Ruts DC: Segs on punk music and the late, great, John Peel

Influential British punk group The Ruts DC.
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Influential British punk group The Ruts DC.

John "Segs" Jennings, of influential reggae-influenced British punks The Ruts, is recalling a sold-out gig at London's Brixton Academy.

He's speaking from his home in west Norwood, London – "it's Brixton, innit".

The gig he's referring to was in 2007 but we'll get to that soon.

Forming as The Ruts in 1977, the band was active in anti-racism causes and toured supporting the likes of The Damned. Their back catalogue includes classics of the genre such as In A Rut and Babylon's Burning and their 1979 album The Crack.

After the death of lead singer Malcolm Owen in 1980, the group carried on as Ruts DC. As Jennings explains it, the initials refer to an Italian term, de capo, meaning "from the beginning". They released a couple of albums before splitting up again in 1983.

If you are unfamiliar with Segs in the Ruts you may know him as the former bass player of Alabama 3. He has also worked with Edwyn Collins (Orange Juice), Mad Professor, Aztec Camera, Joe Strummer, Rat Scabies, Mick Jones, The Beatles, Tony Visconti (David Bowie's producer) and the Chemical Brothers, among many others.

Since reforming in 2011, the Ruts DC lineup includes Jennings, David Ruffy and Leigh Heggarty.

Next week they make their first trip down under, playing shows in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland.

But back to that Brixton Academy gig.

That night the British press described it as the final chapter closing on "one of punk rock's finest, most underrated bands".

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The Ruts DC was fronted by American singer/actor Henry Rollins, who flew to Britain for the sheer honour of playing with some of his heroes. The setlist that night included Staring at the Rude Boys and Babylon's Burning. Guitarist Paul Fox died three months after the show.

"After Malcolm died we petered out... we lost our rudder. When Foxy was ill we wanted to do a last gig. It was a special night, Henry took on the vocals and was fantastic." Jennings recalls. "Foxy had lung cancer and was incredibly weak but he played a blinder that night."

As Fox lay in bed at home "waiting to go", Jennings sat at his bedside.

"There was a note in one song that he always struggled to play. He got it right on the record. Anyway, I was at his house, holding his hand and we played the DVD of the show for him. It got to this particular note and he'd played the wrong one. His hand clenched."

Jennings describes himself as "blessed" for discovering punk music at a young age.

"I left school at 16. I met Ruffy in a record shop and started playing in a band. London's a beautiful place, it changes all the time. The song In A Rut took nine months to come out because we had no money," he says. "We were working in a garage and then a friend of mine got it to the famous John Peel."

The Ruts' flame burned brightly and their success was brief but influential. In mid-1978, Peel championed their debut single In a Rut; the following year Babylon's Burning made the Top 10.

Everything came to a halt when Owen died in 1980 of an accidental overdose in the bath at his parents' house, passing away just a few weeks after Ian Curtis of Joy Division.

"After John Peel raved about us we went from playing to a few people to having lines around the block," recalls Jennings. "John really moved life forward for us, he was a champion of the outsider. He was a true guy, quite shy. Whenever he had to DJ on TV he had to really force himself to do that. He was a genuine guy who is really missed."

Rat Scabies, drummer with the Damned, once described The Ruts as "one of the best bands of their era".

"We tried to carry on as Ruts DC for a while after Malcolm died," Jennings says. "But the grief was too much. Now we're back again, out touring and it feels right. We're working on a new album which has the working title of Psychic Attack. I never thought that we'd be making another album ever. I'm waking up every night with lyrics in my head. Last night I had a dream that I was at the top of a mountain and a guy in the dream gave me some lyrics."

While in New Zealand, Jennings is particularly keen to talk to people in Christchurch.

"Life is fragile and I've been in those situations. To me that's what punk is about, feeling those situations and making comments with your lyrics and singing the passion out, sometimes that changes lives."

TOUR DETAILS:

Ruts DC play Dux Live, Christchurch, on Thursday, November 19; Bodega, Wellington, on Friday, November 20 and Auckland's King Arms Tavern on Saturday, November 21. Tickets from utr.co.nz

 - Stuff

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