Malcolm Owen, Paul Cox, bass player John ‘Segs’ Jennings and drummer Dave Ruffy formed in 1977 while living in various Middlesex squats. Initially they were a rock and roll and covers band with a side order of US influenced garage punk and a strong dose of funk in the ranks – all of which would serve them well. Owen and Fox were schoolboy chums and went to live in a commune on the Isle of Anglesey when they were teenagers, whose mellow youth coincided with the end of the hippy era. They got busy on song writing on the Isle with first drummer Paul Mattocks. Jennings and Ruffy were more recent friends who shared an interest in the Ramones and Talking Heads. Their rhythmic bent would propel the sound of The Ruts in studio and on stage and they should be regarded as every bit the equal of their contemporaries in Gang of Four and Wire. The band’s spiky, angular melodies and stylish dub heavy bass roots stemmed from them. Two other early accomplices were the saxophonist Gary Barnacle who became a notable sessioneer and go-to brass and reeds man for everyone from Paul McCartney to David Bowie, and the soul singer J. D. Nicholas who would eventually join The Commodores. From the outset then it’s pretty obvious that this is not your standard bunch of hit and run merchants, although they were called Hit and Run before transforming themselves into The Ruts since that name exemplified the ennui and anger of the first wave of punk.
Earliest Ruts songs, which all got an airing in the Covent Garden clubs like The Roxy and also landed on DJ John Peel’s in-tray (he played them incessantly) rejoiced in titles of the era like 'Stepping Bondage’, ‘Rich Bitch’, ‘Out of Order’, ‘I Ain't Sofisticated’ and ‘Lobotomy’. With the classic line up in place they debuted in a meaningful way by supporting Wayne County and The Electric Chairs at High Wycombe Town Hall, a priceless venue to boot.
Their first single ‘In A Rut’ didn’t arrive until the first week of 1979 but in the interim the band had sharpened their claws on a rock and reggae fusion that made audiences sit up and take notice. They toured with The Damned (they were staunch champions throughout) and released their first single for Virgin, the epic ‘Babylon’s Burning’ in midsummer at the height of a season of riots and protest. Despite considerable resistance at the BBC ‘Babylon’s Burning’ soared to number 10 and they appeared on Top of the Pops with panicking studio staff keeping everything crossed.
The first album, The Crack, was produced with Mick Glossop (Frank Zappa, Penetration, Magazine etc), the band and engineer Bob Sargeant who would go on to have a successful career while also helming many shows for John Peel sessions. Sonically this must be one of the greatest albums of the 1970s. Whereas The Clash was all super-high-energy and ‘live’ as it gets, their music was somewhat more free form that Owen and company. Nothing wrong with that, but The Ruts were different: all controlled aggression, and super-tight. Listen to ‘Dope For Guns’ on this album: punk precision even.
‘Babylon’s Burning’ kicks off an odyssey that lasts the fat side of 54 minutes and climaxes with a live at the Marquee ‘Human Punk’. In between it’s all-classic all the way. ‘S.U.S’ simply smells of the year 1979 as does ‘It Was Cold’ and the stand out ‘Jah War’’ where they nail their slippery reggae beats right down.
Grin & Bear It (1980) is a very handy compilation of The Ruts B-sides, single mixes and live stuff from the Marquee, a Paris show and a 1980 Peel session (‘Demolition Dancing’, ‘Secret Soldiers’). Perhaps the most famous cut here is ‘Staring at The Rude Boys’, a sad reminder that this disc was released after Owen’s death since his vocals had never sounded better.
Resuming as Ruts D. C. (the latter being an abbreviation of Spanish phrase Da Capo, meaning starting again – also the title of Love’s second album) and with Jennings now taking vocal duties they embark on the magnificent Animal Now, recorded in Eastbourne and Oxfordshire. Swapping instrumentation a lot this new-look Ruts also incorporate plenty of synths, jazzy horns and Louise Freedman’s grandstanding chant on ‘No Time to Kill.’ Otherwise the template of dub and grooved up rock remains intact with Bill Barnacle’s trumpet decorating the ambitious ‘Dangerous Minds’,
Their final single for Virgin at this time was ‘Different View’ backed by ‘Formula Eyes’, as dark and deep as they ever got.
We also urge you to discover Something That I Said: The Best of The Ruts, a 17-track précis of a glittering but sadly truncated career. In latter years though, in the better late than never corner, we can find The Ruts being lauded by Henry Rollins, Gallows, Mad Professor and all manner of survivalist punks from the epoch when punk was just about the only game in town. In a rut? This’ll get you moving.
An excellent 17 track compilation of their Virgin Records career released in 2009.
The Crack is The Ruts first album, released in 1979 and containing the UK hit singles: "Babylon's Burning" (Number seven on the UK chart in June 1979) and "Something That I Said" (No. 29 in September 1979). The white-reggae "Jah War", which was written in the aftermath of the Southall unrest and the over-use of force by the Metropolitan Police Service's Special Patrol Group in 1979, was also released as a single but didn't make the UK chart.
They didn't reach stadium-level superstardom like the Clash and the Police, but few contemporaries could hold a candle to the punky reggae of the Ruts. Nearly equal parts righteous dread and six-string fury, the London quartet was one of the most important bands to emerge during punk's second wave, and this collection -- one of a series that also included well-chosen retrospectives of acts like the Members and the Records -- expertly compiles the finest moments of the Ruts' too-short career. Like many British bands who incorporated reggae rhythms into their pogo stomp, the group began life leaning heavily toward the hard and fast, as documented by their initial single, 1978's "In a Rut." But very early on, they began to toy with Jamaican sounds and themes -- just listen to the brief, dub-style guitar lick in the middle of "Babylon's Burning," the title of which draws a link to Rastafarian unrest at home and abroad during the late '70s.
Thanks to singer Malcolm Owen's magnificent bellow, the Ruts would always have one foot firmly in the punk camp, but bassist John Jennings was the band's secret weapon; his rumble came to dominate on roots reggae epics like "Jah Wars," a chilling account of fascist violence. Those songs and several others are drawn from the group's lone album, The Crack, with later singles like the raucous "Staring at the Rude Boys" appended to give a complete picture of the Ruts' brief but brilliant time together. Their final hit, "West One," was released just weeks after Owen, struggling with a heroin addiction, overdosed and drowned in his bath. It serves here as an optimistic closer and a last reminder of how much essential music the group managed to create in just two years. Those who crave a little more should purchase Something That I Said in tandem with Rhythm Collision, the smashing 1982 dub album that paired the remaining Ruts with Mad Professor.
Words - Dan Leroy
The Ruts came late to the party but were one of the best England had to offer in the heyday of punk. They were an anomaly in that each of the band's instrumentalists, guitarist Paul Fox, bassist John "Segs" Jennings, and drummer Dave Ruffy were accomplished musicians who had played in jazz and funk bands previously. They were not only a punk band, but played deadly dread reggae as well. Revered British DJ John Peel got on board with their first single, "In A Rut," and played the hell out of it, sending them into the charts, Their subsequent 45s, "Babylon's Burning," and "Something That I Said" also charted, as did their brilliant debut album for Virgin, The Crack. Collected here are the original singles, a decent portion of the album, a couple of cuts from live BBC and Peel sessions, and the band's final hit with the late Malcolm Owen, the extended version of "West One (Shine On Me"). Also included are an alternate version of "H-Eyes," left on the cutting room floor, and a preciously unreleased cut, "Denial." While this is a fitting and representative sample of the Ruts as one of the most powerful and anthemic of the U.K. punk bands, it is odd that the band's fourth single, "Staring At The Rude Boys," and its B-side, "Love In Vain" (not the Rolling Stones song) were not included. Still, this is an excellent introduction to a band who deserve to be remembered.
Words - Thom Jurek