Melody Maker, April 8th 1989
After the success of their debut album, 'Raintown', and a string of hit singles including the recent 'Wages Day', Ricky Ross and his band look set to join the stadium circus with their new album, 'When The World Knows Your Name'. Ian Gittins meets the popular singer who still doesn't want to be a pop star.
Are you in love at the moment?
Ricky Ross laughs, a little skewiff, and looks at me. No answer comes back at first. I'm a little awkward with what I've said. Maybe he is too. So, I decide to offer him an escape path.
You can say "mind your own business" if you like, y'know. And he gives another angled laugh.
"Mind your own business!"
If being a pop star was a job, Ricky Ross would get it. Just look at him. The handsome, craggy features, one strand of hair escaping over his eyes. The soft, easy charm and flashing eyes. The charm and wit. The name. Like Roy Race, he's almost too neat and perfect, too good to be true. Not that he's smarmy, or trying too hard to impress. He's neither of these, really. Can you imagine a Sting without the pretensions? Yeah, that's about it.
So he's hunched behind the wheel of his little car, and we're driving out of Glasgow, into sleet, hail, rain, snow and about seven other sorts of bad weather. The plan is to find a sweet little pub, next to a loch, to talk about Deacon Blue's brand new LP "When The World Knows Your Name", but we soon have to give that one up. And instead, we're sitting in the window of a posh hotel overlooking the sea when suddenly, from nowhere, a giant black metal hulk comes up from the depths and parts the water. There it floats as I point to it in shock. And Ricky Ross gives it a weary glance and sigh.
"Oh aye, that's the Polaris nuclear submarine."
You'd think they were 10-a-penny.
Deacon Blue are on the verge of being massive. That's plain. When they go out, next month on tour to promote their new LP, they'll be playing two nights at Glasgow's huge Scottish Exhibition Centre, and three at Hammersmith Odeon. The world is starting to know their name, and Ricky Ross's face. He already has to wear dark glasses around Glasgow. It's not too much to say that he's on the verge of becoming the next real big Scottish rock star after Jim Kerr. I don't think he'll be doing this kind of rock interview too many more times.
And now Ricky Ross is sitting there telling me that he just doesn't want to be a pop star.
"I was talking to someone about this yesterday, and he said you can always make records which are full of love songs. The one thing I've always wanted to do is be a songwriter. Not necessarily a performer. I could easily be commissioned to just go off and write songs, y'know. The only this is, they'd have to be love songs. If I had to spend the rest of my life sitting in a room doing it, that'd be fine. It wouldn't be a problem. There's so much scope."
You prefer to be anonymous?
"Mmm, I much prefer it. I like the fact that...certain bits are nice, y'know. It's nice when someone comes up and say's they like my music. As a songwriter, you never get that. But compared to the hassles, songwriting is...well you can't make a living from it, basically."
Don't you like to see your face beaming out of a TV set?
I do, cos it means people go out and buy my records. That's nice. And if it wasn't my face, y'know, it'd be somebody elses."
For all the store Ricky sets by songwriting, Deacon Blue's new LP is not a triumph of hooks and catches. There's too many sprawls, too many splurges of emotion, many songs that just sort of go splatt under his sincere vocal. They get carried away without getting carried away, if you get my drift. Maybe you don't. So try this. It's more upful than the grey debut 'Raintown', more positive and excited, yet still makes you think of 'Belfast Child' than 'New Gold Dream'. It's hugely ambitious, admirably, without always hitting it's targets.
Ricky: "Well, I think a lot of people misunderstood 'Raintown'. It wasn't dismal, in that sense. There were a lot of positive aspects. But a lot of things weren't achieved. A lot of characters in 'Raintown', things didn't go right for them. There was so much misunderstanding. Disillusion. Discontentment. Where in here, there's a lot of resolution. To me, it's a fiercely loving kind of record. And maybe some the love comes across as just a joy thing! It would be great if that happened! I'd love people to take that so out of it!"
I can't find it in me to love Deacon Blue. There again, I can't find it to hate them, either. 'When The World Knows Your Name' has it's minor triumphs, neat little songs turned into giant radio-friendly opuses by Bob Clearmountain's big FM productions and Lorraine McIntosh's sweet backing voice. The two things I like best about it are 'Real Gone Kid' and 'Wages Day' because, well, Deacon Blue need to be familiar to have an impact. They're not very instant.
Ricky: "Yeah, that's right. I've never heard a record I've loved straight away."
So like 'Raintown', it's a batch of thoughtful, well-crafted, clever songs which never come near to a brink of abandon. Always control themselves. And well, this seems to be what a lot of people want from their pop in these days, which means Deacon Blue could do hugely well. Songs like 'Love And Regret' are written for stadiums. So stadiums await them! It's a simple process, and one Ricky Ross sees no need to get worked up about. It's just where his job, inexorably, is taking him.
So it's singalong and waving scarves next, Ricky?
"Thats called triumphalism, isn't it? Nobody wants it. I always worry about it. Any gig which has emotional overcharge has the danger of doing that. It's very much up to bands how they deal with it. We've had this thing where fans turn up like 'Hey, we're the boys!' I think then you've got to say, er, look. we're dealing with serious issues here. Take the thing off on another track. I'm very conscious of this, coming up on our next tour. I don't want to spoil peoples fun. But it'd be good to channel some of things we do."
"Yet in another way, the song 'Real Gone Kid' is about Maria McKee of Lone Justice. I saw them play live at The Marquee two years ago. I only actually caught the last half-hour, but it was just all I like about gigs. Just the idea of Maria's spirit on stage, y'know? Some bands you watch and think 'that's interesting', others you want to be a part of it. Both can be very effective. But it's the communal thing I want to do. The gigs an event people take part in, and get blown away."
The solidly decent Ricky Ross talks a lot about the raw deal Scotland is getting from England, and what should be done. For the sake of getting on, let's just say his X isn't going next to the Tories for a few years. And another bugbear is that bunch of running dogs in the media, and in particular the music press. Do Deacon Blue, so simple and sincere, have a problem with them?
"We don't have problem with the press. They may have a problem with us."
But you're hardly avant-garde, are you? It's plain fare aimed at mass success and stadia. We tend to like things to be a bit more complex.
"Aye, that's right, and I think the press have a problem with bands like Deacon Blue because we're successful as well. They'll like what we're donig when we're not successful, especially people like your paper. It's incredible. When people sell records, their music doesn't just go to the wall. I take great issue with Melody Maker about U2..."
I've got time for them myself. But not 'Rattle & Hum', surely. It's drivel.
"No, I loved it! Really! I've never read so much crap about that LP. Your paper said, 'gospel music is crap.' I mean, who is writing this? I couldn't believe it. It's the most uplifting music there is, and a great record.
That gospel 'Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' was horrendous!
"No, no I absolutely loved it. And I loved the record, what they're doing. I can understand why people slate successful bands. But I think it's very immature. I think it's a security thing. People don't like to be seen liking something which is safe. They'd much rather be cool and trendy."
It's not as simple as that. We crave extremity from our entertainment. You don't even want Deacon Blue to be extreme, on an edge.
"Yeah, well. We're not junkies. We get played on Radio One. But over and above that, I make records which I am proud of and do shows which people come and see. Nothing has happened that's disastrous along the way. Maybe that's a problem. Maybe I should get pissed in public more. But I won't do that."
The very regular Ricky Ross, on the verge of being a major pop star, doesn't trust me and what I may write about him. He tells me he's only been stitched up once before ("And that was your paper as well"). He thinks I'm going to do it again and when he reads this he'll think I have done. It can't be helped. As we've said many a time, the Maker is hard but fair.
"Wages Day, y'know, is the kind of song I've been trying to write for most of my life," Ricky says. "I've been trying to get down to less and less, fewer and fewer chords and words. Like Bruce Springsteen, who I've a lot of time for - some of his best work was 'Nebraska', all so economical. I mean do these epic songs actually achieve anything? You can do it, eventually. It's like Samuel Beckett writing his novel on the front page of The Guardian. You can condense everything you're doing."
"You know, all this business, it's not about being famous. It's about a few years worth of good work. If you can produce one good album in your career, you've probably done 50 per cent better than a lot of bands. If you produce a couple, that's great. And three... well I believe we've made two really good albums."
Are you an extrovert, Ricky?
"Originally, I wasn't a performer. I've always been very happy to be outgoing, but people are strange. I tend to get very shy when I meet one or two people, but when I meet 7,000 on stage I don't mind it too much."
You like being the centre of attention?
"I like the fact that I can get my own way. Say what I want, do what I want. Have a channel to do that in. And I'd rather it was me than a lot of other songwriters I could name. Rather it was our songs on the radio."
Is the person up there on stage, the same person I'm talking to now?
"Certain things have got to be larger than life. I think there's a huge entertainment factor in music. Some things are blown up, humourous, on a stage. Others are stated more obviously. Or more subtly. Just so the point can be made. In the days of videos and large cinema screens, being on stage is slightly old-fashioned. So, certain things have to be kept alive, from the vaudeville days."
Does it ever make you think of your days before, as a teacher? Are there any similarities to standing in front of a class?
"Ah, keep the bairns occupied, y'mean? Keep em happy for an hour of two? No, I didn't believe in that kind of teaching anyway. We all did work together. I didn't even talk to them for a very long period of time. Ever."
Did you enjoy teaching? Or did you always want to escape into this?
"I didn't always want out. It was good while it lasted, y'know? It was okay, but if you wanna be in a band, you wanna be in a band."
And now you're set to be a Jim Kerr, or a... I'm struggling... Stuart Adamson. Ricky Ross looks amused and mildly ruffled.
"I think we sell a few more tickets that Stuart Adamson, actually! And make better records!"
It's the first time he's been less than decent all day.
As the interview ends and we sit and stare at the sea, at the gorgeous view of snowy mountains, the choppy waves, Polaris, Ricky is talking... about his admiration for Springsteen, the work Mark Knopfler is doing with Randy Newman, how Q is his favourite music magazine. It's all so easy. This is the world he wants to be in, and he's moving there, with quick, confident steps. He'll soon be as snug in that little world as Kerr and Sting. Looking back on the days of talking to the likes of us.
You don't think you'll teach again, then?
"No, I don't think I ever would. I suppose it would be a... return to something. I don't know what I'll do. It's not like I'm a pessimist, thinking this is all so good it can't last. It's not that. I enjoy what we're doing; I just think it shouldn't last forever, y'know? There are other things in life that are good to do. I'd like to do them. As long as the band ends before it falls apart!"
I'm sure it will.