"It's weird," says Robin Hall, erstwhile vocalist of formative NY punks/no-wavers Jack Ruby. "But I actually thought we should have hit records."
They didn't, of course. How could they? As early as '74, the toothsome quartet was making quite a racket in Lower Manhattan -- too much racket, really, and the Bowery bohemes flocking to see Television and the New York Dolls were unsure of a band that seemed to thrive on sheets of schizophrenic noise. Robin and his bandmates considered groups like Television and the Dolls distant peers, and they hoped for some sort of recognition in the Lower East Side, but it was clear that Jack Ruby didn't fit. They couldn't, and didn't want to.
"Bands like Television had their thing, which wasn't what we were doing," says Hall today. "We had our own way of doing things. It was more like, 'If everybody's doing that, let's do this.'"
Contrarian and abrasive as they were, Jack Ruby had something. Some of their songs sounded familiar -- at least for the first 30 seconds or so -- borrowing riffs and rhythms from the Stooges, the Velvets, the MC5, various hard rock and garage bands. But there lurked an unhinged, paranoiac collage of amphetemine noise in each of their tunes, due in no small part to drummer Randy Cohen's cracked synth and manipulated sound loops, not to mention Boris Policeband's equally squalid electric viola. While Hall would sneer through his lines and sniff at imaginary jailbait, guitarist Chris Gray wiggled out strangulated leads, and Cohen and Policeband attacked their respective instruments, building a mountainous scraping cacophony atop what began as a fairly planar rock/roll number. In some cases, the sonic bedlam would prove too heavy and unwieldy for the song itself to support, and it would disintegrate abruptly.
As did Epic Records, who had curiously commissioned demo recordings that could've led to a potential contract. "Randy knew Steve Paley at Epic," says Hall today. "He was Sly Stone's A&R guy. I think maybe he saw the synthesizer and thought we were like 'Tubular Bells,'" he laughs. Whatever the case, the band proved far too wild for the label, and nothing materialized.
Hit records? They had no records.
By the late '70s, the more codified punk rock of units like the Ramones (and, overseas, the Sex Pistols and their myriad proteges) set in, as did stagnation amongst those who'd already been involved in out-there musical pursuits since the earlier part of the decade. But some in Lower Manhattan fought to keep youth sounds artful, abrasive, interesting and spontaneous -- noisy. No-wave came to fruition and flourished, and it was too late for Jack Ruby. They were already over and done.
But no-wave historians and collectors murmured about the band's mythic (and infrequent) live appearances decades after it'd all passed. For example, Lydia Lunch -- "the first person who got what we were doing," comments Hall -- penned a recent blurb that compared their sound to having "my head torn off by my ears." People who had seen the band lauded them still, and younger fans of similar bygone groups, like the Contortions (whose roster would include George Scott, bassist in the final incarnation of Jack Ruby), DNA, Circle X, Debris, et. al. were anxious to hear the source of the rumors.
This past November, contemporary no-wave oddball and ugExplode Records CEO Weasel Walter thankfully unearthed and cleaned up a slice of Jack Ruby's rehearsal and demo material, releasing a self-titled CD of the band's best (and only?) tunes. It captures the sound of a group with bared fangs -- one that was woefully outside the lines and ahead of its time. It's already out of print, but it'll be available again soon, and there are rumors of another label pressing an LP version in the near future. In the meantime, France's Saturday Records has issued a 45 of "Hit and Run" b/w "Bad Teeth," available through various distros in the States and abroad. I recommend blasting it while getting painfully drunk and disrobing on your fire escape, screaming "JACK RUBY!" at traffic, passersby, the sky, etc., because it's the best thing you're likely to hear before the year's out.