Rerun: What Was the First Instrumental Rock Song You Heard?

Editor's Note:  We are interspersing some of the previous 150 or so blog entries with current material.  When we posted this earlier, the responses favored "Walk, Don't Run" by the Ventures.  But "Rumble" stands out in my sexagenarian mind.

What was the first instrumental rock song that you heard?  For me, the answer is either “Raunchy” by Bill Justis or “Rumble” by Link Wray.  I owned the 45 of “Raunchy” and assume that because it was released before “Rumble,” it must be the first instrumental rock song that I heard.  But “Rumble” stands out more in my memory.

In early rock ‘n roll and the halcyon days of AM radio, instrumentals played alongside vocals.  AM radio of the day was not as compartmentalized into genres as FM, internet, and satellite radio now are.  I can remember hearing “Rebel Rouser,” “El Paso,” “Little Darling,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Baby Talk,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and “Blue Suede Shoes” on the same radio station as I might hear the Dorsey Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Lane, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Bob Wills, or Patti Page.  AM radio and its disc jockeys just played music. 

Or -- in the days of payola -- did they just play what they were paid to play?

Nobody thought to look at rock ‘n roll as 40 or 100 or whatever different genres and sub-genres.  Today, my nephew can tell the difference between any number of “metal” musics -- death metal, black metal, speed metal, drone metal, neoclassical metal, hair metal, etc., etc.  In an earlier time, music fell in two categories: rock ‘n roll and our parents’ music. 

Of course, that may be over-simplistic.  It overlooks “Black” vs “White” music -- Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” vs Pat Boone’s version.  Maybe that racial divide is why Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” was not the first rock instrumental that I remember.  Maybe, more accurately,1955‘s “Honky Tonk” just happened to precede my consciousness of music on the radio.

When I was young, AM radio entertained me with shows like The Lone Ranger, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, My Little Margie, Big John and Sparky, and Our Miss Brooks.  Later, the entertainment shifted to broadcasts of baseball games.  At some point, I became of aware of music on AM radio.  Maybe that was because we finally had a television and a “transistor” portable radio.  We no longer were tethered to some box plugged into the wall.

Once I became aware of music on AM radio, “Black” vs “White” music did not drive our market totally.  Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, and Fats Domino received air play along with Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Ricky Nelson.  Little Anthony and the Imperials or Shep and the Limelites could be heard on the same AM station as the Fleetwoods or Danny and the Juniors.  Instrumental music received air play too -- Duane Eddy, Dave “Baby” Cortez, the Champs, Freddie King, The Ventures, Johnny and the Hurricanes, and Cozy Cole. 

The pre-surf instrumentals which come to mind are numerous and run the gamut of what would be called “genres” today.  Today, they would fall into rock, rockabilly, country, pop, R&B, jazz, and possibly sub-genres. 

Luckily for us, iTunes will categorize them.  According to iTunes, my Link Wray anthology is country music.  That, of course, means that somebody at iTunes needs to study some rock history. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the the pre-surf instrumentals simply were rock ‘n roll.  The tunes were not our parents’ music.  They were songs which are the foundation of instrumental rock.  Many still would be played 45 to 50 years later.  “Walk Don’t Run” “Sleepwalk” “Rumble” “Teen Beat” “Apache” “Hide Away” “Rebel Rouser” “Last Night”  “Perfidia” “Peter Gunn” “Tequila”  “Last Date” “Road Runner” “Forty Miles of Bad Road” “Ramrod” “Raunchy” “Tall Cool One” “You Can’t Sit Down” “Because They’re Young”

Surf music then came along with its great guitar-centric instrumentals and the rediscovery of songs by the Fireballs and the Wailers.  Summer fun, however, could not last long -- particularly outside of California.  And the British Invasion and radio’s focus of vocals drove instrumental rock music from radio airplay.  If aspiring rock musicians did not hear instrumentals, they were not going to write or perform instrumentals.  A vicious cycle started.  People played what was commercially appealing; radio determined what was commercially appealing; if vocals were commercially appealing, vocals were created.

Listeners and audiences do not know what they are missing from the musical palette until they hear instrumental rock.  Then they say, “I like that and the energy it has.”  But you have to get them to listen in the first place.  That is the tall order.

Maybe someday, when asked what was the first instrumental rock song you heard, somebody will answer, “Tidal Wave” by Slacktone, “Pacifica” by Los Straitjackets, “Sifaka” by the Pyronauts, or, implausibly to me, “Lava Tube” by the Lava Pups.  Implausible, yes.  Impossible, no.  After all, KDVS has listeners.

Dream on!

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