The Ruts
Stiff Little Fingers

Second-wave punk's finest

By 1979 the original class of '77 British punk rockers had mostly either disbanded or gone off in more esoteric, non-punk directions. Punk rock was far from dead, though, as more punk bands kept forming every day. Premier among these slightly latecomers were the two bands on this page; though neither of them were really in the same league as the best of the originals - the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Jam, etc. - they all delivered worthwhile, occasionally brilliant music that holds up very well 20 years later. Sadly, these two bands are forgotten by all but diehard punk fans, but they deserve better than that. It says a great deal about the decline of punk that these two bands all sound ten times better than anything released on the Epitaph label in the past ten years; the law of diminishing dividends has made modern punk as stale as last year's beer. These bands, however, while sharing similarities of tightness, speed, volume, and energy, all sound quite different, as fitting in the days when punk meant being creative rather than just wearing a mohawk and never veering from a monochromatic formula that ten thousand indistinguishable bands across America are all playing exactly the same way right now. Sorry I turned this into a rant about how much today's punk sucks, but it just does, and listening to these two bands with fresh ears in preparation for my reviews reminded me very vividly that once upon a time long ago punk rock actually meant something.

The Ruts: Something That I Said: The Best Of The Ruts (1995) ****

At the time, the Ruts might have seemed like another run-of-the-mill London punk band, but in retrospect they have proven very influential, especially on the DC Dischord bands like Fugazi. What distinguished the Ruts is that they were punk rockers who could play their instruments. The guitarist isn't anything special, but the rhythm section really smokes, playing sophisticated changes and patterns without losing any tribal energy in the process. The band actually achieves a lot of interplay, a welcome relief from the simplistic blur of most punk bands. This reissue contains their only album, 1979's The Crack, along with a handful of singles. Lead singer Malcolm Owen died of a heroin overdose in 1980, and while the band tried to soldier on as the Ruts DC (as in Da Capo), it just wasn't the same. Owen bellows like a more blustery, less articulate Joe Strummer (believe it or not), but still somehow most of the lyrics are comprehensible. My only real complaint with this reissue is that the original album began perfectly with the explosive "Babylon's Burning", appropriately set off by ringing fire bells; this CD starts off with their first two singles, which are OK, but don't exactly start the proceedings off with a bang. The Ruts display their unique, rhythm-oriented approach to punk best on "S.U.S.", which basically amounts to an ominous rhythm track that intermittently explodes into furious chorus. When they're straightforwardly pop-punky ("Something That I Said"), they're less interesting. The lyrics are either political ("Dope For Guns") or concerned with general anomie ("In A Rut"), and like a lot of late '70s British bands, they display an affinity for reggae ("Jah War"). Capping it off is the great 1980 single "Staring At The Rude Boys", the band's peak. The only real problem with this disc is its inconsistency; there are quite a few generic punkers like "Criminal Mind" that are all hopped up with nowhere to go - like a lot of bands with a great sound, the Ruts could stand some stronger songwriting. If tragedy hadn't struck at an inopportune moment, the Ruts could have gone on to bigger and better things (maybe); their approach to punk, while certainly less innovative than the concurrent Gang of Four, sounds not all that dissimilar.

Stiff Little Fingers: Inflammable Material (1979) ***1/2

The Stiff Little Fingers were a band from Northern Ireland who made the "troubles" as people there say, their main subject on their first album. Oddly enough, the Fingers' lyrics weren't written by any of the band members, but by a British journalist who later became their manager. The one song the band does write the lyrics to, "Breakout", concerns the typical rock'n'roll fantasy about busting out of a dead-end provincial town to something more exciting. The Fingers' approach is powerful, but limited; what distinguishes them is their incredible drive. The recording leaves a lot to be desired, the song structures aren't incredibly sophisticated, and the band plays like punks, which means without a lot of skill but a lot of spirit, but despite the shortcomings the band comes roaring through. "Suspect Device" is the best known and also best song here, and "Wasted Life", "Alternative Ulster", the cover of Bob Marley's "Johnny Was" are all pretty great, too. In fact, most of the tunes here are good, seething with rage delivered by Jake Burns, who always sounds like he's screaming at the top of his lungs with laryngitis, yet the Fingers never forget the importance of a sturdy melody. The downside is that over the course of an album, the Fingers' lack of stylistic variety becomes wearying. Comparisons to the Clash are telling - the Clash were a great band because they covered a lot of musical territory brilliantly; the Fingers are simply a really good band because they only do one thing, but they do it very well. Rightly considered a punk classic, though non-devotees of the genre won't find much of interest.

Stiff Little Fingers: Nobody's Heroes (1980)

Their second album, better produced and more professional but almost as fiery as the debut. Contains a cover of the Specials' "Doesn't Make It Alright".

Stiff Little Fingers: Hanx! (1980) **1/2

A premature live/greatest hits album, it covers the best material from the first two albums with the expected drive and passion. Unfortunately, it also highlights' the Fingers' greatest weakness, their inability to shift gears from relentless drive. While the performances are powerful, the whole thing winds up sounding incredibly monotonous. I don't care much for live albums, anyway, so this one's pretty useless to me, and everyone else except for Fingers fanatics.

Stiff Little Fingers: Go For It (1981) ***

Other than their trademark blinders-on steady-forward drive, the Fingers sound completely different 2 years after their debut. The sound now approaches power-pop more than punk, and their instrumental skills and the recording quality have grown by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, their songwriting isn't as strong; too many of these songs are all dressed up with nowhere to go. When your idea of a good song structure never extends beyond a basic melody and verse-chorus-verse, it helps to be really inspired or else you'll just wind up sounding really repetitive ("Just Fade Away"). However, the cover of "Roots, Radicals, Rockers, and Reggae" is pretty inspired (give or take a word and you've got the title to a Rancid song - yeah folks, the Fingers are the other band that that pathetic excuse for Clash cover band are constantly ripping off). "Hits And Misses" is an excellent example of the rare song that addresses wife-beating, and "Silver Lining", the other great song here, employs horns for the first time on a Fingers record. Not bad, but hardly essential.

Stiff Little Fingers: Now Then (1982)

Their final record before they split up. By now the Fingers completely abandon punk for a much more mainstream sound, and wind up with arguably their best album (the band themselves think so). Stiff Little Fingers have recently reunited to cash in on their glory days, and have released several other subsequent albums in the '90s.

Stiff Little Fingers: All the Best (1983) ****

This two-disc, 30-track overview of the Fingers' transition from raw Clash-y punk (first album) to dynamic pop-punk (second album) to smoother power-pop (third album) to straight-out mainstream rock (fourth and final album) contains all the SLF most anyone reasonably needs. As you might have guessed, the first disc covers the first two albums, and the second disc the final two studio albums. It's an almost perfect summation of their career, and a convincing argument for their greatness in their own right (too often they were written off as the Clash's junior Irish cousins). For fans and neophytes alike, several of the A & B-sides unreleased on album are crucial, particularly the rousing anti-mercenary single, "Straw Dogs," and its riotous flip side, "You Can't Say Crap on the Radio," inspired by the reaction to Jake's choice of language during a radio interview. To tell the truth, I can't decide whether I prefer the storming punkergy of the first disc or the mature pop-rocksmithery of the second disc, but no matter how more progressively slicker the Fingers' records grew, they always kept their conviction and intensity intact and could never be plausibly accused of selling-out - like their betters the Clash, though certainly not as eclecticly, they refused to keep forcing themselves of the punk straightjacket of their early music, but tried hard to evolve as a band. While the original four albums may have suffered from inconsistency and/or monotony, these two surprisingly consistent and engagingly diverse discs cement SLF's place in history as punk legends.

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Reader Comments

Barry Ward,

For the most part I agree that SLF were a great band, but you somehow underrate them -- this on an SLF appreciation page! Go For It is a brilliant album, sophisticated punk rock that is unmatched. get a copy of Now then, another great album, the bulk of which is contained in the greatest hits collection ALL THE BEST. And to dismiss HANX! as monotonous, it is quite simply one of the best live albums OF ALL TIME IN ANY GENRE! And the second album is called NOBODY'S HEROES, not NO MORE HEROES - that's a Stranglers album or song. (Whoops! I've corrected the mistake. - B. Burks) Also, procure a copy of the PEEL SESSIONS CD, which also works like a greatest hits package. I agree the production quality on the first lp leaves a lot to be desired. Anyway, I give you kudos for drawing attention to my favorite band, but just be a little more thorough. Get ALL THE BEST, some of the b-sides are incredible and there are different versions of WASTED LIFE and SUSPECT DEVICE that are incendiary.

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