Themes From Great Cities

It might have come to your attention that I'm not a regular poster of love and understanding, which you will just have to get used to. I will however, have bursts of creativity where I move completely randomly from post to post with no rhyme or reason. I have recently posted a few singles (7 & 12”) and the odd bootleg which have been received very well by all who visit. More of the same will continue as you, dear readers, seem to be enjoying them.

Some of the rips are my own, but many more are from other blogs and I’m just sharing the wealth. If other bloggers out there wish to share the rips from my posts, please as I do, host them yourself. To combat this, the FLAC files that are over 6 months old will be replaced with MP3 files.

Finally I am happy to re-up old posts where the link has expired. Please comment in the relevant posts comments box.


Damned Anniversary Editions

If you like punk rock at all, you pretty much have to have a soft spot for the Damned's epochal 1976 debut album Damned Damned Damned, one of the masterstroke releases of the first wave of British punk which still sounds fresh, exciting and brilliantly snotty three decades after it was released. But if you love Damned Damned Damned, well, this remastered and lavishly expanded edition will bring a broken-toothed grin to your face in no time flat. This three-disc set (yes, three discs!) opens with the original album, which seems to have hardly dated a bit. For all the group's manic energy, the playing is sharp and muscular, Dave Vanian's vocals are powerful enough to make his histrionics work, Rat Scabies' drumming holds the band tight, Captain Sensible's bass provides a solid foundation for the melodies and Brian James' guitar wails with primitive force. The songs still communicate, and the band's lack of an upfront political or social agenda means these songs aren't chained to their era the way the early Clash, Sex Pistols or Stiff Little Fingers discs are, great as they may be. Disc two serves up 26 demos, B-sides, non-LP single tracks and radio recordings, which equals nearly everything the band recorded during their first year of operations. The two John Peel sessions and a ten-song BBC live concert will delight anyone with a fondness for the band's first era, and you may want to give "Singalong Scabies" ("Stab Your Back" minus its vocal track) a spin at your next karaoke party. And Disc three features a lo-fi recording of one of the Damned's first public gigs, a set recorded in London during the 100 Club's first Punk Rock Festival in the summer of 1977. The recording quality is only fair, and the audience doesn't seem to be too enthusiastic, but the Damned give their all, and the show is both exciting and historically priceless. The set comes with a 16-page booklet packed with photos and featuring an excellent historical essay from Kieron Tyler. [The 30th Anniversary Expanded Edition of Damned Damned Damned not only adds plenty of fine music and historical perspective to one of the great albums of the British punk scene; this is simply essential stuff, and rock & roll fun at its most dangerous.]

“I thought the Damned caught the true spirit of punk, 
as understood by punks, better than their rivals’ – John Peel

The Damned were, for a short while in 1976, well ahead of the game. Their appearance on the nascent Stiff label joined the dots between punk’s older brother: pub rock and the younger, hipper crowd. Not only did they use ex-Brinsley Schwartz bass player Nick Lowe as house producer, but the label printed a picture of Eddie And The Hot Rods on the rear. Each track feature’s the hammering toms of Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible’s bass-as-guitar propelling Brian James’ machine gun axe. If Dave Vanian’s frequently flat delivery sounded distinctly laissez faire then it all added to the thrill of a band bent on acts of auto-destruction.
The key moment has to be Vanian’s sarcastic lampooning of the Shangri-Las in his ‘Is she really going out with him?’ intro to “New Rose”. This was a band who wanted to exercise the fact that they’d fused their love of early Stooges, MC5 into witty, brief bursts of anti-pop.
Brian James’ songs somehow encapsulated the thrill and nihilism of youth (“I Feel Alright”, “Neat Neat Neat”, “I Fall”) while Rat Scabies’ one contribution injected a fine sense of nasty humour as well (“Stab Your Back”).
The album highlights a number of ‘firsts’. The first UK punk single (“New Rose”), the first punk band to land a major tour (supporting Marc Bolan) and, of course, the first proper punk LP (easily a year before the Pistols).


Inflammable Material

Originally released in 1979, Stiff Little Fingers were Ireland's answer to both the Clash and the Sex Pistols. They had the personal and political stance of the former, and the noisy, pissed off, slash-and-burn musical aesthetic as the latter. Fronted by guitarist and songwriter Jake Burns (he collaborated with journalist Gordon Ogilvie), SLF took off with their two singles "Alternative Ulster," and, for that time, the utterly out of control screaming that was "Suspect Device." These two singles make the purchase price of the album a priority. They represent barely contained youthful anger at social and political mores as righteous, utterly devoid of posturing or falsity and raging to break out. "Alternative Ulster" decries the Irish political sides in the Northern Ireland controversy -- the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Republican Army -- holding them both accountable for bloodshed and social and economic stasis furthering nothing but their own interests. "Suspect Device" which opens the set, screams at the heart of the conflict, that neither side can be believed as both reduce freedom to a buzzword while wielding guns. Both tracks are calls to arms, but of a different sort; the arms of dialogue and intelligence in the midst of idiocy and murder. Punk rock never sounded so brutal or positive in one band. There are other fine cuts here as well, such as the Bob Marley cover "Johnny Was," reinvented for the times in Northern Ireland; "Wasted Life," another paean to drop out of a society that breeds death and acquiescence for its own sake, and the scathing indictment of the record company that released the album, "Rough Trade." The bonus material includes the single mix of "Suspect Device," the B-side "78 RPM.” If you've been trying to dig through the morass into the heart of punk's original fire, this one's for you.

All early punk rock was fuelled by anger, but in the grand scheme of things, most of the bands in question really didn't have all that much to get worked up about. Political injustice, social meltdown and label disputes are far from ideal, but it's not as if the Sex Pistols or The Clash et al were living in a war zone, with troops lining their streets, the sound of bombs ringing in their ears and no clear end to their life-or-death issues. Stiff Little Fingers on the other hand, did experience all of that. Hailing for Belfast, Northern Ireland, SLF was formed by a quartet of school friends at the height of the nation's Troubles. They may on the surface seem like your typical punks with their limited skills as musicians and full-throttle approach to writing, but where most of the genre's early torch bearers carried gimmicks, Stiff Little Fingers had none. They were the real deal; a bunch of ordinary kids from a working class background with something genuinely worth getting pissed about, and as such it comes as no surprise that their debut LP remains one of punk's defining statements.
The commonly used "Irish Clash" tag is a lazy one, but there can be no denying the influence that Strummer and co had on SLF. Band leader Jake Burns has never made a secret of his admiration of the London legends, and cites his first spin of their classic self-titled debut as a key moment on his road towards forming his own group. The Clash's imprint can be found all over his songs too, with a similar balance of grit and melody appearing in the records more up-tempo moments. There's even a reggae crossover here in the form of their Bob Marley cover "Johnny Was," which along with the classic singles lifted from the album (more on them later) ranks among the highlights.
As well as being songwriter in-chief, Burns also acts as the single most important component of the band's sound throughout Inflammable Material. The record's production is red raw, but even less polished is the singer's voice, an intense, powerful and yes, angry weapon which gives the majority of his songs their added edge. Even more impressive are Burns' lyrics, which provide absolutely everything you'd want from an album made in such desperate context. As far as openings go, the shrill cry of "Inflammable material is planted in my head/ It's a suspect device that's left 2000 dead" takes some beating, and the album is packed full of similar moments of introspective genius. Take "Wasted Life" for instance, a stinging anti-militant anthem packed with refrains such as "I won't be a soldier/ I won't take no orders from no-one/ Stuff their fucking armies/ Killing isn't my idea of fun" which ring just as true today as they did when they were written 37 years ago.
"Wasted Life" and the aforementioned opener "Suspect Device" make up two thirds of a trio of singles which are quite simply stone-cold punk classics. The third, "Alternative Ulster" was also the most successful, topping the UK's independent chart but more importantly providing perhaps the most frank statement of dissatisfaction with their homeland on the whole record. The rest of it isn't half bad either, and can pack just as strong a punch. In true punk fashion, the band experienced a backlash to the raging blast of "White Noise," with many accusing them of being racists despite the fact that the song's underlying message is of quite the opposite stance. Not so controversial but equally thrilling are the likes of "No More Of That" and "Breakout," but amid those standard punk moments it's "Barbed Wire Love" which brings the biggest surprise. As its title alludes, it's lyrical core is as abrasive as Burns' other songs, but this composition also shows his more tender side, displaying a versatility which the band would come to expand on with subsequent releases.
Really, the only misstep here is finale "Closed Groove," a song which holds a similar level of lyrical brilliance as the 12 to it, but fits them around a melody which sounds pathetically amateur. Burns himself has never held back in his criticism of it, claiming that he's never rated it as a song, and deeply regrets including it an album where it simply doesn't fit. Aside from that though, there's not really much that you can fault with Stiff Little Fingers' debut. Its singles may rank as clear high-watermarks, but the same could be said of just about any classic punk album of its time, and the album tracks can certainly hold their own anyhow. They may have arrived a little late and thus missed out on the hysteria surrounding the genre's earlier bands, but Inflammable Material was just about as genuine as punk rock got, and for that reason alone it deserves to grace anyone's collection.


Jumping Someone Else's Train

Standing On A Beach With A Gun In My Hand…

Falling somewhere between official release and compilation, Boys Don't Cry was released in February 1980 in hopes of increasing the band's exposure outside of the U.K. It captures the first phase of the band well, showcasing the angular new wave that had garnered them acclaim in England. The major difference separating this from the debut full-length (and thus qualifying it as an "official" release) is that unlike Three Imaginary Boys, the first three singles ("Killing an Arab," "Boys Don't Cry," and "Jumping Someone Else's Train") are included. A good starting point for getting up to speed on this era of the band, it works best when paired up with Three Imaginary Boys; then you'll get the complete picture.

By Debra Rae Cohen  

In the spectrum of self-conscious post punk British bands, the Cure fall squarely between Wire's sophisticated, jagged architectonics and the Undertones' concise, wide-eyed pop music. They incorporate a little of each. I guess this means that these guys average out at the college-sophomore level, which is appropriate, since their first British single (the desert-spare "Killing an Arab") was based on an Albert Camus novel, The Stranger. It's hard to pull off such a feat without being called pretentious, but Boys Don't Cry, the Cure's American debut, proves they can transcend their Comp. Lit. 201 (Elementary Angst) scenarios.

The Cure's bass-heavy, three man sound works like a telescopic lens, focusing and magnifying a hook around a central line or image that makes each vignette ring true, like the one piece of back ground bric-a-brac that makes a movie set seem real. Songwriter Robert Smith has a gift for close-ups: the apt, arty phrase or stinging, succinct guitar overdub. In "Fire in Cairo," he turns a simile into a mantra (his girlfriend's hair burns like "f-i-r-e i-n c-a-i-r-o") and reiterates it over a bumpy dance beat. Smith's sound-effects guitar in "Killing an Arab" (either crackling through the mix like reverberating gunfire or stringing snake-charmer melodies) transforms the terse lyrics into a you are there slide show: "Standing on a beach with a gun in my hand/Staring at the sea Staring at the sand Staring down the barrel at the Arab on the ground."

Chris Parry's crystal-clear production separates Michael Dempsey's bass and Lol Tolhurst's drums, as if to fence off a large patch of silence in the centre. Along with neat production touches like the clattering trash-can percussion that echoes into the distance on the fade of "Jumping Someone Else's Train," the empty spaces highlight the group's dynamic variations. Compositions like "10:15 Saturday Night" and "Subway Song" (about a girl or boy trailed in the shadows) have the edgy quietude of reality. Every drawn breath, each finger snapped in the darkness, falls distinctly and significantly.

Amid the Cure's nerve-edge numbers (hushed and haunting or insistent enough to make you dance to your own jitters) the title track is the odd tune out. "Boys Don't Cry" is a sweetly anguished pure-pop single, carried by an aching, infectious guitar hook and the singer's taffy pull croon. Though it doesn't have the film-clip explicitness of Smith's other songs, the words offer a nice twist on the standard lovelorn script: boy meets girl, mistreats girl, loses girl, yearns for girl but won't appear vulnerable, even to get her back. Hell, if Robert Smith ever decides to quit rock & roll, he's got a great career ahead of him writing for the movies.



Bands like Human League, A Flock Of Seagulls, Visage, Duran Duran and many others were making fashion statements almost as much as they were making musical statements. Their outfits were often unintentionally hilarious to look at, and sometimes the music was as empty as a bottle of gin at Keith Richards’ house. However, there were some bands that were able to rise above the vapidness and create some pretty enjoyable music that crossed dance and rock with synth-pop. Classix Nouveaux was one such band. They made an instant impression back in 1981-82 when their video for the pop classic “Guilty” was all over MTV. It appears on numerous ’80s compilations to this day. Guitarist/vocalist Sal Solo was the band’s frontman and he was quite a sight. Covered in rouge and cloaked in a dark, flowing cape with a shaved head he looked like Nosferatu the vampire but had an eerie appeal, as well.
Around the time of the interview in June 2002, he had been recording solo (no pun intended) for many years, with his music a far cry from his Classix days. He was happy to talk about all eras of his career.

I was always a fan of Classix Nouveaux in the ’80s. It was hard to learn much about you in America except through MTV, which played “Guilty” constantly. Where you guys ever aware of that at the time?

Sal Solo: Not really, because we came here with “Guilty” before MTV started. You know, “Guilty” was released in 1981, and the first time we came to America all we did was we went to a big kind of concert place in Manhattan called The Ritz. They were sort of introducing the New Wave of British bands, so I think that the week before us was Adam And The Ants and the next week was gonna be Spandeu Ballet then Duran Duran and then a few months later we came back and did a bit of a tour where we played Chicago and D.C. and some other places (I can’t quite remember them all) but this was probably the spring or the summer of ’81 …
What kind of happened was our most successful period in Britain and other countries came around just after that, around ’82, so we just didn’t come back to the States, really. That’s why you didn’t hear much! (Laughs) I do know a few people who were fans because of MTV.
The funny thing is, my impression of the United States the first time, maybe because it was Manhattan, was kind of taller buildings, bigger cars and fatter sandwiches, and it seemed very superficial.
So, I didn’t especially want to come back for a while, but then when I eventually did come back in the late ’80s, then I had a very different opinion because I somehow just started meeting people and the place is about people and not just about buildings! (Laughs)

Your music, in general, was always somewhat guitar-based. You had synthesizers, but you definitely strayed away from being like a band such as Human League.

SS: Yeah, I think that was sort of strange in a way, because it was always really a guitar rock band, and we were always doing the stadium gigs and really, it was just as near to U2 as it was to Spandau Ballet or something like Human League, as you say. And a lot of people didn’t really understand that, because they thought that the fashion was only about beat boxes and so on. But in a way, new movements in music, I think, generally speaking, kind of happen by accident. They’re not planned. I don’t think that a group of bands get together and say we’re going to start a new wave of music; it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time. What was called the New Romantic thing at the time … I remember the first time that phrase was ever used. It was in one of the rock papers in the UK (it was NME or Sounds or something) and I think it was a member of the public that wrote in and said something about the New Romantics and mentioned Classix Nouveaux, Ultravox … And Japan was the other band, I think. All of us were groups that had been around a little while before that, but we weren’t really noticed because it wasn’t a fashion then. Interestingly, well, Ultravox was more kind of electronic than most of those early groups, but it was still more regular drums-and-guitars type stuff.
By Pete Braidis


Oh Bondage Up Yours!

Perhaps the most utopian aspect of the U.K. punk scene was that it offered creative, articulate young people the opportunity to express themselves, and to kick up an exuberantly noisy racket in the process. X-Ray Spex certainly came from this wing of the movement, the brainchild of two female schoolmates who re-christened themselves Poly Styrene and Lora Logic. X-Ray Spex was far from the only female-centred British punk act, but they were arguably the best, combining exuberant energy with a cohesive worldview courtesy of singer and songwriter Poly Styrene. As her nom de punk hinted, Styrene was obsessed with the artificiality she saw permeating Britain's consumer society, linking synthetic goods with a sort of processed, manufactured humanity. Styrene's frantic claustrophobia permeates the record, as she rails in her distinctively quavering yowl against the alienation she feels preventing her from discovering her true self. Germ Free Adolescents is tied together by Styrene's yearning to be free not only from demands for consumption, but from the insecurity corporate advertisers used to exploit their targets (especially in women) -- in other words, to enjoy being real, imperfect, non-sterile humans living in a real, imperfect, non-Day-Glo world. Fortunately, the record is just as effective musically as it is conceptually. It's full of kick-out-the-jams rockers, with a few up-tempo thrashers and surprisingly atmospheric pieces mixed in; the raw, wailing saxophone of Rudi Thomson (who replaced Lora Logic early on) gives the band its true sonic signature. The CD reissue of Germ Free Adolescents appends both sides of the classic debut single "Oh Bondage Up Yours!," one of the most visceral moments in all of British punk -- which means everything you need is right here.

“Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard… 

During the initial punk explosion in both the UK and America, there was no shortage of highly talented female artists, but nobody managed as potent a combination of rage, wickedly acerbic social commentary, pop hooks, and pure rock ‘n’ roll fun quite like X-Ray Spex did in 1977 and 1978. Led by a precociously talented, 20-year-old young woman of English-Somalian descent who named herself Poly Styrene, X-Ray Spex made a brief, but influential splash during punk’s initial heyday, kicked off by Styrene’s unforgettable, empowering rallying cry at the beginning of the band’s debut single, “Oh! Bondage Up Yours!” Over a simple punk rock arrangement, Styrene howled sarcastically in a powerful, upper-register scream, “Bind me tie me chain me to the wall/ I wanna be a slave to you all,” accompanied by a 16-year-old saxophone player named Lora Logic. The combination of sax solos and punk rock at its most feral was an odd combination, as if the musical Grease had been transported to late 1970s London, but as strange as it was, it was an effective gimmick for a while, as X-Ray Spex enjoyed a brief flirtation with mainstream success in England, before disappearing from the face of the earth.
X-Ray Spex remains one of punk rock’s most underrated bands, especially in North America, primarily because their 1977 debut album Germ Free Adolescents took a good 14 years to make its way Stateside, but the record is so timeless, so bursting with energy, it’s never too late to listen to it for the first time. Thanks to a snazzy re-release of the album, complete with nearly a dozen bonus tracks, Germ Free Adolescents not only shows younger listeners where Corin Tucker and Kathleen Hanna copped their vocal styles from, but it both skewers and celebrates consumer culture so brilliantly, it feels as pertinent now as it ever has.
As her London peers sung about anarchy, life on the dole, and the growing irrelevance of the monarchy, Styrene chose to focus more on consumerism and the increasing artificiality making its way into every facet of popular culture, and the theme runs rampant on Germ Free Adolescents. “I know I’m artificial/ But don’t put the blame on me, she sings on the opening track, “Art-I-Ficial,” “I was reared with appliances/ In a consumer society.” On “Identity”, her attacks on the airbrushed female body image as portrayed in the media sound even more relevant today (“Do you see yourself in the magazine?/ When you see yourself/ Does it make you scream?”), while she takes a poke at youth culture on the title track (“I know you’re antiseptic/ Your deodorant smells nice”). Plus, with a name like Poly Styrene, it becomes more than obvious the lady has an obsession with modern material goods, as her songs mention synthetic products like plastic, latex, nylon, polypropylene, as well as name brands, such as Kleenex, Weetabix, and Woolworth’s.
The subject matter all seems so volatile, but it’s all brilliantly underscored by some jubilant, upbeat rock ‘n’ roll. By the time the album was recorded, Lora Logic’s charmingly amateurish saxophone had been replaced by several seasoned session musicians (Rudi Thompson would eventually be hired as a full-time member), and the constant presence of slick sax solos adds a slick sheen to the music that matches Styrene’s lyrical themes. Jak Airport’s guitar avoids the buzzsaw simplicity of Steve Jones and the reggae-infused licks of Mick Jones, instead going for classic, Chuck Berry-infused riffs, as drummer BP Hurding provides relentless four-on-the-floor drum beats throughout. Styrene’s vocal melodies effortlessly tread the line between catharsis and bubblegum, best exemplified by such songs as “Obsessed With You”, the insanely catchy “I Can’t Do Anything”, the more pensive title track, and the fantastic “The Day the World Turned Dayglo”, which boasts the same kind of retro swagger that The Cramps would perfect several years later.
However, it’s the great “Oh! Bondage Up Yours!” that remains the band’s finest moment, the passion in Styrene’s singing giving listeners chills. The song kicks off the CD’s impressive collection of bonus tracks, including the memorable B-side “I Am Cliché”, as well as two Peel sessions from 1978.
Of all the classic recordings from 1977 and 1978, Germ Free Adolescents remains one of the smartest and accessible of the lot, but as Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash have gone on to become part of the classic rock canon, X-Ray Spex have sadly been ignored by many. Styrene would disappear from the public eye a couple years after the album came out, becoming a Hare Krishna in the early 1980s, only to resurface in 1995, releasing the Spex’s follow-up Consumer Consciousness, but it would prove to be impossible to duplicate the near-flawless debut. A record that pre-dated the ferocious, smart feminist punk of the Olympia, Washington Riot Grrrl scene of the early 1990s, it sounds especially prescient today, as our consumer culture continues to spiral out of control. As opposed to the usual crap we buy ourselves every day, this splendid reissue is truly money well spent.


Grin And Bear It

Early punk's greatest glory, and greatest flaw, was that most of the bands were signed before they'd reached true musical proficiency. No wonder they sounded so unique, they weren't capable of imitating their influences yet. Not so with the Ruts, who were able to deliver a powerful musical punch with their debut album, something virtually unique among old-school British punk bands. Easily able to recreate not just first-wave punk styling’s, but classic rock as well, the Ruts' influences ran the gamut of genres from Motörhead to Marley, the New York Dolls to the Banshees. Thus, The Crack was one blindingly original album, far removed from its contemporaries. At the core, the quartet's sound was based primarily on '70s rock, played fast and hard, bringing them into the sphere of the street punks, an evolving genre later tagged Oi!, and eventually mutating into both speed metal and hardcore. The album features a clutch of head banging pogo-til-you-puke blasts of fury, anthemic shout-alongs one and all. But the Ruts were capable of much more than simplistic punk-rockers in a metal mode. Some songs feature a wondrous gothic drone; "It Was Cold" was indebted to both Magazine and the Police, while other tracks give nods to pub rock and R&B. Out of this mass of sounds and styles, the Ruts hammered out intriguing hybrids, darkly shadowed, but occasionally emerging into the pop light. "Dope for Guns," for example, weds a hard rock verse to an anthemic poppy chorus, then ties the knot with a reggae riff, while "Is It Something That I Said" pushes toward Buzzcocks territory. The seminal "Jah War," inspired by the Southall riots, is simmering roots reggae/dub, but seared by classic rock guitar leads, totally redefining the rockers genre. The group was, if anything, even stronger lyrically. "Babylon's Burning" turns a powerful punk-rocker into an epic, with singer Malcolm Owen capturing the anger, frustration, and horror of anyone caught up in a riot. On "Jah War," he deliberately cools his passions, giving the words more nuanced power than if he allowed his anger to break free. On the sinister "S.U.S.," a response to England's infamous stop and search law, the group combines to create an ominous atmosphere of paranoia, a sound more chilling than that of any modern black metal band.

Can it really be thirty six years since Ruts frontman Malcolm Owen died?
In 1980, just weeks after Ian Curtis’s suicide, another key frontman was dead. And while Curtis has become iconic, Owen and his band (who were already influential at the time of his death) have somehow have been nimbly airbrushed from the annuls of history.
The Ruts, who burst onto the punk-rock battlefield in 1979, were the perfect synthesis of punk and reggae, moving it on from The Clash into a tougher yet powerfully melodic place. Their musicianship was spot on and imaginative, and Owen was briefly given the mantle of spokesman for the punk-rock generation.
He has become one of the great lost front men of UK music; a figure who fronted a key band whose originality, power and influence has somehow been overlooked.
As Joe Strummer once didn’t quite say, “The future is rewritten”, and as the past becomes sieved and edited we sometimes lose the story.
There is much debate about nostalgia, but those who are relaxed about such things celebrate the modern and the past with equal ferocity. The problem is that certain icons have become deified and celebrated, while others have been brushed aside.
Whilst someone like the aforementioned and, admittedly brilliant, Ian Curtis hogs the media spotlight, the likes of Malcolm Owen are almost forgotten in the rush to canonise certain accepted figureheads.
It has become difficult to believe that The Ruts were a far bigger group than Joy Division were at the time, with a clutch of hits to their name. They had released a brilliant debut album and had a long lasting, if unrecognised, influence that has stretched through the decades.
The Ruts provided an escape route for the punk movement whose first wave had run its course. For a brief moment in time they threatened to take British punk into the next decade. They could have been the alpha punk band figure heading the UK scene into the 80s, replacing The Clash who were on their American trip already.
The Ruts would have opened the doors for many other like-minded, imaginative combos who wanted to push the form forwards but keep it inside its parameters of thrilling music. They would have added an experimental edge, a space provided by dub and funk and a commitment to mean something to the street and the punk rockers seeking direction.
Unfortunately, when Owen finally overdosed on July 14th 1980 at the age of 25, it effectively ended the brief career of one of the UK’s most exciting bands. It was a double shock to the fans who had assumed that The Ruts were actually the first of a new type of group who were beyond drugs – in reality, they were very much part of the London scene and had a reputation for on-the-road ferocious partying.
The Ruts had promised a future and delivered a stunning 18 month assault that should be remembered to this day.
I can still remember that thrill of discovery three decades ago when the first John Peel plays of the band were broadcast in January 1979.
At school, the clutch of us who were hooked into punk and post-punk would crackle with the excitement of each new discovery that cropped up in the music press or on John Peel.
And it was Peel, of course, who had just played this track ‘In A Rut’ by the bluntly named Ruts, who were coming out of the Southall/Hayes end of London, on his evangelical show that is still yet to be matched in the years since his untimely death. In 2010 there is no way music this edgy would get near so called “alternative” (the most meaningless word in the musical lexicon) radio. It was the same then apart from the maverick Peel, whose show from 1976 to 1985 was perhaps the best radio show ever.
And it was Peel, who in early 1979, played the tune that was getting discussed in thrilled tones by our gangly group of teens. Here, it seemed, was another punk band just when we thought the whole thing had run out of steam.
By the end of 1978 they were already saying that punk was dead, despite the avalanche of the younger kids just getting into it. Punk had seemed to have played itself out. After all, how many more combinations could there be of the three-chord trick?
The Ruts were the first of the second wave bands – the much maligned and constantly misunderstood next phase of punk that took their cue from the initial wave of excitement of the form. Many of these bands thrilled in the rudimentary and matched the desperate times. These were monochromatic years of dissolution and apocalyptic paranoia, and things were about to get a whole lot worse…
Margaret Thatcher was about to get into power, and things were going to get a damn site tougher. Punk’s second wave captured this mood perfectly and seemed to be in a running musical battle with the establishment. The Ruts brief sojourn was one of the key musical fight backs that really meant something in a sea of soppy shite.
The second wave was tougher and more linear than the class of ’77. It has been brushed aside by the media who will endlessly celebrate the mythical and admittedly genius first wave, whilst treating the second wave of punk as a musical leper colony.
The cliché of the second wave and other related genres being thick and unimaginative is constantly proven wrong with a cursory look at the bands involved. From the anarchist, almost art-rock punk of Crass to the superior rock & roll of the UK Subs to the dark feral primal power of Killing Joke: there were so many wonderful moments in this period that it could be argued that the combined second wave of punk and its close mate – the birth pangs for the Goth scene – were in fact some of the most fertile breeding ground for British rock ever.
The Ruts debut single, ‘In A Rut’, was primal proto punk that hinted at something far smarter. Its structure was lopsided and anthemic – a brilliant piece of rabble rousing, proto-Clash street aggro – but there was something else going on. Something far smarter and considered, and it came armed with a brilliantly, rough vocal from Malcolm Owen, whose voice oozed a street charisma.
Their next single was the brilliant ‘Babylon’s Burning’, the perfect synthesis of the punky reggae party built around its killer bassline from bassman Segs, who would later be found playing in the Alabama Three. There was even an element of funk to the bass workout and a stunning piece of guitar work from the late Paul Fox, whose playing was always really inventive.
When Foxy died a couple of years ago from lung cancer, the UK lost one of its great guitar players. The UK punk scene rallied on news of his diagnosis and a very special gig was played in London, where a reformed Ruts took to the stage for one last time with Henry Rollins fronting the band in place of the late Malcolm Owen to run through six Ruts songs. When Paul Fox took to the stage an emotionally charged room watched a frail, heroic guitar hero pay his final show.
Rollins claimed he had seen the toughest man in his life and the guitar player, who had by then only one lung left, rocked hard and even moved about the stage. Post gig he collapsed backstage – exhausted, but a heroic figure.
30 years before, his guitar work was key to a band that was re-creating punk rock. Their rhythm section was adding the fluidity of reggae to the toughness of punk. The singles that followed ‘Babylon’s Burning’ were ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’ and ‘Something That I Said’, both of which were key signposts in the musical evolution of the era.
The band’s debut album explored this inventiveness further. Their sheer musicality and sense of adventure was never an excuse for the sort of self-indulgence and snobbery that ruined the fringes of the post-punk scene.
Despite this, The Ruts never forgot that their duty was to the mosh pit and also to the punk political. Their songs referenced the real tension of the UK.
The band were never scared to make a stand in the tense English civil war of the period, and their music cemented the diversity that people almost take for granted now.
All the time Owen was the charismatic frontman with one of those tough, yet emotional voices that score heavily in punk-rock. His stage presence was phenomenal. A rugged and tough face on top of a gangling frame, he dressed smart and looked liked he lived all his lyrics. His words were cutting and eloquent takes on the punk-rock nation and connected with the mainstream. He had the criminal style and the suss to front the band into the next decade and to become a Weller/Strummer/Terry Hall hybrid – but also one of those quirky, ‘we really mean it, man’ frontmen that the UK of that period was conversely so good at creating in that frilliest of decades.
He had been on the endless road for some time. In the early 70s he had been on the hippy trail in India in and later lived on communes in places like Anglesey with Paul Fox. While they all drifted back down south and played in bands it was Owen, who in 1976, after hearing The Clash, cropped his hair and bullied his mates into putting a punk band together.
Easily as charismatic as Joe Strummer, Owen was a brilliant frontman, an impassioned and powerful performer with a deep intelligence and a big heart whose chemical dependencies would sadly catch up with him.
Just when the band was hitting a peak in 1980 with an upcoming sold out UK tour, starting work on a new album and an American tour planned, Owen started to hit the skids. After some gigs were cancelled the rest of the band fired him because of his drug dependency – an act of tough love that temporarily helped to get the frontman to change his ways.
Heartbroken that the band had fallen apart due to his chemical dependency, Owen got straight and persuaded them to reform.
When he persuaded his mates to regroup The Ruts he hit the town. He took one last line of H and succumbed to the deadly kickback from the drug in the bathroom of his parent’s house in Hayes. It was a sad epitaph to a briefly brilliant career that had promised so much and left so many what ifs.
There was one last single. Recorded shortly before he had been sacked the band had finished work on ‘West One (Shine on Me)’, a dark song that somehow conveyed the hopelessness of the situation. It was a posthumous mini hit.
Owen will always be recognised as one of the coolest punk rock geezers, and a face from the past who could have contributed so much more but at least left behind a brilliant and impassioned legacy that helped to shape our lives.
Anyone who really cares about punk rock deeply cares about the Ruts. Henry Rollins will always tell you about the genius of the band, as will Ian MacKaye, whose work with Fugazi was almost like a continuation of the Ruts experimental work. For many of us in the punk-rock nation, they remain one of key bands of their generation, and a sadness remains in trying to guess what they and Malcolm Owen have become.

With thanks to John Robb


Teenaged Warning

Rather surprisingly one of my favourite albums from this period has become the Angelic Upstarts Teenage Warning. Why surprising then? ...Well it came as a surprise to me because I just wasn't expecting them to be a band I would especially like (due to their skinhead ‘Oi’ connotations) let alone love all over again. In fact The Upstarts barely registered with me at the time of the release of Teenage Warning in 1979 when the punk explosion was dissipating yet it is the best discovery I have made since delving into the punk archives. Of course I was aware of the excellent aggravated single "I'm An Upstart" and the title track rang a few bells....very loudly... with its terrace chant vocal backing but the rest...well it's like hearing a new release.
Teenage Warning isn't a classic album by any means. It's very limited in what it does (but then again so was most punk) and the song-writing isn't always the best but somehow I find even this lack of craft endearing , something which would probably make them puke but then how elementally punk is that. The aforementioned tracks are the strongest but I also like "Never Again " , "The Murder Of Liddle Towers" and "Police Oppression " but really though pretty much the album whole is a blast ...a one dimensional one but a blast none the less. Mensi sings with goggle eyed fervour and it's always great to hear a band who sounded genuinely angry. Why aren't there any bands like this around now? (If there are and I have missed them please educate me) The world is (arguably) more up the spout now then it was then so there is still plenty to be irate about. Maybe Mensi was right...... maybe no one was listening.

Newcastle’s (South Shields) Upstarts are already, for obvious reasons and not so obvious reasons, being prepared by the vulture voyeurs as the successors to Sham 69. I’m not sure what that means. I suppose it means that because of appearance, anthemic noise, naive determination and the violent impulses of their crass visions they’re set to attract similar sorts of publicity-soaked fans, and thus to adopt the lethal mantel of the voice of the hairless confused.
Such thoughts are a sad indication of the way factions and labels have unfortunately established themselves, and how spitefully bigoted people can be. The problems of greatest concern to Angelic Upstarts in the coming months will not be how to expand and extend their music, but how to control the indulgent, ignorant fervour that is likely to greet it. Jimmy Pursey’s career as Personality has been crushed, or at least redirected and compromised, by the unprecedented interference of thugs who took their vague identification with Pursey’s frail and hopeful philosophies to ludicrous and disturbing depths. The Angelic Upstarts have it in them to be the pop group the Damned never were. But they won’t be given a chance.
The Upstarts, a bunch of apparently illiterate and petulant Geordie hooligans, have dropped into a position where they could well be forced to confront the danger, with little outside help or compassion. But, for now, stupidly avoiding the issue, what must be done is to celebrate the release of their debut album on Warners after the illustrative JP Production fracas. It’s cuddly, with a few pin pricks of frustration. Teenage Warning is the audacious, frantic, Pursey produced work of four youngsters from the north east of England, whose fate of dockyard dole and premature drunken middle age has been temporarily halted. I don’t expect I’ll play it many times, but it’s good to have around.
There are 12 fun, energetic and explosive punk metal expressions here that have been blasted out of confusion and frustration with unexpected consistency and effective crudity by people who still seem shocked that they have found a way to vent their feelings. Tradition has it that this the Upstarts one burst. From here on they are destined to go the way of Slaughter And The Dogs or Eater or The Damned or, of course, Sham 69. The fate of such groups has always been all but certain, because of limitations and immaturity. These groups though, do leave behind records, made so affectionately and convincingly, that are at worst atrociously bad-good and at best raucously loveable and, in a tritschy way, timeless.
This is a classic of that genre.
Cheaply packaged, excruciatingly but proudly designed, it contains five pulp gems that place it many rungs higher than the Eater or Dogs bursts, and only just below the Damned debut. The ultimate masters of the genre, Clash and Sex pistols, are credited as ‘inspiration’…along with the Northumbria Police. In many ways the album is something like that which Sham would have made if they were less Pursey dominated and directed…a record of urgent unity. There is no outstanding individual like Pursey in the group and Pursey’s production seems to exaggerate all the Pistols/Clash aspects to splendid proportions. This is predictable, punk condensed heavy metal without the parody of the Pistols, the imagination of The Clash, the starstruck indulgence of Slaughter, the comedy of the Damned or the sloppiness of UK Subs. The purest late 70’s punk rock, in fact: excitable, blank songs that snap leave me alone, moan about the problems of young life, loathe the Police, mock students, scream at the kids to be united, and advocate a sensible form of anarchy. Dedicated to their Mums and Dads, and put together with the passionate feeling that it is the most adventurous, brave and poetic music of its time. What can you say? What can you do?
Not the greatest listening experience, but I had great fun reviewing it, and in years to come it will no doubt say one hell of a lot about the times when it was made. Love them, but don’t abuse them.

Paul Morley’s review of the Angelic Upstarts’ first album from the NME, 11 August, 1979.