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Ruts DC - Interview

  by Denzil Watson

published: 11 / 3 / 2019

Ruts DC - Interview


To celebrate forty years since the release of 'The Crack' Ruts DC take their seminal debut album on the road in February. Denzil Watson caught up with the band’s gregarious drummer Dave Ruffy to speak about the album and 40th anniversary tour.

Few bands can claim to have blended the anger of punk and the rhythm and vibes of reggae back in the late 1970s as effectively as London’s the Ruts. The four-piece consisting of vocalist Malcolm Owen, guitarist Paul Fox, bassist John 'Segs' Jennings and drummer Dave Ruffy quickly made an impact. Signed to Virgin, their debut album 'The Crack' crashed into the Top 20 in 1979 while an impressive trio of singles, 'Babylon's Burning', 'Something That I Said' and 'Staring at the Rude Boys' all cracked the Top 30. Their career was sadly cut shot in July 1980 with the death of their lead singer Owen due to a heroin overdose. Morphing into Ruts DC they released a further two albums for Virgin before splitting in 1983. The band then reformed again in 2007 with Henry Rollins as a standing for vocalist Owen. Fox died of lung cancer shortly after. In 2008 the two surviving members were joined by guitarist Paul Heggarty and gone on to tour the UK extensively as well as releasing new material via 2013’s 'Rhythm Collision Vol.2' and, most recently, in the shape of 2016’s 'Music Must Destroy'. PB: Afternoon Dave. How’s things in the Ruts’ camp at the moment? DR: Pretty good at the moment. We’re just getting ready to start rehearsing. And getting a bit of adrenaline from the songs from the first album which we’re going to promote in February to celebrate 40 years since its release. PB: You’ve been gigging regularly since 2007 but I guess you’ve not played “The Crack” in its entirety? DR: Yeah – there’s a lot of songs on it that we’ve never done. And a lot of them we’ve not played since 1980. It’s quite interesting going back there. Songs like 'Savage Circle', 'Out of Order' and 'Criminal Mind' we haven’t played before. So, it’s interesting going back and looking at that. We have very high standards in our band, and we want it to be good, so we’ve been looking at it for the last couple of months. We rehearse every week and just look at stuff. A ‘normal’ rehearsal would be to play the set once or twice, but this is a bit more like a big bag and a record session with your mates, but you’ve got instruments as well. PB: Are you going to play the tracks in order and thus start with 'Babylon’s Burning' and finish with 'Human Punk'? DR: We’re going to do the album in its entirety, but that isn’t enough for a set. But we’re going to do the album from start to finish, yes. Then leave the stage to have a break and then come back on and do another set. So yeah, we want to do 'The Crack' as 'The Crack' from start to finish. It’s pretty tough starting with 'Babylon’s Burning' but that’s OK. I went to see the MC5 or the MC50 as they were called, in London recently, and they played their 'Back in the USA' album in its entirety and their first two songs where arguably their best, 'Rambling Rose' and 'Kick Out the Jams'. Absolutely killer tracks. But having said that it set the tone and the band were brilliant so we’re just going to do that too. PB: If you pardon the pun yours is a cracking debut album and it still sounds fresh. It hasn’t really dated really has it? DR: It does sound good. When we did it, we particularly chose a producer who was good. We chose Mick Glossop. PBM: You seemed to work well with Mick Glossop. DR: Although we were around with punk, we weren’t your standard punk band. We were just inspired by punk’s ‘can do’ attitude and DIY punk which, in many ways, gave us the idea and the confidence to go ahead and do it as a full-time thing. It was great getting Mick and we were all fans of music. He’d worked with Frank Zappa and people like that. Van Morrison, he did some great albums with him. We were quite a musical band so we wanted someone that would bring something to the table and help us realise our first album really. PB: Any particular memories from back in 1979 when you were recording the album? DR: Quite a lot. It was a very intense period. Back in those days you would record to tape and we’d do several takes. We spent ages getting the drum sound. A day-and-a-half to two days doing that. We all played together and then we did overdubs afterwards. In a couple of cases we may have even edited a couple of takes together which is kind of tricky. If you can imagine we recorded it on a 24-track two-inch tape, then you cut and edited the two-inch tape together and you were cutting through 24 tracks, so I learnt a lot about that from Mick Glossop. And also, being controlled. He was a real stickler and still is, I think. It was in the days when a lot of us smoked and he’d lay his cigarette butts out in a perfect line. And he didn’t take any nonsense from the tape ops either. He was really good. In those days you’d be doing lots of drop-ins and he’d go “Fourth bar, second chorus” and if the tape op didn’t know where he was, they’d be hell to pay. He’d be expected to know where the clock would be on that section all the time. It wasn’t my first time in the studio but my first time we’d made our own album. It was very memorable. We were in Virgin Studios and there were all kinds of stars in. Paul Weller was in next door sometimes. It was owned by Virgin, so we paid top dollar for the privilege, even though we were signed to Virgin. There was no staff discount. PB: Did you have any idea that forty years later you’d be going out on the road and playing the album in its entirety and it would have such longevity? DR: No. To be really honest. we didn’t think we would live past thirty. I know it sounds ridiculous, but we grew up in a particular time and you’ve heard of '1984' (by George Orwell) and “1984” was still a long way in the future. And we didn’t really see life going on much beyond that. So, it’s really good. I have to say when Segs and I put it back together as Ruts DC a few years ago we wouldn’t have originally ever done that. But because we’ve always been well-received, and people have liked what we’ve done – even our dub records and live albums. But our recent album 'Music Must Destroy' was very well received and a lot of people know us for our new music. So, because of that it’s much easier for us to look at our heritage and go, “OK, let’s do this.” because neither Segs or I have any desire to be a nostalgic tribute band. But having said that, we are extremely proud of our legacy. And it’s sounding great. PB: You mentioned about your influences and there were a number of bands influenced by reggae. Bands like the Members and the Clash were also mixing reggae with punk. Did you feel an affinity with those bands back in the day? DR: We felt an affinity with reggae, although punk saw the start of many types of band. On one hand you could see XTC, the Buzzcocks and ATV, Sex Pistols and of course, the Damned, but we were all different bands. So that was good. A lot were fast and thrashy so you’d hear a lot of reggae at the gigs because you didn’t want speed-fuelled loud music because everybody would just go a bit nuts, so reggae was the perfect music to chill down to before the next band. Also, in Britain, unlike the US, we have one chart and it’s always a bit eclectic. We had a banned number one single called 'Wet Dream' (by Max Romeo) in the 1960s which didn’t get played on the radio. It was number one for ten weeks. Eddy Grant was releasing records at the time 'Living on the Front Line'. So, it just seemed very natural for us to be like that. And me and Segs have got a history. My first band played what was called Rocksteady (post ska, pre-reggae genre - Ed) back then and Soul. It’s always been part of our lives. And Misty in Roots we played with live a lot. So, we used to do a lot of gigs with them and jams and they were very encouraging. And some of the lighter moments we had in the studio were just jams. 'Give Youth a Chance' was basically a jam. And 'Love in Vain', the B-side of 'Staring at the Rude Boys' started life as a jam. Segs and I kind of held the torch for reggae a lot more. It doesn’t sell as well as our rock ’n’ roll stuff but I’m really glad we do it and the people who like it really like it. PB: Let’s come back to 'The Crack' and just talk about the album cover. There’s quite a lot going on the front isn’t there? DR: We didn’t want a day-glo slogan card cover and jump on any bandwagon. I was going out with a girl from a very arty family called Rachel Howard and her father was a famous artist called John Howard who lived in Manhattan. He’d done a lot of Blue Note/jazz covers. He’s an exhibiting artist but he’s very good at doing crowd scenes and he became a good friend of mine. So, we just went, “Why don’t we get John Howard in to do the cover and we could do a crowd scene”. And we thought, “Who could we do?” and we thought we could do people we like, sat round together. People we like, people who we admire. And we just picked some people, asked him to do it and he just did it. It’s about a five-foot six square print. Apparently owned by Henry Rollins now. He’s a big punk collector. The Howard family continued their involvement as the album after it, 'Grin and Bear It' (1980), his son Oliver did the cover for that. Our 'Rhythm Collision I' (1982) album which the three of us did, Foxy, Segs and I, that was done by his daughter Rachel. And Ruts DC’s first single was done by Rupert Howard, another son of his. And 'Collision Vol. 2' (2013) and 'Music Must Destroy', the last Ruts DC album were both done by John Howard as well. PB: Are there any of the twelve tracks off the album that you’ve never played live before? DR: Some of the tracks I don’t think we played much. What we never played that much was 'Human Punk' because it was never really fully written. It was a bit of a jam. We’d recorded the album then we recorded a live album at the Marquee then Malcolm (Owen, vocalist) came along at the last minute and said, “I really want to put ‘Human Punk’ on the album”. I thought that we’d just made this fantastic record and then there’s this warts n’ all song on the end. It’s very vibey and for some people it’s a very important thing. And there’s a bit of the audience on there as well. It’s a bit weird. That gig it was recorded while Malcolm was in the audience with a mic, because he didn’t play instruments, so he had the option to jump in the audience. We didn’t even play it live much after then – maybe a couple of times. The rest of them we played a bit. It’s interesting playing them now. I mean, I was in my twenties then and thankfully I’ve never stopped playing the drums. PB: Perversely you had a song called 'The Crack' that’s not on the album. DR: The song called 'The Crack' was the B-side of 'West One'. Malcolm died before 'West One' came out so ordinarily we would have gone in the studio and done a jam. It’s called the 'The Crack' because what we did was while we were recording the album Mike used to have a ‘studio diary’ where we ran a quarter-inch tape all the time we were in the studio, non-stop, so he caught all the funny bits, all the jams, all the bits when we were doing backing vocals. When we recorded 'West One' it was the last thing we did with Malcolm. We wanted to do a B-side, so we said let’s have a look at the diary tapes. So, we went in with the diary tapes and cut a load of stuff up. We thought it was fitting to put something on it that was quite funny because it was quite serious when Malcolm died. We called it 'The Crack' after the Irish saying. Back then B-sides were crucial. The band would make B-sides for the fans. Maybe not radio friendly but really good for the fans. I heard it the other day and it gave me some happy memories of what was quite a depressing time. PB: There’s now just the two of you from the original line-up that did 'The Crack'. There’s no vocalist Malcolm who we have already mentioned nor guitarist Paul Fox. I guess some people may say, “Well, Tte Ruts, there’s only two of them left and it’s just the drummer and the bassist”. Do you get a bit of that sometimes? DR: At the time Ruts DC was the thing that the Ruts merged into. We didn’t want to be the Ruts as it wouldn’t be The Ruts without me, without Paul, without Segs or without Malcolm. It was a bit of a compromise and it lasted a little while and we did an album for Virgin and then we got to the stage where we decide to stop. But since we reformed, Ruts DC fits perfect. The way we look at it is there’s a lot of people saying, “Can you play this” and “Can you play that?” and we thought about it long and hard. Segs never wanted to be Malcolm. We’ve been asked to do this for a long, long time. And, as I said earlier, because people have accepted, we are doing something new and there’s no one else that can do it like Segs and I can do it, and I think we can do it justice. When we started Ruts DC, we were a five-piece and we didn’t even think about getting other singers in. We were fairly sure that the only people who really knew who we were was Segs and I, so we had to keep it in-house. And that’s why now we are a trio, not a four-piece or a five-piece. It’s hard being a three-piece but we can make a great racket. So, I get your question but I’m very clear about it and I think as an album we can replicate it to a really good level. PB: And let’s be honest. The drums and the bass are really pivotal to the Ruts' sound, aren’t they? DR: They are. And we are very, very fortunate in having our guitarist Lee Heggarty. He was fond of Paul and had played with him and he’s a guitar nerd and a bit of a super-fan, so we’re really fortunate to have that. And of course, we don’t take second best. You have to imagine, it’s pretty hard for Segs. He’s not only got to learn the songs, he’s got to do justice to what Malcolm did and play the bass as well. We were very, very pensive about that issue, but we’ve taken the tour on, we’re going to do a good job of it and it’s going to be great. Right now, we’re focused on the task and it’s sounding great. PB: I saw you supporting the Stranglers on their 'Classic Collection' tour back in March 2017 at Nottingham Rock City and I thought you were excellent. In fact, I can’t ever recall seeing a support band go down as well as you did that night. DR: Thank you Denzil, I appreciate that. That’s very kind. The thing is I think we make a noise that is greater than the sum of our parts and we play the songs well. PB: On 'The Crack' you used quite a few other musicians, like the brass for example. Are you going to do the album as a three-piece or have you got some other musicians in mind? DR: We’re in discussions now. We can cover the most of it as a trio and we’re not doing massive gigs so there’s budgetary restrictions. There’s stuff like 'Jah War' and I’ve got quite good with technology so there’s a few bits appearing from here and there which is quite de rigueur for some bands, so much so that with some bands everything’s pre-recorded apart from the vocals. But there won’t be a lot of play-back, but there might be a few things being triggered here and there. I must say my drum set-up has got smaller over-the-years, but I decided, because it’s 'The Crack' and because we’re trying to replicate the album as is, to buy some roto toms and some china cymbals. It’s quite a big drum kit to replicate the way it used to be, and we can play it the way we played it back then. I’ve even got my original old kit, a 1971 Gretsch kit, I bought off (Rich Kids drummer, legendary New Romantic DJ) Rusty Egan funnily enough, in 1975. I’ve had it re-covered, so it’s not covered in red glitter anymore, but it’s the same kit and it’s been on many a hit record. PB: I’m really looking forward to catching you on the forthcoming tour when you come to Sheffield to see you play 'The Crack' and the new material too. DR: Come and say hello. I’m looking forward to it. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Let me know either way, I can take criticism, but I don’t think you will be disappointed. We’ve kept the heart-and-soul of the band. We know what the Ruts is and what the Ruts are. When we did the aforementioned Stranglers tour, we started with new material and ended with new material and there’s a lot of people who prefer the new material. I was just saying to someone earlier today, I don’t think that a band today would have a hit with 'Babylon’s Burning' or if the Beatles would have even got a record deal these days, but if you have got a platform, there’s plenty to write about. PB: Thank you.

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Ruts DC - Interview

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