Hot Press 24th September 1987
Ricky Ross of leading Scottish contenders Deacon Blue, discusses airplay difficulties, sectarianism and surprise! surprise!, music with George Byrne.
Almost unheralded, in "Raintown" Scotland's Deacon Blue have made one of the year's outstanding albums. Despite extensive critical kudos, however, the first two singles from the album - "Dignity" and "Loaded" - failed to make any inroads into the charts. A third single, the excellent "When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)" looks as if it might enable Deacon Blue to prise open the door. Nevertheless the band must be perturbed at their relative lack of success to date.
"Total lack of success you mean, let's be honest'" lead singer Ricky Ross laughs. "l've not been surprised at all but what I really got annoyed at was that for a long time in the UK we were played on the radio far less than we were talked about in the music press and for me that seemed the wrong way round. I'd much rather people actually heard the music and made up their own minds, rather than reading what umpteen journalists had to say about it. " 'Dignity' had quite good sales despite a total of about five plays on Radio 1," he adds, " but in terms of airplay it did nothing. It's like . with Danny Wilson - when ''Mary's Prayer' came out first it got less plays than 'Dignity' but they're starting to play it now because it's become a hit in America . . . they've got no minds of their own, these people."
The mention of Danny Wilson (whose "Meet Danny Wilson" is up there with "Raintown" as one of the year's best debuts) throws up one of the most bizarre series of rock connections for quite some time - a conspiracy theorist's dream, in fact. Quite apart from the ffact that on two of the last three occasions when I've reviewed the singles there have been singles by both bands up for mention, there's the question of names and songs.Deacon Blue are named after a Steely Dan song while Danny Wilson sound remarkably like Steely Dan. Danny Wilson's original name was Spencer Tracy and Deacon Blue have a song called "Spencer Tracy". Danny Wilson come from Dundee where Ricky Ross spent most of his life Is there something in the water up there? "Yeah, there are a lot of strange connections there. The best comment I've heard nn the connection was from a guy who used to work for my puolisher. He'd been listening to both albums and when I met him for lunch one day he said that it was interesting comparing them because Danny Wilson's is a Catholic album - ,it's like spires and thiigs added on. smells and bells. embellishments and the imagery as well - whereas 'Raintown' is a Protestant album I was brought up a Protestant and he pointed out that the songs were simpler - they were about the work ethic, there were a lot of elemental references and so on. I'd never thought about it in that context at all but it was very accurate" .
While Rock 'n' Roll has always been a non-sectarian area, does it not seem strange that people who'll stand side by side at a gig might well go for each other in different circumstances.? "That's really a Glasgow thing and a lot of it is to do with football - though obviously it goes a bit deeper than that I'm not really used to it because I wasn't brought up in Glasgow - I was brought up in Duridee and there's no religious divide at all I know a lot of Catholics who support Dundee. who are ostensibly the Protestant side. Dundee United were originally Dundee Hibs but myself and my dad used to go to whichever was at home each week It's really just a Glasgow thing "
One of' "Raintown's" great strengths is that even though there are virtually no geographical references, there's an unmistakable sense of place inherent in the songs. Without Ross having to spell it out the lyrical imagery conveys a picture of a city whose people's innate sense of pride and instinct for survival will always see them through. It might be Dublin but the city is unmistakably Glasgow. In that sense, "Raintown" is quite a political album . . . "I think all songs are political," he says. "Any song has a stance, any song must have an attitude behind it Most of the songs on the album are love songs, that's the format we work in, but within that there's a very important attitude behind it, as to how the characters are treated, how their attitudes come across and how other characters are viewed - do you look down on them or treat them with respect or whatever? They're political with a small 'p', that's really important "My impression of Britain at the moment is that it's very centred around the media. The BBC and the main newspapers have got a fantastic ability to marginalise things It's not just with news broadcasts either. Take Radio 1 for example, 'This is a new band so we'll marginalise them to evening play', or 'This is a bit Leftie so we'll give it to John Peel' and everything is put into little boxes. People look at Billy Bragg and think 'Oh Leftie' yet tend to forget that he writes some great love songs, I would much rather be political in that context because I feel you've much more chance of affecting people if you hit them in the heart rather than over the head."
Has he ever felltthe urge to deal with a wider political context? "No, not really I am very interested in what's going on in places like Nicaragua but I find songs a bit dead if I start from that point of view. For me a song is brilliant in a context. A great example is 'Ghostown' by The Specials. It was very atmospheric and happened.to cpme out at the same time as the riots in '81 so you've got a brilliant marriage. Songs are going to be played in different circumstances. A song can end up on a Walkman, on a cruise liner or in a squat so ideally it's got to be big enough to do that. "Also I think it's dead important that songs can be sung by practically anybody. Tom Waits for example and even Danny Wilson - you can sing 'Mary's Prayer' in the bath and people will sing 'Ruby's Golden Wedding 'when they're pissed next new year because that's where the song comes from in the first place. That type of songwriting is great."
Throughout our conversation it becomes quite obvious that apart from anything else Ricky Ross is very much a fan. Conversational asides find an array of names cropping up, Lowell George, Randy Newman, Mike Scott, Prefab Sprout, Elvis Costello but most of all Dylan and Springsteen. "I grew up with them as great influences and they usually just come to mind. Those Springsteen albums, 'The Wild, The Innocent', 'Darkness' and 'Born To Run' are growing-up albums for me and the Dylan stuff from the 60s as well. l've always been keen on Dylan. I'd always wanted to sign for CBS because of those two, even though there was no logic behind it, and it was just chance that we did eventually sign with them." Ricky has also been quoted (or misquoted) as saying that he didn't trust anyone who hadn't got a good record collection . . . "I suppose I'm a bit worried if people don't buy records," he admits. "I think it is important for musicians to listen to what's going on. Yeah, I probably do believe it actually'" (laughs).
In many ways Glasgow is quite similar to Dublin. Quite apart from urban decay and a related serious drug problem, the musical community is fairly tight if not exactly close-knit. Is there the same bitchiness which prevails in Dublin? "Oh yeah, but we were well outside it when we started. Now it's almost irrelevant because the Glasgow scene is big enough to sustain pretty divergent bands. There's always a slight snobbery about bands who've got record deals together but sooner or later they get dropped and everybody looks down their noses at them again!" he laughs. "lf you get caught up in that whole sort of thing then it's pretty sad and I think a lot of people did for a while. When you're chasing, you look at other bands and you start saying 'They're off to America', 'They're doing a video' or 'They're off to London every week' - but once you get inside the business you realise that they're just peripheral things and you have to question why you came into the business in the first place, and I did it because I want to make good records - it's as simple as that. You don't look at other people and wonder how they did it, you just get on with it and do it yourself." Getting on with it is something Deacon Blue appear to have no problem doing. The quality of their songwriting has been proven on "Raintown" and their live performance takes the songs further than the album ever hinted at. In a time when fast-return, battery-hen bimbos fronting Stock/Aitken/Waterman soundtracks form the bulk of the charts I, for one, am glad that there are people like Deacon Blue around. This band won't let you down. George Byrne