greatly influenced the coming generation of British guitarists who were to write the book on heavy metal/hard rock.

To think, but for this quirk of history, how different life as we know it would be! (No riff from "Smoke on the Water", Jimi Hendrix etc...). But this of course is just the one-dimensional view of history which implicitly assumes the primacy of an individual Great Man in shaping the course of events while playing down the role of social/cultural factors operating discreetly in the background. Given the rapid developments in electronics and amplification technology, someone else would almost certainly have hit on the power chord (which just sounds awesome when highly amplified due to the generation of pleasing harmonics and overtones) and the idea of "painting" soundscapes with distortion and feedback. Which is not to take anything away from Link Wray who realised these possibilities way before everyone else in such a serendipitous and colourful fashion.

Diehard "Pulp Fiction" fans should recognise the tune although it was left out of the soundtrack album for licensing reasons.

Link Wray (1929-2005)
Guitar innovator. He was very proud of his half-Shawnee Indian ancestry

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