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!