Empress Ballroom, Rebellion Festival, Blackpool
4 August 2012
We’ve had plenty of reviews of Rebellion but they keep on coming. Here Philip Thompson shares the magnificence of Ruts DC.
Sometimes it’s a shame that the word legendary is used so much; often about bands, especially about old punk bands. Because every now and then there comes a time when you really want to use the term and somehow it seems devalued (with no disrespect meant to any bands for whom the term is oft-used).
It’s hard to think of the Ruts and Ruts DC as anything else. Firstly, because they existed for such a relatively short time and such a long time ago that their story feels like the stuff of legend. Secondly, because they quickly became the forgotten men of punk. Stories of how great the Ruts were are passed down from those who remember them rather than the band being retrospectively deified by the media. Thirdly, finally, and perhaps most importantly because of the body of work they left behind from their relatively short lifespan. One all-killer-no-filler album. Six of the finest singles of the era (released within a fifteen month period). These followed by a Ruts album rounding up the last unreleased songs from their canon, and this before two Ruts DC albums. Most definitely legendary before we even touch on the tragedy that surrounded the band.
To hammer home the point in terms of their impact since then, you need only ask Henry Rollins about their influence on the American hardcore scene. On this side of the pond a few years ago Captain Sensible of the Damned observed that when younger bands asked him how best to make great music he always answered “go and listen to the Ruts”Â.
I won’t dwell on the band’s misfortune, but suffice to say that following the death of Ruts singer Malcolm Owen and the effect of grief and general disinterest in the band as Ruts DC back in the early ’80s, we heard nothing from the band for many years. Aside from a one-off gig five years ago (with Rollins on vocals) as a benefit for and shortly before the death of guitarist Paul Fox, it seemed that the band’s continued status as stuff of legend was the last word.
Last year the surviving members created a new version of Ruts DC and went out on a short tour with Alabama Three. This has been followed by talk of a new album and some more dates this year.
When the band take the stage at the Rebellion Festival it is to a hero’s welcome from a large section of the crowd. It is clear from the off though that this is to be no exercise in pure nostalgia, aiming only to please the old punks in the crowd. When the band folded in 1983 they had been moving into a dub heavy direction and tonight they pick seamlessly where they left off. We are treated to a version of 1982’s Whatever We Do from the Rhythm Collision album. Original members Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy are joined by guitarist Leigh Heggarty, who clearly has a feel for the band and its legacy having been around the group for many years, keyboardist Seamus Beaghen and singer/percussionist Molara whose vocals enhance both the rootsy element of the set and lift the punkier numbers to a new dimension.
The band make it look effortless throughout. There is a knowing smile on Segs’s face which suggests that he knows that, this being a punk festival, they may be confounding some expectations in the set choice. Delving slightly further back in time they play the excellent Mirror Smashed from the recently re-released (first time on CD!) Animal Now album. Although this is no tribute band to themselves, this where we first really see how much Leigh Heggarty has done his homework and has faithfully replicated Paul Fox’s sound and technique on the long guitar solo that finishes the song. No mean feat given the complicated time signature and stop/start nature of the riff.
It Was Cold further shows a band at ease and the audience lap it up. Ruts are aired at their acerbic best with Backbiter. They go on to update the classic SUS, mixing the lyrics and finally the killer riff of that song into one dealing with more contemporary incidences of police brutality, with particular reference to the death of Smiley Culture during a police raid. It is an excellent and affecting way of showing that the old songs still have relevance today, both in their sound and, crucially, in their subject matter. A stark reminder perhaps that, as well as the obvious nostalgia element of a festival such as Rebellion, there is an element of a shared mindset that brings this audience together. The song seems to say “Remember them problems we had back in the day? Well, we still got ”Ëem now”Â. For a punk festival searching for relevance beyond being a great piss-up it is a truly magical moment.
From here on in the band launch into incendiary punk/dub mode; Staring at the Rude Boys is met with frantic joy by the crowd, Love in Vain a nod to the bitter irony of the final demise of Malcolm Owen. Jah War revisits the problems certain sections of society have with authority in general and the police specifically, Molara taking most of the vocals on this to take the song into a different space to the original. Segs’s laconic comment at the song’s denouement as Clarence Baker gets hit:: “There’s that truncheon again”Â.
West One (Shine On Me) again showcases a band of immense musicianship, Leigh Heggarty picks up the solo and nails it to the wall. Special mention to Dave Ruffy, who has the most laid-back fluid style of any “punk”Â drummer I’ve ever seen. When he hits THAT drum break in the middle of the song he may as well be wearing slippers and smoking a cigar. Absolutely fantastic. The fact that this was the last Ruts single, posthumously released after Malcolm’s death adds a particular poignancy; “Rescue me or here I stay”Â.ÃÂ A salvation of sorts in the fact that we are here watching, they are here (finally!) playing.
The set in full swing and by now I almost think I can second guess what’s coming. We are not disappointed by a storming In A Rut. Again, it may just be me but, like a writer who continuously sees new meanings in their own work, it feels like the band have realised that this is another song which resonates as much in middle age as it ever did when we were teenagers- “You’re in a rut. You gotta get out of it!”Â.
By the end, of course, the intrigue around what they’ll play for us has all but disappeared. They play Babylon’s Burning. It is a perfect end to a set which has illustrated in no uncertain terms that there is more to this great band than their big hit single. But, hey, that doesn’t mean they’ll be churlish enough not to play it! The place goes nuts, your writer included (losing my sunglasses which I’d stupidly left hanging from my shirt and any last shreds of cool detachment in the process).
Suddenly, after the thirty year wait it’s all over. I hope this band goes on to great things. They deserve it not just for their history but for the relevance they have today. I saw lots of punk bands old and new over the course of the weekend but none that so effortlessly wove the old into the new, making it feel like punk is a genre with a future. And for that we should thank and support them.
I walk from the hall musing on an adjective for what I’ve just seen. One in particular keeps popping back into my head. You guessed it: legendary.
All words and images by Philip Thompson. You can read more from Philip on LTW here.