LIFE AFTER MALCOLM
In the beginning there were four Ruts. Now there are only three. The rest, as they say, is history. A sad sordid and unnecessary history in part, and you’ll already know it. But this feature isn’t intended as a propaganda against the heroin addiction with which the band’s singer Malcolm Owen killed himself nor is it in memory of late great punk. For out of the ashes of the Ruts have risen Ruts DC and I think you’ll be impressed by them. A lot.
It’s not easy to turn around and pick up the pieces after losing such a dynamic frontman as Malcolm. It’s a bit like losing your eyesight and learning to read all over again. So it was devastating to witness the band’s astonishing control and capability a few nights ago when faced with the Hammersmith Odeon, The Skids’ three thousand strong audience and only a five minute soundcheck. They simply grabbed the auditorium and ripped it apart.
A link to part of this gig can be located here.
For forty wildly bouncing, swinging minutes, you wouldn’t have even known that the Skids existed. Ruts DC proved them that they are by no means finished and emerged the next evening for our appointed interview looking dazed but exultant.
As drummer, Dave Ruffy explained; “It’s the first proper gig that we’ve done. I mean you can’t really count anything like the Herne Hill Half Moon next to the Hammersmith Odeon and…. I couldn’t believe it; I’ve never seen a support band or a guest band go down so well there.”
Taking a step back in time, last summer was probably the worst that the band has ever known. Apart from their singer’s ever-present drug problem, his voice was continually on the borders of non-existence as old throat problems reared their collective head. The band was more or less inactive. It didn’t make life easy.
Bassist and major vocalist Vince Segs who, along with the other Ruts, is now taking precautionary singing lessons to prevent any similar infection laying waste to his vocal chords, reckons that all the hassles snowballed together to culminate in the final tragedy’ “It’s as if Malcolm spent his career developing his voice and messing his throat up.”
Ruffy: “Apart from the drugs, which everyone knows about, he always had real trouble with his throat. It meant that we couldn’t work a lot of the time and it was, I suppose, very frustrating for everyone concerned.”
Segs: “I think that’s one of the reasons why he turned back to smack. Between being on tour and writing songs and being ill and doing his throat in – everyone wanted to hear the Ruts but we couldn’t do a thing about it. There was so much pressure.”
The band began to drift in opposite directions. Ruffy, Segs and guitarist Paul Fox ‘escaped’ by backing the old ska singer Laurel Aitken. Possibly the best ever Ruts single, ‘West One (Shine On Me)’, was released but it failed to astound anyone with its chart progress, partly because Malcolm had just died and the band were unable to record a Top of the Pops session without him and partly, I suspect, because it was such an unexpected change to their previous straightforward reggae/punk.
The Damned stepped in and took the Fox/Segs/Ruffy trio on tour with them as a support and they began to find their feet again, reassess their potential and write some new songs. Which brings us to the present day…
The birth of Ruts DC – the those that haven’t clicked onto the meaning of the new name, DC stands for Da Capo which is Latin for ‘a new beginning’ – oddly coincides with the release of ‘Grin And Bear It’. A new band but an album full of old material. Knowing Virgin’s past reputation for cashing in death, the move is suspicious. Whay real excuse can the band have, remember that this isn’t a Ruts DC album or a contractual album. “As far as Virgin are concerned, we’ve, we’ve only done one album so far (‘The Crack’) and we’re due to start on a second one soon.”
Fox: “What really happened is we didn’t have a full album’s worth of material with Malcolm on it so we collected some songs, some recorded, some live, and put them out. In fact ‘Grin And Bear It’ is something we wanted to put together and release – in a way it is in memory of Malcolm – and, as you know, Virgin do like to do this sort of thing.”
But surely a Ruts fan would already have everything that’s on it apart from the odd track? Isn’t it a bit of a con?
Segs: “They won’t have the live version of ‘Babylon’s Burning’. They won’t have the Peel Session recording of ‘Demolition Dancing’. The album is intended for those who want to buy it.”
Ruffy: “Also, we wanted to release ‘Love In Vain’ again because it’s a great song and it’s as if no-one ever really heard it as the flip-side of ‘Starring At The Rude Boys’. Whatever, the album isn’t an all out assault on the charts. It’s just there if you want it.”
‘Grin’ is presently at number 28 in the album charts. Pulling together the oldest and the newest of the old Ruts’ writings, it will if anything, act as a cross over stage for the band. It might also help to demolish further the idea that The Ruts were, and always will be an old-fashioned ‘real punk’ band and assist them in their strong and desirable development.
Like The Clash, the Ruts were always capable of playing reggae with a more sensitive and accurate touch than many of their contemporaries and, like The Clash, Ruts DC have directed their song writing along a wider, more reggae-minded, more atmospheric and more complex direction with superiot results to their older compositions.
A fine example is ‘Different View’ which springs abrasively round loud guitar hooks and stands as a bright contender for next single. Like The Clash, Ruts DC need to release themselves from the four-beat punk label and encourage their fans to accept changes and move with the times.
Ruffy: “At the moment, people expect to hear the old set but we’re honestly trying to change over to our new stuff now.”
Segs: “Last night” (at Hammersmith) “I think we made a huge step towards getting rid of labelling. At the start of the gig, I wondered what would happen ‘cos looking out at the audience it seemed only to comprise of Skids fans and it was a bit quiet and restrained through the first songs. But, I think the breakthrough came with ‘Love In Vain’. All those people dancing and clapping and singing along to what is a fairly slow song. And it’d not as if we had to use any Police tactics like ‘come on everybody, and ‘clap along to this one’. I hate all that.”
The gig boded well for the future, a future which is jam packed with activity. The band start work soon on a new album, breaking before Christmas for some British dates., short excursions to Amsterdam, Paris and New York and returning to finish the album after that.
Fox: “A lot of people seem to think that even having to step inside a rehearsal studio is a dreadful burden and have this impression that we’re made to write songs by the record company exactly when they’re wanted and all that. Virgin work for us! We don’t work for Virgin. We actually enjoy writing songs and doing gigs and we produce records for Virgin in our own time, not at a specified date.”
Segs: “yeah, strange as it may seem, we actually enjoy being Ruts DC! It’s not a great trial. I don’t like the idea of the music business at all but I like being in the band. I suppose we all like to be, er, creative!”
Ironically, the line up of three might end up as a line up of four again as the band are using the services of Garry barnacle – present on both albums – as a sax and keyboards additional musician. Although he left the interview to go and play in Croydon for ‘”an Earth, Wind and Fire type funk band”, the general difference he makes to the sound is deep and emotional.
“Why,” asks Segs “when you could be earning a fortune as a session musician in Japan, do you keep playing for these three cunts?”
Garry just smiled. He fits in with the chemistry of Ruts DC. He is part of their underlying devotion to having a good time and playing great music. It’s a band attitude that leaves little time for anything other than gigs, records and beer – at the same time a single-minded opinion that keeps them battling along with not a lot of money and quite a few debts. They have even less time for the pop press side of the music business and, whilst offering their services as singles reviewers, the told me as much.
Segs: “Before I was involved in a band, I used to read reviews and laugh at them and enjoy them, but when you become a musician, you see how unfair a lot of the comments are. Some band that has struggled for ages to make a single has it cut to pieces in a one line review.”
Garry: “I just don’t know why the press has so many people writing for it who obviously hate music. It’s a pure waste of time.”
Four against one. The musician’s angle isn’t an easy one to fight so we graciously declined and an hour later saw Segs, Dave, and myself in a Covent Garden exhibition of paintings by John Howard, the man who painted the cover of ‘The Crack’.
Ruts DC in an art exhibition, I hear you ask. Stranger things have happened.....