Formed by four West London schoolmates back in 1978, The Ruts were one of the most compelling bands to emerge from the late-70s UK underground scene.
The band – with their inimitable mix of guttural punk rock, conscious roots reggae music, and simmering dub – released their debut album The Crack in October 1979. Their UK Top Ten single *Babylon’s Burning *encapsulated the rage and disillusionment simmering beneath the surface in Britain at that time. The record was filled with fury and despair, and its blend of righteous riffs, anthemic choruses and deep dub grooves marked The Ruts apart from many of their punk contemporaries. For a while, they perhaps promised to be as important and influential as The Clash.
But singer Malcolm Owen – as captivating and extraordinary a frontman as he was – was a drug addict. As the band began preparation for their second album, Owen’s longtime heroin habit raged out of control, and by the summer of 1980 he found himself kicked out of both his marriage and his band. On July 14, aged just 26, he was found dead from a heroin overdose at his parent’s house in Hayes.
The remaining trio – Paul Fox (guitar), John ‘Segs’ Jennings (bass) and Dave Ruffy – picked up the pieces and continued without him as Ruts DC, but in a decidedly different musical vein. The Ruts’ legacy lived on.
Virgin released a compilation of singles, demos and live tracks entitled Grin & Bear It later that year, and the debut album by Ruts DC came out in 1981 (Animal Now). A collaboration record between Ruts DC and renowned dub producer Mad Professor also followed in 1982 (Rhythm Collision). But the lasting effects of the death of their late-singer, and the shadow he cast over their new musical endeavours, all proved too hard to handle.
Ruts DC split in 1983, seemingly for good.
Fast track to 2007, and Segs, Ruffy and Fox reformed for a benefit concert, following Fox’s diagnosis with lung cancer. Henry Rollins – a self-proclaimed super-fan of The Ruts – stood in for Owen, and the band was supported by their friends in The Damned, amongst other familiar faces from the original punk era.
Fox sadly passed away on October 21 of that year, but the gig was enough to ignite old fires in Ruts DC’s rhythm section, and in December 2008 surviving members Segs and Ruffy entered the studio together, once again with producer Neil ‘Mad Professor’ Fraser. The project, entitled Rhythm Collision Volume Two, and was released in 2013.
Ruts DC in its current form has been around longer than both The Ruts and the original Ruts DC line-up combined. The band – featuring guitarist Leigh Heggarty – have just completed a European headline tour, and they’re gearing up for a series of dates back here in the UK. They’re also working on material for a new album, which is due out next year. And they still love breaking down musical boundaries – they recently supported Hawkwind at the space rockers’ annual Hawktoberfest.
Seems like the perfect time, then, to put in a call to drummer Dave Ruffy and challenge the stickman to pick his favourite songs from The Ruts and Ruts DC’s back catalogue – plus a brand new recording you won’t have heard anywhere else…
10. STARING AT THE RUDE BOYS (The Ruts, Grin & Bear It, 1980)
Ruffy: “This is obviously now a classic song, and I still love playing it live. It’s got a great chorus, and it works great acoustically as well, so that’s a sign of a good song. We met Gallows after they did their cover of it, too. I was very impressed with them. They were like the heartfelt, true spirit of punk, you know. I remember there was a lot of swearing, and Frank [Carter]’s mum was in the audience. Lots of tattoos, of course! But they were really nice lads as well.”
9. SMILING CULTURE (Ruts DC, Rhythm Collision Volume Two, 2013)
“This song’s loosely based on the mysterious death of Smiley Culture. He was an English, homegrown reggae and dancehall act. He had a few hits with Cockney Translator and stuff like that. What we do now when we play the song live is combine it with one we did back with The Ruts called S.U.S. We don’t play it that often, but it’s a firm favourite whenever we do. The track features someone called Aynzli Jones, who since then has had a No. 1 record in America in the electronic charts with a song called Hide. Read up about the death of Smiley Culture, too – it’s unusual, shall we say.”
8. IN A RUT (The Ruts, Single, 1979)
“This was our first ever single, and we finished our set with it the other the other night when we played with Hawkwind. It’s a great sing along song. ‘You’re in a rut / You gotta get out of it.’ You can’t say fairer than that, really. We made a thousand copies of the single and got one to John Peel, who played it repeatedly night after night, and we ended up doing three or four John Peel sessions off the back of that. It really turned our fortunes around, because there wasn’t anything bigger in the underground scene than the John Peel show in them days. It was like being touched by the hand of God, hearing your record played on the John Peel show. There’s nothing like that now to compare it to, and I don’t think you’d have a band like The Ruts get in the charts these days, with those sorts of messages in their music.”
7. IT WAS COLD (The Ruts, The Crack, 1979)
“This is a slow, doom-laden track. It’s vaguely about nuclear war, but mainly about Malcolm leaving his missus, after she chucked him out. It’s a very dark song, and it’s slow, but it goes down really well when we play it live. We nearly always put it in the set, because it’s just so powerful. All the great bands with longevity – the Led Zeppelins, etc – have songs that sound like they’re being held back on a leash, like a dog that’s ready to go, and that’s where the power is for me. This song has that, and I love playing it live.”
6. MIRROR SMASHED (Ruts DC, Animal Now, 1981)
“This was off Animal Now, which was the first Ruts DC rock album. It’s in a funny 7⁄4 time signature, but it doesn’t sound weird or proggy or anything like that, and it gives our guitarist [Leigh Heggarty] his chance to shine and do a bit of shredding, which is what I believe they call it. Segs was really happy with the lyrics as well. We’ve reassessed that album in more recent years, but I’ve got such painful memories of making it because we were all still getting over Malcolm’s death. It wasn’t a happy experience, and Segs kept getting compared unfavourably to Malcolm at the time. But we feel very confident now, about what we’re doing and the new stuff that we’re writing, and it’s thrilling to have the new songs do down a storm the same as the old ones. We still write songs about real issues you see, and people are really digging it. It’s great!”
5. WHATEVER WE DO (Ruts DC, Rhythm Collision Vol. 1, 1982)
“This was on our first ever dub album. After Animal Now, we – Segs, Paul Fox and I - left Virgin, and we had no money. We bumped into a chap called Neil Fraser, who’s known as the Mad Professor, and we recorded a dub album with him in South London, near Croydon way. We jammed some afro-beats and reggae roots music, and basically just made the album that we wanted to make. Segs wrote the lyrics to this one again, and the words still ring true. We often open up our set with this song, since we like to start with a nice slow build and this is perfect for that. It’s slow and low, with a good message and a good vibe.”
4. MIGHTY SOLDIER (Ruts DC, Rhythm Collision Volume Two, 2013)
“This is a dancehall reggae song with a really good rhythm and beat. It gets us in the zone whenever we play it, because it’s so happy. We played it the other night at the Hawkwind show and everyone was dancing their socks off to it, which was brilliant. It just goes to show that if the music is good then it transcends style and genre, because we had all the hairy bikers and the acid people dancing to it. On the record we had Tenor Fly, who’s one of the Brixton Generals, doing the toasting [Jamaican term for rapping], and he helped give it a really good vibe. It began as a song about children who are forced to become soldiers and fight wars, but it came out a bit more positive than that in the end. The message became that all our children are mighty soldiers, because they have to deal with the problems ahead – without sounding too corny, that’s what it’s about.”
**3. DANGEROUS MINDS **(Ruts DC, Animal Now, 1981)
“This was originally written about Margret Thatcher and other dark politicians – there are plenty of them. I don’t know what it is about this one, but it really grooves, and it just has some really ethereal qualities that we don’t have in any of our other songs. We’ve revisited it and reclaimed it, and it sounds great when we slow it down these days. People really seem to like it as well, and it always gets a huge cheer whenever we play it. Of course this list will probably change week-to-week, but right now this is one of my current favourites. And it’s so nice to play in a band where you still enjoy playing the music, because I’ve been in plenty of other bands where I haven’t.”
**2. SECONDHAND CHILD **(As yet unreleased)
“This is a brand new song. It’s about how nobody deserves to be the victim of childhood abuse. It’s kind of American sounding, in that it’s got a bit of a Patti Smith or a Television kind of New York vibe to it. Segs and I do the chorus together, and it builds and builds with this really strong message at the forefront. We’ve been playing it out in Europe, and often when you say you’re going to play a new song, people say, ‘Oh God! Here we go.’ But this song probably got the biggest cheer of the night every time. We’re hoping to record the song probably, along with the rest of the new album, when we finish this tour in December. Then we’ll probably release it around May 2016, subject to finishing it all on time. There’s still a few more songs that we haven’t quite got all the lyrics for, but we’ve got some very fine music, and regardless of what one likes I think there’s going to be a lot of stuff on there that people will be into.”
1. PSYCHIC ATTACK (A TeamRock exclusive)
“This is another brand new song, and people won’t know it either because it’s one of the tracks off our new album, which is actually going to be called Psychic Attack. It’s kind of like a punk rock song – the first we’ve written since about 1978. We’re currently doing three or four new songs on this tour, and I like all of them, but this one is my favourite. It’s a bit reminiscent of The Stooges and The Damned, but it’s a genuine heartfelt song that just sort of came out of the blue. We’ve been writing the new album for the past couple of years, and Segs and I have been away a couple of times out to the mountains in Portugal to do more writing. They have to be really good you see, because we’ve got a hot legacy, and if we’re doing rock ‘n’ roll songs then we’ve got to live up it. And we’re really happy with the new songs we’ve got so far, because they do live up to it. We’re very excited, particularly about this one, and that’s why we’ve named the album and the tour after it.”
Ruts DC kick off their UK tour on October 9. For more details, visit their official site.