Ruefrex Frozen Snakes In Traffic Lanes
A hugely underrated and sometimes criminally overlooked band whose hard-hitting political stance prompted Melody Maker (in the mid 80’s) to pose the question ‘Are they the most important band in Britain?’
Ruefrex, who formed in 1977, were probably the most unconventional, non-conformist and controversial band to emerge from the burgeoning Belfast punk scene of the late 70’s. Although the band hailed from the Loyalist heartland of the Shankill Road (home to notorious characters such as the Shankill Butchers and Johnny Adair) and Ardoyne, they were totally non-sectarian in outlook and did much to promote cross community relations through their songs and actions. Never afraid of a challenge, Ruefrex took their music and message into Loyalist areas like the Shankill and Republican areas such as Turf Lodge and Twinbrook. This was an extremely brave and dangerous thing to do in the darkest days of the ‘Troubles’ and few (if any) other bands would follow suit. Ruefrex released a total of 5 singles (including the anti-nuke rant Capital Letters which is a bona fide punk classic!) and 2 albums over a 10-year period before calling it a day in 1987. However, with some unfinished business to attend to, the band re-emerged in 2003 with a handful of new songs and plans to record a new album. I recently caught up with drummer and main song writer Paul Burgess who kindly took some time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions about the bands past, present and future:
trakMARX - Ruefrex reformed in 2003 after a 15-year break. What was the motivation behind the reformation and did it take much prompting to get everyone involved again?
(PB) The key factor was the encouragement of Tony McGartland (Ernie Badness) and his website. There endures an affection and I think respect for the band and our stance during a period when we stayed true to our core beliefs whilst others prospered commercially and with critical acclaim. Tony convinced us of that and he was right. The logistics of pulling it together were tricky but there was enough initial good will and interest in new songs to keep all members on board. We go a long ways back from school days - so after some initial awkwardness, things kicked in again.
trakMARX - Your comeback gig was at the ‘It Makes You Want To Spit!’ book launch at the Empire, Belfast on 06/11/03 were you nervous playing in front of (a capacity) Belfast crowd again after such a long absence? How do you think it went?
(PB) I enjoyed it. Live performance is different from recording work of course, and it’s the latter that interests me more. The sound was a bit ropy for us and the gig itself was little more than a nostalgiafest…but I knew that and went in willingly. I’m proud we tried some new songs. It’s in the tradition of the band. Anything after that in a similar vein though borders on parody.
trakMARX - Ruefrex returned to a packed Empire in 2004 for the Terri Hooley Benefit did you think Terri was deserving of such an event? Brian Faloon ex SLF played drums that night, as you couldn’t make it. How did Brian get involved and are you worried that he might have enjoyed the experience so much that he might wanna replace you permanently?
(PB) Like I said, I wasn’t overly keen to do this, but I was in the US at the time, so that made my mind up! It was my suggestion to ask Faloon. He’s a nice guy and I’ve known him for years. He seemed the natural choice. The real reason I wanted it to happen despite my absence though, was because Jackie enjoys playing so much and has inadequate opportunities to do so…they shouldn’t have cancelled just because I couldn’t be there. Times have changed in regard to all that ego stuff…so no, I don’t feel threatened!
trakMARX - OK, let’s go back to the start. Ruefrex (originally Roofwrecks) were formed in 1977. Your 1st gig was supporting SLF at the Trident in Bangor do you remember much about it? Do you remember any of the songs you performed?
(PB) Not a lot. Ivan Kelly our singer at the time wore my Dad’s GPO hat in an attempt to look like a Nazi I think! There were a few covers and some songs that never made it much further than that night…but the punk spirit thing was definitely abroad…just get up and do it kinda thing. SLF were already an accomplished showband by then of course!
trakMARX - The band had a reputation for being a bunch of ‘hardnuts’ and you enjoyed a good punch-up (especially amongst yourselves) was that reputation justified?
(PB) We came from a tough area in a tough town, at a time when there was a war going on…what can I say?
trakMARX - Musically and image-wise Ruefrex didn’t fit into the standard punk mould at that time was that deliberate on your part? Did that make it harder to win over the punk audiences you were mainly playing to or did you thrive on the challenge? Who were your main influences?
(PB) We were constantly dismissed as “Spides” because we refused to conform to the already burgeoning punk cult of appearance, behaviour and attitudes. It made sense to us to be rebels within a rebellion. However, people saw that we had something to say in our performances and songs and the easy dismissals were replaced by uneasy acceptance. We were definitely influenced by the Clash, Wire and the Velvets, but our own teenage reference points included everything from Glam rock to heavy metal.
trakMARX - Musically and lyrically Ruefrex songs have always been (at the least) challenging and somewhat politically controversial and/or confrontational. So how did you feel when SLF were hailed as Belfast’s answer to the Clash and received all the plaudits for their ‘hard-hitting’ political rants such as Suspect Device, Wasted Life and Alternative Ulster? Compared to the likes of Wild Colonial Boy, Paid In Kind or Playing Cards With Dead Men the SLF songs (good as they are) can be viewed as little more than trite political sloganeering, would you agree?
(PB) This was a particular point of contention at the time. We somehow felt SLF hadn’t earned the right to deal with the subject matter with integrity, reducing it to bland sloganeering. Their political profile was certainly manufactured and marketed. Ours was from the heart of a lived experience we never abandoned. I also think ours were a bit better crafted and had a few more literary / creative shades to them.
trakMARX - The band was decidedly non-sectarian in outlook. Ruefrex epitomised the non-sectarian, cross community spirit of the early Belfast punk scene probably more than any other band. Is this a fair assessment? Considering your working class Protestant background and the fact that you all hailed from the Shankill Road (the Loyalist heartland) and Ardoyne, did your stance cause you any problems in your own community?
(PB) I think that’s a fair assessment. We put ourselves on the line, politically, creatively and from a personal safety standpoint, time and time again, but didn’t sanitise the message or the medium. Looking back on that period, I feel a little responsible that my preoccupation with protest lyrics/songs and the subsequent politicisation of all the interviews I gave may have detracted from the other aspects of the band (like the music) that required consideration. Nevertheless, we shared a passion in challenging sectarian stereotypes and rejecting nationalism (Irish or British) for a class/ Marxist analysis of the conflict. This led to more difficulties in our own areas obviously, but generally speaking (other than a few notable instances of harassment of family) we were indulged. I think that’s because of our own credibility and community profile in those areas. Broadly speaking, I think that people- RCs and Ps- were just stumped by us! We weren’t fitting the profile of expectation.
trakMARX - I think it fair to say that throughout ‘the troubles’ certain sections of the media showed a distinct bias against the Protestant community in N. Ireland and in some cases that community was virtually demonised. Even in some English left-wing punk circles it became almost trendy for bands to voice support for the Republican movement and in some cases the IRA (i.e. Crass, Chumbawumba, Blaggers ITA, The Passage, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Shane MacGowan). Were Ruefrex conscious of this and did you deliberately set out to put the record straight (so to speak) with songs like Kingsmill Road, Paid In Kind and The Wild Colonial Boy?
(PB) Yes, to all of that. I still feel strongly that the political left and indeed those seeking to align themselves with the clichés of a traditional ‘oirish’ persona, often over simplify the problem. There was / is very little to represent the community we came from and their right for a cultural / social and political expression on the island of Ireland. It goes without saying that this stance was and remains very unpopular. It was more insulting because this intelligentsia / Murphia / literati rarely ventured beyond Hampstead!
trakMARX - Do you think at the time that your Protestant background hampered the band’s career in any way? For instance, I heard that an English record label (Rough Trade?) were thinking of signing Ruefrex but changed their mind when they found out you were Protestants because they thought they could get more mileage out of a Belfast band from a Catholic background singing about British oppression! Is this true and if so how did you feel about that? Also, I remember seeing the band described as the ‘voice of extreme Loyalism’ (or some such nonsense) in one of the big music weeklies! They couldn’t have been more wrong you must have been really pissed off?
(PB) Heads and brick walls! The message was an unpalatable one.. but hey...I thought that’s what the punk spirit was supposed to be all about? Perhaps we were naïve in expecting any better from the music industry. They like things binary and simple.
trakMARX - Ruefrex toured with the Pogues, right? How did you get on with Shane MacGowan? Seemed like a bit of an odd pairing considering Shane makes no secret of his admiration for the republican movement and the IRA and Ruefrex have always been very outspoken against the IRA and their Irish-American fundraisers?
(PB) This was a marriage of convenience, inspired by Stiff Records and Pogues management in order to capitalise on the interest in Ruefrex at that time. It was, as you suggest a, a complete mismatch. Those who weren’t openly antagonistic toward us were simply ignorant or intimidated. Only Phil Chevron and Shane (who I’m sure didn’t know what the fuck was going on) were anyway decent. We performed well I thought, but it was by and large-an unpleasant tour that culminated on us getting turfed off the American leg for calling it like it was.
trakMARX - Is it true that Elvis Costello showed himself to be a bit of a bigot by referring to Ruefrex as ‘Orange bastards’ and tried to get you thrown off the Pogues tour?
(PB) I don’t recall him saying this to me, but he was consistently unpleasant / indifferent to us, not just on the tour but later on The Tube TV show. We just assumed that when he wasn’t up his own arsehole, then he was trying to get up Kate O’Riordan’s from the Pogues, (which was why he was hanging around in the first place) in a spot of fairly high profile adultery!
trakMARX - Ruefrex split up shortly after the release of the Political Wings album in 1987. Did you feel that the band had run its course by then? Did you feel that you were banging your head against a brick wall?
(PB) There was a bit of a creative and personal nadir at that time. Stiff had gone broke and we’d made some bad choices on the management/business side of things. The (good) will had evaporated.
trakMARX - What Ruefrex record are you most proud of?
(PB) I think the early singles are an achievement. One by One is rightly given its place in our own wee Province’s historical discography. I think Capital Letters is a kick-ass song in the finest tradition. And the original version of Colonial Boy has much to commend it. Later, I think the ‘Flowers’ title track works well as a ballad.
trakMARX - What was your most memorable gig?
(PB) Probably Dingwalls in London, where the guitar sound that night would have took yer head off! Also The Mansion House in Dublin and Ulster Hall gig in Belfast where we ensured that we would never be asked back as support on an SLF tour, by exploding them right off stage with our performances those nights!
trakMARX - Ok, back to the present. The band has written some new songs (including the outstanding Grace Of God!) and is working on a new album. When will the album be ready and what label is it coming out on? What subject matter are you tackling these days?
(PB) The band are as always in a state of flux, so I can’t give answers to any of those questions. We are however, also working on individual and joint projects. I’m doing some stuff with Jackie and Grace of God may eventually end up residing there. Jackie and I are also working with John Watt formally of Maghera band “Kissed Air” under the working title “Sacred Heart of Bontempi”.
trakMARX - Flowers For All Occasions was released on CD for the first time recently (a limited pressing of 100 copies only) how did that go?
(PB) It was a pressing from an imperfect master, so I wouldn’t be overly enthusiastic.
trakMARX - Judging by Clarkey’s antics at the recent Empire shows, he’s still as madcap as ever! When will we get to see Ruefrex live again, any gigs planned? Any surprises in store?
(PB)‘Madcap’…. eh…. yeah….’surprises’…he constantly surprises us…’antics’…what can I tell you!
trakMARX - How relevant do you think Punk (in general) and Ruefrex (in particular) are to today’s ever-changing Belfast?
(PB) Don’t care!
trakMARX - When’s the website going to be updated?
(PB) Ask Tony!
trakMARX - Anything you want to add?
(PB) Michael Jackson fucks kids!
trakMARX - Charming!
Guy Trelford tMx 19 04/05