Malcolm Owen passed away 36 years ago this week.
This Thursday 14 July marks the 36th anniversary of the death of Malcolm Owen, lead singer of the Ruts. Eoin O examines the music of the Ruts and, in particular, the impact of their front man who has all but been forgotten.
Throughout the history of punk rock there have been a number of bands that have been overlooked, if not entirely forgotten. Given the brief amount of time punk rock spent in the limelight 40 years ago, as well as the transient nature of many of the bands during that time frame it’s no surprise that the most impressive, rather than successful, elements of punk do not have more wide spread acclaim.
By 1979 the Clash had released London Calling which garnered them more attention in the US and with it came their transition from punk rock to a more reggae ska sound. It was also at this time that another band took that amalgamation of punk rock and reggae and bolstered it up with a far more hard-hitting, yet just as melodic, foundation. Enter the Ruts; a West London four piece band who had just released their debut album The Crack, their career was to be cut short following the death of their lead singer Malcolm Owen a year and a half later.
The Ruts’ first single ‘In A Rut’ was released in January 1979 and had been record about nine months prior. The B-Side to the single ‘H-Eyes’ is, as with many of their other songs such as ‘Dope for Guns’ and ‘Love In Vein’, a song against the use of drugs and in particular heroin. It is a tragic irony then that Malcolm Owen was to die at the age of 26 from a heroin overdose on July 14, 1980.
As a debut album The Crack is nothing short of electrifying. Even before you put the record on, the album cover art, by John H Howard, is enthralling. Smack bang in the middle, sitting on a couch, are all four Ruts. Dotted around them, throughout the crowd of people, are many of the band’s contemporaries and influences including Patrick Moore, Jimmy Hendricks, Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies of the Damned, to name but a few.
Pressing play then, your ears are treated to the opening alarm bells of a fire brigade truck whizzing by as the band kick off with ‘Babylon’s Burning’. The rhythm section of John Seggs Jennings and Dave Ruffy on this song is solid as a rock, allowing Paul Fox to lay down an introductory rock ruff followed by a wah infused chord strum, giving the track that rock meets reggae feel. And then Malcolm hits the mic. The first thing you’ll notice is how distinctive his voice is. It has a slight hoarse rasp to it that makes him sound like it is about to go, and yet there is a power in it that reassures you that it will not give in.
On and on this tour de force continues through the aforementioned ‘Dope for Guns’ and on to ‘SUS’; a track about police intimidation and the use of the Vagrancy Act to arrest anyone who looked suspicious.
It’s not until track six, ‘It Was Cold’, that there is any respite and then it is only momentary as the album moves on into ‘Savage Circle’.
‘Jah War’, which was written following Metropolitan Police Service’s use of excessive force at a protest against the National Front, is a track that is more reggae than punk. It makes special mention of Clarence Baker, a member of the Misty In Roots collective who was particularly badly beaten during that demonstration.
All in all, The Crack not only demonstrates the true talent of the Ruts, it also exhibits some of the most masterful musicianship in punk rock. But their repertoire doesn’t stop there. The two tracks from their first single, ‘In A Rut’ and ‘H-Eyes’ don’t even feature on this album. Neither do other classics such as ‘Human Punk’, ‘West One (Shine On Me)’, or their cover of the Damned’s ‘Love Song’, which was recorded at Strathclyde University while they were touring with the Damned. And then, of course, there is the sweet lament ‘Love In Vein’, which for me is one of the most perfectly crafted songs ever written.
While the remaining members continued on after Owen’s death and formed Ruts DC (Da Capo, which means “back to the beginning”) the band as an entity, for me, has always been limited to that short 18 month period when Malcolm Owen was at the helm. He is, as far as I’m concerned, one of punk rock’s finest front men. A powerful performer; his presence brought a toughness to many of the Ruts tracks that could also easily adapt to a tender softness for others.
And he earned the admiration and respect of many music stalwarts and was heralded by the likes John Peel. He had such a massive influence on future bands across many different genres; from Zion Train to New Model Army to Fugazi. Not to mention that long time fan of the Ruts, Henry Rollins, took the place of Malcolm Owen during a 2007 benefit gig in aid of guitarist Paul Fox who was suffering from lung cancer. It’s a wonder that Malcolm Owen is not remembered with the same reverence of others of that generation, such as Ian Curtis who died only a month prior to Owen.
Despite the power of his presence and the uncelebrated influence he had over future generations of musician, he was a person like any other who had his demons and they slowly caught up with him.
The Ruts are a band worth remembering and Malcolm Owen is a front man that should never be forgotten. If you have not yet had the chance to get familiar with the Ruts then I can think of no better time to get acquainted than the present.