Sunday, November 20, 2005

R.I.P, Link Wray

If there's one thing that's been a constant during the past hundred years of recorded music, it's the one-hit wonder. Fads come and go, and bands and singers fit in with the fickle public taste for one glorious summer, or more memorably, create that one novelty hit that crosses the line from ubiquitous to annoying. And usually, other than getting the odd karaoke patron to stumble their way through "99 Luftballons", or having a wedding DJ drop the "Macarena" or "Bird Dance" so the five- and eighty-five year olds can get their groove on, that's all there is to it.

Sometimes, though, a song comes along that, even though the artist responsible doesn't get to enjoy any measure of lasting success, the song itself is enough to resonate through rock and roll culture as something greater than itself. Think "Louie Louie"--Richard Berry had a minor R&B hit with it, but when it mutated into a garage rock standard in Seattle, and eventually the Kingsmen recorded it as a wild three-chord stompin' ball of energy that spoke not of the lonely sailor's lament that the lyrics portray, but a molten stream of teenage lust and aggression, it became the father of everything from "Wild Thing" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Where'd they get that guitar sound, though? The guitar was once the gently strummed instrument of the troubadour, after all. Fingering a chord that's nothing more than root, fifth and octave, and punching it out in measured, percussive fury--a man named Link Wray invented that shit. Back in '58, he came out with a jam called "Rumble", based around nothing more than a two-chord riff moved around the blues progression, a spare, stomping drumbeat and the odd switchblade flick of pentatonic riffage for a turnaround. It hit Top 20 in the US even though it was widely banned, its gang-inspired title and air of slow, rumbling menace enough to frighten the powers that be in the Ike era.

For that, his style will be immortal. Sadly, the man himself ain't.

Link Wray, 1929-2005. Rest in Peace.

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