It’s 41 years this week since The Ruts released The Crack, the only album the band completed during their time together. It was a record that promised much, and delivered on every level.
A favourite of mine as an impressionable teenager, it’s still one of the best punk records ever made, and I was lucky enough to see it performed live last year in its entirety as the reformed and resurgent Ruts DC celebrated its 40th anniversary.
The Ruts had formed in London in 1977, and quickly developed an interest in reggae and dub, which immediately made them a bit different to your average three-chord punk band. Their line-up settled as Malcolm Owen on vocals, Paul Fox on guitar, John ‘Segs’ Jennings on bass and Dave Ruffy on drums.
Active in anti-racist circles as part of Misty In Roots’s People Unite collective in Southall, West London, they played several benefits for Rock Against Racism. Indeed, it was on the People Unite label that they released their debut single, In A Rut, as relative latecomers to the punk scene in January 1979.
Despite regular plays from influential Radio One DJ John Peel, it failed to chart, but it did earn them two Peel Sessions and another one for his colleague David Jensen, so discerning listeners quickly became familiar with this new group, who – like The Clash – introduced a strong reggae element to their punk ethic.
In A Rut also attracted the attention of Richard Branson’s Virgin Records. The label was already home to the Sex Pistols, as well as Public Image Limited, Magazine, Penetration, Skids and XTC – some of the more forward-thinkers of the ‘new wave’, which contained a lot of ‘meat and potatoes’ punk bands.
It was little surprise that when The Ruts released Babylon’s Burning, their first single for Virgin, in June 1979, it smashed into the charts. A thrilling slice of fast-paced punk which warned of the breakdown of society, it also saw the band appear on Top Of The Pops. It obviously struck a chord with thousands of young punks, peaking at No.7.
A second single, Something That I Said, followed in August, and the long-awaited album, The Crack, was released on 29 September. Produced by Mick Glossop, who as well as working with Virgin’s punk and post-punk roster, went on to work with the likes of The Waterboys,The Wonder Stuff, Frank Zappa, Ian Gillan,John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison.
It’s clear from the off that The Ruts were far removed from your average three-chord punk band. Fox was an accomplished guitarist, peppering songs with little flourishes, Segs and Ruffy a locked-in rhythm section, and Owen a natural frontman who came alive when a microphone was put in front of him.
The Crack kicked off with a slightly different version of Babylon’s Burning, with alarm bells and a police siren adding to its sense of urgency, and Something That I Said was also re-recorded for the album.
One of the record’s standout songs, the roots-reggae track Jah War, which lasts nearly seven minutes, was released as the third single in October, but the BBC refused to play it, saying it was too political, as it was about violence perpetrated by the Metropolitan Police’s controversial SPG group during disturbances in Southall in 1979.
In A Rut wasn’t included on the album, but there were plenty of other highlights. Dope For Guns pointed out links between drugs and the arms trade, S.U.S., with its menacing chug and swaggering guitar, was about the controversial search powers used by the police, while the atmospheric It Was Cold was more measured, and an absolute classic.
Savage Circle, Out Of Order, Backbiter and Criminal Mind showed they could still punk it up with the best of them when they needed to, while chaotic closer Human Punk (recorded live) showed the power of the band and Owen’s prowess as a frontman.
With the backing of the Virgin marketing machine (not to mention its UK-wide chain of record shops), the record sold well enough to make the Top 20, and became an instant classic among punk fans. But just as people started looking to The Ruts as possible successors to The Clash (who were bent on conquering the US) as the band of the people, things began to go awry, big-style.
A third Peel session was recorded in February 1980, but all was not well in The Ruts camp. Owen’s health was not good, due to a combination of throat problems and a heroin addiction. Live dates had to be cancelled due to his condition, and the band played what turned out to be the last Ruts gig with him in Plymouth on 26 february.
Nevertheless, a new single, the excellent Staring At The Rude Boys, was released in March, and the band began work on their second album, and the band (minus Owen) backed reggae artist Laurel Aitken on a Peel session and on his support tour to Mod revival glory boys Secret Affair.
With their latest UK tour sold out in advance and a US tour lined up, the band had began work on their second album. But Owen’s addiction continued to be an issue, and after being forced to cancel a number of UK dates, the rest of the band fired him.
It’s not known whether this had any effect on his state of mind, but he moved back in with parents, and apparently freed himself from the grip of his addiction, only to be found dead in the bathroom on 14 July 1980, from a heroin overdose. He was 26.
The Ruts had already completed their sixth and final single, West One (Shine on Me), and it was released in August, just missing the Top 40. A cobbled-together second album, Grin & Bear It, was issued by Virgin later in 1980. A compilation of singles, demos and live tracks, it offered a tantalising glimpse of what a great band The Ruts were on the verge of becoming were it not for Owen’s sad demise.
The remaining members soldiered on, changing their name to Ruts DC and enlisting sax player Gary Barnacle as a permanent member. They released two dub-influenced albums before splitting in 1983.
The cover of The Crack is a classic in its own right. The punk equivalent of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper. It’s a specially-commissioned painting by John H. Howard featuring caricatures of many well-known faces from the 1970s including Sham 69 singer Jimmy Pursey, the aforementioned John Peel, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible from The Damned, and astronomer Patrick Moore! The original canvas, measuring 5ft by 5ft, is now proudly owned by Black Flag singer Henry Rollins, a huge Ruts fan.
Fittingly, Rollins took the mic when The Ruts famously reunited in July 2007, for the first time in 27 years, to play a benefit gig for Fox, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer. It was the only gig they would play, as he died four months later.
Their legacy lives on in the form of The Crack, a must-have album in any self-respecting punk’s collection. It has been reissued several times, most notably as a picture disc in 2016, and as an expanded 3CD set in 2019 to mark its 40th anniversary.
Ruts DC, featuring original Ruts Segs and Ruffy, plus Leigh Heggarty on guitar, played the album in its entirety on a 2019 tour, and it’s now available as a 2LP and 2CD set, 40 Years Of The Crack Live, on Sosumi Records. You can buy it direct from the band HERE.