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27 August 2015

Writing on the rude boys: returning to punk’s heyday

Roland Link's Love in Vain: the Story of the Ruts and Ruts DC reveals the band's eclectic roots.

By John King

Take the 207 bus out from Shepherd’s Bush in west London and halfway down the Uxbridge Road you come to Southall. You can’t miss the place: the Broadway is one long bazaar. It has none of the inner-city chic of Brixton or Brick Lane and little of the grand architecture that pulls in sightseers, but it does boast the flamboyance of its Sikh and Hindu residents, the spirit of the Irish and English factory workers who lived there before, and the energy of the travellers who until recently traded at its horse market. Southall is thoughtful and eclectic and very British. Much like the music of the Ruts, in fact.

J G Ballard wrote with great imagination about the London suburbs from a middle-class perspective, his Twickenham home another world away from nearby Hounslow, and Iain Sinclair captures the margins brilliantly in London Orbital, touching on the mysteries of the Uxbridge and M25 badlands in doing so. But for the most part the masses of Greater London have been ignored. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, however, punk gave these people a voice. Coming from the same streets, bands such as the Ruts, the Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69 and the Lurkers produced lyrics that reflected their origins and concerns in a way that quickly connected with the rest of the country.

Southall was the Ruts’ spiritual home, their friendship with the local reggae outfit Misty in Roots and time spent at the People Unite musical co-operative reflecting the rebel-music crossover that played a big part in punk’s early development. The Ruts were singer Malcolm Owen and guitarist Paul Fox from Hayes, next door to Southall, together with the mighty rhythm section of John “Segs” Jennings and Dave Ruffy. This book traces a legacy that has threaded through the decades and can be heard in the rhythms of dubstep, the hollows of Fugazi, the echoes of Tricky and the sheer energy of Black Flag and Rancid.

Love in Vain shows Britain at the end of the 1970s, when extremes of right and left were busy telling people how to think and behave. These were tense, often violent times, but it was also an exciting and remarkably creative period. The Ruts are best known for their hit single “Babylon’s Burning”, released in June 1979 after a riot that took place around a National Front meeting at Southall town hall; they were also a hard-working, grass-roots band, keen to tour and play live. Driven by a shared love of reggae, dub and funk, their music defies categorisation, but links to the experimentalism of the Clash and the route John Lydon took with PiL.

Despite the stereotypes, punk has ­always been diverse, spiralling out in many directions. The Ruts’ debut album, The Crack, was an original and definitive statement of intent, its Sgt Pepper-style cover featuring John Peel, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The song “SUS” refers to the vagrancy act used liberally by the Metropolitan Police in the 1970s to detain “suspected persons”; “Jah War” recalls the Southall riot and the brutal assault on Misty’s co-manager Clarence Baker by the Special Patrol Group – on the same day as the anti-Nazi campaigner Blair Peach was killed, allegedly by the SPG. “Something That I Said” and “Out of Order” are fast and urgent, a reflection of the aggravation coming off the streets and football terraces and into the band’s shows (including an appearance at the landmark Rock Against Racism gig at Victoria Park in Hackney in 1978).

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Love in Vain is rich in first-hand accounts, but as well as re-creating a political and social landscape this book deals in personal loss. In 1980 Malcolm Owen died of a heroin overdose at the age of 26. He was a charismatic and much-loved man, and his death haunts the text. The other band members went on to record Animal Now and Rhythm Collision: Volume 1 as Ruts DC, the two albums consciously different from their earlier material; then after three years they went their own ways musically.

In 2007 Paul Fox was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and they played together in north London that summer, Henry Rollins coming over from the US to perform on vocals. It was an emotional night, loaded with respect for Fox – a memorable character and a brilliant, Hendrix-inspired guitarist – as the Ruts’ following turned out in force. Later Segs and Ruffy rebuilt Ruts DC, reluctantly at first. They eventually released Rhythm Collision: Volume 2 in 2014. With its heavier, dubwise sound and Leigh Heggarty, the former guitarist of the Price, added to the ranks, they were back in business.

They include Ruts originals in their sets and tour widely, and Owen and Fox are still present in the older lyrics and arrangements, the 1979 track “Savage Circle” defiantly describing their journey. When they play their first ever single, “In a Rut” – released on the People Unite label and a favourite of John Peel’s – the bass rumbles and the drums roll and you can tell that the love lives on, as it does in the pages of this fine book.

John King’s novels include “The Football Factory” and, most recently, “Skinheads” (both published by Vintage).

“Love in Vain” is available online from:

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This article appears in the 19 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars