The Pilgrims Progress Q Magazine June 1989
Raised on solid rock values like hard work and the importance of belief,Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue has steered his band to the heady heights of pop stardom."I'm an interminable believer," he says.But it's been uphill all the way....
How," Ricky Ross hisses with theatrical passion, "does it feel?" Before any of the band personnel who dot the hangar-like basketball arena can come up with an answer, the band kicks in with a version of Like A Rolling Stone that cannot be described as understated. This is very Ricky Ross .Though only a tour rehearsal, Ricky rocks, writhes and sings his lungs out with a conviction that most bands save for the big day,
and tackling a "classic" so full-bloodedly bespeaks Deacon Blue's belief in rock's great tradition and their place within it. Bruce Spring- seen's Tunnel al Love-athon is the greatest show Ricky Ross has ever seen, and he will be undertake- ing his own tour likewise without a support act but playing a host of covers - including tunes first sung by the Stones, Bruce Springsteen, lggy Pop, Little Feat, Southside Johnny, Sam & Dave, Dionne Warwick and, of course, Bob Dylan - to complement his original songs. To stretch the analogy still further, Ricky is separated from his wife (Zara) and his vocal foil, Lorraine McIntosh, is also his girlfriend. In 1989 this 31-year-old former youth club leader and schoolteacher born into Dundee's Christian Brethren looks set to become the kind of rock hero people believe.
"When I grew up the community was strongly associated with the Christian Brethren church," says Ricky Ross, off stage a thoughtful, sincere but unmessianic fellow. "You knew other families, like in a village atmosphere, though they were gathered from a wide geographical area around Dundee. You'd spend a lot of time at church, going three or four times on Sunday. There's a very typical class group who tend to end up in the Brethren: the clichE used to be that it was self-employed men and their wives, and that would be largely true.
My father is one such person - home-owning, car-owning, insurance policies lower-middle-class. Unlike Lorraine's dad and the parents of other members of the group who were really into what they were doing, with my parents it was always a struggle,they would never say, Here's a few quid, go and buy a keyboard. To them, pop was the worst option,the most important thing was safety in your job. "The Christian Brethren come out of 19th century philanthropy, children's homes and all that," he continues. "To understand it you have to imagine Southern Baptist sensibilities in America: no smoking, no drinking, no football on Sundays. That's obviously skimming the surface, it's not just a series of don'ts. But as a teenager growing up with it, you have two choices: you go along with it or you rebel.
I stayed with it a long while, I think because I believe very strongly," he laughs; "l'm an interminable believer!" Vivid early memories include sudden exposure to his older sister's records in '68/'69. "About the first record that came into the house alter Beatles singles was Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. It blew my mind ! I had no other reference points. Then I remember when Abbey Road came out, I still love that record and bought it [he other day on CD. From listening to that is where my expectations of making a record come from, [he ideal album should flow and have a cohesion My sister was into James Taylor, Carole King, Simon & Garfunkel, and I liked the idea of singer-songwriters; it stuck in my head that they were more important than , say, Tom Jones because they wrote songs.
These are my two big influences: the desire to do an Electric Ladyland - to rock out - and the desire to hold the song as of paramount importance '' Ricky didn't leave his home town until he was 24 - "Looking back I was very immature, amazingly naive " After teacher training college in Dundee, he had helped set up a youth club financed by a local church for tearaway kids. Meanwhile he was writing songs, so when a friend asked him to play in the band he was forming in Glasgow, Ricky realised that this was the change of scene he needed. Supporting himself as a teacher of English and then of kids with behavioral difficulties in the Maryhill district, Ricky found himself the keyboardist or Woza (as in the anti-apartheid play Woza Albert), which set about the Glasgow music scene in the early '80s New Pop vein. ''All the time it was slightly eating away that I wasn't in charge, and that we weren't really getting anywhere, even though we were playing what we thought record companies would like," Ricky recalls. "I remember one night supporting Friends Again who were doing exactly what I wanted to do, playing Van Morrison-y songs, slightly country, slightly American, when everyone else was concerned with being post-punk and having an attitude.
One of Woza's final gigs was supporting The Waterboys on their first gig in Britain in this wee bar in Wishaw. Here was someone who's playing with the same energy, the same passion as Bob Dylan; it was like, punk's over after people had been trying to live in that image for years. " woza split, Ricky going it alone with the notion of becoming a publishing house Songwriter, to which end he made an 11-track demo tape, meeting with some success. But his publishing deal was contingent upon Ricky performing with a band. Thus in 1984 he put together an ad hoc showcase group, which over the next two years changed around, coalescing as Deacon Blue. The line-up today is Ricky's old bassist from Woza, Ewan Vernal, and Lorraine (both recruited from local band Big Sur), drummer Dougie Vipond la classically trained musician who'd gigged with Glasgow's The Big Dish and The Painted Word), keyboardist Jim Prime (who had sessioned with John Marlyn and Altered Images), and guitarist Graeme Kelling, who hit it off with Ricky not least because he coincidentally shared a Christian Brethren upbringing.
The name came next - from Steely Dan's song Deacon Blues, right? " l've made up a load of bullshit about this, " Ricky admits. "The song Deacon Blues is very aspirational - the guy wants to play sax and be James -Dean, exactly the same feelings as when you form a band ... It wasnae like that at all! I was going down Tottenham Court Road in London and looked over at The Dominion and was very aware that Van The Man used to play there, and all of a sudden the name Deacon Blue came into my head - I don't know why. But it had a ring to it and I thought, I can live with that - even though it was from a Steely Dan song. They're not a big influence. "
Gordon Charlton of CBS's A&R Department, meanwhile, had been interested in The Painted Word, and that band's manager, Jill Maxwell, recommended he check out another Glasgow band as well, Deacon Blue. He was so knocked out by their demo tape, particularly the song Dignity, that he persuaded his boss, Mull Winwood (brother of Steve), to check them out in Glasgow. The dotted line was thus produced - ''And the tact of the matter is, " smiles Ricky, ''nobody else wanted to sign us. " Deacon Blue quickly cut their first LP, Raintown, and the single Dignity was released as a chart- oriented trail-blazer for the album. It stilled. Undaunted, CBS released the LP anyway in May'87 "We wanted to market them rather than just single after single, " says Gordon Charlton; "we wanted to build the act's career "
To promote the album, CBS took the unusual step of offering it [or sale with your money back it dissatisfied (in America the so-called No Risk Disc policy is commonplace). With fewer than one in 20 purchasers exercising their right of return Raintown's sales rose to about 10,000.
Underwritten by CBS to the tune of 75,000 (a standard sum), Deacon Blue proceeded to spend all but a few summer weeks of 1987 covering every inch of stage in Britain. "The way we approached shows then was almost cathartic," Ricky recalls. "We learned our trade on those shows; we used to play student bars where they'd stand 25 feet away and your job wasn't to sing but to get them down the front. Some nights were really good. Eventually it came to a very scary stop: I collapsed. We'd been on the road too long, and a lot of other, quite personal things had gone on - I was going through a very difficult period of separation. One night in November'87 in Norwich, I looked round and suddenly felt physically unwell and very vulnerable. I couldn't go back on. So we took a couple of weeks off- and then did some more gigs!" At last the breakthrough came. Deacon Blue re-recorded Dignity with Bob Clearmountain
(whose previous clients include the Stones, Bryan Ferry, Simple Minds and Robbie Robertson) and radio play helped push it to 31 The album band- wagon accelerated, given a further push when CBS packaged it with a 20,000 limited-edition compilation of B-sides called Riches Raintown hasn't been out of the Top 50 since, racking up sales of 350,000 by the time its successor, When The World Knows Your Name, was released this April. The new album immediately supplanted Madonna at Number 1, shifting 300,000 copies in a fortnight and in Scotland outselling its nearest rival eight to one.
So. Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh -.. Britain's latest rock'n' roll couple? "Bleurgh-ahaagh!" scoffs Ricky almost untranscribably. "I hope not. I always found it frustrating that people tend to see songs within these narrow confines. Someone said to me recently that the reason our photographs are smudged on our record sleeve is because we're trying to distance ourselves as people. In a way it is. Being a pop figure gets in the way of the song. I want people to accept the songs as their own and not as the working out of my back pages. My songs, I hope, always leave a door open for someone to come in. If you close that door and give them something with no imagination or irony required, no other avenues you can bring to it, then you may as well watch a TV show or a film which will continue running whether you're there or not. The live show is the same thing; it's communal, a contract between us and the audience " Mat Snow