LIVE REVIEW: RUTS DC @Clwb Ifor Bach (20/12/23)

Probably the best rhythm section in punk rock, roll into Cardiff in the run up to Christmas.

Of all punk bands that have their roots in the seventies still treading the boards, the Ruts DC are probably the coolest and most relevant four decades on. It helps that they are still releasing new music and exploring new musical directions, rather than living on past glories. As Segs told me a few years ago, “Without Malcom and Foxy, there can be no Ruts. Ruffy and I still want to play together though, and if we are in band together everyone is going to want to hear us play Ruts songs. But we don’t want to be a tribute act, so we are continuing to write and record new music”.

For younger readers of this blog (can there really be anyone that was around in the seventies that is not familiar with Babylon’s Burning?) The Ruts were the cream of the ‘class of ’77’ crop, knocking out intelligent rhythmic punk with reggae undertones. They released two albums and a crop of immaculate singles that have stood the test of time better than almost any other band of that era. They were socially conscious, working with the original Rock Against Racism and regularly gigging with the likes of Misty in Roots.

Their gigs were incendiary, but the late seventies and early eighties were a strange time for live music. The traditional skinhead movement that had grown out of a love for ska music, had a less progressive off shoot, with oi and white power music. Many punk gigs were disrupted by violence and one Ruts gig in particular, in Cardiff University in 1979, where the grief from skinheads was so intense it went down in history as the only gig the Ruts ever stopped halfway through.

They burned brightly, but it was to be short lived, when their iconic front man, Malcolm Owen, was found dead in the bathroom of his parents’ house in Hayes, from a heroin overdose on 14 July 1980 at the age of 26.

Their second album was actually released after the passing of Malcolm and was a compilation of singles, b-sides and live recordings.

The band continued without Malcom, but adopted the name Ruts D.C. The D.C. standing for the Italian term da capo, meaning “back to the beginning”. There was a different vibe to the new tunes, with reggae playing more of a role, but the band eventually folded in 1983.

There were numerous retrospective releases over the years, including a dub collaboration with the Mad Professor, remixes, live recordings, unreleased demos and Peel Sessions seeing the light of day.

In July 2007 the remaining members of the Ruts got together with Henry Rollins on vocals and numerous guests, to pay tribute to guitarist Foxy who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. In October of that year Foxy lost his battle and went to the great gig in the sky.

In December 2008 Bassist Segs and Drummer Dave Ruffy returned to Ariwa Studios as Ruts D.C to record some new tracks with the Mad Professor. The project, entitled ‘Rhythm Collision Vol. 2’, was mixed by Prince Fatty and was finally released in 2013. The album featured Leigh Heggarty on guitar, Seamus Beaghan on Hammond organ, and Molara on additional vocals.

The band have been on a roll ever since, releasing five more albums, touring on a regular basis, sometimes as headliners and sometimes with other seventies legends such as The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers and The Stranglers.

I find those support slots slightly frustrating, because as far as I am concerned, Ruts DC are too good to support anyone, but at least the bands they are playing with are usually worth seeing anyway.

They have played Cardiff’s The Globe several times in recent years, which is not a bad venue, but tonight they are in Clwb Ifor Bach, hands down the best venue in the ‘diff. This year the venue has celebrated forty years of putting on gigs. It is a venue that was designed to put on live music and has a first-rate PA. It’s not a converted cinema with ropey acoustics.

We make our way up to the third floor and are soon greeted by lots of familiar faces. That’s one thing about The Ruts, they are still a class act and are guaranteed to draw any old punks that still have enough energy in them to climb three flights of stairs.

The venue is full, but not quite sold out, so it is busy enough for a party, but not so rammed I can’t get down to the front to take some photographs.

At the appointed time they stroll onto the stage suited and booted, looking as cool as cool things on a particularly cool evening. They dress age appropriate and don’t pretend they are still in their twenties.

They open with ‘Faces in the Sky’ from 2022’s ‘Counterculture album, then seamlessly go straight into the classic SUS.

For the next hour and a half, they solidly and tightly belt out a perfect mix of new tunes and old classics. Each going down a storm. Old tunes like ‘Babylon’s Burning’, ‘West One Shine on Me’ and ‘Jah War’ are inevitably greeted with a big cheer, but tunes like ‘Mighty Soldier’, ‘X-ray Joy’ and ‘Kill the Pain’ are equally appreciated.

The more recent songs are not just going through the motions; they are songs that are valid and have a credibility of their own. And the crowd appreciate them. For part of the night, I was stood next to someone who clearly hadn’t heard any of the recent albums but was loving the ‘new ones’. On the whole, a Ruts DC crowd is a little more discerning than the crowds that turn out for some of the bands that are just rolling their back catalogue in glitter. ‘In a Rut’ turns into a medley that includes the Pogues ‘Dirty Old Town’ as a tribute to the recently departed Shane McGowan.

They are old school enough to actually go off stage at the end of the set and wait for the crowd to call them back. They give us ‘Pretty Lunatics’, again from the most recent album, followed by the 1979 single ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ and finally ‘Psychic Attack’ from the 2016 album, ‘Music Must Destroy’, before we pour out into the night, giving Christmas hugs and looking forward to the next time.