Glasgow Skyline Q Magazine August 1991
Deacon Blue: had a big hit that goes "ee-ooh ee-ooh".Absolutley hated it.Had a year of "Horrible vibes".Drank whisky and argued a lot.Made a new album.Talked to Robert Sandall.How was it? "A piece of piss!" Hooray!
IF A BAND'S SUCCESS COULD BE MEASURED in terms of gold, silver and platinum discs earned, then Deacon Blue have clearly had a lot of. The first sight awaiting anybody who toils up the four flights of stairs to their light and airy management office suite in central Glasgow is a large collection of those shiny but curiously unattractive - and, since all are framed and under glass, quite unplayable - LP-styled trophies. Some bear the title of their 1987 debut,
Raintown (UK sales in excess of 500,000), others tell of Ooh Las Vegas, a double album of B-sides, film tracks and radio sessions released last autumn.The majority, though, chart the commercial progress of Deacon Blue's second LP, When The World Knows Your Name, which is commemorated once in silver and gold and then again in three circular 12-inch slabs of platinum, the last of which has been scored with the figure, 900,000. An early indication that the group itself feels somewhat uneasy about all these glittering prizes is provided by their position in unsorted piles on the office carpet.
The next clue to Deacon Blue's current indifference to what the sales force might think is the appearance of their leader Ricky Ross, who strides into the room sporting a cropped haircut, more Herman Munster than matinee idol in its unflattering severity. This combines with his pallid, chiselled features and deep set eyes to give Ross a troubled, ghostly look, way out of keeping with the high-spirited, up-beat style of Deacon Blue's best loved tune, Real Gone Kid - the one with the "ee-ooh ee-ooh" chorus hook which we all probably remember whether we want to or not.
Ross and his co-interviewee, drummer Dougie Vipond, would prefer to forget that particular song too and most of the rest of the When The World session with it. Except they can't either. "I'm sure some people hate us just on the basis of that one track," Ross announces firmly, without waiting to be asked about it. "Everybody wanted us to make an impact with the second album and my thinking got very confused. The whole thing was geared to being harder sounding, more poppy, more radio-oriented. The playing was compromised by this desire to impress. Too much time was taken up in searching for sounds rather than thinking about songs.
We were very affected by other bands, wanting to show we'd covered the ground in the hope that so-and-so would pick up this influence or that. It just wasn't focused. And the most frustrating thing was that it wasn't what I really wanted to do. " By the end of 1988, what Ross thought he wanted, almost three years into Deacon Blue's career as CBS recording artists, was a hit. "Because hits guarantee your longevity. All you want as a working musician is a record that's going to take you through to making the next one. And if you can get three or four songs on the album that the record company think are hit singles, then they won't fuss. They'll leave you to get on with making the rest of the album in peace."
But what began as a sensibly pragmatic strategy to consolidate the slow and steady success of the debut, Raintown, swiftly came unstuck. After Real Gone Kid penetrated the British Top 10 in October 1988, thc making of the rest of Deacon Blue's second album degenerated into a committee-led free for all. Jon Kelly, the producer of both Raintown and their latest release, Fellow Hoodlums, had been de-selected in favour of Warne Livesey, chosen, according to Ross, because of his flair for "clever dick stuff".
Springsteen's mixing engineer, Bob Clearmountain, was engaged to make it all sound "more rocky". David Kahne was called in to pre- side over the controls for one number, Silhouette.
And rather than staying hunkered duwn in a single studio, as they had for the making of Raintown, they started the tapes rolling in Glasgow, London, Surrey, then flew to LA "to record in the sun. But we hated it. " The result was an album of neatly manicured but ultimately hollow pop/rock gestures which Deacon Blue grew to hate almost as much as they had LA. Outside of the UK, where it knocked Madonna's Like A Prayer off the top of the charts in its first week in the shops in April 1989, When The World Knows Your Name was a rather pre- sumptuously titled affair. Far more than any other act of comparable size back home, Deacon Blue's fanbase ends at Calais. America, where Real Gone Kid is still unreleased as a single, has barely heard of them. Australia, despite being visited, remains unimpressed. "Europe's dodgy as well, apart from Spain," according to Ross, a man whose plain speaking candour is his most engaging trait. "When we go to Europe, we're basically playing clubs, which is great to do. " Nowhere seemed great to do, though, after Deacon Blue had spent a year on the road, playing selections from that difficult second album.
Drummer Vipond talks darkly of mutinous discussions "between various members over a bottle of whisky late at night when you feel like you're getting things out of your system but you wake up the next morning and they're still there." Ross, though he insists that the band never lapsed into "the wasteful role model of the '70s juggernaut ' acts", concedes that the musical differences were getting quite personal. "At the end of the world tour, I thought I might quit. It took a year of horrible vibes before we could all finally sit down and have a soul-searching conversation. Then we came out and said, Look, this is shite. What are we gonna do about it?"
The answer, rather surprisingly for a "classic" rock band whose influences had always been previously suspected of the Dylan/Springsteen/Van Morrison affiliations, was to record an EP called Four Bacharach & David Songs, including I'll Never Fall In Love Again and MessageTo Michael. "For the first time ever," Ross reports, grinning hugely, "and after all the things we'd planned on the world dominating tours hadn't happened, here was something we all wanted to do which was just fun. I'd been listening to some old Petula Clark stuff (La Clark, famous for her string-laden rendition of Downtown, recorded a lot of Bacharach/David material) and thinking, There's nothing wrong with any of that. " Deacon Blue fans across the country agreed: the EP soared to Number 2 in the singles chart last August and helped to set the tone for the group's third album, Fellow Hoodlums.
It also brought their hitherto elusivc musical personality into sharper focus. "What we are, I now realise," says Ross, "is a lyrical, melodic, song-y kind of band. And the song is a very flexible kind of thing. It's not just like a bunch of people who sit on a groove and then come up with some catchy stuff to lay on top of it. It doesn't matter whether you crank up the guitars to whatever, or whether the snare sounds like a pistol shot. Production hasn't got anything to do with it. What matters is the song, and that you're really caught up in the playing of it. You could take a washboard and still make it work. I'm firmly convinced of that. "
With songwriter Ross's conviction firmly installed at the top of the group's agenda, ("Democracy isn't an important word for us really. Somebody has to be in control."), the new album enjoyed a speedy and painless birth. There were no demos, "because I felt they had killed off a lot of the spontaneity in the past." There were no synthesizers ''because they date so quickly".
The record company's advice was not sought on which songs ought to be included : "I just felt these are the best songs I've ever written. We can do anything with them." And there was no mucking about behind the control panel either. "Jon Kelly just likes people to enjoy playing; he has a great way of letting you express yourself, and he's very disarming. I said to him once, Aren't you worried about the hiss on this keyboard? and he said, How many modern recordings have you got at home with hiss on them? That shut me up." The album was written and recorded in less than three months between November and February. "This was the not all difficult and thoroughly enjoyable third album," Ross notes. "This was a piece of piss. "
In terms of its lyrics - a set of sharply drawn street scenes, leavened with softer-edged roman- tic interludes - Fellow Hoodlums is another instalment in Ricky Ross's love affair with his adopted hometown of Glasgow (he was born and bred in Dundee). Ask him what these 12 songs mean, collectively or conceptually, however, and the former youth worker and school teacher rather betrays his origins. "You're the journalist, you tell me. It's up to people to find those things out for themselves." Relenting later, Ross talks vaguely of the album's general drift, revealed in the title, "that we're all in this together, that we're all trying to make a living, and that if you want to be an artist, you have to work out ways of doing that too."
A politically "correct" respect for the essential ordinariness of everybody, and especially those who perform in famous rock bands, seems to be his point. Socialistically stern and Sting-like though it can occasionally sound, Ross's infatuation with all things Glaswegian is perfectly genuine. Deacon Blue record locally. Ross and his second wife, the group's vocalist Lorraine Mclntosh, wouldn't dream of living anywhere else. He evidently believes all the "city of culture" PR and talks animatedly of "the great writers, painters and musicians up here."
Ross is also a trustee of the Oscar Marzaroli Trust, dedicated to the life's work of a recently deceased local Scots/Italian photogra- pher. One of Marzaroli's elegant but mildly depressing snaps of the Glasgow skyline lives on in half a million homes as the cover of Raintown; and earlier this year Ross organised a compilation album, The Tree And The Bird And The Fish And The Bell, as a benefit for the Trust, "because I never manage to get along to any of their meetings." Some might find it strange, though, that Deacon Blue's third and most determinedly Glaswegian album should be so completely devoid of any traces of Scottish traditional music. Influences, from The Rolling Stones to The Nelson Riddle Orchestra, appear to have been flown in from everywhere except their own back- yard. "
But we didn't grow up listening to that kind of music," Ross protests. ''scotland isn't like Ireland. If you're from Ireland and you go to pubs anywhere you can't avoid traditional music. But Scotland is a different highlands and lowlands thing and in Glasgow we're an urban culture. Friends of mine who play in a folk group have to go out and research it. The only exposure I ever had to it was TV programmes on a Friday night. Two or three years ago I thought about doing a Burns song and it was such a struggle because I realised it couldn't be authentic. The music that I feel most comfortable with is ' pop music." In recent years, most critics have generally felt less and less comfortable with the carefully blended pop music Ross prefers. the But although the memory of some severe maulings - including one headline which ha( unkindly proclaimed, Let's Face It, They're Crap) still lingers in his mind, , Ross seems unscarred by thc experience.
"Look, I don't want people to buy my records because they've had good reviews, I want them to buy them because they heard them on the radio. And I dont want to be one of those acts the critics love who are famous for being ironic and taking the piss, what are you gonna do for the rest of yer life, pal? Did you pick up the guitar to be clever or so people will fall in love?" Ross's problem - which must also contain the secret of Deacon Blue's success
probably lies in his unassuming willingness to bow to the sources of his inspiration. He reveres the past rather than re-writes it. He doesn't steal he prefers to borrow. He is, in short, too polite and reasonable to be great. ''Anybody who knows anything about pop music knows that the great books have all been written, by Chuck Berry John Lennon or Lieber and Stoller," Ross remarks, in his informed and persuasive way. "I knew we'd never be flavour of the decade because we weren't setting out to do something really new. We were trying to be all the things we'd loved, which is why I wore a vest and played for three hours on stage, to see if we could beat Bruce Springsteen. ''I saw a promotional poster once which said, 'Nothing in the world sounds like Prefab Sprout' but I've never wanted us to sound like nothing The reason I like The Beatles is because they remind me of Chuck Berry. I want everything in the world to sound like Deacon Blue. And I want us to be full of all the things I like. " Robert Sandall