Circus Lights Melody Maker, December 16th 1989
This year Deacon Blue have had three top 10 singles and a number one album. Yet singer Ricky Ross still reckons they're the most misunderstood band in Britain. Matt Smith joined them on their recent US tour.
Down in Greenwich Village, in the coffee bars where diners shield their eyes from the glare of the midwinter sun, Deacon Blue's Ricky Ross pulls off his Ray-Bans, twirls a piece of spinach on the end of his fork and ruminates on a year that has brought him every new gold dream imaginable. Beginning with their second LP crashing in at number one, knocking Madonna off the top spot, and culminating in his rediscovering the healing power of love with his co-singer Lorraine Mcintosh.
Deacon Blue's escape from 'Raintown', though long in the planning stage, was swift in it's eventual execution. One minute they were the proverbial support at a half-empty T&C, the next they're adding even more nights at Wembley. Ricky is happy with what the year's brought and he's looking forward to his band's second tug at the heart-strings of America. His voice may be rough and weary, but he's getting as much sleep as it's possible to get in a city that doesn't appreciate the full meaning of the word.
"I think my life has changed a lot over the last year and a half", he reflects between sips of coffee. "Obviously my own personal circumstances have changed considerably."
Ricky fell in love with Lorraine and though the romance has been kept all but secret, one magazine found out and thought nothing of spilling the domestic beans.
"I was really annoyed because they mentioned my ex-wife's name and I thought for her sake that that just wasn't fair cos she doesn't have the chance to speak back. But basically we've preferred to keep our distance on it. I mean you don't put your address on the back of LPs, do you?
"The fact is that I was separated and in the course of that time I found love again. These are two very big things. That feeling of optimism and joy really obivously had an effect. With the last album I wanted to deal with the joy of it all, but with the struggle still being there as well. I wanted the songs to be fiercely clinging and about keeping things alive.
"In a way they follow on from 'Dignity' - it's like, once the dream has arrived how do you keep it alive. Things don't happen in isolation, and that's what I've been keen to get across in my songs. This whole idea, the mythical dream that rock'n'roll saves you or love saves you, these are great ideas and I relate to a lot of them cos they've brought great things to me, but not in isolation. They're there with all the other things that are pulling and pushing you. As a songwriter, I've always wanted to deal with that reality as well as the hope."
The reality of small town life as painted by Ricky in songs like 'This Town To Be Blamed' was initially tempered by a kind of hope in the face of adversity. On their second LP 'When The World Knows Your Name', that hope became realised - it was almost as if the singer had realised how badly he'd short-changed the inhabitants of 'Raintown' and set about righting the wrongs he'd done them.
'WTWKYN' set overbearing political concerns in an intensly personal context, yet because of the rock sub-text of the LP, Ricky was unjustly criticised for pandering to the communal clarion call of arm and fist waving. Accused of joining rock's cultered but cossetted elite - the Kerrs, Stings and Orzabals - he naturally shut up and refused to talk to the music press anymore. Now he's sitting opposite me regarding the tape recorder with a suspicious eye and constantly backtracking to avoid any misinterpretation of what he's said. It's a shame cos when the tape's off his imagination runs free.
After the first LP he'd said he wanted to narrow his songwriting down further - from one city to one room. Yet with 'WTWKYN' it blew wide apart, with the band clinging frantically to a world rapidly spinning out of it's usual orbit.
"I think whatever went on in the life of the group and my life after that probably changed so much that it wasn't possible to realistically expect what we were gonna do."
Nevertheless, the LP was willfully misconstrued as selling out on a grand scale.
"Well, I think people did misconstrue the title a little bit, but for me there are songs on it that are just as intimate as the ones on 'Raintown'. Even a song like 'Circus Lights' to me is like that. Even though it's a big song, it's a very intimate song. It's definitely more the kind of record we set out to make. For whatever reason we set out to make a more rock'n'roll record."
'WTWKYN' signalled a loosening up after the strict confines imposed on the band by producer Jon Kelly. Deacon Blue had always been a rock group; it's just they'd never been allowed to be one on record before. People who dismissed it as CBS exerting corporate muscle were way off the mark.
"There's nothing on that record that anyone else made us do," Ricky affirms. "We just wanted to be realistic. We wanted to make a record that was going to be heard in the mainstream - I'm using language that I know you're not going to hang me on, but there's no point faffing around cos that's what we're talking about - being played on the radio."
Pete, the band's manager told me how he'd keep impressed on them how important it was to keep gigging during what would otherwise seem like a long lay-off. It was important that they weren't seen to disappear off the graph only to reappear miles away as something totally different. Danny Wilson alienated a lot of their old fans by reappearing out of the blue in pop group guise.
"Well they didn't alienate me, but I know what you mean. But way before any of our new songs were recorded the crowds at the gigs were singing along to them."
Two days earlier, Deacon Blue played the Bayou Club in Washington. The club's a Mean Fiddler-type affair with a sloping floor which necessitates a 10 foot high stage which consequently means that the band are playing to the feet of the people upstairs. Odd. Washington is a wierd city, even by American standards. Seemingly European in a clinically Germanic way, it has the highest crime rate in America. Most of it is crack-related, though drive by shootings are the second hobby of choice for more upwardly mobile residents.
This year's topic of conversation for every cab driver in town is Global Warming. A report in that morning's Washington Post had foretold that if the temperature rose by just one degree more, Florida would see an invasion of vampire bats from South America. Somewhere in Washington that morning a B-movie director read the Post and by this time next year will be a millionaire.
Meanwhile, the cab pulls up at the Vietnam Memorial and we do our obligatory tourist bit as well as finding an exotic piccie location. The Lincoln Memorial is chosen. Nearby, Vietnam vets lobby the passer-by with statistics and claims of prisoners still held captive by the commies and one poor guy, for whom the war is obviously still raging, tries to buy mementoes with out-of-issue Viet-Cong currency. He's turned away, confused and upset at every stall. He's probably still there now.
Deacon Blue are taking a similar route in America to the one they took in the UK in the early days. Building up a fan base via small club dates. The perils of such a route rather than plying more lucrative and comfortable support tours to established US acts mean that equipment breakdowns frequently bring the soundcheck to a temporary halt giving Lorraine the chance to pick up an acoustic guitar and serenade us from the side of the stage. Moments like this make it all worthwhile.
"We're just doing what we do naturally - the kind of club shows we were doing two years ago," Ricky says as he surveys the spider's web of cables that criss-cross the floor. "It's always strange if you do it suddenly though. We're used to playing on massive stages in the UK, then you get here and it's like - well prove it then! The thing that I have to do is keep myself alive to it. I resent touring so much- except the performing part. I'm really conscious of so many things to do in my life and having to kill a day in a hotel room is not my idea of fun."
She won't thank me for saying this, but the last time Deacon Blue were in Washington, Lorraine got totally arseholed and cabbed it back to the wrong hotel. Finding herself off her head and out of money a good samaritan gave her five dollars to leave the premises - that morning she was intending to return to the hotel and give the woman her money back. Both her and Ricky were hoping to meet up with Jim Wallace, a preacher turned writer who works with the city's homeless.
"An awful lot can be done in America by hiring churches," Ricky explains. "It's amazing. If you want to get something done, the best way of doing it is to hire a church. The most effective witness for what's been happening with the Contras has been the churches. The Baptist churches have been very pro Sandanista."
A strange religious dichotomy exists in the States. While a very real and deep spirituality permeates the heart of the country, charlatans like Jimmy Swaggart are still allowed to exist and indeed thrive. Watching Jimmy's "performance" before that evenings gig was a monumental eye-opener, Swaggart is wretched beyond redemption - so insincere he makes Thatcher look like a Salvation Army hostel worker and such a bad actor he makes Pete Beale look convincing. A letter from a reformed alcoholic was followed by the camera panning back to Swaggart's crocodile tear-stained face. He was so overcome that what could he possibly do but cut to... yep the gift section. For $50 you can have a Jesus ID bracelet, but for only $50 more... and so on. Sitting in his hotel room, Ricky, was so incensed by the insidiousness of the "You know you could send more, you know you should send more" logo that accompanied a call number for credit card donations that he rang up the show.
"I find that kind of thing intolerable. I phoned him up and I put on this dumb hick voice and said to the guy at the end, 'I ain't got much money brother, but I sure gotta lotta time and I wanna offer brother Swaggart some of that time.' The chap on the end of the phone couldn't understand this concept."
Ricky also dedicated a song to Thatcher that night - a cheer went up until they realised he was taking the piss. Lorraine collapsed with laughter.
"It's weird how people take the things you say onstage. We had a letter from someone in Brighton. Basically, he was going on about how he'd enjoyed our show, but then he started going on about how we shouldn't slag off people like the Government when we played in places like Brighton. He was saying you stick to saying those sort of thing where they'll go down well!"
Deacon Blue's hottest potato is the decision to cover Randy Newman's 'Sail Away' - a bitter indictment of American values, racism and strong-arm tactics. It's not likely to do them any favours in the US, but is typical of Ricky's headstrong desire to be on a constant collision course with anything that could be interpreted as careerism. Lorraine who's just arrived from a power shopping expedition (in the early days the band used to call her Miss Selfridge, now the purchases are a little more upmarket) is worried about likely misinterpretation.
"I know the point of it is to show up humans and what they are capable of, but if even one person misunderstands it I think that's dodgy. The guy in front of me the other night had been so into the gig and during that song I thought if he misinterprets this and thinks, 'Oh f*** I was having a really good time here...'"
"But it was also designed to wake up 'Dignity'," says Ricky. "On the last tour we were performing Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' and it struck me that we didn't have anything as bitter and strong as that. I don't think it's our forte to write that kind of song."
Nevertheless, Ricky and the rest of the band still rage against those kind of injustices.
"I do, but I just don't think they are particularly good ways to deal with it, I think love songs are our forte. I'm a guilty kind of person, I know there are questions ahead that are gonna be harder to answer in my head. But I do believe we've worked hard for what we've achieved. I'm not a great believer in the sponsored arts and the government sponsored arts. I like the idea of people taking it into their own hands and doing it themselves, like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel - good job - a good price - on you go mate! And I like that.
"I consider what we do to be a popular culture and there's a fair price for it. I mean, if we wanted to clean up, we'd do a Kylie and release only records. It's the touring, and wanting to be a real band that runs up the debts. But it's important to continue the debate. It's like, coming to this interview I was thinking I don't really have anything to say anymore that can't be dealt with from the stage.
"This is the first interview I've done for a long time because I feel in the context of the gig everything is more focused and important. I tend to ramble on for five minutes before I actually form a thought. I'm really into that spiritual Van Morrison thing - when it happens onstage it makes more sense. You're in the right framework and your mind is more focussed on the job. I believe that's one of the magical things about performance. It's the only magical thing about performance! I say that at the end of a very jaded week."
Deacon Blue gigs became more and more legendary on the last tour, overwhelmed with all the joy and pain, beauty and sadness, they frequently stretched to over three hours. Ricky knew there was a danger of going over the top but once again couldn't see any other way if they were going to be honest to themselves.
"It wasn't really our intention to play for so long, what it was was that people would say now I want to do this one and someone else would want to play something else. A proportion of the material is moody and you can only play it if you've created the right mood. I think we realised that people don't want to be hammered by 10 minute versions of 'Town To Be Blamed'. It's too hard to summon up the demons to do that night after night."
No one believes more deeply in the healing power of music than Deacon Blue. A firm believer that music should make you fall in love, cry and totally lose control of your emotions, Ricky had very nearly dumped the telly out of the window the previous evening after seeing The O'Jays and their respective children murder one of their old songs on a chat show.
"It just amazes me they can take their own songs and their own culture and hammer it to death," he ranted.
"We've done those shows. We did 'Late Night With Letterman' and it was okay. It's strange here cos they've got a real handle on this Bruce thing which I want to kill off pretty quickly. I think it's quite funny cos if they we're one thing we'll do another. All through the life of this group we've been called something we're not. First we were The Waterboys, then Prefab Sprout, now we're Bruce Springsteen. It's great cos the artists they keep comparing us to get bigger and bigger. I wanna know what it's gonna be next. Are they gonna say we're God copyists?
"But if you look at the sheer size of America it's a wonder how any bands succeed. Then you look again and you realise they all did it through constant touring. There is no other way. There's no overnight sensation here - that's the frightening thing. We want to come back in the autumn, the financial rewards make it a priority because then you earn enough money to get onto the next project which you can then finance yourself rather than rely on the record company."
Have you been seduced by America?
"No. We've written about three new songs and all of them are set in Glasgow. I just don't get beyond it, I still find enough there to occupy my characters. It's very funny. I went to see the new Woody Allen film and in it he writes Mia Farrow this brilliant letter. She says she's not worth it and he goes 'It's all right, I plagiarised it from James Joyce! You're probably mystified by the references to Dublin!'
"I think I can take on universal themes from my hometown. I think bands like U2 have been obsessed by America probably cos they spent so long over here. But there are enough people obsessed by America - I'm still into Glasgow."
Indeed, Deacon Blue have just done the music for a screenplay called 'Dreaming'. It's written and directed by William McIlvanney, brother of sports writer Hugh.
"It's a real marriage of minds cos I think McIlvanney's thing is that he produces popular but good novels and we, hopefully, produce popular but good tunes. It's one day in the life of a West of Scotland teenage boy, very bright, very socialist and idealistic. He wants to be a songwriter and he sends us one of his demos. He's a kind of Billy Liar type of character."
All of which doesn't prepare us for what is to happen later that night. The last time Deacon Blue played New York's Bottom Line it was a media knees-up. Rod Stewart was there, obligatory blonde in tow, Bruce's manager John Landau turned up, too, along with his wife and Dave Marsh who wrote 'Born To Run' and 'Glory Days'. After the show they all went back to Landau's gaff. Ricky was totally blown away. This time it's a different kind of excitement that's got him buzzing.
Opening with a low-key 'Your Constant Heart' then crashing into 'Fergus Sings The Blues' past 'Ragman', 'Chocolate Girl' and finally past caring, it's clear from the moment they come on that this is going to be a landmark in their career.
Deacon Blue play with an intensity that's awesome even for them. And they know it. Furtive smiles become massive grins and outright laughter as they realise what they're onto. This show was quite simply the best I've ever seen in my life.
Afterwards, everyone's trying to get backstage to congratulate them, excited New Yorkers, drunk ex-pats, but the only one the gets through is an amazonian beauty claiming to be the Brazillian Ambassador's daughter. "I was first hearing your music in the town of Cheshire," she rasps in pidgin English as Ricky and Lorraine exchange furtive glances, sensing a wind-up.
As the bouncers clear away the chairs and the rest of the band curse the person who booked them onto a 6am flight to Minneapolis that morning Ricky has little time for celebration, but just enough time to think about the way ahead.
"I really want to do a record which is enjoyable to make. Part of the struggle with what we're doing is to be allowed to do what we want to do. We're in a fortunate position because people grew up with 'Raintown' and grew up with a lack of commercial success so I think a return to a less single-based album would be welcomed.
"Anyway," he says turning on his heels with a grin, "I feel like dealing with happy things again!"