Deacon Blue : Back To The Old School?
CD Review July 1989
Deacon Blue has, in two short years' gone from critical acclaim and a string of flop singles to a second album which entered the charts on its week of release at No.3 Dave Judgement asks Ricky Ross what turned them around.
Would you buy a used syllabus from these people? Maybe not, but their mainman, "Honest" Ricky Ross, was indeed an English teacher when he moved from the town of Dundee to the throbbing metropolis of Glasgow in 1985. "I went primarily to take up another teaching job," recalls the 30 year-old singer, "but it was also in my mind that Glasgow has a thriving music scene, somewhere I could get a band together. " The band he got together was called Deacon Blue and, after a shaky start creatively (they had intended to be a country band) and commercially (their early singles sold very poorly), they're now established as prime movers in the adult rock album stakes. In fact, even before Deacon Blue went Top Ten with the single Real Gone Kid last October, their debut album Raintown was selling slowly but steadily, amassing a staggering 350,000 sales without scoring the usual three hit singles which the industry believes almost essential before an album can chalk up decent figures. Ross started the group with drummer Dougie Vipond, slightly adapting the title of a Steely Dan song, Deacon Blues, to give themselves a name. "I identified with the character in that song," recalls Ricky. "He's a hungry sort of guy, restless. He wants to lose himself in this rock'n'roll mythology, drink a lot, play the saxophone and die behind the wheel of his car. He wants success, and so do we".
Their impressive single and album chart statistics suggest they they've already found success, and Ross thinks he knows why. "Word of mouth". We played a lot of gigs and people told their friends. Those friends came to the next gig and more bought the album and so on. As a result of all that, the radio picked up on Real Gone Kid and then the biggest factor has to appearing on Top Of The Pops in front of ten million people. You can't underestimate that." Essentially, he's describing the traditional rock route to the top - gigs and word of mouth - which broke Deacon Blue when the undeniably powerful marketing expertise of a major international record company, CBS, was finding it an uphill struggle to manufacture the significant daytime airplay that could be turned into chart success.
Having taken their name from one Steely Dan song, it sometimes seems as if they're consciously reiecting the lyric of another. In My Old School, the Dan's Becker & Fagen sing of "never going back to my old school", but Ross seems determined to cast Deacon Blue firmly in the old school of traditional rock, despite having certain reservations about the sytle. "Rock has become a dirty word in the last few years," he condsiders, "probably because a lot of its attributes are mundane and reactionary, and many of the lyrics re-affirm redundant ideas about sexuality. "We actually went out to California to do some recording, looking for a poppier, singles feel but, while we were there, we discovered, that's not for us. We're a vibey, live, honest-to-God rock band. It was a good experience because we learned from it, but LA is the kind of place that can suck the life out of you." The new album, When The World Knows Your Name, certainly rocks harder than Raintown. "It's much more how we've always wanted to be," explains Ross. "We're beginning to discover that our instincts about what we want are more often right than the things we're told about how it's done. We should have more faith in ourselves. "Too many bands," he reckons, "have lost the sense of belonging to a tradition, like the folk tradition of handing down songs from'one performer or one generation to the next."
The thousands who have seen Deacon Blue live should find the new album a more direct reflection of that exhilerating experience than Raintown. "That was the trapped Glasgow album, but this new album is inspired by a much wider canvas. It's still about Glasgow, but influenced by the amount of travelling we've done in the last couple of years. Also, we've consciously tried to capture the energy level of our live shows." In this aim they've succeeded admirably but, even so, the songs retain a subtle air of mystery, as if there's more going on than first meets the ear. "I feel no need to spell things out in my songs," says Ross. "Many of the bands that I love, I know nothing about but I identify with something in the songs. Sometimes, if my stuff seems mysterious, it's because I've used the device of speaking with several different characters' voices in one song. "It's a technique we take almost for granted in film or theatre ... like ... Tom Stoppard's play Travesties has several different characters' points of view being expressed at once. Once you begin to realise that, you can make more sense of my songs, but it really doesn't matter. People can take them at face value or look for something deeper if they like. If they can't identify with something in the song, then I've failed."
In the early days of the group, Ross was keen to emulate the likes of Green Gartside (Scritti Politti) or Paddy MacAloon (Prefab Spout), by becoming a studio bound songwriter-cum-intellectual using the band image merely as a front. Nowadays, however, he's more likely to cite heavyweight rock Performers like Bruce Springstein as his songwriting influences. "I like the way Springstein brings his own background into his songs. For years I thought my background was very dull, very strict, but now I realise it had its strengths and I can draw inspiration from it." Another songwriter he admires is folk legend Woody Guthrie, whose "hard realism" he feels is missing from most rock songs. Other names that crop up are Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and, perhaps a little more left-field, American cult-rockers Husker Do, whose song Its Not Funny Anymore, turned up on Deacon Blue's first album.
The words "honesty" and "realism" crop up again and again in Ross's conversation. "I like to put real people in my songs. Real Gone Kid, for example, is actually about Maria MacKee of the Los Angeles band Lone Justice. I saw her live at The Marquee and I was totally blown away." Someone else that blows Ross away is America's charismatic black political and religious leader Jesse Jackson. "I'm fascinated by people like Jackson, or Martin Luther King. When they speak, I'm drawn totally into their world. I get a real excitement, and I think that's crossed over into my music. I like to tell a story in words, to paint a picture with my songs, the way they do when they speak."
Given Ross's early years, it's hardly surprising. The "very dull" background he referred to earlier was in fact as part of a strict and religious family in Dundee. The first music he can recall hearing was hymns. "I wasn't allowed to go out and play football on Sundays, but my mother used to sing hymns around the house, things like Deep And Wide. We'd go to the gospel hall in Dundee and hear the preachers and all sorts of things flow from that." Things like religious faith? "You mean God?" he asks. "Yes, I think I'm religious, but it's something I need to understand in good human terms. Christ-like images appeal to me more than this spiritual concept of an eternal God." It has taken only four years for Britain to fall for Deacon Blue, but later this year they're off on a major tour of the land whose music has been Ricky Ross's greatest inspiration, the USA. Success in Britain is a fine thing to achieve, but success in America is the ultimate goal of any traditional rock outfit. My bet is that America will be even more receptive to their talents than we were.