Think Link

Let me introduce you to the Shadowman. Imagine you are sitting in a grey fog at the water's edge listening to the bells and horns of a seaport harbor, then out of the shadows comes this vibrating guitar, at first repeating a simple '50s-style surf music seven-note refrain, then it gets much bigger, the sound distorts and rips and pulsates like an animal growling at its prey. The growling builds with just a bass and drum behind, echoing and reverberating in your chest, jumping into high places and eventually diving off the dock, leaving a rippling wake as it fades. Now what if I tell you that this kickass three-dimensional seven-minute instrumental attack was recorded two years ago by a man in his mid-sixties who, when asked by the young engineer recording the live session "what kind of sound are you looking for?" replied, "Just turn it up and let the motherfucker rip!"At 67 or 68 (born in 1929 or '30, depending on which reference book you use), Link Wray is still ready to rumble. That first track off his Shadowman release is called "Rumble on the Docks," perhaps an homage to his original 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble," which was banned in some cities after the distorted guitar sound was tied to the promotion of juvenile delinquency. The Cadence single by Link Wray and his Wray Men, which featured his brothers Doug on drums and Vernon on vocals, went to number 16 on the Billboard charts. It was the same year Cadence had the number one single of the year with the Everly Brothers "All I Have To Do Is Dream." The story of "Rumble" is now legendary. The Wray Men were playing a big record hop show for a DJ named Milt Grant, and he asked them to try to play a "stroll" since the big hit at the time was "The Stroll" by the Diamonds. They didn't really know how to do it, but Doug kicked off a slow snare drum beat and Wray rang out some chords. According to a Link Wray interview in The Rocket, his brother Vernon put a microphone into Link's amp and "the room just started pulsating with this wild sound. All these kids went apeshit." When the band went into the studio to try to record what they had adlibbed, they couldn't quite get it, so Wray peeled off the cover of his speaker and poked holes into the cone with a pencil to get the distortion and vibration he was after. Grant gave the finished track to Cadence head Archie Bleyer, who hated it until his teenage daughter and her friends fell in love with it because it reminded them of the gang fights in West Side Story. After the controversy, Bleyer didn't want anything to do with Wray, so Grant got him signed to Epic where he hit with "Raw-Hide" in 1959, making it to number 34 on the charts. But Epic also wanted a softer, more commercial sound, and tried to book Wray to record "Claire De Lune" with a forty-piece orchestra. He quit in protest and went on to release several other singles on various small labels, sometimes under pseudonyms, and some with Swan in the mid-'60s. Born in North Carolina to parents who were both preachers, Wray grew up on gospel and blues. When his family moved to Virginia in the '40s, he and his brother Vernon put together a country and western band, but in 1949 he was drafted to Korea and ended up coming down with tuberculosis. After losing part of his lung to the disease, he shied away from singing, leaving those duties to Vernon. But he practiced the guitar and started to work up his own instrumental material. With "Rumble," Wray entered the rock and roll history books, labeling him as the father of the power chord, the root source of heavy metal and a major influence on players like Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck. Mostly, he just invented distortion and created garage rock during a time when pop music was slick and smooth. By the mid-'60s, Wray had retired to a farm in Maryland with his family, but kept recording in his own Three Track Shack studio. Polydor released some of these tracks in 1971 on a self-titled album, and Wray continued to record here and there. In 1977, he hooked up with rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, recording two releases and touring. In 1980, Wray married a Danish woman (his fourth marriage) and moved to an island about 100 miles from Copenhagen, where he lives without a phone, helping to raise his 14-year-old son. Until his recent tour in support of Shadowman, Wray had not been back to the States to perform since 1985. The revival of interest in the Link Wray legend stems somewhat from Pulp Fiction, which used "Rumble" and his "Ace of Spades" song in the nightclub scene, though the songs didn't make it onto the soundtrack -- possibly because of a holdup by Andy Williams, who owns the Cadence catalog rights. But younger punk/instrumental bands have begun to cover Wray tunes. For original Wray, there's a three-volume set on Norton called Missing Links. And Shadowman, released earlier this year in Europe on Ace and recently licensed through Hip-O in the States, is truly amazing, with original Wray songs and covers of "Heartbreak Hotel," John Fogerty's "Run Through the Jungle" and Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It." Wray sings several tracks with an aching punk rawness that matches his guitar edge. His "Listen to the Drums" and "Young Love" have a crying ritual feel and could have been written by a 20-year-old.Maybe it's his partial Shawnee heritage, but Wray is more in touch with the shadows of rock and roll than most players out there today, and he's still ready to rip your heart out with that growling guitar.Link Wray is backed by San Francisco's Dieselhed, with The Cowslingers opening.

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