Perfect Sound Forever

The Ruts

"The Grief, The Weed, The Fun"
Interview by Tim Broun
(February 2009)

Not many rock bands have affected me like the Ruts. Managing a rare combination of subtlety and muscle, brains and brawn, I've continually listened to them ever since hearing "Babylon's Burning" for the first time on some compilation from Virgin Records back in 1980 or so.

Out of the four albums that were released while the band was still a going concern, it's the last of these, a dub album called Rhythm Collision, which I've gone back to the most. Released in 1982 on the band's own Bohemian label, Rhythm Collision was the result of a band set free from major label shackles, laying back, letting go and enjoying themselves. It came at the tail end of a long period of turmoil including heroin addiction and the subsequent death of lead singer Malcolm Owen in 1980, and a failed third rock album for Virgin without him in 1981, by which time the band had appended their name with DC. Pairing up with the then young and relatively inexperienced Mad Professor, they created a truly classic album. Great from beginning to end, it holds together as a unique piece, yet each song stands alone just as strongly.

In 2007, the band reunited for one final show in London to benefit guitarist Paul Fox who was suffering from cancer. They were fronted by long time fan Henry Rollins, and were supported by the likes of the Damned, Misty In Roots, the UK Subs, TV Smith, and others. Fox passed away a few months later at the age of 56.

This interview was conducted with bassist Jon "Segs" Jennings and drummer Dave Ruffy via email February-April 2008. A huge thank you to them for their time. Visit their Myspace page.

PSF: Was reggae something all four members of the band were into when you originally got together?

DR: Well, I think we all liked music a great deal, and England had a large influx of West Indian Immigrants in the late '50's and early '60's. Although England had no real "pop" stations til the sixties, a lot of the early calypso, ska and rock steady music was pretty much underground and quite alternative. The first band I was ever in (The Star-Keys) was all of West Indian origin, playing soul, ska, rhythm and blues, and rock steady. In fact, my friend from school, Angel Andrews, was the guitar player and went on to produce the first Ruts demos at Orange studios in 1977/8. When I met Malcolm, he was a DJ, and played a lot of Dub, as well as early Electro (Kraftwerk). I know that Segs had an older sister, Christine, who had a lot of early ska records, which I think he still has. And Paul always had wide musical tastes.

SJ: I started listening to Prince Buster, Skatalites, Max Romeo, etc., long before I started playing. My sister had loads of Motown and ska. She was five years older so it meant I got to listen to it all the first time round. Ruffy was already playing in black clubs in London with Angel so when we started playing together it was natural to jam around some reggae rhythms. I remember Malcolm bringing in "Stepping Razor" by Peter Tosh as an idea (that jam became "Stepping Bondage") and Foxy just loved everything. We used to all sit around and listen to Parliament or Tapper Zukie... anything went.

PSF: How did the association with Misty In Roots come about?

DR: Malcolm and Paul lived in the Hayes/Southall which is very multicultural, and I think Malcolm got to know Chris Bolton who was one of Misty's managers. We did a few gigs together and quite a few Rock Against Racism gigs. It was hard times in England then and we (The Ruts) were not particularly political, but Misty were our mates, and music really does break down barriers. It was great to play gigs together and present a united front.

I feel it was a good thing to present to the crowd. as there was a lot of hatred about what with the rise of the National Front, and the seemingly very racist SPG (Special Patrol Group)... a kind of riot police.

SJ: Malcolm used to live in a very strange row of squat cottages in Hayes, later to be dubbed Rut Row... a good friend of ours, Lizzie Cook, introduced us to Clarence Baker, who managed Misty with Chris Bolton, and we ended up doing a few gigs at first which at the time were very weird. This then progressed into the Rock Against Racism gigs, and from there we just became kinda like fellow warriors as it were. Finally, we did away with any banners and let the music and event speak for itself...

PSF: After Malcolm passed away, how quickly did the three of you start playing again?

DR: We never really stopped, as Malcolm had been very unreliable for some time. In the last year of Malcolm's short life, we (Paul, Segs and I) had done an album with Kevin Coyne, recorded a top twenty single and toured with Laurel Aitken, and recorded an album and toured with Valerie Lagrange. In fact, I never stopped working my ass off for years, partly because I was in shock, although I never realised it at the time.

SJ: We'd always played together when Malcolm was out and about... we'd come up with ideas and Malcolm would arrive and just start singing. When he was in hospital for a while waiting for an operation on his vocal chords, we were writing and then, when the only way forward was to "split" the band, we started to do demos just to be creative. It was a continuation of that really.

PSF: What was it like as just a trio - was it difficult or were you able to find your feet, so to speak, quickly?

DR: No, as I said we were used to working without Malc, but it was hard doing it as a trio, as we were known as a four piece band and we couldn't really find a replacement, we were a very tight group of friends! Also, the material we were writing was very dark, which is not surprising.

SJ: The trio was always a trio... with a front man. The first thing that happened was that Rat Scabies called to invite us to join their tour by way of helping us through our grief. So we jumped a train to Dundee and started to play with mainly Foxy or me taking the lead vocals (Ruffy always sang as well). So we just slotted into that mode for a while. We were all great friends so going our separate ways was not really considered at that point. It became however more difficult as it became evident that we were, naturally, to be compared to the Ruts with Malcolm. We still always gave a mean show though.

PSF: Were the songs that became Animal Now written after Malcolm's passing? Or were they bits and pieces of music that had been bouncing around for a while?

DR: We had a few songs already written- "Different View" for instance was recorded the weekend before Malcolm died.

SJ: Some bits had been around since the demos and some written after Malcolm died. We went down to a studio called ICC and just started writing. Sort of experimental and then all participating in the lyrical input. It's not my favourite album, gotta say... I equate it with my grief. The song "Despondency" sort of sums it up. That's the best track for me. I used to love doing that live too!

PSF: How did Segs feel about becoming the singer?

DR: Well, Paul sang a couple as well, but Segs took the job quite seriously and immersed himself in it. They were fairly dark times, although we still rocked the shows we did.

SJ: We sat around and said "what shall we do now?" We discussed it, and as I recall, Paul and Ruffy said "we'll all sing." Which we did on the album, but live, I mainly took the front man bit. It wasn't like a massive ambition of mine looking back, but well, it just happened.

I always said that I didn't want to or couldn't fill Malcolm's shoes. We wanted to change our name, but due to pressure from Virgin we ended up compromising with Ruts D.C. It was OK I suppose, but obviously I WAS walking in Malcolm's shoes on the old songs and as a front man... fucking difficult and sometimes depressing... basically.

PSF: What happened after Animal Now that made you guys decide to do an all-dub album?

DR: Well, we fell out big time with Virgin and left. The thing was we had made a lot of money on our publishing, so we were not unduly worried. We were gonna carry on writing and so forth, but Virgin managed to take all our publishing as well, so we had nothing. Plus, as I said earlier, we were in mourning, having lost one of our closest friends and our front man, so we decided to go and make a record free from the constrains of what was expected of us.

SJ: It was a grey period. We'd done an album backing Kevin Coyne... supposed to be a giveaway but became the main album, Sanity Stomp. That was the beginning of trouble at Virgin. We then parted ways (a whole other story) and Kevin Coyne offered to put up 1000 for us to make an album. We considered it, and then thought "Why not do it ourselves?" We borrowed the money, and moved swiftly... !!!

PSF: How did your relationship with Mad Professor come about?

DR: We managed to get about 1000 together, to make some recordings. We had worked at a lot of the best studios in London - Air, Town House - whilst with Virgin, all paid for by us of course, but we wanted to get to a rootsy kind of place, and luckily, in our searches 'round London, we came across one Neil Fraser (Mad Professor), who had a studio at home. We got on really well. We went in with a few ideas, concepts and inspirations, and came out with Rhythm Collision.

SJ: "Why not a dub album?" someone said. "Where?" someone replied. I think it was Paul who looked in the paper and found ARIWA studios. We visited, and met this mad guy, Neil Fraser. This was just before he released "Dub Me Crazy Part 1." It was just so refreshing and creative. We got stoned (there's a great story if you want it) and recorded three backing tracks a day. Apart from two - "Militant" and "Accusation" - they were all just jams straight to tape. Mitt Gamon came down to blow some harp, and then the lyrics started to flow. It really was great fun again. Prof's mixing is so entertaining because I personally never get bored... unlike some other recordings where I know them inside out.

PSF: What led to the decision to self-release Rhythm Collision? Was this before or after recording it?

DR: Well, we always planned to release it, which we did on our own label Bohemian, and it kept us fed and watered for the next year or two.

SJ: See above (trouble with Virgin). Also, it seemed right to return to the independent scene after our short but fatally predictable journey through the mainstream music business... ouch!

PSF: Segs, you mention "When he was in hospital for a while waiting for an operation on his vocal chords we were writing and then, when the only way forward was to "split" the band, we started to do demos..." What happened?

DR: Well, he (Malcolm) had been doing smack for months but was in total denial to us about it, and would rarely turn up for rehearsals, so we decided to write on our own, and not sit around waiting on our junkie friend. We had tried having "serious" conversations with Malcolm about the problem, but junkies say anything to keep you happy at the time, but it don't mean shit, as the junk seems to surpass any moral or social obligations one would usually have with ones friends and colleagues.

SJ: It was just all in all a disappointing time. I remember playing Chorus TV (Paris) and Malcolm had taken some smack in with him, hidden in a secret compartment he had made in his brothel creepers...!! This was the first time (and last) I had ever seen the famous "Chinese Rocks" heroin. He had enough for his expected period away, but then... we got offered the Folies TV show in Belgium, (and) we had to go and Malcolm got really strung out. We got very drunk that night and the next day, Malcolm cajoled us to fly him home, saying that he was going straight into rehab. We of course went in the old minibus. He got home (and) said "no, no, no." Next time I saw him was the recording of "Staring At the Rude Boys." He was out of it, but in full denial. It really confirmed that it was BAAAD! So we just carried on playing and writing. He just didn't used to attend.

PSF: Was there talk of the band splitting before Malcolm died?

DR: Yes, we had reached a point where we felt that was the only way of getting through to him. Also, we were all in for the long haul and were quite in demand as a rhythm section and were doing quite a few projects (Coyne, Aitken, Valerie LaGrange).

SJ: I phoned him at one point to tell him that we were splitting the band. Partly as a last ditch threat to shock him out of it but it just doesn't work with that drug. Partly as it was just unfolding like that as he used to turn up to rehearsals/writing sessions and then disappear into the toilet with his brown Adidas bag for half an hour at a time. It was sad and an untenable situation.

PSF: Also, you both mention a couple of times how dark the period was from just before Malcolm died until the making of Rhythm Collision. Was this a result of Malc's drug abuse, or was there more to the picture?

DR: It was dark because our buddy (Malcolm) was being a total dick, and we the band were at our peak really, and as he was our friend we tried to help him, but just got a lot of lies and bullshit back from him.

SJ: It's not like in the movies. It's just extremely sad, dark and emotionally draining to see your friend being overwhelmed by this drug. It slowly steals the soul, little by little, almost too slow to perceive, until it's too late. Leaving the host totally dependent. It's not like any other drug so yes, it was down to that... otherwise, we were still firing.

PSF: Please DO tell me about getting stoned while recording Rhythm Collision!

DR: Well, in those days, spliff was a part of our scene. We went to the studio with a few ideas and a few ounces of African weed that a friend of ours obtained from an African tribal princess he was dating. It wasn't like that horrible skunk that the young ones do these days, but rather uplifting stuff and quite inspirational.

SJ: Further... our friend in question called up the night before and whispered down the phone that he had these cartons of 200 cigarettes. Some packets were normal cigs, others were full of weed! "What shall I do with them?" he asked. "Er... bring 'em round here!" said Foxy. So he did. In the morning, he gave us all a carton of 200. They were ALL full of weed, loads of it! We sat there, cleaned it all up, and THEN made our way to Mad Professors studio... about 5 hours late! Fucking brilliant!

PSF: Was it a big collaborative effort, or was the Mad Professor the engineer and you guys produced?

DR: Well, that's how it was, but it was collaborative in the sense that we all trusted and respected the others' abilities. I mean, we would never have made a record like that with anybody else!

SJ: We smoked the weed, Prof got a sound, we plugged in, we jammed... all live. Then we'd go to the pub, come back, write some lyrics, sing them, few overdubs, and he'd mix it. Just like that. Sometimes while he was taking bookings on the phone! Turning the volume down with his big toe... he never stopped the tape rolling once he'd started a mix. Fantastic... it's the best album I ever did in that fresh creative way, and I still like listening to it because you never really know what's coming next... more albums like that please!

PSF: Who else played on the album and what did they do?

DR: There was a guy called Dave Winthrop on sax. He used to play with Secret Affair, and we had met on a tour that we did with Laurel Aitken (we supported them on a tour of the UK and released Laurel's biggest British hit "Rudy Got Married" on Secret Affair's I-Spy Label, that Segs, Foxy and I played on). He became a good friend. Also, we had grown tired of Gary Barnacle, our previous sax player, who was a bit of a "star" and always turning up late! Also on the sessions there was a guy called Mitt Gamon who played harmonica and contributed at least one vocal ("Accusation").

SJ: I think, in all honesty, as much as we tried to get Dave's sax on there, we just couldn't get Prof to get it in the mix. That's why he's credited as "Ghost Sax." You can just about hear it sometimes. It's enough entertainment to try to find it. Mitt played some awesome harp and also it was good for me because I felt little threatened. So I wrote more lyrics, i.e. "Whatever We Do" and "Militant." "Accusation" was his lyrics though in "Love and Fire," for example, Prof left both vocals in. Two different singers singing totally different songs. So free... Prof was amazing like that. I'd never have done that.

PSF: Overall, how long did the record take to record and finish?

DR: As I recall, recording took a couple of weeks, then we had a short break as Neil moved the studio from his house to a basement in Peckham. We did some mixes in Ariwa One (Neil's spare bedroom) and some in the scary basement, but we didn't set loads of time aside for mixing. We just did a few spontaneous ones and chose the best ones.

SJ: That's about right. Only when he moved (in the middle of mixing), almost overnight he set up in what seemed like an old kebab shop! All empty and echoey... the mixes sounded godawful for the first session. Then he moved the whole affair downstairs. We turned up and he'd SOLD the old Ampex multitrack machine that we'd recorded it all on! Wait for it... 'cos he couldn't get it down the stairs! All these stories are for real. For me, that's what makes it such a unique album... the grief, the weed, the fun, all bought together with Mad Professor at the helm.

PSF: Who ran Bohemian for you while it lasted?

DR: Well our manager Bob Johnson kind of ran it for us. I've known Bob since the early '70's. I used to buy vinyl from him at the record store I ran in the city (James Asman's). He was a rep and I have worked with him over the years with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Aztec Camera, Alabama 3 and the Go-Betweens and Robert Forster. Also, I should point out that James Asman's is also where I met Segs for the first time.

SJ: Yeah, we used to go into the office with Bob and Sharon Johnson, and I'd kinda ring up all the radio stations, write to John Peel, etc... We all did our bit. I wasn't really cut out to run a label, but hey ho! We felt empowered, I think, to be free of the majors (and free of any Virgin royalties too for 13 years).

PSF: How many copies did it sell at the time, and did it chart?

DR: I think it sold about 30,000 copies (it kept us all fed and watered for a couple of years). Also, it gave us the first good review we had ever had from the NME. It was an indie release and at the time, I believe only major labels were eligible for the "official" music week/BBC chart, but it figured in the independent charts

SJ: I don't remember the good review in the NME... until Gallows got single of the week with "Rude Boys"... ironic (Note: In 2007, UK punk band Gallows charted in the UK with their excellent cover of the Ruts' "Staring At the Rude Boys").

PSF: What singles were released off of it?

DR: There were two singles: "Whatever We Do" b/w "Push Yourself," released in 1982 on 7", and "Weak Heart"/"Militant"/ "Accusation" which was a 12" released in 1983.

SJ: Cheers, Ruffy. Yes, and I remember Captain Sensible on the review show (Round Table)... I'd dropped it round his house the night before with a 4000 cash bribe (only joking). He played it, but he couldn't resist saying "Own up Segs... you know you can't sing" which was paraphrasing Garry Bushell's complete slag off of Ruts DC in Sounds. He meant well, but he ruined my career.

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