Tangled Up In Blue
Hot Press 18th May 1989
Glasgow on the morning of the release of Deacon Blue's second album, "When The World Knows Your Name", is bathed in sunshine boasting a skyline view of the drive from the airport that is in sharp contrast to the image entrenched on the cover of the band's debut album "Raintown". Bright and sharp, the morning reflects the initial impressions of the new record, the bustle of the first rush-hour of the day reflecting the urgency of the opening tracks, "Queen Of The New Year'', "Wages Day" and "Real Gone Kid".
A mere wrong turn from the main streets however and the all-too-familiar sight of demolished buildings and men of beaten demeanour waiting outside pubs with anxious looks on their faces is revealed.The approach, as "This Changing Light" begins on my Walkman, of a yellow double-decker badly in need of a wash and bearing the ominous destination 'Easterhouse' serves as a timely reminder that Deacon Blue's newly-acquired sheen hasn't dampened the harsh realities of life and love which made "Raintown" such an alluring proposition... People who bought "Raintown" (and over 350,000 in the U.K. have already done so, keeping it in the Top 75 for over a year and a half) are likely to be surprised by "When The World Knows Your Name". Produced by Wame Livesy, it exudes a metallic reserve completely at odds with the warm, user- friendly ambience of its predecessor. indeed, it requires a serious effort from even the most avid fan before the innate humanity and melodic skill of the tracks becomes apparent. But the new approach, as Ricky Ross explains, was completely intentional. "Basically, we wanted to challenge what we'd done very strongly. With the new record we were aiming to make more of a Deacon Blue record, which reflected the fact that we've been together as a group for almost three years, which was more representative of us live, and which brought out the individual contributions to the overall sound.
The producer on 'Raintown' , Jon Kelly, wasn't really into taking lots of time working on individual sounds but was more interested in keeping the vibe going and bringing out something in the band that was almost spiritual. And that worked, it was the ideal thing to do for a first record. The success of the new one is that, although it's taken longer to put together in the studio, it sounds more like the band live...that old chestnut!" he laughs. Ricky is adamant that the band made the right decision. ''We could quite easily have gone back into the same studio with Jon producing and got the same vibe going," he says, "but it would effectively have put us back two years. My friends have pointed out that with this new album there's no 'Dignity' , 'Chocolate Girl' or 'Spencer Tracy' , which were the three landmark songs on the first one and that's quite deliberate. We wanted to show that we could move forward. You can't stand still, you can't get caught up in your own trousers and do a Blue Nile where you spend ages so self-obsessed that you get nothing done. I mean, they've spent five years working on their second album !"
One pertinent credit on "When The World Knows Your Name" notes that the album was mixed by Bob Clearmountain, virtually a cast-iron guarantee that Deacon Blue should find themselves on the American airwaves. Equally, it's a foregone conclusion that Ricky will find himself on the receiving end of accusations that Deacon Blue have aimed themselves unashamedly at the US market. "Good," he laughs. "it's almost as if when you do anything that's vaguely within the mainstream, make the kind of record that's inevitably going to end up in the HMV Top 60 rack for a few months, be it a hard rock record, a dance record or a folk record, you get that thrown at you: 'Aha, you're going for the American market!' And the fact of the matter is you are! (laughs). And you're going for Europe, Australia and everywhere else. " When you make any record you want it to have a broad appeal, but without compromising the unique things that you do. You don't deliberately water it down. People generally set out to make good records. Also, if you're like Deacon Blue and you're on a swing, suddenly what the record company people are thinking are singles...and we woke up to the fact that we had songs that were singles, We've got seven, or maybe even eight, on this album and we're probably going to release six just so it keeps the record on the radio. We want to sell lots and lots of records and I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting that."
Though ostensibly comfortable with music realities Ricky Ross still scorns ill-at-ease with certain aspects of his position. "I don't like the term 'pop musician' very much, to be honest with you, " he says. "It can be just thrown at you and it covers a multitude of sins "As a songwriter and musician I would much prefer the album just to be around a long time, like 'Raintown' , and for people to grow with it. I don't think you can listen to any album for the first time and just go 'Yeah, that's brilliant' and I think this record especiallly is very dense and it's taken me a long time to get used to it."
If the musical density of "When The World..." couldn't be further from the practically languid structures of the debut's "Loaded", "Love's Great Fears" and "When Will You Make My Telephone Ring", then a seeming balance is provided by the album's several references to light Ricky laughs resignedly at the suggestion, indicating that it's not the first time it's been mentioned to him. "It's always a thing that you do when you write a bunch of songs in one particular phase, you find a recurring image or recurring theme afterwards. Suddenly I realised that, without knowing it there'd been all these different lights cropping up in the songs. There was 'Changing Light' , 'Silhouette' , 'Circus Lights' , there's a reference to a flashing neon light in 'Wages Day' ...it just seemed to be the image that was there, where it was water the last time! " And the light connections don't end with the lyrics. "We had the picture for the cover, which was reflected street lights on the band I think it's a great photo, and it was taken in the same street as the cover of 'Raintown' but instead of facing out towards Glasgow it's back in towards the faces. It's a more personal record, more introspective, and the cover for me is quite symbolic of the record You've travelled out, you've done all these things but you end up looking much more back into the place again, back into the people, back into relationships"
Depite being from Dundee, Ricky Ross describes his adopted home of Glasgow as "an incredible city to live in'' and drew most of the inspiration for "Raintown" from the place which, for whatever sins it may have committed, has been named European City Of Culture for 1990. "It's just more propaganda" he observes, "you'll have all these plays and stuff coming and that's all well and good but on the other hand you've got more and more people who are just going under. It really is becoming a tale of two cities. There are people living in these huge estates on the outskirts who hardly ever come into the centre at all, they simply can't afford to, and the gap is definitely getting wider. " In the context one would imagine that there might be a certain amount of local resentment towards the success of Deacon Blue but that doesn't appear to be the case. "The Glasgow reaction's been amazing, " says Ricky with a mixture of pride and relief. "Though it also goes without saying that there are many people in town who couldn't care less about us one way or the other. I mean, Deacon Blue were never the coolest band in town. Love And Money were the coolest a few years ago but they're not now, I don't know who is...I must find out immediately ! (laughs) Lloyd Cole And The Commotions had a funny relationship with the city as well because they were based here but never really worked long enough to establish themselves. We were always struggling, on the outside as it were. Even in terms of trying to get a record deal, CBS were the only record company that wanted to sign us, no matter what people tell you. Phonogram actually said that they wouldn't sign the band for 50p!"
Musically, Deacon Blue appear to take an almost perverse pleasure in being
out of step with the mood of the moment. With "Raintown" they concocted a
collection of lasting songs which nevertheless had accusations of 'Prefab
Sprout soundalikes' assailing their cars like the gentle exhortations at
a Celtic-Rangers match. Now, with a more restrained approach proving popular
in the past twelve months they go and crank up the guitars and drums and,
to all intents and purposes, rock out. "I've always liked these basic, rootsy
kind of instruments so for me it's great, " Ricky comments. "It's funny,
but if you do something with synthesisers and top of the range technology
it can date quite easily. If you listen to a Peter Gabriel record, for example,
you can practically guess the period by the sounds that were in common useage
at the time. You can't help but be caught up in what's happening at any time
and I reckon that the last two John Cougar Mellencamp albums have had a serious
effect on the return to a more roots-based music. " As a tray of coffee and
biscuits arrives there follows a brief but stimulating aside on the rise
to prominence of quite diverse yet critically bracketed female singers such
as Mary Margaret O'Hara, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Tanita Tikaram
and Toni Childs. I offer the suggestion that when such handy categorisation
occurs it can often lead to some artists being able to get away with murder
simply due to their being in the right place at the right time.
Ricky takes up the running. "Take Tanita Tikaram, here's somebody with a fiddle player in the band and a few sub-Leonard Cohen lines that mean absolutely nothing when they're strung together, at least I can't make any sense of them whatsoever, and we're supposed to go 'Aha, this is a great statement on behalf of womanhood'. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot more interesting women artists around. In cases like that I feel that the record industry has just moved too fast. "To be honest, one of my most shocking experiences was watching, from a distance, Tracy Chapman at that RDS gig last summer. I just thought that she made absolutely no effort to get beyond the front two rows. I went backstage and there was a limo running for the whole performance. I find this kind of thing most upsetting, that someone like Tracy Chapman who has swept the board in terms of critical acclaim and 'right-on- ness', comes to Ireland, doesn't talk to anyone, not even any other artist, kept her limo running for her set, came off the stage and away she went. It's a really horrible attitude and the fact that she's black and a woman somehow makes her immune from criticism for that sort of thing. I couldn't care less, she was still pissing on people! "
Lack of respect for their audiences is one thing Deacon Blue could never be accused of. In thrall to the very notion of performance, their two Irish gigs to date, at Hawkins early last year and a comprehensive show-stealer with Hothouse Flowers at the RDS last summer, have been memorable on several levels, not least for Ricky Ross' knack of involving the audience without ever seeming to patronise them. He can take a fairly simple song like "Chocolate Girl'' and stretch it out to include all manner of, admittedly, Springsteenesque storytelling and still know when to time the punchline to perfection. With Deacon Blue you get the impression that the phrase 'the road goes on forever' is regarded as a promise rather than a threat. "One of the things we've always tried to do as regards the shows is to do things from a fan's point of view. I'm 31 years old, I know what it's like to be a fan, I know what it's like to have queued up for tickets, I know what it's like to be into a band and to want to get more of the music, which is why we put extra tracks on b-sides and do things which show another side to us. We try to do things which I would feel are the right things. I don't mean by playing a huge media game but in the small details, I think they're the things that are important and in the long term they're the things people remember you for. " So, as a fan, what has Ricky Ross been listening to of late? "I buy a lot of records of all types, obscure records, old records and new records by young bands, but over the last year I've come back to two records that I've listened to more than any others and that's 'Tunnel Of Love' and 'The Joshua Tree' . On one you've Bruce Springsteen at 40, who's probably peaked before that in terms of making a band record but who as a songwriter is at the peak of his powers. It's amazing...and very prophetic almost. Bob Clearmountain had just done it when we first worked with him and I asked him what he thought of it, because I just loved it and he said 'Yeah, me too but, I said to Bruce has Julie heard these songs?' - (laughs )
"With 'The Joshua Tree' it's just so consistent from beginning to end. I
was talking'with friends the other night about our new record and they were
finding with successive listens that things were coming out and I thought
back to the U2 record and the first single that was released, 'With Or Without
You' , and I think there's a tendency to dismiss singles at first. whereas
now that's without doubt my favourite track. "in many ways I feel the same
about 'Real Gone Kid','' he muses, " that because it's been out and played
so much people will just dismiss it. You've got to leave it for six months
and then come back. I'm still very proud of that song but I'm sure people
will put the record on and go 'Oh, heard that before, let's get on to something
else'. I'd have to say that one of the most successful songs for me in terms
of writing and the band performing is 'Wages Day' , because it's so simple.
I think getting your music down to such simple elements is really important
but because of the commercial thing, because it's a single, people can disregard
For me the standout track on the new album is undoubtedly "This Changing Light'', a dense and quite vicious song which contrasts the apathy of many Scottish people today in the face of Thatcher's policies with the spirit which saw Glaswegians join the International Brigade in Spain during that country's civil war. A countdown of the years of Maggie's reign is spat out as a marvellously effective coda and Ricky is quite justifiably proud of the finished piece. ''That song was literally written on the way back from Spain, " he explains eagerly. "The Spanish-Glasgow connection suddenly occured to me as I was trying to find a way of dealing with the last ten years and what's happened to Scottish people. The basic statement in the lyric, for kids who are seventeen or eighteen years old who buy the album, is that I want you to know that this place you're living in is utterly changed, utterly. Our expectations for school-leavers today and the expectations that people had ten years ago are just completely different. If somebody had told me ten years ago that the National Health Service would be run down I literally would have laughed. If they'd told me that water was going to be for sale I would have fallen off the chair! It's sickening!"
As the band's travel schedule expand dramatically Ricky admits that his approach to songwriting has changed considerably but he doesn't appear overly concerned at the disruptiun of his normal working routine. "I used to write songs in an empty room with a piano and a tape recorder," he recalls, "I could spend the day working on a song and then spend a couple of days recording it after that. I haven't had a day like that for ages. And because songoriting is something I just have to do, even aside from commercial consideration, I now find myself humming tunes into walkmans and doing things on the hoof that I wouldn't have done before. I'm starting to play guitar a bit more and I've started carrying an acoustic guitar around with me - the whole writing songs on the back of the bus trip! Very Rock'n'Roll!" How has this geographical broadening of the horizons affected him in other ways? "I'm constantly amazed at the strength of friendship, " he reflects. "people who are really good friends now have been friends for a long, long time and I'm glad that I've managed to keep that. It's been as much an effort on their part as it has been on mine. For a while, when you first start doing things and you'd go to people's houses and there was a tendency for them to go 'Oh, that's alright for you, you're off doing this and that' but you've got to get beyond that level. You can't be bothered apologising for what you do all the time, so with really good friends they know that if we're off doing a TV show that you're up first thing in the morning, hanging around all day... they realise it's just a job. "
With a record that's both as lyrical and popular as "Raintown" there must have been a large proportion of Deacon Blue's audience who view the songs as documentation of Ricky's personal traumas, in particular "Love's Great Fears", "When Will You Make My Telephone Ring" and "Raintown" itself. It's an occupational hazard he's determined to deflect as best he can. "I think people should always realise that life is bigger than records and you can only take them so far, " he says. "About the most pretentious thing I ever heard was George Michael saying 'this record sums up the last two years of my life'. If I thought I could sum up the last two years of my life in a record I'd be appalled! His life must have been tediously boring! Records can form soundtracks for people, which is a different thing entirely. For me, 'Tunnel Of Love' became the soundtrack for a certain period of my life, to some extent a difficult time but also getting a good start again and I always associate with that. It seemed to have a lot of echoes of things that were happening to me. 'Raintown' is a record of people mismatching and falling out of love, there's a lot of disenchantment, dissatisfaction and struggle there, and disappointment.
"This new record to me, if I was trying to get a handle on it, I think there's a fierce falling-in-love on it, but people still aren't fully reconciled. In a song like 'Silhouette' it's like a successor to 'Cholcolate Girl' except the two characters are much closer together. The guy is still a bit of a bastard but they're getting there. On 'The World Is Lit By Lightning' they're determined to fall in love, while 'Your Constant Heart' is the final resolution! It's an unashamed love song. "And those songs reflect what was happening to me. In between 'Raintown' and the new album my marriage split up, but people don't need to know that, I'm not saying that it's important that they're aware of that. You've got to try and write songs from a wider perspective because people in Papua New Guinea or wherever won't necessarily be aware of what's been happening to you and you've still got to make the songs work for them. " So, with chart-topping albums and singles under their belt, sell-out tours a certainty and a steady future on Top Of The Pops practically assured, what are Deacon Blue's remaining ambitions? "I've found that most of the things that have been these funny little ambitions that you've had - to do a certain show or play a certain venue - these wee pride-based ambitions, are very quickly burnt up, " he says. "You do them and immediately go 'Oh, that was good' and it's not the same thing as the overall pride you have in what you do. I'm proud of the albums and I'm very proud of our live shows, they're the two things that I really care about. " George Byrne