Even among the parade of misfits produced by the Class of ’77 The Ruts stood out. Self-professed hippies – and strict vegetarians – with classic rock and dub leanings, the West Londoners had a musical know-how their peers could only dream about.
Throw in Malcolm Owen, a charismatic singer with, as The Damned’s Rat Scabies puts it, the potential to become ‘the punk Rod Stewart’, and it’s easy to see why they inspired such devotion.
Complete with a foreward from über-fan Henry Rollins – and written with the full co-operation of surviving members John ‘Segs’ Jennings and drummer Dave Ruffy – Link tells their story with the sensitivity it requires.
From inauspicious beginnings in funk band Hit And Run, it explains how the return of Owen and guitarist Paul Fox to London from their self-imposed exile on a commune in Angelsey coincided with both the birth of punk and increasing tensions in their native Southall.
While it’s excellent on contrasting their central role in the nascent Rock Against Racism with the casual bigotry of the rock star elite – notably Eric Clapton’s infamous on-stage rant in Birmingham in 1976, since airbrushed from history – it’s not without moments of levity.
‘Malcolm’s extrovert persona would come as a shock to those who knew him as a quiet, sensitive animal-lover’, notes Link, and it’s Owen’s transformation into what Segs calls this “super confident creature” which ultimately propels them into the limelight.
Having recorded signature tune Babylon’s Burning as riots raged in Southall, their ascent is soon marred by Owen’s increasing drug dependency. Unable to travel outside the UK without heroin, he passes out at a label organised ‘Evening With The Ruts’ dinner attended by a horrified John Peel, his behaviour is brutally summed up by Segs: “Malcolm was a fucking junkie, constantly lying and turning up with a bashed up face where some dealer had done him over”.
Utterly enthralling up to the point of Owen’s death at twenty-six, the book loses momentum as the rudderless band – now dubbed Ruts DC – drown their sorrows in booze as their career and friendships unravel. Nonetheless, a hastily arranged benefit gig for Paul Fox in 2007 – where Rollins gets to live out his Owen fantasies – provides a heart-warming finish to a tale of such unremitting bleakness.
For any fan of Babylon’s Burning – ie most of us – this is essential reading.