When it comes to punks playing reggae, few embraced the fusion so lovingly as The Ruts, and hats off to them; for in doing so they created one of the greatest and most heartbreaking records of the sub-genre.
Formed in Southall in 1977 from the remnants of various hippy and funk outfits, the boys swiftly rose to fame on the back of their heavily Peel-plugged debut single, In A Rut, which, with equal swiftness, landed them a tour with The Damned and a record deal with Virgin.
Following the huge success of their robust anthem, Babylon’s Burning, however, Ruts frontman Malcolm Owen was led down the well-trodden path of rock ‘n’ roll cliche, acquiring a ponderous heroin habit, which, tragically, killed him a year later.
Love In Vain, the b-side of their often-covered fifth single, Staring At The Rude Boys, is a weary lament for Owen’s worsening addiction, and a little part of me dies every time I hear it.
Ostensibly, the simple pop lyrics concern the end of a relationship, though such thinly-cloaked lines as ‘don’t want you in my arms no more / sleepless nights I spend in pools of sweat / can’t get you out of my mind / well not just yet,’ tell a different story. Possibly the most heartrending aspect of the track, and, ironically, the key to its brilliance, is that the potent snarl, once Owen’s trademark, here is reduced to little more than a throaty rasp. He sounds as though he’s been recording the same vocal for three days straight and that the final take before his voice konked out completely was the one chosen for the record.
The Ruts gave the world a number of great reggae tracks in their short-lived career, leaning even further into dub territory with the post-Owen Ruts DC (see Tom’s SBB post from 8th May), but of all their works, none is more dolefully poignant than Love In Vain.
Bring some tissues, ladies and gentlemen…