Singing The (Deacon) Blues
Insight Magazine 1989
Deacon Blue's Ricky Ross sings more about Scotland the further he travels away from his Dundee home. Martin Townsend gets his ear bent.
Ricky Ross is rocking back on a hard wooden chair in a tiny dressing room at Top Of The Pops, looking every inch the Real Gone Kid. He’s trying to discuss the new album by his band, Deacon Blue, as calmly as he can. After all, the band, as he will later remark, don’t enjoy interviews or promotion “or anything much apart from recording and playing”. Only the fidgeting and the flashing brightness in his eyes reveal that his enthusiasm for the 13 new songs on his band’s new LP is churning away beneath his false coolness like a turbine. The album, fittingly enough, is entitled ‘When The World Knows Your Name’ — and the two hits it has already produced, ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Wages Day’, suggest the ‘when’ is not too far away. “The album’s about angels and bright lights and sparkling images,” bubbles Ricky, “so I thought: ‘When The World Knows Your Name’. It’s about having your name up in lights. “I was really chuffed when we came up with the title because I thought the record company would say, ‘Great — we’ll call it the ‘World’ album. I wanted to think of the most wonderful marketing campaign for them so that they’d all come up to me at conferences, slap me on the back and say (he puts on a gruff Cockney accent): ‘Fanks mate!’.”
If this sounds like the sort of ironic dig most newish bands make at their record company’s expense, forget it. Ross swears he's serious. It seems entirely within his nature, and the mood of Deacon Blue as a whole, to give the record company all the help they can. They’ve had an obsessive desire to be heard as widely as possible since Dundee-born Ricky gathered them together at the end of 1985.
In the nine hit-free months that followed their debut LP, ‘Raintown’, the group remained — as Ross puts it — steeled” against disappointment, apportioned no blame on CBS, and knew exactly what was going wrong. ‘What was disappointing, more than the lack of chart success, was the lack of radio support,” he admits. “Not from independents — but from Radio 1 and Capital. It meant that the bulk of the population outside Scotland hadn’t heard of the band. “It was frustrating, but you steel yourself not to be disappointed. It’s like opening your exam results — or watching Dundee United play the Cup Final. You know they’re gonna lose it — five times they’ve been at Hampden and five times they’ve lost — and all the United fans are saying, ‘Well, what are we going to do tonight because we’re definitely going to lose’. But you know that at the back of their minds they’re adding, Then again — what if we should win?’.” In the end, of course, Deacon Blue did win. But that breakthrough top ten hit, ‘Real Gone Kid’, had already taken them into a new phase. It was the first taste of this new album and — after the wordy tunefulness of ‘Chocolate Girl’ and ‘Dignity’ — the first to gather up and unleash the full enthusiasm and power of the group. “Our only regret about the ‘Raintown’ LP was that it didn’t really represent the way we play live. Although it was all recorded live in the studio, all one take stuff, it actually sounded softer than we are. “This time round we wanted people to know that we were R-O-C-K,” he spells out the word in an American accent, “and not ashamed of it. “Realistically, this is more of a Scottish record than ‘Raintown’ was: that’s the truth. The next one’s going to be even more Scottish. I’ve said this before, but I’m worried that, eventually, all our songs are going to be set in one room!”
As with ‘Raintown’, ‘World’ is littered with lyrical references to flags, books, rings, jewellery, letters and photographs, whole piles of things. Ricky Ross seems to write with a magpie’s eye for brightly-coloured junk. “I don’t know why that is,” he laughs. “I’ve often thought of going through the lyrics myself and trying to untangle it all. “But there was definitely a feeling of clearing- out before this album — I really wanted to clear my life out — so maybe it’s to do with that. I separated from my wife two years ago, and I had the same feelings then. I just wanted to throw out lots of stuff and sit in a room on my own. “Also I heard Anthony Burgess being interviewed on Wogan and he was trying to explain why he wasn’t a Jeffrey Archer or a Jackie Collins, and he was saying that what he liked about language is that words can glow. “I don’t consciously try to do it, but the songwriters that I admire a lot — off the top of my head: Mike Scott, Tom Waits, Randy Newman — their images aren’t obvious and there’s a word sometimes that jars, that glows.”
‘When The World Knows Your Name’ might just find Ricky Ross edging into that sort of hallowed company, but ultimately it’s the band’s live concerts that seem to matter most to him. “I don’t think there’s a band that’s as good live as us,” he boasts. “I’m being dead honest here. I know we’re not the best singers and the best songwriters but I know that what we do in the show is the best we could possibly do.” All false modesty finally dissipated, Ricky Ross scrapes his chair back, shakes hands and prepares himself to record his vocal for Top Of The Pops. “I want to sing like Otis,” he laughs. “I want to have Keith Richards on one side and Sam Cooke on backing vocals!”
Ricky Ross on the key tracks on ‘When The World Knows Your Name’...
QUEEN OF THE NEW YEAR “I thought, ‘Whatever we do we must start the album with this one’. It’s got this brash drum intro — it sounds different from anything we’ve ever done before — and I liked the idea that it would wipe the slate clean and let people know we’ve moved forward. “It should really have an explanatory sticker on it. but I had the idea of someone addressing their own heart — and if you think about it like that, it actually makes some sense!”
WAGES DAY “I was out walking in Dundee one Friday. and there was this guy with a cigar. I wondered why the hell was he smoking a cigar as he was obviously uncomfortable with it. But of course it was Friday night so it’s let’s have a cigar, let’s have a good time’. It’s not being patronising. but there’s something quite sad and pathetic about that. Friday night comes and it’s whoosh! All the money’s gone by Saturday. “The song is about how ephemeral that Friday night feeling is, but it also has a similar theme to the one I was trying to get into ‘Dignity’: that there’s all this talk about being employed or unemployed but, sometimes, life can be pretty hopeless anyway.
THIS CHANGING LIGHT “People kept asking me if the new album would be about travel — because the band’s travelled so much in recent years. I almost juxtaposed the two sides of travel: what I call ‘willing’ travel, such as the band does, flying Club Class and staying in good hotels. The downside to that which is people who are moved on, who have people saying to them, ‘I don’t want you here, I want you there’. “But in the end, the only song about travel on the album was this one, and it’s about Scotland!”
SILHOUETTE “Lorraine sings a beautiful part on this. She’s so good that I’ve been trying to kick her out of the band all the time she’s been in it. My attitude is ‘Well maybe you should do your own thing and not waste your time with a bunch of idiots like us’. I always wanted her to sing — not just do the ‘ooh-ahs’ like a backing vocalist — and I think we’ve got that balance about right on the new album.”
ONE HUNDRED THINGS “This was a very important song for me, but I knew it was going to be a difficult one because originally it was written as a letter, line after line — loads of lyrics! ‘We’ve already played it live on tour and for me it can sometimes capture what the whole record’s about — and what I was going through a year or so ago.
ORPHANS “I got on a train at Euston and there was this Scottish football supporter — army or ex-army — and he was a real cartoon Scotsman. He had the tartan bonnet, the scarf, the lion rampant over the back of the seat, and everybody who came on he was shouting, ‘Scottish or English?’, ‘Scottish or English’!. You just couldn’t get past him. Eventually these kids started singing from the back, and he joined in — no one could get any sleep — and he turned round to them and said, ‘Where you from anyway?’. They told him they were from a children’s home in Kilmarnock. He looked at them and he said, ‘D’you mean you’re orphans? Real orphans?’ He was fascinated by that. “And I found that very ironic. After all these thousands of years, with the Scottish nation so confused — are we a nation or are we not? — that this man could wonder at orphans. It just seemed the greatest irony.”