The N.I punk explosion of the late 70’s tends to be over-romanticised and over-intellectualised these days, but there’s no getting away from the impact that it had on music. Aside from the obvious (Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones), we also got Rudi (power-pop excellence), The Outcasts (an eclectic bunch), Stage B (gothy post-punk), Protex as well as Victim (more power-pop excellence). Not bad going at all, I’m sure you’ll agree.
And there was Ruefrex.
And there was Ruefrex.
Forming on the Shankill Road, in the late 70’s, Ruefrex were a bunch of working-class lads with musical and intellectual delusions of grandeur. And thank fuck for that, because what they created was something far removed from any other N.I punk band of that period. Not just musically, but philosophically.
I once wrote that:
It seems to me that they encapsulated and predated what Billy Mitchell would later wrote about in The Blanket: they were a group who were reaching to both sides of the community and discouraging them from joining paramilitary organisations as well as supporting integrated education but were unashamed of their Protestant heritage. It seems that this diverse approach (among other factors) has seen them eclipsed in retrospectives by the likes of Stiff Little Fingers (whose earnest, and somewhat vague, lyrics were written by their manager) and the Undertones (who started off apolitical, and then wore black armbands for Bobby Sands when performing on Top of the Pops)…
Releasing their debut single on Good Vibrations in 1979, ‘One by One’ is a stellar, muscular slab of wax that blurs the boundaries between post-punk and 77 punk rock. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an important release and one that should be celebrated as such.
This period of the group is beautifully captured in this BBC documentary from 1980.
Real life (and a few departures/reunions) meant that their next release wouldn’t be until 1983. But what a release it was: ‘Capital Letters’. Their finest moment, it’s gnarly riffing and lyrics (delivered like a deranged phone call from an apocalypse obsessed preacher) are a winning combination and would fill the dead with the urge to pogo.
However, an appearance on N.I “premier” youth show (Channel One) would demonstrate a more melodic and less aggressive side to the band, further evidenced by the addition of the (then unreleased) ‘Paid in Kind’ in the show. Jangly, mid-paced and enthused with a mix of anger, melancholia and grubbiness, it was a sound that was very much an extension of their post-punk roots and one that took heed from what the likes of The Smiths were doing at the time. But it was one that was uniquely Ruefrex.
This sound was to reach its apex with 1985’s ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, which was picked up and played by BBC disc jockey Janice Long (who had made ‘Why Does the Rain’ by The Loft an indie hit the previous year). As a result, Stiff Records offered to distribute an album (which became ‘Flowers For all Occasions’) and Ruefrex appeared on Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ (legend has it, this was the episode where Tube co-host Paula Yates met INXS frontman Michael Hutchence for the first time).
Opening with a re-recorded version of ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ is a statement of intent not only lyrically, but musically. Tighter, crisper and with greater sonic clarity, it soars. And the payoff is that the closing lyrics (“A people cannot live that way or so the songs and leaflets say/And all this time we're trying hard to keep the n*****s down/What with collection time and all with charities, functions and balls/It really gives me quite a thrill to kill from far away") bite a lot harder. A nice contrast between the anthemic and the realistic.
‘In the Traps’ is a perfect showcase of the band’s fascination with jangly indie-pop. The melody is wistful and nostalgic while the lyrics are a critique of the ‘dog eat dog’ world of the mid 1980’s as well as the unfairness of life itself (from school right through to death) with lines like “Certificates are now held high/Some must die so you can live/Your leash, the hallowed old school tie” sung with a mix of yearning and pessimism by Clarke.
Used in Hebrew to denote the spirit, ‘The Ruah’ (one of the earliest songs written by the band) is one of the few songs on here that still retains a strong post punk influence due to the off-kilter melody and throbbing, yet busy, bassline.
Re-recorded for the album with a more succinct intro, ‘Paid in Kind’ tells the story of McLavery, ordered to kill the last man on the foot patrol and the chaos that ensues from his actions. A jaunty number where the cheery melody disguises the squalid lyrical subject matter, it’s a great example of how a song can cover such a topic without being preachy, overblown or sentimental.
Covered by 80’s Page 3 icon/pop star Samantha Fox, ‘Even in the Dark Hours’ is a moody rumination on the end of a relationship and the self-pitying isolation that occurs. Although the keyboards put me in mind of Deep Purple’s ‘Child in Time’, there’s no getting away from the painful recognition of lines like “I’ve read every line/But still I refuse to accept/That you’re not coming back”. Furthering the ‘Child in Time’ comparison, the guitars moan and wail to create a sonic landscape for the narrator’s pain and misery.
A re-recording of ‘One by One’ serves as a tribute to their post-punk roots as well as a chance to update it for this period. While it lacks the grit and tautness of the original Good Vibrations single, it works surprisingly well in this embellished, jangly form due to Clarke’s delivery making it more anthemic, as well as the ‘stadium drum’ sound.
The strands of ‘the personal’ and ‘the political’ evident throughout are brought together seamlessly in the title track, serving as the closing song of the LP. Telling the story of an unnamed couple who get married due to an upcoming pregnancy, it ends with the father being found dead in an alleyway and the kicker is that there were flowers at all three steps: the wedding, the birth and the funeral.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the consummate Ruefrex song: the lyrical flow is seamless, the vocal delivery is mixed with warm reminiscence and deep sadness and the melody captures the intimate nature of the story while being stark enough to accentuate the bleakness of the song’s conclusion. Indeed, Clarke’s impassioned howl as he delivers the final chorus, as well as the coda fading out of the mix, is a chilling reminder that the cycle of birth, death and denouncement carries on in spite of our despaired pleas.
Coming out to mixed reviews (Trouser Press slated it as “forgettable” but Record Mirror described it as the most powerful release of 1985), ‘Flowers for All Occasions’ has grown in stature over the years not only due to the quality of the songwriting but also because of the revived interested in N.I punk. For a while, it existed in a strange vacuum as charity shop fodder alongside the likes of The Alarm, Big Country and The Housemartins, seemingly a relic of a different period.
On one hand, it’s not hard to see why. The cover is fairly bland and the production by Mick Glossop (producer on one of the greatest albums of all time, ‘The Crack’ by The Ruts) is of its time. Tune wise, the mix of jangly indie pop, post-punk and sincere ‘big music’ qualities probably confuses listeners approaching it today, expecting it to be one of these three distinct categories.
However, all of the above are easily sidestepped thanks to the songs. Singing about the impact of the conflict, the clueless simps funding the conflict while actively suppressing minorities as well as more universal themes like love and life itself, Ruefrex created a record that is its own unique entity. It dares to reach for spaces most bands ignore and does so with an ear for a tune that is not limited by whatever was hip at the time.
Astonishingly, it has not been given a proper reissue (despite most of the tracks appearing in low quality on the ‘Capital Letters’ best of from 2005) on CD or vinyl. There is no doubt that this is another reason why the band’s profile is nowhere near as high as it should be. A proper reissue will hopefully spark a reappraisal. But a spate of short-lived reunions (2003, 2005, 2014) probably didn’t help either, giving the impression that the members have no interest in their legacy.
Regardless, Ruefrex are a national treasure and demonstrate how ploughing your own furrow creates wonders in the long term.
Great overview. Ruefrex get mentioned in histories of the Troubles, but their music is rarely analysed in its own terms. The Elvis Costello story, and their coming from the Shankill are often mentioned, but this is the first time I've read a detailed analysis of their music, beyond the them of the Wild Colonial Boy. Really enjoyed it, going to listen to some of their stuff soon.ReplyDelete
It is more great work from Christopher. He brings to the surface some pearls. He, I and a few others were on the beer last night discussing this vibrant sub stratum of the music scene and I dug out another piece he had written, this time on Colin McQuillan. Fascinating stuff.Delete