Out of all the punk bands to come out of England in the 1970s, Ruts in my opinion remain the most underappreciated. In fact, if I had to name the ten best U.K. punk bands ever, Ruts would easily make that star-studded list. Seriously, who was better? The Clash, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Damned? Sure. Generation X? Probably. X-Ray Spex? Okay. Adverts? Perhaps. But that’s about it. And eighth place all-time, amongst that kind of company, ain’t too shabby! If you like ‘70s U.K. punk rock and aren’t into Ruts, that situation needs to be rectified promptly.
Ruts probably arrived on the scene too late to garner the sort of accolades and mass popularity of The Clash, Pistols, et al. And tragically, they weren’t around long enough to grow their renown over time. But in their far-too-short existence, they did produce one of the great albums of early punk in their 1979 debut, The Crack. While Ruts’ blend of socially conscious punk and reggae merited comparisons to The Clash, they were far from copycats. In fact, Ruts had as distinct of a sound as any early punk group. Infusing a proto street-punk sound with the advanced instrumental prowess of arena rock and the chilling clang of post-punk, Ruts were a distinctive presence at a time when cookie cutter punk bands were the norm. If there was ever a missing link between Slaughter and the Dogs and Joy Division, Ruts were it! The Crack, while historically undervalued, was hardly a flop. It generated two Top 40 UK singles in “Babylon’s Burning” (#7) and “Something That I Said” (#29). And the album itself peaked at #16 on the UK charts.
The Crack kicks off with a bang. “Babylon’s Burning” is an anthem if there ever was one – as urgent and compelling as anything The Clash ever did. And you know I love The Clash! But it doesn’t take long to establish that this is no ordinary punk album. “Dope For Guns”, with its finessed guitar work and nimble bass lines, wouldn’t sound out of place on a mixed tape next to something off of Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp. And “S.U.S.” fully establishes the album’s tone - coming on with a slow, menacing guitar crunch, sophisticated rhythm parts, and a generally haunting feel. That vibe reaches its apex on the epic “It Was Cold”, an eerie slow-burn driven by hypnotic bass work, multi-textured guitars, and an unsettling vocal from Malcolm Owen. The musical chops on display throughout the album are pretty mind-blowing. Some of the instrumental parts on “You’re Just A” and “Savage Circle” will have you thinking you’re listening not to Ruts, but rather Rush! But never does the technical proficiency of the playing detract from the prevailing mood of the album. The Crack is a gritty, desperate affair, and even its “punkest” tracks (“Backbiter”, “I Ain’t Sofisticated”) will never be mistaken for generic three-chord thrash. And “Jah War” may be the best reggae song done by any punk band in the ‘70s.
A mere ten months after the release of The Crack, Malcolm Owen was dead. Although the surviving members carried on as the very respectable Ruts D.C., it was never the same. As incredible as Paul Fox, Dave Ruffy, and Segs Jennings were on their instruments, they had a special chemistry with Owen that could never be rekindled. It’s tempting to talk about what Ruts might have become – how they would have been the band to keep punk music going strong into the ‘80s. Surely they would have picked up the slack as The Clash began going to shit, right? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know. What we do know is that The Crack was one of the best albums of its time. There are a lot of legendary punk albums from the same era that don’t hold up nearly as well today. Check out The Crack. Bask in its greatness. What a band. What a fucking band!
Friday, February 10, 2012
Earlier this year, Lookout Records (According to former boss Larry Livermore, the name was never intended to be written with an exclamation point) made the decision to cease operations. Though I'd paid scant attention to the imprint's later releases, it was still somewhat shocking to hear the news of Lookout's demise. Like Amphetamine Reptile, Junk, Pelado and others before it, so smothered another flame from what time has proven to be a productive '90s for likeminded labels. The first album I owned from Lookout was Screeching Weasel's Wiggle. A friend had picked up the disc for me as a belated birthday gift. The bratty vocals, cultural references and thoughtful lyrics laced their Chuck Taylors as tightly as the Ramones' most beloved pairs. Twenty years on (Where in the hell did the time go?), Wiggle remains one of the best punk rock platters of any era. In 1996, the same bud passed along a dubbed tape with The Mr. T Experience's Love Is Dead on side "B." (The Humpers' Positively Sick On 4th Street covered the front half!) Whereas the Weasel mostly fed on a 1-2-3-4 diet of Bowery-like blasts, MTX balanced their "Gabba Gabba Hey!" intake with the smoother hooks of power pop. I've got fond memories of Love Is Dead powering the cassette deck as my friend and I drove around aimlessly on Independence Day in search of a free cookout. We ended up at Kempsville Inn with a pitcher of Miller Lite (100% drank by yours truly), three plastic darts and an otherwise empty room. I'd dug The Queers' Killed By Death-compiled cuts like "At The Mall" and "I'm Useless" for a great while, but I only recently became a convert of their 'Mones-meets-Beach Boys proper catalog. With statements such as "Ursula Finally Has Tits" and "I Can't Stop Farting," 1993's Love Songs For The Retarded is a spirited celebration of eternal juvenile behavior. All of the aforementioned LPs are prime staples in the now-gone Lookout catalog. However, my favorite leather-jacketed lads from the label hail (Yeah, they're still making music!) from the decidedly non-rock outpost of Miami, F-L-A.
My first nibble on The Crumbs was on the shared space of a Stiff Pole Records 7-inch single with fellow Sunshine State roustabouts Pink Lincolns and Gotohells. "What Do They Know?" flew its Ramones flag high with a punchy patchwork stitched by snottiness and uptempo beats, but the threads of Aussie punk popes The Saints and '50s greaser rock also pledged allegiance. The Chris Bailey-esque snarl and the familiar Lower East Side trademarks shine their stripes even brighter on The Crumbs' self-titled effort. Around the time of the album's release, an Arizona trader sent me a tape containing a broadcast from the nearby college radio station. Finest moment from the mix? "Get On With My Kicks." Framed by some serious rock 'n' roll riffin', it's the tale of a reckless woman who's constantly on a first-name basis with trouble. She's got no qualms about dropping everything and hitting the road with a Clyde to her Bonnie in search of illicit substances. Indeed, the willing tag-along is "all shook up even more than Elvis allowed." "No Time" shares a title with a Saints song from (I'm) Stranded. Even with different lyrics, the feeling of being trapped by a Timex is most relative ("Are you stuck inside the classroom?/The teacher always putting you down/The bell never rings and the minutes go by too slow"). "Long Distance Luv" tracks a lonely heart beating strongly for a displaced crush made possible by the USPS ("I've only seen her once/She lives a thousand miles away/But every time I get a letter/In this world I wanna stay"). Descriptions of a modern "Shakespeare": "He got no money and he got no home/He got no place to go/He got no license, no degree/Got no PHD." Tasting toast with diet pills and raiding liquor cabinets satiate the cool kids who exhibit "All Style." "It's Gonna Take All The Time I Got" sets its broken Swatch on drunk o'clock ("Here comes a girl from another land/She said she saw me playing in a rock 'n' roll band/Turns out she's the daughter of this clingy place/Drinking without paying 'til I fell on my face").
So long, Lookout Records. I'll still keep my eyes on you.
Posted by Rutledge at 12:45 PM