The Man with X Rays in His Fingers

By Vicente Mateu

‘Tipper’ Gore got there too late in the mid-'80s, when she ‘pressed charges’ against Twisted Sister in the name of all the parents supposedly concerned over the "dangerous" rock full of four-letter words and sex their children were listening to. She invented the famous sticker that only served so that more albums were sold for the greater glory of the devil and his minions. The wife of the U.S. vice-president forgot that when she was just 10 years old -in 1958, to be exact-, they were already trying to censor a certain Link Wray on the radio stations of cities like New York because one of his songs had become a kind of battle hymn of the street gangs. He didn't need four-letter words or demons, just a guitar.  

The man with X-Rays in his fingers. Fred Lincoln ‘Link’ Wray Jr. (Dunn, North Carolina, 1929; Copenhagen, Denmark, 2005) was the first punk, the pioneer who underneath the obligatory '50s toupee broke all the molds of his era, beginning with his own electric guitar. He battered and pounded it like a man possessed until he got it to roar through an amplifier on the verge an explosion. John Lydon, known later as Johnny Rotten, had just been born in London (1956).

One Defiant Guitar

They named him the king of the power chord. Wray, one of the few who has the right to use the nickname of ‘Mr. Guitar’, found in distortion a new language for the six strings that charged the technical standards and opened the door to a new rock, as tough as that defiant gaze of James Dean that shocked the mothers of his generation, surely including Mrs. Gore's own mother. Elvis was a good boy compared to him.

The hips of the other 'King' couldn't compete with the sensuality of the Supro Dual Tone pushed past the point of no return. And even less with the spectacular Danelectro, with the other member of the trinity of favorites always completed by some Gibson (Les Paul Gold Top or SG). The first one was featured on the cover of his earliest records and since 2014, Eastwood has a Link Wray ‘tribute’ model decorated with illustrations by none other than Vince Ray.

They named this six-string tribute The Rumble King. His greatest hit has transcended its creator thanks in particular to Quentin Tarantino, who brought it back in Pulp Fiction and turned the song into the stuff of legend and an essential part of the soundtrack for being genuinely ‘cool’. Wray, however, remained true to his thug image until he died, the unzipped black leather jacket, a drink as close by as possible, and keeping the company of low life partners in crime like his loyal Robert Gordon.

The real deal and a rebel against society and the record companies, he didn't just show Sid Vicious how to dress. He was a musician, first and foremost, who searched for his own style in a world, the '60s, where experimentation was still the driving force for progress. A world where there was still virgin territory to explore, circuits to check and the electric gave way to the electronic, a magical tool for Wray that enabled him to ‘speak’ by striking a chord.

His military stint in the Korean War left him with tuberculosis as a souvenir that prevented him from doing it with his throat. He grew up playing country music on the porch with his family and chasing after every guitarist that passed close by his town. A rural life that would change and change him when he began to rock around the clock.   At the time he was leading a band with his brothers, the Palomino Ranch Hands, performing under the name of ‘Lucky’ Wray. When the doctor told him to give up singing, the guitar became his sanctuary. ‘Link’ and his Ray Men were born.  


Two Perfect Notes

In his case it would have to be a tribute to the setup of the equipment he plugged his Dual Tone into. That hard, painstaking work of trial and error in the studio until he found that perfect "dirtyness" is the "mother of invention", his own home-grown expression.  

The perfect note. Or better said, the two notes of the famed 5th chord with the 'pots' (potentiometers) to the max. The Philospher's Stone of the riff used to build heavy metal and, later, its nemesis with the Sex Pistols and Ramones, some of the other fervent admirers in his fan club. He only blazed the trail, to discover to whatever point it could be taken was -and is- the privilege of everyone who straps on a guitar.
  In the world of MultiAmp, 1957 is too far away. With 'vintage' back in style, people have returned to liking things like vinyl and tube amplifiers, all very 'cool' but not very practical. Wray would certainly be checking out the latest wonders of digital sound.  

Someone once wrote that even if he had never recorded anything after Rumble, his importance in the history of rock would continue being the same. Link Wray took a giant step that converted him into a legend in spite of leading the group of ‘outsiders’. His rebellious attitude towards the industry and system, defense of native American tribes, his check-proof integrity, means that well into the 21st century they continue denying him a place in the Hall of Fame, so richly deserved, although it would matter little more to him than seeing his name written on some sidewalk.

An Outsider

Like any good outsider, Link Wray did more than his share to relegate his career too soon to the role of ‘ cult musician’. The success of the Ray Men -his brothers- barely lasted a few years. His songs like Jack the Ripper snuck onto the charts but '50s rock now had no place in the '60s. He gradually faded away recording for labels that were just local, sometimes even hiding under other names.

Whether out of obsession or neglect, his recording career is something close to impossible and never stops growing. By way of example , in 2013, several years after his death, a 1970 LP credited to Joey Waltz, but recorded with the Wray Brothers, was re-cataloged under Link Wray's name. Listen to the Voices now has the title of Rumble & Roll.

After a decade of ostracism, the rockabilly revival pulled him out of almost absolute anonymity thanks to Robert Gordon, and the two artists recorded a pair of albums together. The '70s brought him back to the live stage and concerts that his energy turned into a madhouse of sweat and beer. Ready to never give in. The ‘Comanche’ rides again.

His fourth wife made Denmark his base of operations since the '80s. He broke off his family ties in the U.S -two wives and six children- when he found out there were people in Europe who still wanted to see him play. And buy his albums. When the '90s arrived, grunge also included him among their heroes,  and he was able to record another pair of albums. The last one, with apologies to all the compilation albums, was Barbed Wire in 2000. Only a heart attack managed to stop him. But not his legend.