The Ruts: The Virgin Years

Compilation of the short-lived UK post-punks’ recorded output, including a live disc.

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Like Ian Curtis, Malcolm Owen, The Ruts’ lead singer, died tragically in 1980. Scant consolation as it is, you do wonder how they would have coped with the 80s – or, for that matter, the 90s and the following decade. At the very least, both men are permanently and exclusively associated with the brief era in which they burned brightest and with supreme relevance.

Having mustered the £105 necessary for their first recording session, The Ruts quickly signed to Virgin – they liked the fact their reps didn’t wear business suits – and in the blink of an eye were on Top Of The Pops in 1979, busting out Babylon’s Burning.

With Joe Strummer refusing to appear on that show, The Ruts felt representative of their spirit: hoarse, impassioned, steeped as much in reggae righteousness as rock fervour, though cheeky and charming where The Clash were often militant and earnest.

As their debut album The Crack demonstrated, they had a velocity about them that was all their own – not just a punky reggae party but coming straight at you from angles inspired by jazz and Captain Beefheart on the likes of Human Punk.

Sadly this was the only Ruts album released in Owen’s lifetime. The posthumous collection Grin & Bear It features the track H-Eyes, on which Owen castigates the effects of junkiedom. However, he succumbed to heroin addiction himself, in July 1980.

Astonishingly, according to Roland Link’s liner notes to this collection, Top Of The Pops suggested the group appear on the show and bassist John ‘Segs’ Jennings mime to the late Owen’s vocals on their latest single West One (Shine On Me). They refused.

Instead, they picked up the pieces. West One’s B-side was The Crack, spliced together from poignant studio tomfoolery from Owen, but also some jamming that reveals Jennings, guitarist Paul Fox and drummer Dave Ruffy’s superb musicianship and grasp of reggae. This put them in brilliant stead for Ruts DC, formed in the wake of Owen’s passing – but that’s another story.

This excellent compilation also features radio sessions and a Marquee appearance, which showcase what a finished article The Ruts were, and what a shame it was they finished so soon.


David Stubbs

David Stubbs is a music, film, TV and football journalist. He has written for The Guardian, NME, The Wire and Uncut, and has written books on Jimi Hendrix, Eminem, Electronic Music and the footballer Charlie Nicholas.