Ruts Never Sleeps

Ruts DC fans. Berlin gig, August 2013.

Drummer David Ruffy and bassist John “Segs” Jennings peer out of the poster announcing a German tour this past weekend for their legendary punk-reggae band Ruts DC as members of a unique club within the first-wave punk generation. Theirs is one of the few bands that has endured the slings of mortality during both their salad days and in their later revival years.

Segs and Ruffy started The Ruts in late summer 1977 after meeting guitarist Paul Fox and singer Malcolm Owen (both early-’70s hippy commune co-habitants) at a free music festival in northern England. Their first single, 1979’s singalong cruncher “In a Rut”, spoke to two main concerns of the band. Firstly, it helped cement their cred by being released on the People Unite label that grew out of the anti-racist collective of the same name started by the brilliant UK reggae group Misty in Roots. But even more tellingly, it featured “H Eyes” on the b-side as a rough (and unfortunately prophetic) anti-drug anthem (“It’s gonna screw your head, you’re gonna wind up dead.”)

By the time Owen was found dead from a heroin overdose in his mother’s bathtub in July 1980, the Ruts had released The Crack, their first studio album, and become a favorite of legendary BBC DJ John Peel. The Crack featured two of their signature songs highlighted on the current gig poster: the punkier “Babylon’s Burning” and the uptempo dub cut “Jah War,” both of which spoke with unique nuance to the tensions of early-Thatcherite London (“Babylon’s burning / with anxiety.”)

Forging on as Ruts DC (the DC stands for “da capo”, Italian for “from the top”) after Owen’s passing, the band released two more studio albums before calling it a day in 1983. The second of these, Rhythm Collision, saw the group plunge head-first into a spare but effective dub reggae mode produced in the South London-based living room studio of a young producer Neil Fraser, better known as Mad Professor.

2013 German tour flyer. Karl Marx Allee, Berlin.
2013 German tour flyer. Karl Marx Allee, Berlin.

During the subsequent 25 years, various concerns kept the Ruts DC name alive via retrospective, best-of and remix releases. But Fox’s diagnosis with terminal cancer in 2007 brought about a properly emotional reunion show in London that year, with Henry Rollins recruited to stand in for Owen to deliver a worshipful fanboy-on-steroids set that later provided fuel for a perfectly indulgent humblebrag monologue by the hardcore icon.

A little over a year after Fox’s death, Segs and Ruffy took on guitarist Leigh Hegarty and returned to Fraser to record Rhythm Collision 2, which was mixed by Brighton-based Mike “Prince Fatty” Pelanconi and released this year on Hamburg’s legendary Echo Beach label.

And instead of leaving it at that, Ruts DC have decided to keep gigging, with Segs assuming vocal duties along with Molara–a frequent collaborator with digital dub outfit Zion Train–providing a refreshing female counterpoint. Alongside selections from the Rhythm Collision albums like “Whatever We Do” and “Mighty Soldier,” the group still runs old faves like the defiant anti-cop anthem “SUS”, the satirical Two-Tone-targeting “Staring at the Rude Boys”, and the wistfully anti-junk tune “Love in Vain.”

The legacy of the punk-reggae hybrid is hardly unknown in underground music, with most valorizing The Clash, The Slits and the Bad Brains as its progenitors. Aside from the Basement 5, The Ruts is probably the most unsung first-wave punk band that absorbed the reggae idiom into their guitar-crunch strategy.

In Ruts DC, Ruffy and Segs now front one of the small handful surviving first-wave bands working the non-ska reggae strain in the veteran punk gig circuit. And by surviving and pushing on, they exemplify that most irresistible of punk attributes–durability.

Here’s an idea of what the full gig with the current lineup sounds like:


Commentary by Ron Nachmann. Photographs courtesy of  Libertinus and Joel Schalit.

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