Just ask The Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones or your nearest hip-hop artist: popular music has a long, colourful history of rubbing people up the wrong way and getting itself banned. But while it’s kind of understandable that suggestive, blasphemous, violent or otherwise un-PC lyrics would offend the delicate sensibilities of mainstream radioland, an instrumental piece of music could never cause that kind of outrage, right?
Right – with one immortal exception.
In April 1958, Link Wray and the Wraymen unleashed their primal, bluesy instrumental on an unsuspecting world. With its menacing vibe, its knuckle-dragging rhythm section, and Wray’s overdriven guitar drenched in tremolo and reverb, the tune was two minutes, 25 seconds’ worth of Grade-A musical dynamite – and radio DJs freaked out.
Given that the US Top 10 was populated by the easy-listening likes of Laurie London, The Monotones and David Seville at the time, Rumble was always going to cause a stir. Wray’s aggressive guitar distortion (achieved by punching holes in his amp’s speaker) was absolutely unprecedented, pre-dating the fuzz pedal by several years. Even raunchy rock’n’rollers like Elvis and Jerry Lee sounded mild-mannered in comparison.
An almighty racket, sure. But a threat to public decency? Apparently so.
Rebellious youth already had a bad name thanks to films like The Wild One and Rumble on the Docks. The Broadway musical West Side Story had made brawling street gangs big news. “Rumble” fanned the flames even higher – with many DJs convinced its savage sounds (and title) would incite gang violence and juvenile delinquency. Yet despite (or because of?) being banned from the airwaves in cities and towns across the US, it was a smash. Kids loved it, as Link and his Wraymen knew they would.
(The band had come up with the tune spontaneously at a gig in Fredericksburg, Virginia, when the crowd urged them to play a hit they didn’t know. Seeing the wild response that their ad-hoc instro wig-out provoked was enough to send them rushing to the studio the next day. They called the song Oddball. Fortunately, their record label boss’s step-daughter heard the demo and, reminded of the street-fighting scenes from West Side Story, suggested Rumble as a more fitting title.)
Rock’n’roll would never be the same again.