The Infinite Jukebox: Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’

Irrespective of their merits, the songs that were being played on Radio 1 in those first days when I started listening to it daily, all day, hold a distinct place in my memory.
Certainly, ‘merits’ isn’t a word I would apply to Kenny Rogers’ first British hit, ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’, recorded with his band, The First Edition. It had reached no 2. in December 1969, unable to break through the immovable object that was Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’, but was still in the Top Ten, though falling, and still getting plenty of airplay.
The song and the performance are a far cry from Rogers’ glutinous and saccharine run of British hits in the late Seventies through to the Eighties, a period where the Great British Record Buying Public once again demonstrated their total lack of taste. Rogers doesn’t so much sing as murmur in a monotone, over a slow, shuffling rhythm, the band making minimal efforts to accompany him. The whole thing is so laid back as to be horizontal, a phrase we used to use a lot back in the Seventies.
Inevitably, the lack of anything conveying even a vestigial tune throws the single’s emphasis onto the words. Back in 1969/70, a newly-turned 14 year old, and a less than worldly-wise one for my age, I had very little idea what Rogers was singing about. Later, when I’d got a bit more of an idea, I understood it all too well.
Rogers starts things off with one of the longest opening lines to a song in pop history. You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair, he murmurs, Ruby are you contemplating going out somewhere?
Well, yes she is. The sun’s going down and she’s off to town to have a good time, she’s a young, fit, attractive woman, and what he says next is not nice: Ruby, don’t take your love to town. What he’s basically doing is accusing her of going into town to shag about, to break her wedding vows to him, commit adultery, in short, act like a whore.
Why does he think she’s going to step out on him like that? Kenny’s a bit defensive about that. It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war, he protests, but of course he was all in favour of it, he was proud to do his patriotic chore. But it’s cost him, he has to admit that he’s not the man he used to be, but Ruby, he still needs some company.
Crazy Asian war? It’s 1969, everyone’s thoughts immediately leapt to Vietnam, though songwriter Mel Tillis, who first recorded it in 1966, insisted it was about a WW2 veteran, so he was thinking about Japan. But just as M.A.S.H.’s Korean War antics were a surrogate for Vietnam, at the height of a war that so affected, and warped, the country, no-one’s going to look further than the end of their noses.
There’s another nod to the reality of the situation from Kenny, agreeing that it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralysed, and, with the band dropping out to leave only the skipping drumbeat, a nod to the wants and the needs of a woman your age… But then the truly maudlin bit, about how it won’t be long he’s heard them say until he’s not around…
This really is starting to get a bit gooey, but Rogers and the song haven’t finished. There’s one last obscene sting in the tail. She’s leaving now cos he’s just heard the slamming of the door, the way he knows he’s heard it slam one hundred times before (geez, exaggerate much?) And then it goes very dark indeed, because Kenny threatens that if he could move he’d get his gun and put her in the ground… Jealous husband, all set to murder his wife, domestic violence, what else can you ask for? And we were buying this, presumably approvingly?
I don’t feel like wasting any more time on this repellent little piece. It’s a relic of an age when it was sooo much more acceptable to call your wife a slut, and kill her because your feelings were hurt by her not hanging around having no fun with you. Of course I’m aware that Ruby is acting in a potentially hurtful and selfish manner, that she’s putting her own need to have a good time (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, but is she actually shagging about or is it all in Kenny’s imagination?) and it’s all about her need to have a cock between her thighs. What? That’s what Kenny thinks, isn’t it?
And a man’s got a right to kill a cheating whore bitch, hasn’t he, especially when he’s only been doing a good thing, fighting for his country overseas, sacrificing his mobility and his welfare.
Mel Tillis might have meant Japan, but no-one hearing the song in 1969, unless they were a naive teenager, thought of anything but Vietnam. It’s a conservative song, that assumes Vietnam was right, was good in exactly the same way it assumes spousal murder is good and justifiable.
But what really gets my goat about it, what causes me to want to rant, no matter how long after the fact this is, as I did with Jack Jones’ rendition of ‘Everything is Beautiful’ in that same era, is the way that people have held this song up to be significant, as emblematic of the pain of a nation torn by the effects of the Vietnam War, the gulf between Hawks and Doves. No, I want to scream at those who tried to elevate this into something it so manifestly is not, it’s a scuzzy, self-entitled, male violence encouraging little shitefest and you have no business erecting this into something of philosophical proportions. There is nothing noble about this, quite the contrary.
Apparently, though I’ve never heard either, there were two answer songs to this piece of slime, though the only answer I’d have given it is very loud and rough. There was an answer song from a female country singer, earnestly assuring ‘Billy’, as she named the singer, that whilst she had to go to Town (did she need to pick up extra balls of wool for her knitting?) he should trust her to honour her vows/not to fuck around on him, and a much later one purporting to be the son that he’d clearly managed to father despite his bent and paralysed legs (artificial insemination?) insisting that his parents had had a long and happy life together, which just goes to show the extremes some people are willing to go to to lie to each other.
Ok, you’re good to go now, the rant is over.

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