Art rarely occurs in a complete vacuum — the work always comes from somewhere — but that being said, it’s hard to tell what precise aesthetic landscape spawned Jack Ruby. No-wave historian Weasel Walter sourced the group’s only existing tracks and released them in late 2011 on ugExplode as the first authorized disc of Jack Ruby music anywhere. Founded by guitarist/bassist Chris Gray and vocalist Robin Hall in Albany, 1973, upon moving to New York City they quickly became a quartet with drummer/keyboardist Randy Cohen and violinist Boris Policeband. One assumes the principal songwriters were weaned on records from the Velvet Underground, MC5, and The Stooges, but considering the 1974 date on their first known appearance, something else must’ve been in the water they were drinking.
“Hit and Run” sounds like a collision between Lou Reed and Crime in its snarling, glam-infused first minute before caterwauling; tinny guitar, electric violin, and synthesizer blend into glitchy noise atop a motorik Can-like beat. The whole thing predates Swell Maps’ A Trip to Marineville (Rough Trade, 1979) by several years (not to mention being unheard music an ocean away), though that’s perhaps the closest aural analog. From a few months later, Columbia studio recordings yield a trio (minus Policeband) that, on “Bored Stiff,” sounds like a power pop group got a hold of some Faust LPs. The scrawls of cheap, distorted guitar, and keyboard gloop across anthemic, Sparks-y piano and barely-kept time on “Sleep Cure” cement this compelling collision a bit further.
Jack Ruby lost Robin Hall and Randy Cohen by the time several 1977 rehearsal tracks were taped. The group was then made up of Gray, a drummer named “Nick,” and Contortions bassist George Scott. This particular trio sounds markedly tighter than on the earlier recordings, imbuing “Hit and Run” and “Bored Stiff” with a raw, sludgy punk energy and taut thrash. The set closes with an absolutely destroyed, frantic, and sweaty version of the Frankie Valli hit “Beggars Parade.” It’s interesting that this Jack Ruby had perfected its sound toward something aesthetically reined in, and with the band apparently not much of a going concern following Hall and Cohen’s departure, they also sound straight-arrow tight. However, there’s a certain audacity and charm to the earlier, hurled-at-the-wall pastiche recordings that make the 1974 dates a bit more unique and intriguing. Predating the all-in environment of no-wave by about five years, Jack Ruby’s aggressive weirdness was isolated, ahead of its time, and brilliant.