Many controversial songs have an obvious reason for being shunned or banned, from NWA's profanity-filled "F*ck Tha Police" to The Prodigy's "Smack My B*tch Up;" but in the case of "Rumble," the only instrumental banned from radio, the reason for its censorship does not hold up today. When it was released in 1958, the world was a different place, and despite the fact it had no lyrics, many radio stations believed the song would cause rebellion and fights among teenagers, thus getting "Rumble" banned from radio. Creator Link Wray was a fan of jazz and the blues and wanted to create his own style of music, but in doing so, he unintentionally ended up changing rock forever and inventing the most powerful, loud, and gritty sounds heard at that time.
As Americans tried to rebuild the country as a safe, family-friendly place after WWII, young people wanted independence and recognition. The rise of juvenile delinquency and the impact of Broadway's West Side Story and movies like Blackboard Jungle also led many older residents to believe the younger generation was destroying social normalcy. Although there has never been another banned instrumental song, "Rumble" fell into this gap between teenage attitudes and what older generations found appropriate. This led to the "Rumble" song being banned from radio as well as a revolution in pop culture, as the song inspired not only artists who would come after Wray in the 1960s, '70s, and even today, but also laid the groundwork for punk and heavy metal.
How did the "Rumble" banned song come to create such controversy despite being a huge milestone for music and a tune still used in commercials and movie soundtracks? Blame the clash between 1950s culture and one musician who wanted to make music his own way.
Many people in the late 1950s enjoyed live dance shows, AKA "hops," like American Bandstand and Milt Grant's House Party, a popular show in Virginia. In January 1958, Wray and his band, the Wraymen (later Ray Men), performed for House Party, and host Grant asked them to play a type of slow rock melody and line dance known as a stroll. "I just made up something on the spot, because I didn't know any stroll tune," Wray remembered.
As the drummer picked up a beat, Wray joined in with three chords. The band kept the song instrumental, which wasn't unheard of at the time, but the tune became completely original when Wray's brother Ray stuck the microphone into the guitar amplifier to create a gritty, much louder sound.
The speakers are rattling because they can't take that heavy playin', they're small, and I'm playin' really hard, see? So they're rattlin' all over the place and these kids started swarming, rushin' to the stage... My brother Doug got off the drums and started laughin' his a** off. He said, 'Y'know, you've been playin' here all f*ckin' night and these kids haven't been payin' a bit of attention, and now yer playin' this thing and they're going completely apesh*t.' We played it about four or five times. So Milt smelled a dollar and tells Ray, 'We gotta find a studio.'
Knowing how greatly the song affected the late 1950's music scene, Guitar Player editor Michael Molenda envied those in the audience that night who were able "to hear that big, distorted, evil ferocious chord for the first time," but they weren't the only ones captivated by Wray's new sound. "Its ragged, ominous chords, overdriven and dragged to a crawl, sounded like an invitation to a knife fight," a Rolling Stone writer would later claim. "Sure, 'Rumble' might seem... simple to play, but attempt to replicate the precise feel of it and you lose," noted Cub Koda.
Knowing they had a potential hit on their hands, Wray and his band found a studio to record "Rumble." According to Wray, they ended up in a room that "wasn't even a recording studio - they recorded politicians' speeches. A one-track Grundig tape recorder. Fifty-seven dollars, that's all it cost to record it." When the band began playing, however, Wray realized the sound wasn't right. "When I tried to remember the sound that made those kids scream, I missed the distortion right away," Wray recalled. "The sound was too clean - at the gig the amps were jumping up and down, burning up with sound."
Much to the dismay of his fellow bandmates with whom he shared the equipment, Wray tore the cover off the amplifier in an attempt to create a grittier sound. "I started experimenting, and I punched holes in the speakers with a pencil, trying to re-create that dirty, fuzzy sound I was getting onstage," Wray said. "And on the third take, there it was, just like magic."
After the song was released on March 31, 1958, Wray's sound invention came to be known as "fuzz tone" and was adopted by many artists, including Jimi Hendrix, who prominently displayed the sound in "Foxy Lady," and the Rolling Stones, who used fuzz on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Fuzz tone changed the music world so greatly, modern guitarists can create a similar sound using devices specifically made to duplicate the effect.
According to historian Dan Del Fiorentino, Wray's guitar "added more of a zing, more of a delinquency, if you will, to rock 'n' roll." Having recently survived WWII and looking for comfort and consistency in traditional values, Wray's sound upset many people. In a world of adults disproving of teenagers and their desire to be individuals, possibly after indulging in what was considered juvenile delinquency, Wray's music didn't fit in.
"Fifties rock was pretty clean, and you've got this guy - he's got a leather jacket, he looks scary - and all of a sudden he plays this loud chord that practically tears your eyebrows off your face," Guitar Player editor Michael Molenda recalled. "It was extremely aggressive, and it kind of paved the way for the next level of rock 'n' roll."
Because of the extreme backlash to both teen culture and "Rumble," disc jockeys at several radio stations across the US didn't want anything to do with the song. Despite having no lyrics, some believed the raw power of the song would cause young people to riot and become juvenile delinquents who rebelled against social norms. DJs in New York City and Boston refused to play "Rumble" on their stations, making the song the only instrumental ever banned in the US. Others decided playing the song was acceptable but had problems with the threatening-sounding title. Even Dick Clark allowed Wray to play the song on American Bandstand but refused to introduce the tune by using its name the first time Wray appeared on the show.
With more teenagers around than ever before, many adults in the 1950s became wary of the values and actions of America's young people. Although offensive behavior carried out by juvenile delinquents did increase during this time, many fears about what teenagers were capable of had no basis in reality. In order to combat their anxiety, older generations blamed music, movies, and comic books for teens' transgressions. A 1960 public opinion poll claimed only world peace and national defense were more important than dealing with juvenile delinquents.
Partly due to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" being used in the 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, a film about dangerously rowdy high schoolers, rock music became associated with volatile action. Theaters in some states banned the film completely, while others continued to screen the movie but turned off the sound when the song played. By the time "Rumble" came out in 1958, many Americans believed it was the perfect example of the loud, objectionable sounds that defined rock music and used it as a focus for the efforts against the genre.
Columbia Records refused to record or promote artists who played rock they didn't like. Other artists, like bandleader Mitch Miller, spoke out against the effect they believed rock had on music and its audience. The Mutual Broadcasting System also refused to have anything to do with rock in 1958 and included "Rumble" in their admonishment of the genre.