Music News

The Missing Link

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To lay down "Rumble," Wray and his Raymen went to a tiny Washington, D.C., studio "that didn't even record music," Wray says. "It was one of them studios where the congressmen and senators and the people in the government made their speeches. But it was really cheap--$57." He guffaws. "But when I went in there, I couldn't get the same sound I got live. I told the engineer, I said, 'Just turn the machine on, and I'll start playin'.' So he put a mike on my amplifier, a mike on Doug's toms, and Shorty had a stand-up bass that had a hole in it from a fight in a club, and the engineer put a mike in there, too. And then he got a level and we played 'Rumble.' But when I listened to it afterward, I said, 'It's too fuckin' clean.' And they said, 'What do you want to do about it?' So I said, 'Fuck, man,' and I started punchin' holes in the tweeters. My amplifier had a fifteen-inch speaker in the bottom and two ten-inch speakers in each side, and I started punchin' holes in all of them and told the engineer to mike it. My brother said, 'You're destroyin' your amp, Link,' but I said, 'Who gives a shit as long as we get a good sound?'--that was my attitude. So I done it, and the third take became a four-million seller."

Just as notably, "Rumble" inspired a slew of rock's most noteworthy musicians. Pete Townshend once claimed that the single was the sole reason that he picked up his first guitar--and that had he not heard it, the Who would not have existed. And writer Colin Escott, who penned the notes for Guitar Preacher, which collects tracks from five out-of-print Wray albums (Link Wray, Beans and Fatback, Mordicai Jones, Be What You Want To and The Link Wray Rumble), points out that Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page all raved about the tune--and that Paul McCartney so loved it that he kept a copy of it taped to his record player. "I'm totally shocked that it's still around," Wray admits. "When it left the charts, I said, 'That's the end of that.' I never knew that song was gonna last so fuckin' long."

Unfortunately, lightning didn't strike twice. After "Raw-Hide," Wray never again enjoyed a genuine smash. Many of the instrumental tracks he made for Epic during the Sixties were tremendously exciting, and his vocals on the Jimmy Reed composition "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" (backed with an equally frenzied version of Ray Charles's "Mary Anne") are the stuff of genius. But with early-Sixties rock radio dominated by the likes of Pat Boone and Fabian, Wray's barely controlled hysteria was too big a risk for most programmers to take. After 1963's "Jack the Ripper" came and went, Wray all but disappeared. He was signed to Polydor in the late Sixties mostly on the strength of the compliments paid him by the era's guitar gods, but none of the records he made did any business--not even 1973's Be What You Want To and 1974's The Link Wray Rumble, which featured guest appearances from the elite of the era's San Francisco music scene.

"That was 'cause I had a big record company then, and they wanted to put all them big superstars on it so they could sell records," Wray recalls. "And none of them people wanted to get paid for doin' it. Like Jerry Garcia, he said, 'I love Link Wray. I just come to play, I don't even give a shit about gettin' paid.' And it was the same with John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service, Boz Scaggs, Commander Cody and all them guys who was on those records. They just come out and supported me and said, 'We really love your music, Link. We was listenin' to you when we was learnin' to play gee-tar.' And the record company ate that up."

The public, however, did not, and Wray was eventually dropped by Polydor. He resurfaced in the late Seventies backing up Robert Gordon, a vocalist who attempted to merge rockabilly and punk, to middling results. His 1980 move to Denmark coincided with a quiet period for Wray, but things began to change in the late Eighties, when Ace, which had already reissued much of his back catalogue, put out a couple of new offerings, Live in '85 and Rumble Man. "Apache" and "Wild Side of the City Lights," featured on those discs, eventually wound up on the soundtrack for Johnny Suede, one of Brad Pitt's first star vehicles. This coup signaled the beginning of Hollywood's renewed appreciation for one of rock's most literally unsung heros.

Shadowman, Wray's latest, is exactly what you'd expect from this unreconstructed rebel: It's noisy, sloppy and suitably gruff. "Rumble on the Docks," "Moped Baby" and covers of the Elvis Presley chestnut "Heartbreak Hotel" and John Fogerty's "Run Through the Jungle" won't make anyone forget about Wray's previous peaks, but they make it clear that he has no intention of going quietly into the night. "Maybe this is my problem, but I don't try to look at today's market and figure out what's goin' to sell and what ain't goin' to sell," he says. "See, I'm on this little ol' label that lets me do what I want to do. They don't stand over me with some big producer and say, 'No, you've got to do it this way or that way.' I just go in there and create my own feelin's and put them on tape. And I've got a great band. Eric Geevers plays the bass and Robbie Louwers, this kid from the Hague, plays really wild drums behind me. He's a street kid, and I think he's even been in jail two or three times, but then he quit the life of crime and started playin' drums."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts