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‘Babylon’s Burning’: The Story Behind The Ruts’ Incendiary Punk Classic

Burning with immediacy and catapulting The Ruts into the mainstream, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ remains a punk classic that’s lost none of its power.

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The Ruts

Proving punk was anything but dead, The Ruts’ legendary second single, ‘Babylon’s Burning’, blazed a trail up to No.7 in the UK Top 40 during the summer of 1979 and catapulted the West London quartet right into the heart of the mainstream.

Having first formed late in 1977, The Ruts played virtually every pub, club, benefit gig and community centre in London over the next 12 months, but their dedication paid dividends. After their debut single, ‘In A Rut’, was released through UK reggae outfit Misty In Roots’ People Unite label, in January 1979, they became one of the hottest properties on the scene. Hailed as Single Of The Week in UK rock weeklies Sounds and NME, the song’s success led to the highly promising punks inking a deal with Virgin Records early in April 1979.

Writing and recording sessions: “We knew it had something right from the start”

As it turned out, The Ruts already had a song earmarked for their debut release on Richard Branson’s imprint. Bristling with passion and well-aimed polemic, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ was a highlight of their recent BBC sessions for John Peel and David “Kid” Jensen, and the band instinctively knew it was something special.

“It was reported slightly differently in [Roland Link’s Ruts biography] Love In Vain, but as I recall it, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ first came from when we did some demos in High Wycombe,” remembers Ruts bassist John “Segs” Jennings.

“Our original manager, Andy Dayman, got us a studio deal and we worked on five or six tracks down there. My recollection is that I couldn’t really play scales, but I used to play this riff that went ‘der der der der’ – kind of similar to an A scale – just to warm up. Foxy (original Ruts guitarist Paul Fox) liked it and latched onto it. He began playing the part we now all know and love, and then [Dave] Ruffy followed on the drums. So like most of our songs, it just came from jamming. Though with that one, we knew it had something right from the start.”

“The lyrics could have been written this week”

Albeit in non-specific terms, vocalist Malcolm Owen’s zeitgeist-capturing lyrics (“The spark of fear is smouldering with ignorance and hate”) also chimed with the simmering inner-city tension that gripped Britain in 1979: a year when issues such as escalating unemployment and the rise of the far-right-inclined National Front were hitting the headlines.

“The song’s firmly rooted in reggae, but Malcolm’s genius was its chorus, which is simply, ‘With anxiety!’” Segs furthers. “But there’s an urgency and an intensity about it, so you remember it straight away. Also, sadly, with the political climate as it is at present, the lyric could have been written this week.”

Prior to the sessions for The Ruts’ debut album, The Crack, at Virgin Records’ Townhouse Studios, The Ruts nailed ‘Babylon’s Burning’ – and its flipside, the 1984-esque ‘Society’ – at George Martin’s AIR Studios in London, with producer Mick Glossop, across two days in April 1979.

“It was done on the same sort of equipment they had at Townhouse, but Mick remixed it for the album,” Dave Ruffy recalls. “He also added the alarms and police sirens that introduce the song on The Crack. When we remastered it [at Abbey Road] recently, we thought the single version sounded amazing. We were blown away by the energy. It’s really very, very punchy.”

Release and reception: “One of the best singles of all time”

Housed in a striking red-and-green sleeve designed by the band’s friend Colin Graves, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ first hit the racks on 24 May 1979. After its inevitable premiere on John Peel’s BBC Radio show, the single moved swiftly up the charts. When it entered the Top 40 at No.37, The Ruts were thrown into a whirlwind brush with fame which snagged them their first Top Of The Pops appearance, on 21 June.

The first of three legend-enshrining Ruts singles to crack the UK Top 40, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ remains the band’s signature hit. Despite its familiarity, The Ruts still relish performing the song in their current incarnation as Ruts DC.

“There is so much going on there in just two and a half minutes,” guitarist Leigh Heggarty says.

“The riff is obviously a classic from the moment you hear it. The chorus is brilliant, the vocals are amazing and the end section where it feels as though the notes are going to go up and up, forever and ever, is one of the most exciting pieces of music I will ever play.

“It’s one of best singles of its time – and, indeed, all time.”

The 40th-anniversary vinyl reissue of The Crack is out now and can be bought here.

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