Link Wray is a revelation.
The legend that looms large over Link Wray’s career comes back to “Rumble,” a song he wrote whose guitar tone, according to legend, was so evil that it was banned from the airwaves without even the benefit of an offending lyric on the recording. In truth, the word “rumble” meant a gang fight in the parlance of the late 1950s. But “Rumble” is custom-built to spawn badass mythology; it sounds illegal, and it’s lost none of its bite after sixty years.
“Rumble” casts such a shadow over Wray’s discography you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d done nothing else of note, especially given that better artists of his era tend to hold up on their best singles than their long-players. Compilations with names like Rumble Man and Rumble & Roll seem to reinforce this. Furthermore, a documentary about Native Americans in rock released earlier this year, in which the Shawnee Wray is one of the most talked-about figures, is entitled Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World.
So who knew that in 1971, Wray made one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic hard-rock records of its time, one that sounds wonderful even if you don’t know a lick of Link Wray music? Furthermore, that it’s aged fantastically, and that even in the most hostile era to rock music in its history, it might just cement Wray’s legacy as some sort of heavy visionary rather than a dude who stumbled across power chords by chance?
Link Wray is astonishing. The first thing you notice is the sound, pleasingly ramshackle in the same fashion as the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, which came out the same year. It’s heavy, but not in a metallic way: it’s more like a haphazardly stacked pile of lumber that threatens to fall on you at any second. The drums trudge lethargically, the piano sounds like rats might live in it and the textures seem composed of everyone noodling at once. It sounds like it was recorded in a chicken shack, which, in fact, it was.
Then you notice Wray’s voice, and if you didn’t know how good a singer he was, Link Wray is a revelation. No, he’s not technically skilled; you can blame a lung lost to tuberculosis for that. But his ragged howl seems built from catgut and bleeding meat, and every once in a while he unleashes a scream as frightening as James Brown’s. He knows what to do on each song, too. On the ballads, he stretches his notes out with the soulful dolor of a bluesman, and on the harder songs, he rasps from deep within the din.
Finally, you notice everything else. Some of the most rewarding records are those that are so dense they demand repeat listening. Even if the songs sound the same each time, you might notice some little frill in the back you didn’t catch the first time around. The earsplitting fuzz solo on “God Out West” sticks out like a sore thumb, but you might not notice Wray’s been gently soloing away in a distant corner of the stereo field for about two minutes before he decides to put it front and center. And there’s a cracked organ at the back of a couple songs, suggesting a live wire coursing through the music.
The songs aren’t terribly creative in themselves. He’s too in love with backwoods imagery. “The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Stokes” is a story of drug-catalyzed doom like thousands of others. Much of the record is unrepentant cock-rock, especially the steal-your-woman boogie “Jukebox Mama” and the uncomfortably violent country blues “Crowbar.” And though there’s poignancy when Wray sings about the racial stratification with which he’s all too familiar on “Ice People,” his sentiments don’t go particularly deep.
But it’s less about what it’s about so much as how it’s about it. This is essentially an auteur project, and though the sort of American-gothic roots rock found here was a bit of a fad circa 1971, it’s hard to imagine a label having too much with this. It’s an album out of time: too weird for its era, certainly unfashionable in this one. But it’s undoubtedly an impressive one, and it confirms Wray’s talent stretches far beyond his fretboard chops.