Interview: The Ruts DC
People tend to forget that we were listening to bands like ATV, Mekons and stuff, who were most definitely punk but it wasn’t thrashy...I think punk got a bit stolen by various bands around The Exploited time and that has become the archetype of punk which is for me what you could call ‘postcard punk’, when you get those postcards of London and there’s four blokes
Widely considered to be one of the greatest punk albums of all time and by Henry Rollins as ‘one of the best records I have ever heard’ (1), The Ruts iconic album The Crack was released 40 years ago. Preceded by the singles ‘In a Rut’, ‘Babylon’s Burning’ and ‘Something That I Said’ the album came out in 1979 and included the latter two singles plus fourth single ‘Jah War’, which bravely confronted police violence in Southall and the SPG clubbing of Clarence Baker, manager of reggae band Misty In Roots. At a point when the two streams of art (college?) sensibility and raucous singalong present in the first wave of UK punk and exemplified by the Sex Pistols and X-Ray Spex were starting to go their separate ways* (think Magazine, PIL, Essential Logic v Oi!), The Crack showed that, with an eclectic musical knowledge and exceptional musical ability, the original promising synergy of punk could still be a potent force with short sharp songs like ‘You’re Just A’… alongside ‘Jah War’ and ‘It Was Cold’, both coming in at over 6 minutes long. Running through the album is a sense of tension and social commentary that reflected urban Britain in the late 70s but (unfortunately) is also extremely relevant to 2019 as the UK continues to be plagued by scapegoating, Brexit, class war and the mainstreaming of far/alt right politics. The Ruts DC decision to mark the 40th Anniversary of The Crack with a tour and the release of a remastered version of the classic album could not be more timely, a point I put to the band when we met up before their gig in Norwich.
(((o))): Musically and lyrically The Crack transcends time and is still an incredibly powerful album, dealing with themes of ‘ignorance and hate’, anxiety, racism, racial profiling, police violence, all still very relevant, maybe especially so now after 8 years of so called austerity and with the social fallout from Brexit. It seems like The Crack is as much a commentary on now as then? Was that ongoing relevance something you were conscious of when you were remastering the album and organising the tour?
Segs: I think we’ve always been conscious of that, I think at the time I was a little bit naive and thought that everything we were doing was going to be an irreversible change, as I’ve got older, and I don’t think this is just cynicism, you realise it morphs into something else, it’s very difficult to get rid of racism and hate because you get rid of the hate towards a certain people and they find someone else to blame.
Dave Ruffy: I think you might change a few individuals but people keep procreating and ignorance still seems to reign supreme, but you just carry on don’t you? You can’t say ‘I won’t bother then’.
Segs: It’s become a totally different thing for us, it becomes your own individual ‘battle’, I suppose, whereas I really felt part of the movement then. It was really a common sense thing for us it wasn’t ‘Right, I’m looking for something to join’, I’ve never looked for any bloody movement to join, we don’t really belong to any political party, I mean which one would you belong to if you decided to go that way! My whole thing is autonomy above anarchy, my own path, my own rules. It’s your own battle, we’ve had kids and you try to pass on to them what you live. I think Ruffy is right, we have won in certain things because my daughter doesn’t really see colour or race really.
(((o))): I think there has been a cultural shift, when you think back to the 70s, it was so shit really! Pre punk culture was appalling!
Segs: Post war Pre punk I suppose you could call it, it was still post war…
DR: Yeah, it was awful when I was growing up, it is different.
Leigh Heggarty: You were saying about the album, obviously we have all heard the album quite a lot lately, and it’s funny there are songs that could almost have been written now, you don’t have to change any of the words, I don’t think. That’s a testament to how good it was in the first place, maybe it means things haven’t changed, but it has changed things for people.
Segs: For us it makes doing 40 years of The Crack more relevant, more doable really, we’re up there singing our stuff and playing it with a lot of vigour because we do still think of those things. I guess you are singing songs about the present rather than just singing for the past.
(((o))): Which is why The Ruts DC still work really…
Segs: I think so, interesting for us when we get to Music Must Destroy territory in the set it kicks off, haha, it’s like we really mean it even more! We had that in rehearsals to be honest doing those tracks.
(((o))): A few years ago I was in Berlin and went to the Rosa Luxemburg memorial, laid some flowers and gave the old communist salute as a tribute to a fallen comrade really, is that what this tour feels like for you at all? A tribute to fallen friends?
DR: Yeah. There has been a lot of pressure to do a The Crack tour for a long time and we resisted it for a long time because Ruts DC want to do new music, because a lot of people are liking our new music we felt ready to deal with it. To take on the task of doing it was quite a personal thing because Seggs and I were so involved in it, we didn’t really know how it would be, we have had to work very, very hard on doing it and we’ve had to find a way of doing it properly. It’s not just about playing the songs, we are (a lot better) musicians now than we were then, we had to unlearn a little bit to keep it loose as well. And of course you have the other two (Malcolm Owen and Paul Fox), the last gig we did, in Oxford, it was almost like they were there.
Segs: I think ‘tribute’ is maybe the wrong word, respect is definitely there and always has been, on this one you can’t do it without them being there really haha. I’m not going to go into ‘I think there looking down on us and thinking we’re OK’ but let’s say nothing’s going wrong so far haha!
DR: It’s fucking hard, songs we were doing in our early 20s to now! But we’ve worked really hard on it and I think we have found the right way of doing them, and generally the response to it’s been great. I think we are on gig eight tonight, the first gig was last Monday week, we’d been working on it, playing to a wall, but when you play (gigs) you get that energy back from the audience and from the off it’s been great and it’s getting better really.
Segs: People want to like it, they want it to be good. I guess it could have gone so wrong, I mean I’ve seen a lot of bands that get it wrong, it wasn’t really an option. We have all put so much work into getting it right, but giving it its own Ruts DC twist, breathing life into it. Slightly different for Leigh, because we were on the original thing, you’re interpreting music that you actually did, and played on, and it is different now ‘cause it’s 40 years on. Be like painting the same piece of art again.
(((o))): Segs, in a recent interview you mentioned that you had been initially reluctant to tour The Crack, was that because you’ve kept moving forward musically, trying new things?
Segs: Absolutely! We always did move forward, we moved forward in The Ruts. When we made The Crack nobody thought ‘How are we going to top that?’ in fact it was the archetypal first album where the earlier songs like ‘Out of Order’, we had already moved on from that, if you listen to Grin and Bear It, which sadly never reached its full fruition as an album, ‘Rude Boys’, ‘West One’, we were really moving forward. We’ve continued to do that so it was a difficult thing. We don’t like the ‘punk’ monicker too much, we’re proud of our heritage and very proud of the punk ethic but not thrashy bands that we never really liked. People tend to forget that we were listening to bands like ATV, Mekons and stuff, who were most definitely punk but it wasn’t thrashy…I think punk got a bit stolen by various bands around The Exploited time and that has become the archetype of punk which is for me what you could call ‘postcard punk’, when you get those postcards of London and there’s four blokes…and that went round the world and that was the thrashy fashion, some people preferred that, but it wasn’t what we were about and it wasn’t what we were listening to.
DR: I think we all realised that The Crack for a lot of people was part of their soundtrack, it was a big record for quite a lot of people. We remastered it with Tim Turan- he came to our gig in Oxford the other night, he loved it- it’s really good the remastered album, sounds great. We hadn’t really listened to the The Crack, I mean we heard tracks off it but you don’t really listen to your own work.. Our new agent and manager really wanted us to do it so after much umming and ahhing we finally agreed to do it and once we agreed we embraced it and took it on board and made a good job of it.
(((o))): I’d like to pick up what you said about it being an important soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives, when The Crack came out Leigh, what did it mean to you? Did it play an important part in your own development as a musician? How did it fit into your musical life?
Leigh: It was a huge record for me along with several others from the time of course. It had a massive effect on me, the sound on it, obviously the guitar playing. The lyrics on it, this was when I was 17/18, you’d read everything on the sleeve, get all the lyrics, or I did anyway! It was a huge record for me and people like me. Like you were saying after the initial punk thing, when maybe bands were getting a bit… well not as good really, it was all getting a bit identikit, it’s like a cover version of a cover version, people were starting to sound like they’d only heard those bands and The Ruts didn’t sound anything like that. They’d obviously taken the spirit from it but to me they were always like a rock band playing to a punk audience. The record was a game changer really.
(((o))): Has your relationship with the album changed over time? Have there been times when you’ve felt overshadowed by it?
DR: No, not really, when we split The Ruts up we went on, and left it behind, and went our separate ways, and we really never listened to it alot. Very proud of it, when we got together in 2011 we did some of the tracks off it, we never touched the ones we didn’t really want to do, we never really intended to, likewise with The Ruts DC stuff, as Segs said it was a really intense three years and Ruts DC was another couple of years and that was very intense as well, and we all went off and did other things and our standards have been high in whatever we’ve all done individually, regardless of who we have been playing with. We remained friends but we didn’t really do much work together, just now and again we’d get together and do something. It wasn’t really until after the 2007 concert, we got together and did a bit of jamming in a reggae studio which became Rhythm Collision 2 that we realised we still had a thing, a very close thing. When we did the first shows in 2011 we were a five piece for a while, we tried different singers, we realised it wasn’t going to work, which is why we are now a trio. We are very lucky we have Leigh, who knows all the stuff, we’ve got to keep it real. Otherwise we could go and do something else and earn a lot more money!
(((o))): You mentioned in an interview Dave, that the release of Music Must Destroy had changed your relationship to The Crack and I wondered what you meant by that.
DR: Yeah, it has in a way. because when we got together again people said ‘They’ll never be as good without Malcolm’ but Music Must Destroy I’m really really proud of, I’m as proud of that as I am of doing The Crack, and alot of our fans prefer the new stuff!
Segs: I read a review today that said ‘I never thought I’d go and see one of those old punk bands and come away thinking I wish they’d played more from their last album’. I suppose we’ve fucking won then, haven’t we! It hasn’t been an easy path being compared to The Ruts as Ruts DC back then, not having Malcolm as the frontman. Doing Music Must Destroy, and even doing this, even these eight gigs I’ve changed because I really listened to the way Malcolm had sung the songs even the ones I’d been doing and thought ‘Oh, he sings it like that’ and used a bit of that, but now I’m kind of going ‘That doesn’t really work, you might as well just be yourself’. And the other thing is on this they said ‘Can we call it The Ruts?’, I knew it was coming and I said ‘I’d rather not’ and Ruffy just said ‘Where’s the future in that’ and the agent went ’Yeah, you’re right’.
DR: We’ve won that now, we’re the only people who can play The Ruts, there are two Ruts here, but the Ruts died with Malcolm really, it would have died if any of us had gone. But we can do The Ruts The Crack album, no one can possibly do it better than we can!
Leigh: It’s interesting that you said that, you are the survivors, you are the two people who can play it. I’m very pleased that it’s with me, but you can go out and play those songs because it’s your music.
Segs: Yeah, we’re survivors, but we didn’t go ‘We’ve got to keep this together’, we just went ‘That’s it’, in 1983. We’re not back like ‘We had better go out and earn some money’, and we’re getting to more people.
DR: Yeah, the gigs are going really well, loads of people come in, it’s great!
(((o))): OK, hackneyed question, what track do you enjoy playing the most live?
DR: From The Crack, probably ‘It Was Cold’, I like a lot of them but ‘It Was Cold’ it’s a favourite of mine, it’s a bit of a timeless thing and it goes across different categories of music.
Segs: And the track before that ‘You’re Just A…’ is good fun! I didn’t want to do ‘Human Punk’ personally, didn’t want to do ‘Out of Order’, I don’t think anybody did. But it takes on a different thing, when you get to ‘Out of Order’ you think ‘Fuck, is it here now!’ haha and actually you think ‘I might as well just enjoy this one’! And even ‘Human Punk’ we’ve made something out of, it was never really a finished song but we’ve made something out of it. When we did it in rehearsal I was ‘What we going to do, this is shit?’ But the two words Human Punk are brilliant , we use the essence of that, and when we first finished it we looked at each other and went ‘Well, that’s pretty good!’
(((o))): Any new material in the pipeline at all? New album on the horizon at all?
Segs: Yeah, it’s all been put on hold. I’d say, I’ve got quite a lot of songs on my side of things, there’s two or three that didn’t make the last album that might be revamped, there’s other new stuff. This is taken over everything really, I’ve been writing lyrics but I don’t even feel like I can think about those songs.
DR: This is all encompassing, so we have put it on hold but we have got a couple of real corkers. But with this looming up we couldn’t really focus because when you’re doing something new you have to really just focus on that, and we’ve had to focus on this tour and how are we going to present it and play it. I’m warming up! I’ve never warmed up before a show ever in my life and now I do because we do the album from start to finish, ‘Babylon’s Burning, ‘Dope For Guns’, it’s really hard, and they’re flat out. So we have to be prepped, warmed up, ready to go!
Leigh: If I can just say, going back to the album, we have all listened to it incessantly over the last six months and what’s very interesting hearing those songs again is that the arrangements of the songs are so good, there’s three verses in a song and there is something different in each verse pretty much every time, there’s a tweak, there’s an extra bit or there might be a line missing in the last verse, might be a shorter verse, and all of that is one of the reasons why it is such a great record and they’re such great songs, and they all have that about them. Like Segs said, you can’t just go ‘Savage Circle, yeah, we can play that one’, they’ve all got something going on that, without sounding too pretentious, not everyone would notice. I can sit there with a guitar trying to work this stuff out and there is something in each song where you go ’Ah, that’s interesting wasn’t in the first…’, even in some of the more punky or simpler tracks like ‘Criminal Minds’ the drums are different in every verse. We’ve had to really knuckle down, it couldn’t just be good it had to be great, and it couldn’t be great it had to be brilliant!
(1)Rollins, H. (2012) ‘Henry Rollins: The Column! In a Rut.’ https://www.laweekly.com/music/henry-rollins-the-column-in-a-rut-2399586
Also referenced in Intro
*Laing, D. (2015) ‘One Chord Wonders; Power and Meaning in Punk Rock’, PM Press, Oakland, CA, USA.
Peacock, T. (2019) ‘The Crack’: Why The Ruts Classic Remains One of Punk’s Hottest Debuts’
‘The Crack’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crack
‘The Ruts’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruts
‘Misty In Roots’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misty_in_Roots