It was headline news in 1977 but, two years later, punk was on life support. Sex Pistols had long since expired; The Clash were intent on cracking America; British kids were being seduced by new, street-level movements such as 2-Tone and the mod revival.
Yet in June ’79, West London quartet The Ruts gave punk some much-needed CPR when their classic second 45, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ – an urgent, driving (and still frighteningly prescient) anthem attacking racist-related violence – steamed into the UK Top 10.
To the wider public, The Ruts appeared to have materialised from the ether, but in reality they were a band with a colourful past. Ironically, guitarist Paul Fox and charismatic vocalist Malcolm Owen first met in a hippie commune on the Welsh isle of Anglesey, during the early 70s, while rhythm section Dave Ruffy (drums) and ex-roadie John “Segs” Jennings (bass) both loved reggae; Ruffy initially learned his craft playing in an East End ska/rocksteady outfit The Star-Keys while still in his teens.
Consequently, while The Ruts undeniably drew inspiration from Ramones, The Clash and Sex Pistols, they were a powerful, versatile unit who could play with a vengeance. Their seemingly instant Top 10 success actually came on the back of 18 months’ hard gigging and a deal with Virgin Records brokered by their startling, dub-infused debut single, ‘In A Rut’, which appeared on the People Unite imprint, run by London reggae outfit Misty In Roots.
The band scored a second UK Top 30 hit in August ’79 with the blistering ‘Something That I Said’, but its excellent flipside, ‘Give Youth A Chance’ – The Ruts’ first highly successful dalliance with 70s roots reggae – served further notice that Owen and co had far more to offer than merely high-octane anthems.
This theory was borne out when Virgin released The Ruts’ superb debut LP, The Crack, in September ’79. Helmed by hotshot producer Mick Glossop (The Skids, The Chords), the record was impressively diverse for a predominantly punk LP, with sublime set pieces such as the militant, reggae-fied ‘Jah War’ and even the neo-prog anti-nuclear anthem ‘It Was Cold’ rubbing shoulders with a further brace of exhilarating, politically charged anthems including ‘Backbiter’, ‘Savage Circle’ and the brooding, anti-police brutality number ‘SUS’.
The Crack rose to No.16 in the UK Top 40 and ought to have been the first chapter in a success-strewn story. However, after the band notched up a third Top 40 hit with ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’, Malcolm Owen died of a heroin overdose in July 1980, tragically curtailing The Ruts’ career. Fox, Jennings and Ruffy later split after recording two underrated LPs as Ruts DC, before an emotional reunion prior to Fox’s death, in 2007, led Ruffy and Jennings to reform Ruts DC with guitarist Leigh Heggarty and issue an impressive comeback LP, 2013’s dub-infused Rhythm Collision Vol 2.
The Ruts’ ‘Give Youth A Chance’ features on the new compilation, Punk: 40 Years Of Subversive Culture. Out now, it collects some of the landmark releases from punk’s upstart heroes, among them The Saints’ ‘Know Your Product’, Sham 69’s ‘Ulster’ and New York Dolls’ ‘Personality Crisis’. You can purchase the compilation here: