Remembering Malcolm Owen: The Ruts 30 Years On
, June 15th, 2010 08:24
30 years after his death, John Robb explains why Malcolm Owen, frontman of The Ruts, is one of punk-rock's great forgotten figures
Can it really be three decades 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 figureheading 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 infact 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 an 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 carer 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 could have become.