1980 was an extraordinary year in music. It was the first year of the new decade, the first year of the first completely Beatles-free decade, and the first year of the first post-punk decade. 1980 also saw the release of Back in Black, Boy, Second Edition, British Steel, London Calling (in the U.S., anyhow), Underwater Moonlight, Freedom of Choice, Los Angeles, Killing Joke, Black Sea, Dirty Mind, Closer, The Black Album, Ace of Spades, and Double Fantasy.
It was also the year rock music discovered its’ mortality.
Until 1980, the death of a rock musician was a sporadic, shocking event. Prior to 1980, rock deaths were a sad novelty, more news than a harbinger of time, and the average music fan could probably count on one-and-a-half hands the number of famous musicians who had passed. The inevitability of impermanence was something that Generation Rock had somehow avoided.
1980 changed all that.
1980 saw the passing of Bon Scott, Ian Curtis, John Bonham, Darby Crash, and John Lennon (not to mention Larry Williams, Amos Milburn, Professor Longhair, Jacob Miller, Keith Godchaux, Carl Radle, and Tim Hardin). One or more of these deaths touched every type of fan, avid or casual; followers of every genre variation were affected. After 1980, it was no longer an amusing parlor game to talk about the All-Star Band in Heaven; after 1980, we had to recognize the mortality of our peers and heroes, as opposed to ignoring the inevitability of life’s end.
I have left one name off the list of those who passed in 1980, a name that too-frequently is omitted from that sad roll call.
This week marks the 34th anniversary of the death of Malcolm Owen. Owen was the lead singer of a spectacular, fiery, serpentine, inventive, promising, and furiously joyful band called The Ruts.
The Ruts were many things: they were the Clash’s Clash, which is to say that they ripped through punk conventions like extremely adept rabid dogs, and were always acutely aware of the power of rock to effect social change and educate; no band ever more effectively integrated reggae and rock, and punk and dub, and they achieved one thing the splendid Two Tone bands never actually accomplished, which was to marry the TRUE roar of punk with the hopping fragility of reggae and ska; there was NO tighter or musically adept punk band (with the possible exception of the Bad Brains), and the Ruts ability to turn a chord change on a thin, sharp dime made their shifting, glistening slaps of metal the predecessor of the chunka-chunka dive-bombing of Metallica; and they created some of the era’s most powerful 45s, PROVING that punk rock had the ability to evolve musically and spiritually while retaining spit, speed, and venom.
The Ruts were also a gliding, crunching, beacon of what the 1980s COULD have been, the progression of punk rock into an arena where musical aptitude was appreciated and actual political/philosophical content was DEMANDED, and where the integration of non-Caucasian musical forms into the monochrome of Punk could seem logical and natural, and could be executed without ANY sacrifice of volume and power.
The Ruts could have been, should have been, huge in America. They were (truly) as musically adept as Rush, only they found, uniquely, a way to apply that skill to punk. Their swift, broad tongue-biting chomp certainly could have appealed to lovers of metal, and in front man Owen, they had the un-imagined love-child of Strummer and Bon Scott, howling with righteous intent of Jello Biafra and the sincerity of Jon Langford. And their rhythm section – bassist Segs Jennings and drummer Dave Ruffy – was (and is) one of the best rhythm sections in rock, NOT a statement I make lightly.
Malcolm Owen died on July 14, 1980, shortly after the Ruts recorded two of the best singles of the era: “West One (Shine on Me)”, a foreboding arpeggiated-riff-nugget that told the story of the night city, and the tripping, serpentine, noir dance-punk salute to the dark shadows of Two Tone, “Staring at the Rude Boys.”
Although I know that he died the same year as Lennon, Curtis, Bonham, and Scott, I have little hesitation in saying that Owen’s death was the greatest loss of that sad and incredible year, if you measure loss by the yardstick of music un-heard, potential never realized.
The Ruts re-constituted as the Ruts D.C. (the D.C. standing for “da capo,” Latin for “back to the beginning”), and made some extraordinary records pioneering the interface between dub and post-punk; guitarist Paul Fox, who perhaps understood the tricky recipe for the appropriate blending of punk, metal, and classic rock better than any guitarist I’ve ever heard, died in 2007, but not before brilliantly performing at a reunion show, with Henry Rollins subbing for Owen. Today, after a roughly two-decade hiatus, Ruts D.C. are recording and touring again, and that is a magical thought, but nothing will ever restore the sense of loss at the music they never had a chance to make with Malcolm.
There’s not a big “point” here. I am not going to curse the American label system circa 1980 that (almost actively) didn’t foster success for a generation of brilliant post-punk bands like the Ruts, nor am I going to devolve into a well meaning “say no to drugs” rant. This was just a fan letter. The Ruts were a punk rock band that acknowledged everything positive, musically, conceptually, and ideologically, about the first-generation of Britpunk, while looking forward to the high-competence, high-power tightrope-walking of Northern British Metal and later speed metal; and they did all that while being deftly aware of (and brilliantly integrating) the political and musical tradition of non-caucasian music. WOW. The Ruts really did do all that. It was an extraordinary, unprecedented balancing act, and goddamn did they pull it off.