Interview: The Ruts DC
We scrutinise ourselves harder that anyone ever has, we’re very aware of just talking a load of old nonsense. With the music and the lyrics and everything it has to be real, we really do mean it and we really do care a great deal about what we do.
The early history of The Ruts has been well documented, one of the outstanding bands of that period their first single ‘In a Rut’ came out in 1979 on People Unite followed by ‘Babylon’s Burning’, ‘Something That I Said’ and ‘Jah Wars’, the latter three appearing on their debut album The Crack. The album was an insightful look at urban Britain, the tracks ‘Babylon’s Burning’, ‘Jah Wars’ and ‘S.U.S.’ especially incisive in their use of social commentary as resistance. In March 1980 the band released their fifth single ‘Staring At The Rude Boys’ but then in July, following a struggle with heroin addiction, lead singer Malcolm Owen was found dead. A sixth single ‘West One (Shine On Me)’ was released in August. In two years The Ruts had released six singles and an album that set a new standard in punk for musicianship and lyricism that has rarely been equalled since. Virgin put out another album Grin and Bear It a mix of live tracks, B Sides and the last two singles.
The remaining three members of the band, Paul Fox, Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy felt they should continue and became Ruts DC releasing Animal Now in ‘81 and Rhythm Collision in ‘82 before calling it a day in 1983. And that appeared to be that until 2007 when the three members reconvened for a one off benefit gig for Paul Fox (who had been diagnosed with cancer) with Henry Rollins as lead vocalist.
However things evolved, Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy worked on some tracks together which eventually became Rhythm Collision Vol. 2, in 2014 a live album followed. And then in 2016 The Ruts DC released Music Must Destroy, a rock album of such extraordinary quality that Viva Le Rock made it their Album of the Year and one reviewer described it as ‘possibly the finest rock’n’roll album you are likely to be aroused by this year, maybe this decade (1). Music Must Destroy crackles with energy, compassion and righteous anger dealing with, amongst other things; mental health, misuse of power, the need for tolerance and unity-each subject dealt with in a mature and thoughtful way. It is an album of unprecedented relevance for the UK in the 21st Century.
Before their recent gig at The Waterfront, Norwich I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with ‘Segs’ Jennings, Dave Ruffy and Leigh Heggarty and find out more about how they’ve got to this point and what makes The Ruts DC tick.
(((o))): You released Rhythm Collisions 1 in 1982 and regrouped in 2007, did you stay musically active in the rest of the 80s and 90s? What sort of stuff were you up to?
DR: Yeah, I joined Aztec Camera, I was with them for three or four years, we all did music. Segsy moved to Paris…
SJ: I moved to Paris straight after because, we did that album, we carried on with Ruts DC for a bit and it was our way of dealing with the grief. Me, Ruffy and Foxy we just wanted to carry on playing because we loved each other basically. So we did that, and I think one of us said “Lets make a dub album”, we did it, which was great, but then it all became a bit too much to bear, for me anyway, so I moved to Paris, really for the love of a woman as an excuse to go there. I went for two weeks and stayed for four years! I started a band over there for a bit, as you gravitate towards that and meanwhile Ruffy was playing with loads of people…
DR: Yeah, I never stopped. I think I was probably in mourning really, years later I realised. I played with The Waterboys, I was MD for Sinead O’Connor, played with Kirsty MacColl, played with Yazz I never stopped! I’m a drummer it’s what I do. I like music, I like song writers, I like playing with people who have got something to say. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with some great songwriters.
(((o))): And Leigh you were in a band called The Price (2), is that right?
LH: Yeah, in the 1980s I was in a band called The Price, funnily enough Paul Fox produced one of our singles, and he appeared with us a few times here and there, I lived in West London at the time and was in touch with him from seeing the band. I used to go and see the band and spoke to them all at gigs because in those days you did, it was a lot more accessible, not that it’s not accessible now but it was more so then. The first conversation I ever had with Paul, I stumbled up to him at a gig and asked him “What guitar effects do you use, Paul?” and it was brilliant, he didn’t really know! “A Chorus pedal and an Echo Pedal…” And I got on with him, I used to see him locally a lot.
DR: We didn’t really get to know Leigh, although we’d met him before, until we did that 2007 gig with Paul Fox when he was diagnosed with cancer and we said that we’d get together and do a show in London. Paul was too sick to rehearse and so Leigh came and rehearsed and Paul turned up for one little rehearsal at the end and we did the live show. Basically Segs and I thought that was the end of it really, we never consciously planned to get the band together. It kind of evolved really, we were doing some work with an engineer called Steve Dub (Jones)-he’s one of the groovy young guys, does a lot of The Chemical Brothers stuff, Segs plays on loads of Chemical Brothers stuff, we’ve always done music, we’ve never stopped doing music, some of it’s well known, some of it isn’t..
SJ: Also as a rhythm section I got called in to do the Aztec Camera stuff because Campbell Owens sadly got a bit ill at that point and so they called me in, and me and Ruffy ended up playing with Kirsty (MacColl) as well, so we’ve always been a rhythm section coming in and out. After that 2007 gig it was like “Well OK, lets do some new tracks. Shall we go out, we play really well together?” but every time we play together people go “That’s The Ruts rhythm section” and they’re going to shout out ‘Babylon’s Burning’. I was playing with Alabama 3 and they said “Why don’t you do the support?” and we did four gigs, it was really like a dub set and then we inevitably ended up doing ‘Babylon’s Burning’…
DR: And Nicolai Beverungen, who flew The Ruts flag when there was no Ruts, had asked us to remix a track and the engineer we were using, Steve Dub, said “Why don’t we take this money and go and work with Mad Professor…
(((o))): Which was Rhythm Collision 2?
SJ: Yeah it became that, it wasn’t going to be, we were just going to do some tracks and we weren’t going to be called The Ruts or Ruts DC we had a working title of ‘Sons of Light Orchestra’ or whatever but when we came out we went ‘Bloody Hell!’…
DR: When we did Rhythm Collision 1, a lot of people don’t like it, a lot of people really like it. I really like it, it was quite a liberating record to make. When we went in the studio, back in the day, Malcolm had died and we were in a bit of a pickle, we had signed a really shit deal with Virgin and they owned our publishing and we basically had nothing, any royalties we were going to get were tied up and we were never going to get anything. I think we managed to cobble together about a grand and we went in and did the album. The great thing was we went in with just a few ideas and came out with Rhythm Collision 1. So when Steve Dub said come in we did-Segs and I and Seamus Beaghen-and two days later came out with 14 tracks. He did some rough mixes straight off the tape and I remember sitting in the car and we were “Wow this is amazing!”
(((o))): And when you were doing that did you have the rock songs emerging in parallel?
DR: I never really differentiate. It was important for us to do some music together, that was the most important thing, we did some music, it really had something and then we decided “Lets work on it” but we were working and doing other things, but when we got the time together we did a bit more work on it. And then we heard about a guy called Prince Fatty who lived in Brighton and we went to see him, he was good actually, he was quite straight! He wasn’t like “You guys are great” he said “Well, it’s not finished!” and we stopped off for a pint on the way home and we said “Well he’s right y’know” so we went away and we did more work on it, we got some brass section, we got Leigh on it, and worked on it and that was when Alabama 3 said “Do some supports with us”. We did it with Molara of Zion Train-Segs and I and Foxy had done some sessions with Zion Train in the noughties and the 90s-and then we had to do a few older songs because they are our legacy and I’m proud of our legacy, I’ve never been interested in just being a revival band in any way shape or form, and I could earn more money doing something else, there is no need for it. Anyway it went from there, we bought out Rhythm Collision 2 which was very well received, we did a live album to represent where we had got to and then we knew we had to do a rock’n’roll album really.
(((o))): Which I’d like to ask you about, such a brilliant album, I’d like to ask you about some of the tracks if that is OK? The first single off Music Must Destroy, ‘Psychic Attack’, seems to deal with mental distress, with a very intense claustrophobic video. Did it come out of any specific incident…
SJ: I’d actually split up in a relationship and I had moved out into this flat and I had a single mattress and I got up, probably with a hangover, and I got on the toilet, and it started with “I can’t walk so I’m learning to crawl” I couldn’t be bothered and I felt really low. And it was also based on a very close friend of mine and someone was torturing her really and I thought it was psychic attack and it happens a lot you know. I got some comments about it “I suffer from this stuff, why would you write a flippant song about it?” but it’s not a flippant song. In my case the bit “Measure the pressure, measure the pleasure”, y’know it’s a real pressure but at the same time you kind of enjoy it or do you or don’t you? So its “Measure the pressure, measure the pleasure” so the song is cobbled together out of all kind of moods of that. And you go up and down, even just doing the gigs, all of us, you give so much, that you come down the next day. That’s kind of self inflicted in a way because you’ve chosen to do that, but it’s for everybody that has those kind of problems. And also the outside pressure, it can be the government, it can be being poor..
(((o))): The precarity, the anxiety…
SJ: I don’t know if it gives any answers but if you can jump up and down to it that’s good, haha
(((o))): I think it’s an empathetic song, for me it speaks of the kind of anxieties and stress that a lot of working class people are experiencing.
SJ: Yeah it is that, it came through me but it speaks about many people. It’s taken me years to learn that lyrics don’t all have to be completely true, all about yourself, you can actually use influences from everybody’s feelings including my band mates. It’s much better if you’re standing on stage to be singing for the band and singing for people than just singing about yourself.
(((o))): The track and video for ‘Music Must Destroy’ takes aim at those who misuse their power-mainly governments, corporations and religious elites-and concludes that “Lethal business controls America” and the UK for that matter. I noticed in ‘Surprise’ there is a verse “I was talking socialism in a cocktail bar, champagne for the homeless never got that far. The spreading of the word becomes slightly absurd when we been passing on a message that nobody heard” Have you been encouraged by the emergence of a Corbyn led Labour Party or still too mild?
SJ: Bit too mild really, without going too political, I mean it’s great but I don’t know whether it’s enough. Nobody seems to have that much of an idea really. It seems quite non committal on many issues that we really need someone to say “This is what I think about…”, Especially about Brexit and shit like that for me.
DR: Everyone follows such a narrow party line, there’s a certain (range) that you mustn’t say anything outside of…
(((o))): Yeah, it’s called the Overton Window, what’s allowed in public discussion…
SJ: Exactly, I’m becoming more socialist as I get older. I’ve never allowed myself to be even called that but I think if you kind of care for people, and care for the common man and want to make things better and want to do things for people and want to share some stuff it’s true socialism, personal socialism. And the Overton Window is not enough for us, it’s too narrow. I don’t want to even get into that tube, y’know what I mean. Our whole politics is about everyday personal politics, how you treat people and the way you treat yourself. I’m getting too old to bother about these people (politicians)!
DR: Its not that they’re not left wing enough, it’s not about that, its about addressing…it’s that you’ve got to relate to the ordinary people.
LH: With the weakest most incompetent Conservative leader in my life time he’s got an open goal and he doesn’t seem to be able to…when he said that thing about “I’m not going to stand at the Despatch Box shouting” I think well maybe sometimes you have to stand at the Despatch Box shouting. I saw him speak back in the 80s during the Miner’s Strike and he was always really good.
SJ: It’s really about personal politics, we travel the world and we travel the UK a hell of a lot and really most of the UK is not represented, the reason this Brexit thing happened, we went to Middlesbrough on tour with Dead Men Walking, people are dissatisfied with both parties. Somebody somewhere really engineered that and said you want to vote for this because life is going to be better, and that was exactly the same as the National Front coming round in 1976 and telling everyone “They’re coming over here and they’re getting free TVs!”, it’s exactly the same rhetoric and all the people they thought were stealing their jobs they thought would be gone the next day! I can’t believe the nation fell for it! We are actually very upset about it, as you can tell. We’re Europeans! We got the opportunity to discover Europe, and we went to Europe as musicians and as people, I lived in Paris, and I became a Citizen of the World, which I still am. I want to be involved with everybody. It’s not just about this little country and they think they’re going to change something by leaving Europe, I know there are certain things about (the EU) that could be better but (leaving) is rubbish.
(((o))): In the last year or so year I’ve read Walls Come Tumbling Down about the setting up of Rock Against Racism, and a book called Post Punk; Then and Now and very recently Sound System by Dave Randall. Some people are sensing similarities between the late 70s/early 80s and now and wondering if some of the lessons learnt then can be deployed now-for instance the fusing of culture and progressive politics in RAR. When you were writing Music Must Destroy did you feel like you were writing into circumstances similar to those early albums? Did you feel like ‘Hang on, this is the same shit again?’
DR: We’ve never changed, we did ‘In a Rut’ on People Unite, we’re not politicians, I think the term People Unite represents us, that’s what we’re for, we’re for tolerance and unity.
SJ: Absolutely, we saw some photos the other day of Paul Fox and us all on the back of a truck, it was Misty In Roots and us, black and white people and my girlfriend said “That’s brilliant, is it photoshopped?” and I said “No, that’s the way it was!” and now it isn’t. We’ve still got black fans and everything but you very rarely get the gigs where the twain meet anymore. We are still trying to do some People Unite gigs but it’s quite difficult because we very rarely get that kind of mix… It’s not just about black/white its about different cultures, you very rarely get that. In those Rock Against Racism days people were really enlightened by it, we had Sikhs coming, Muslim kids, we actually thought this is great it’s never going to go back. I thought it was irreversible. When I was young and naive, twenty, twenty one, I thought that culture and the human race was developing but if you leave them to their own devices they’ll just run back to their own little communities. Everybody.
(((o))): And the media has encouraged that, y’know the right wing press…
SJ: They love it,
DR: Its the same people controlling it…
SJ: And the Government love it because it keeps everybody in their little separate communities and they can control them.
(((o))): And it splinters the working class, divide and conquer type stuff.
SJ: It’s the same old same old, I don’t feel that optimistic about it, we wrote ‘Music Must Destroy’, it’s very easy to stand there “Break down the walls in the government halls”, its very easy to say it and I felt it and it’s good but it does say ‘Music’ must destroy. It’s about music, lets come together through music and destroy all that stuff.
(((o))): But a song like ‘Music Must Destroy’ encourages people who are sometimes on the front line of activism and it makes them realise they’re part of a community and there are other people who feel the same and it encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing so you might not feel like the song achieves x but it might encourage a person in the audience to achieve x.
DR: It’s a bit like when you do a show you think well hopefully some people are going to get it and if one person goes away inspired then job done really.
(((o))): The track ‘Kill The Pain’, there is a book Ghosts of My Life by Mark Fisher where he talks about a Derrida concept called Hauntology and ‘Kill The Pain’ reminded me of that. It’s a sense of nostalgia for lost futures, a sense of loss over what could have been (3), “We all know what could have been, we see what should have been” but the song still has a sense of hope that something of what was dreamed of can still be realised “Another young punk with a new solution joins our worn out revolution”.
SJ: Well that bit there is about being in The 100 Club and seeing some young punk looking at you with hope that you’re going to say something, and I sing “We’ve been dealing dirt now we need the cure”, sometimes you’ve been selling this punk thing, you’re standing on stage and you think “This bloke thinks I’m preaching” and you’re doing that and thinking “God, he’s not really finding much of an answer!”.The ‘Kill The Pain’ thing comes back to “I’ve been giving love to the unpure, showing hope to the unsure” and actually I walked in to my girlfriend and said “Give me something to kill the pain”, I actually said that, like a drink or whatever. That’s nice for it to be compared to Jacque Derrida…!
DR: We only really want to write about things that mean something basically, and its hard because we are trying to expand the band at the same time which is fucking tricky because nobody wants to hear it really! haha
LH: We spend a lot of time talking about what we want to do don’t we, and a lot of songs on the album came out of conversations, and it’s almost like you don’t always know what you want to do but you know what you don’t want to do!
SJ: We’re going to do another one we think, but we don’t know what we’re going to do!
(((o))): I find Music Must Destroy quite a spiritual album, there’s a use of interesting referencing of religious ideas in the lyrics of Music Must Destroy, Surprise, Second Hand Child, Tears On Fire. Do you use those ideas because they’re useful as metaphors or do you deploy them for other reasons?
DR: Because that’s the way we live our lives!
(((o))): Would you say there is a stream of spirituality running through…
DR: Yeah there always has been with The Ruts, I mean you could never talk about it back in the day, and everybody thought The Ruts are four Herberts but basically the way we got together we were very deeply tied up with concepts of betterness. We’re not religious people, you can use the word ‘spirituality’ if you like, we do believe in people, were totally optimistic people and we have a great deal of faith that we can succeed and achieve better things, thats what has always made us a different sort of band
SJ: Faith in the people, faith in the Universe in a way without being stupid but no faith in a god who’s going to punish people for doing the wrong thing. That really pisses me off! We all came up through school, and everybody is taught that…but it doesn’t mean you have to turn your back on the whole concept of being good.
DR: I was a head Altar Boy in the Catholic Church but I gave all that up when I was about 12 so I lost my religion but I never lost my spirituality….
(((o))): Which comes through in that line in ‘Music Must Destroy’ “Burn down religion but don’t burn faith or the filthy”
DR: I don’t really believe in god or religion but I wouldn’t put anyone down for believing what they believe personally, I don’t have to respect you for that but I can tolerate you even if I think your ideas don’t particularly go along with mine. I don’t have to respect it because you have to earn respect.
SJ: And in some situations you can meet a Christian cab driver or something and they’re actually very nice people and good as opposed to a bad boy who is going to rip you off so sometimes it’s better than the ‘evil man’. I think really is it ‘good and evil?’ Positivity and negativity, let’s call it that. Positivity is good, negativity is bad because it breeds negativity. I think that’s what good and bad is, I think the whole thing is based on that. And if you take it down to yourself, be as positive as much as you can, because we’re all negative sometimes. But please don’t hold that above people saying you’re negative so you’re going to go to hell!! That’s what I don’t like!
DR: Going back to politics, I don’t really believe in political parties I think you do your politics every day by example, small acts of human kindness…
SJ: And that’s spirituality and politics.
Q: The last single you released as The Ruts was ‘West One (Shine On Me)’ which starts “Lights are burning red and white” while ‘Kill The Pain’ starts “Burning white light, Neon red and white”. Was that a deliberate continuity?
SJ: Yeah, well, it just came out, as I said I came home and slopped down in the chair and said ; “Give me something to kill the pain” and then went “Hey, that’s good”and then did the chords and went what’s the first line? “Burning white light, Neon red and white” yeah back into ‘West One’, back to that place. I’d come from the West End so I just pictured Malcolm on that cover of ‘West One’ that John Howard did, where he’s standing on a traffic island, “A traffic island cast away” and I’d just come from there and gone “Give me something to kill the pain” and I just went “Fucking Hell, I’m back there” so I continued the story. It just flowed out. A lot of the lyrics just flow out, “This music must destroy” came in a dream actually, and then you have to work on them. I write stuff in my phone all the time, I don’t really use bits of paper any more, and sometimes Ruffy or Leigh might say something and I go “That’s a really good lyric”. Sometimes me and my girlfriend (Tara Rez of The Duel), she’s a songwriter as well, will be chatting and we’ll go “Yeah that’s a really good (lyric)” and we write it down and then you cobble all those together. Very important for any songwriters out there, just keep writing your stuff down all the time because you’ll get stuck for lines and actually you’ve already written it! I’ve sat there with a piece of paper pushing a fucking pen about…! For me the beginning of a song is the concept or the perspective of that song. But at the end of the day I also wanted some songs that people could sing along to. Malcolm used to write all the lyrics, we all used to have a little go, and since then I’ve written lyrics but also I’ve seen a lot of bands and listened to a lot of music and its forty years on so you’re going to use totally different points of reference. I read Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles and you think “That’s amazing” and you write something down to remind you and think what does that mean to me and it becomes a lyric. That’s what inspiration is.
(((o))): I think I’ve got my answer talking to you really but I’ll ask you. You’ve been making music now for 40 years and this latest album is as compassionate and angry and militant as any I’ve heard lately-what has helped you to maintain that level of concern and engagement?
DR: Well I think we try not to be deluded! I’ve known Segs as a close friend for many, many years, we’ve got good friends and if we go off piste and become an arsehole in some way we have friends who will tell us. Our lives have changed but we’ve got the same basic ideals we did. I’ve been very lucky, music has saved my life, it got me out the ghetto, and I would have had a totally different life (but for music), and I’m very respectful of that I’ll never forget that. So I feel I owe it to myself to stay true to that.
SJ: We’re very lucky standing on stage doing that thing, but if anyone thinks were thinking “Cor this is great, come and listen to me”, it’s not like that.
DR: We scrutinise ourselves harder that anyone ever has, we’re very aware of just talking a load of old nonsense. With the music and the lyrics and everything it has to be real, we really do mean it and we really do care a great deal about what we do.
SJ: And we also have that legacy…
DR: It’s like they’re there, y’know…
LH: As a person who was, and indeed still is, a fan of the Ruts and Ruts DC there is that legacy involved and as someone who heard the band first time round that’s what I caught from the band hearing ‘Babylon’s Burning’ or whatever, that power drew me, and people like me, in. And now I incredibly find myself in the position I’m in now and you can’t let those people down. We were at Rebellion Festival a couple of years ago, the night after we’d done a show I was stumbling around in the Winter Gardens and I was on the stairs coming down and there was a guy at the bottom and he was looking at me and I thought he was going to have a go at me, he was stood looking at me very intently and I got to the bottom and he put his hands on my shoulders and he said “ Do you realise what you’re doing for us? Does your band realise what you’re doing for us?…It was an incredible moment.
Big thanks to James and Olie for organising the interview and To The Ruts DC for their time and thoughtfulness.
Photo courtesy of Division Promotions.
Awayfromlife, 2016, The Ruts DC: Interview with the punk legend about their new album. https://www.magazine.awayfromlife.com/the-ruts-dc-interview-punk-legend/
(1)Pete Ringmaster, 2016, Ruts DC-Music Must Destroy, https://ringmasterreviewintroduces.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/ruts-dc-music-must-destroy/
(2) Andrews, A. (2017) Leigh Heggarty (Ruts DC) Interview February 2017, https://auralsculptors.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/leigh-heggarty-ruts-dc-interview.html
(3) Fisher, M. (2014), Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Zero Books, Winchester UK/Washington USA