1979 was a good year for music, with the speed-fuelled rush of punk augmented by a creative flowering which comes as bands evolve and develop.
Groups such as The Clash, Blondie and The Jam were at the top of their game while the likes of Joy Division, The Specials and Echo & the Bunnymen were staking a claim.
Coventry’s Specials were back at number one last month, a remarkable achievement for the 2-Tone pioneers. The reformed group’s album of new material, Encore, reached top spot fully 40 years after their eponymous debut made the top ten.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of a debut from another band who melded punk and reggae to coruscating effect.
The Ruts are less celebrated than their contemporaries, victims perhaps of their briefer time in the limelight. Their peak years (or months, more accurately) were cut short by tragedy, with singer Malcolm Owen dying from a heroin overdose in July 1980.
Owen’s habit had been a problem throughout The Ruts’ breakthrough moments, which included a top ten single in Babylon’s Burning and their only studio album, The Crack, which brims with vitality.
The band’s surviving members, bassist John “Segs” Jennings and drummer David Ruffy, are back on the road, playing The Crack in its entirety as a tribute to Owen and guitarist Paul Fox, who died from lung cancer 12 years ago.
Augmented by Leigh Heggarty on guitar, the sexagenarian punk rockers still cut a dash when they took to the stage in Edinburgh. The dapper Segs, in suit and hat, handles lead vocal duties with aplomb, launching straight into Babylon’s Burning, much to the delight of a packed Liquid Room.
Musically adept, and with a strong voice, the band deliver in spades, racing through The Crack with an elan that belies their years. Highlights include Something That I Said, Jah War and Back Biter.
The absent Owen is never far from our thoughts, particularly during the encore when songs such as Love in Vain and H Eyes get an airing. Their subject matter was his habit and it’s tragic to consider that the band’s final single as The Ruts, 1980’s West One (Shine on Me), was their masterpiece. Its soaring sound and extended ending demonstrates their rapid development in such a short period and hints at what they could have gone on to achieve.
West One gets a welcome outing in Edinburgh and has lost none of its edge. Segs describes Owen as “a naughty boy” and there is affection in his words. He is feeding off the crowd’s warmth; it’s a chance to run through a great set of songs, to remember and to lose yourself in the moment. The years haven’t dimmed The Crack, so hats off to The Ruts, punk’s great survivors.
Words: Graham Bean