Cut 1st April 1989
For Ricky Ross the price of fame was a tabloid exposé of his marital problems. Undeterred, he's now steering Deacon Blue towards stadium-sized success. Interview by Alan Jackson
“I WANT us to be in the role of being one of the best rock n roll groups in the world,” says Ricky Ross with a softness of voice that all but undermines the nature of this statement of intent. Were you only to know Deacon Blue from the expensively dressed, highly melodic songs of their debut album Raintown, you might justifiably balk at the preposterous nature of such a claim. When you hear the band’s second album, the provocatively-titled When The World Knows Your Name, you might take him more seriously. Ross is a man who knows where he’s going. Sitting at a quiet table in the restaurant of Glasgow’s Holiday Inn, beret on head and fork in hand, he speaks of his desire for Deacon Blue’s live appearances to invoke that sense of occasion most frequently associated with Springsteen or U2.
That they are currently Scotland’s hottest concert ticket, said Bono excepted, gives his ambitions firm basis in fact. That their singles, once painful to watch in their slow progress towards the 40, now chart instantly, and that the new album is almost self- consciously aggressive in tone, elevates Ross’s pipe dream to the realms of distinct possibility. He believes that the continued presence of Raintown in the charts, after having sold over 350,000 copies in the UK alone, could have made it an albatross around the band’s collective neck. Fortunately, at the time they began recording its follow-up, it hadn’t yet become this semi-official soundtrack to Glasgow life, so the band was freed from the potential of second-guessing its appeal. Then here was another factor to be considered... “I’m a great U2 fan” he says, laughing nervously at the magnitude of this disclosure. “For years I didn’t like them, but to me The Joshua Tree has immense stature. They made a magnificent whole record about America, standing back from it and on their own terms. I can still play it and find new things in it.”
“I listen to a lot of radio and what I’d consider new, obscure music, yet the year before last it and Tunnel Of Love were my two favourite records. These people are up there because they’ve managed to do something which is universal. For me those records are landmarks I can t really fault them.” So when Deacon Blue entered Cava Studios late last spring to begin work on their second album, the influences of these two stadium favourites were spilling round inside Ricky Ross's head. He was tired of the comparisons to Prefab Sprout and anxious to make a rock record. And When The World Knows Your Name, with its power chords, loose but epic structure, and its singular lack of reliance on pretty tunes and easy hooks, is more than half way to being that. It could be asking a lot to expect fans of Chocolate Girl to climb aboard this mean machine...
“If people want to compare us to Bon Jovi, that’s fine,’ he grins. “Def Leppard? Fine! I love it! No problems here mate! Stadium? We just love it! We don’t mind at all!” And reaching for his beer he starts to laugh. The title is, thank goodness ironic and is lifted from the lyrics of one of the album’s four cornerstones, The World Is Lit By Lightning; Ross names Queen Of The New Year, Fergus Sings The Blues and Orphans, the latter his own unofficial attempt at a Scottish national anthem, as the other three. I knew it would be really funny when the record company got hold of it he says slipping into a London music biz whine ‘Yeah the Deacons have made this great record that’s gonna be a real worldwide sella' They’re going to love it on a totally different level. And it’ll be great fun seeing all the music paper hacks going ‘stadium fuck fuck Simple Minds fuck fuck”. He judges it a very adult, very Scottish record, which retains a lyrical link with its predecessor through its preoccupation with relationships and the different ways in which people struggle to make sense of themselves and each other.
It's sound is influenced by the fact that it is much more of a band record than Raintown, and reflects the unity of purpose that the-group members now feel. “it's a miracle we’re still together in a way, considering that we spend 90 percent of our time under one roof” says Ross. “So the album had to reflect the possibilities of the band as a whole, otherwise I might just as well have gone off and made a record with any number of other people.”
An academic debate on the possibility of it leapfrogging Deacon Blue into the upper echelons of international rock sends a wide grin shooting across his face, but he protests that at 31 he is not in any danger of being fooled by fame, fatal fame. The Ricky Ross of the future will not lounge around in a smoking jacket pouring over computer print-outs of his record sales. An incident backstage at the Brits Awards, where Deacon Blue were nominated for best single (Real Gone Kid) and best new group, hammered home both the foolishness and the allure of it all. Staggered by the hordes of screaming Brosettes outside The Royal Albert Hall as he arrived, then later impressed by Bros’s performance during an otherwise abysmal evening, Ross went up to congratulate label mate Matt Goss. “Apparently Ronnie Wood had come up to him afterwards and said, ‘Yer know, you'll probably get a lot of stick from the other bands for this — I know what it’s like, ‘cos we had it in the Seventies. But don’t worry. it’s great, innit?”
Not so great is the attention which prominence brings. Ricky Ross is not at home with the media, and sees the only useful function of interviews as that of drawing people further into his music. This mistrust was fuelled last year when Glasgow’s Evening Times and The Star ran lurid exposés on his personal life—the break-up of his marriage and his concurrent relationship with band member Lorraine Mcintosh. It seems that no matter how much you gird your loins for the inevitable moment when private becomes public, the shock of having your domestic situation served up as a supper-time debating issue for the nation is one you can never fully prepare for. So what is the first impulse, post publication — to hide beneath the bed sheets indefinitely, or to brazen it out at the first opportunity? “To do a gig, in our case,” he laughs ruefully, explaining that the story broke midway through Deacon Blue’s summer tour schedule. “And I think that, as a band, we played the best shows of the tour after that. It’s happened, and you feel that the way for you to overcome this thing that’s very negative is to get out there and show that you’re a bigger person than whoever’s done it to you.” He admits, though somewhat bitterly, that less constructive impulses present themselves too. “For the first five minutes you want to call them up or go round to their house and throw bricks through their windows or steam-fry their children.” Ross laughs again and shakes his head, saying that it is at this point the victim has to decide whether or not to be changed by the intrusion, putting up defences and modifying his or her personality.
“I felt very strongly that I wanted to remain an open, accessible person, the person I am,” he explains. “And instead I found I was becoming this paranoid, sabre-rattling, mad pop person. If that happens, you’ve lost the battle. They’ve won by making you into this person that you’re not.” Easier said than done, of course, especially when the subtext of the stories could be paraphrased as being ‘Isn’t This Man A Bastard, Readers?’ and so many other people are involved, directly and indirectly, in the situation. “But I would never, ever answer the papers,” counters Ross. “My only answer would be, ‘Look. people have their lives and it’s very, very important if society is to have any balance that they are allowed to make their decisions, right or wrong, within the privacy of those lives and then deal with the consequences. I don’t really bear a grudge against anyone. I would just say that, unless I were an elected member of government and I were purposely abusing my position or misappropriating funds, I really don’t think it is anyone's business except mine and the people who are involved in it.”
A more positive response to Ricky Ross’s increasingly high profile came recently when the radical Scottish theatre company 7:84 approached him to write a 10-minute dramatic sketch (he dismisses the word ‘play’ as a suitable term for his finished work) for their touring production Long Story Short, which showcases the work of a group of Scottish writers. They’d been alerted to his interest in the arts through his public championing of the work of the late photographer Oscar Marzaroli and allusions in interviews to the philosophy behind their founding director John McGrath’s book The Good Night Out — Ross views its central view that political theatre should still work on a basic entertainment level as central to Deacon Blue’s modus operandi. “It fanned my ego to be asked, but I was still scared shitless about doing it,” he says. Entitled Moving, Ross’s piece grew from the bones of a song left over from Raintown titled Far From Where You Wanted To Be. Guaranteed to appeal to Norman ‘On Your Bike’ Tebbit, it is based on a couple he knew who were forced to relocate from Scotland to South Wales when the factory in which they worked was closed down.
As proof of his theatrical inexperience he cites the fact that he set his piece on an overnight bus: “It was really stupid — the poor bastards can’t even move, unless they have a fight or something.” But for Ross there is the satisfaction of knowing that his involvement in the project is likely to draw in a percentage of fans who might not otherwise be receptive to drama. He sees it as the natural way of engaging their interest, just as it was Bob Dylan’s lyrics which drew him into literature as a teenager. “There’s an English teacher here who has taken Raintown up as a project with his class,” he reports with pleasure. “He’s using it as a way of getting them into analysing creative writing.., to lead them into Thomas Hardy’s poetry, basically, which makes it quite an ironic choice.” Why ironic? ‘Cos Hardy had a very bad marriage,” he laughs shortly. “But I met up with the teacher, and he’d done a worksheet bringing out all the themes and it was so telling. Then after he’d got this incredible handle on the first album I had to play him the new one — there was no-one I wanted to play it to more. He had such a strong understanding that it was like handing it over to a shrink. You should talk to him — he’d probably give you a much better interview.”
Next on the Deacon Blue agenda is their appearance at the much publicised anti-poll tax benefit at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on April 1st. Proof that it would be a venture worth mounting came immediately from The Sun, which editorialised in classic knee-jerk fashion about “the bunch of twits” who felt that this was what being a rock star was all about, adding that Elvis Presley, ‘the greatest pop star who ever lived’, had never found it necessary to get on a political soapbox to promote his career. Any irritation within the Deacon Blue camp at having their beliefs rubbished was offset by the ridiculousness of having one of rock’s most spectacular victims held up as a wholesome alternative for youthful consumption. And for Ricky Ross, the comparison highlighted a wider truth. “Contrary to what The Sun says, I believe there’s a political side to everyone, even people who do nothing,” he says. “I’d say we are no more political than Tom Jones or Joan Collins, In fact I’d go as far as to say that she makes far more of a political statement than us through her impassiveness. “If you were cynical, you could say that in this case we will only be saying things that the audience is in broad agreement with anyway. But to some extent that’s good because you are giving voice to feelings that they might otherwise find it hard to find a forum to broadcast. And it gives them an extra sense of community, being at a Deacon Blue gig.”
With the poll tax due to be introduced in Scotland on the day of the Edinburgh show, isn’t the benefit somewhat ineffectual? Ross thinks that is missing the point. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to speak out on issues which you know are lost causes,” he says. ‘There’s a symbolic relevance to it. When people have been campaigning for a long, long time and are ground down, feeling they aren’t going to achieve what they set out to do, then it’s dead right that there should be a celebration in the midst of that. ‘They need to feel that people like ourselves, visible figures in the community, are behind them. That’s why Billy McNeil of Celtic signed the petition against it — you do it for solidarity. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks we’re going to change the Tories’ minds about it, but you should still celebrate the cause, the togetherness, the fact that we have a united front on the issue. You shouldn’t just celebrate achievement.” Ross declares himself disillusioned with politics right across the party spectrum, and says that the band’s one rider to their involvement in the benefit was that they didn’t want to stand on a Labour platform. He feels disappointed by the party’s record in Scotland, and similarly betrayed by the way in which Jimmy Reid and Jim Sillars SNP victor at Govan, have climbed into bed with the tabloid press.
Deacon Blue will support issues but cannot be counted on to take party political stances or start telling its followers how to vote, he says. But at a time when other Scottish pop stars are much more directly associated with individual parties, could such reticence place the band at a commercial disadvantage? ‘You mean should we get in on the act?’ Ross grins. “I think the answer is much simpler. The bands that come out of Scotland are representative of the Scottish people, and it’s a different political climate up here. That the bands that are still active and living up here retain that sort of concern is a reflection on the Scottish nation, rather than any particular thing about the bands, So no, there’s no pressure to compete politically, and even though we do a lot of things anyway I’d feel uncomfortable doing something just to be in on an issue. “In Bruce Springsteen’s words, I don’t think people should spend their summers praying in vain for the saviour to rise from the streets. They shouldn’t look for us to be that. But I do think we can help try and bring people together.” Alan Jackson