Raiders of The Lost Art NME, 25th April 1987
Named after a Steely Dan jazzzz-out and inclined to talk about "honest songwriting", DEACON BLUE set the alarm bells ringing. But, singer RICKY ROSS insists, they're "a rock band" and their songs confront the vivid realities of their Glasgow base. ADRIAN THRILLS - a copy of DB's debut single is pressed close to his heart - is convinced.
"They've got a name for the winners of the world / I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the crimson tide / Call me Deacon Blues"
"Deacon Blues" by Steely Dan
A self-styled ragman in a felt hat is cradling a cup of coffee in the lobby of a West London hotel beloved of itinerant Scottish musicians. Beneath the grey brim, Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue sports de rigeur denim thread over an open-necked shirt. He looks every inch the modern designer popster.
This man. however, does not slip comfortably into any of the recognised 'camps' into which the Sound Of Young Scotland has splintered over the past seven years. Ricky Ross might be the creative focus of a potentially massive new band, but he is also an outsider.
At 29, he is certainly not the youngest vinyl debutant of 1987. As a former school teacher and youth leader who only moved from his native Dundee to Glasgow four years ago, he has also managed to remain healthily apart from the latter city's sometimes suffocating musical cliques. It is not something he particularly regrets.
"There is an incredible pressure on new bands in Glasgow," he explains. "They are expected to be either a funky white soul band or some mutant offspring of The Velvet Underground. The music we play is not what the fashionable cliques in Glasgow are into. But that doesn't really bother me. You just have to stick to your guns. I think people in Glasgow have started to accept us for what we are."
And that is?
"A rock band. It's important that we come clean about that. When I first started writing songs, I was quite influenced by the anti-rock attitudes of people like Scritti Politti. I thought being in a band was one big cliche and I wanted simply to be a songwriter ans work with session musicians and a producer. But if you destroy the band ethic completely, you actually end up destroying a lot of the good things about music."
If these words are spoken without a trace of the macho bravado often associated with boys who front rock groups, the soft Tayside brogue is slightly deceptive. Beneath the calm air of intelligent assurance, there burns in Ricky Ross a passionate belief in Deacon Blue; a belief that the dreaded rock can still be a powerful and worthwhile muscial force.
"Over the past few years, rock has been a dirty word and I can see why. A lot of rock attitudes are mundane and reactionary and a lot of rock lyrics just re-affirm redundant ideas about sexuality. That's why so many people have thrown away their leather jackets to be in soul bands. But there are still a lot of good things in rock music."
In sidestepping both the jingly-jangly folklore of Postcard Records and the designer white-boy funk spawned by the Glaswegian club scene, Deacon Blue have bunked the customary pop homages to Caledonia. Along with compatriots like Danny Wilson and The Bathers - the latter a new band led by former Friends Again vocalist Chris Thompson - they represent a refreshing new mood in Scottish pop.
Shunning both the tyranny of the dance mix and the coy wimpdom of the jangling juveniles, bands like Deacon Blue place an emphasis on lyrical sensitivity and sophisticated musical resonances. The closest English exponents are probably Prefab Sprout and Norwich band The Bible, although the latter lack the grittier hearts and flighty romanticism of this particular celtic fringe. What all the above bands share, however, is a love of classic songwriting.
"What most rock bands have lost is the sense of belonging to any tradition," says Ricky. "I really love the folk tradition of handing down songs from one performer to the next and from one generation to the next. I'd never claim that Deacon Blue were a folk group, because it's obvious that we aren't. But I'd like to be able to write songs as great as some the great folk songs like 'Deportees' by Woody Guthrie. There's a hard realism about these songs that is missing from most rock music."
While most pop remains obsessed with the problems and passions of Teen, revelling in an adolescence that is usually bogus, Deacon Blue act their age. They write songs of substance and worldly-wise maturity. To Ricky Ross, it all comes down to maintaining a level of personal credibility and being honest with himself.
"It's hard to be honest in any situation, but it's particularly difficult in Glasgow. The easiest thing in the Glasgow scene is to be tongue-in-cheek and that annoys me a bit. It seems to be an antidote to failure. If you say you're tongue-in-cheek, you can always pass your mistakes off."
"But I think it's important to strive for honesty in songwriting. When I was younger, I wouldn't have thought that, but now I think it is important to write about things that I actually believe in. If there is an element of bluff in a song, the audience are going to be the first people to pick up on it. You can't expect people to take you seriously unless you are facing up to your own situation."
Ricky Ross is skating on thin ice and he knows it. Rick musicians rarely sound convincing when they utter words like "honesty", simply because they have become debased by over-usage. He is also aware of how many bands have forsaken their nobler principles at the first sniff of success.
"The worst thing that anyone ever said about Deacon Blue was that we were a band you could trust. That sort of thing is just ridiculous! I would never put my trust in a band. I've been let down too many times in the past. Bands should never be trusted."
For a band that was formed as recently as December 1985, initially by Ricky Ross and drummer Dougie Vipond, Deacon Blue have come a long way in a relatively short space of time. With the recruitment, from the fringes of Glasgow's sprawling music scene, of guitarist Graeme Kelling, bassist Ewen Vernal and keyboard player Jim Prime, the band began playing the city's smaller music venues - places like The Fixx and Club Eden - early last year. Original plans to adopt a country format came to nothing and the group stumbled towards rockier terrain more by accident then design.
It was with the addition of backing vocalist Lorraine McIntosh that things began to take shape. A diminutive Betty Boop lookalike with a vivacious singing voice, she was an ideal foil to the more earnest, anguished, world-weary tones adopted by the frontman. If there is a criticism here, it is that Lorraine is still slightly under-used.
The band, by this time, had constructed a sound that was clean without being clinical, its rhythmic sinew glazed by layers of melodic invention. Early comparisons with Springsteen's E-Street Band and The Waterboys were a little wide of the mark, however, Deacon Blue having less bluster than the former and far more soulful swing than the latter's leaden rock thud. What their songs, from the slow-burning ballads to the more epic rock tracks, do possess is an acute sense of drama. Mayve it was this penchant for the big music that first attracted the attention of CBS, who signed the band last September.
Whether or not CBS ultimately groom the band for the bombastic approach they will need to succeed in America or allow them to adopt a more understated style, allowing their often magnificent songs the space to breathe remains to be seen. Ricky Ross seems prepared, for now, to give the record company the benefit of the doubt, leaving the choices of singles and suchlike entirely to them.
"We want them to put out the singles they feel most comfortable about. What's the point in signing to a major record company unless you are going to give them a chance to do their job? That's the way of the world. They are a big record company and they know how to go about the job of getting your record heard by as many people as possible. I don't know anything about selling records. Until I do, I'm not going to go and bang on their table."
Trusting in the wisdom of a multinational may yet prove foolhardy. So far, however, the signs on the artistic front have been positive. Their debut single, 'Dignity', has been weel received, while the proposed follow-up, 'Loaded', features as luscious a pop melody as we are likely to hear all year. But, if the singles are memorable, the real confirmation of Deacon Blue's diverse quality will come in a fortnight's time with the release of their debut LP, 'Raintown'.
Produced by Kate Bush's fader-crusader Jon Kelly, it occasionally veers into quivering melodrama, but largely hits a perfectly balanced note of resonant warmth. Its success must be partly due to the rapidity of the recording. Rather than the extended grooming process that major labels seem determined to put bands through, Deacon Blue were put straight into the studio.
"We even took time out to go and play live when we were recording," says Ricky. "That may be a very old-fashioned idea, but it was one we learned from. You pick up little ad-libs and improvisations that become a part of the songs in the studio. It stops things from becoming too sterile."
While it is not quite the dreaded concept album, 'Raintown' is an ambitious debut for a band just over a year into their career. A series of vivid snapshots of blue-collar life in a British connurbation, it chronicles the inner-city blues with compassion and humanity, its 12 songs all linked by both subject matter and the recurring key images of work and rain. It is this intimate relationship with their urban environment that lies at the heart of Deacon Blue.
"I always seem to have a love-hate relationship with the town I'm living in," continues the singer. "I had it in Dundee and now I've got it in Glasgow. I get really annoyed with my home town when I'm there and then I really miss it when I'm away. I suppose the idea of 'Raintown' is based on Glasgow. For a start, it is always raining there. It's to do with my ambivalence about Glasgow. It can be the best place in the world, but it can sometimes it can also drag you down, stopping you from seeing anything beyond it."
Ricky Ross's earlier experiences in Dundee also have a bearing on the songs on the LP.
"I used to get really hung up about my background when I was young. I used to think it had no romance. Compared to the other kids at school, it always seemed so dull. I was brought up in a very religious family, very strict. I wouldn't even be allowed to go out to play football in Sundays, that sort of thing."
"But I reached a turning point when I realised that my background was actually quite rich and quite unusual. I realised then that everybody's background could be as interesting as they wanted it to be. I decided to think of my own in more colourful terms and that gave me a great inheritance in words, phrases and experiences that I still draw on when I write songs."
"One of the thing I like about Bruce Springsteen is the way that he brings his own background to life on songs like 'Independence Day' and 'The Ties That Bind'. Once you grow up enough to accept and come to terms with it, your background can be a great thing."
Taking their cue from the 'Dignity' single - a moving song about a council worker who saves his money and dreams of buying a boat and escaping from the drudgery of his daily grind - a lot of Deacon Blue songs are concerned with the working life.
"The last proper job I had was teaching in a secondary school in Maryhill in Glasgow. I certainly didn't hate it, but I disliked the way it took up such an inordinate amount of my time. There was always a slight feeling of wanting to get away from it. It was that feeling that got me thinking about the sheer drudgery of those who have to do the really shitty jobs. There must be about 70 per cent of the people working in this country who simply detest their jobs. That must be an awful position to be in."
"So I feel quite ambivalent about the work ethic. It's one thing saying that everyone should have a job, but when that job involves simply trying to fight to escape the drudgery, I begin to wonder if that kind of work is actually all that desirable. But 'Dignity' is not a message song. It's deliberately ambivalent. It's up to people to make their own minds up about it."
The likely follow up, 'Loaded", is a far more bitter affair about the flaunting of wealth and how success and its subsequent rewards can corrupt even the idealists. A warning perhaps for the band themselves?
"I always find it strange when the designer socialists in London start sounding off about the plight of the working classes. I'm not saying that they don't care, but a lot of the they are the ones who have an active investment in the current state of the nation. It just seems hypocritical hearing a lecture from someone who is very much a part of the successful side of Britain. What I'm saying is that is actually different for those who are at the bottom of the pile."
If, however, Deacon Blue do become a successful band - and they would appear to have all the right ingredients for a commercial breakthrough - would Ricky Ross still be able to sing songs from a ragman's viewpoint? Songs about underdogs would hardly ring true coming from a member of rock's rich hierarchy, albeit one who seems unlikely to let himself to be tainted by hypocrisy. Watching Deacon Blue deal with the glittering prizes, should they attain them, could still be the most interesting part of this whole story.
For now, though, Ricky Ross offers his audience the prospect of The Good Night Out.
"For me, a good night out is something that lasts into the last week and beyond. A good night out can be a brilliant feeling when something really gets to you. It can be a record, a gig, an experience or a chance meeting with someone. It's something that can actually change you in some way. Sometimes you can see a band play live and, if it's a good night, you can still get the buzz for it a few days later."
Or as a Scandinavian journalist said to Ricky Ross: "There is a really big bus for you in Norway..."