Deacon Blue : Britains Secret
Musician Magazine (USA) June 1991
May 5, 1990 marks a small but, he would like to think, significant event in the career of Ricky Ross, singer, songwriter and leader of Deacon Blue. Down from its home base of Glasgow, Scotland, the band was in Liverpool to sing ``A Hard Day's Night'' for ``Imagine -- The John Lennon Tribute,'' a less-than-impressive all-day event blessed by Yoko Ono herself.
``That day,'' Ricky Ross smiles grimly, ``was the final nail in the coffin of being with other pop stars. The only people who came out of it well were the Christians, who were really nice. The Americans were just so brash. At the press conference you wouldn't have known you were in Britain. The most obnoxious was Natalie Cole. During the press conference she answered all the questions `John and me.' I actually left the rostrum.''
Like many British pop stars -- okay, Brits, period -- Ricky Ross feels a little ambiguous about America. Loves the music -- he's a fan, no, disciple of Bruce Springsteen; his band has recorded a mini-album of Bacharach-David tunes; he even named Deacon Blue after a Steely Dan song (though they rank way down his list of influences). But he's not so sure about the people. The other paradox is that, while with the band's third album, ``Fellow Hoodlums,'' he has every intention of duplicating in America the chart-topping success its predecessors have enjoyed in Britain, he deplores the nakedness that comes with fame, and he deplores it with all the sincerity a Scottish Christian Brother of waxing years can muster.
``You have to entertain people, but you entertain people when you give them a record. You don't have to constantly be Sinead O'Connor,'' says Ricky during a break from rough-mixing ``Hoodlums'' at the band's studio in a converted church in Glasgow's Victorian heart. ``I really admire Sinead O'Connor, I think a lot of what she's said is great -- (telling off) the Americans. I think it's absolutely admirable. But I don't think I listen to her album without thinking of all that luggage, which is unfortunate.''
Lorraine McIntosh, Ricky's wife and co-vocalist: ``When she was first out and said all those negative things about U2, I thought, `This is really horrible, so ugly.' Since then I've been so impressed by her naivete yet strength of character. She's been willing to make mistakes in public and do what she believes is right. But I've been disappointed to read recently about how she lives in L.A. and has been to Prince's house for dinner.''
Wouldn't the Rosses go if invited?
``We can answer that question honestly,'' Ricky answers: ``No, we wouldn't.'' It seems that a celebrity invite has been received, yet declined. Lorraine is bursting to tell me from whom; Ricky prefers to draw a dignified veil over the subject (while he's momentarily distracted, she silently mouths at me what look like the words ``loose windscreen'').
``You've got to keep your dreams, your fandom alive,'' Ricky says; ``there will never again be anyone who means as much to me as pop stars did when I was a teenager. If you're a pop musician you can see how things work -- there's no magic. You know why someone's big.
``I could have walked in here and made quotable quotes, but it's just not important. In fact, I'm convinced it detracts from what you do. You can't expect your songs to be listened to without prejudice. The fact of the matter is people won't listen without prejudice -- because you were in a godawful group in your early days, and you made awful records. And still do. There's nothing other to say than we're doing a gig or making a record, and the whole thing about doing interviews now is you end up making that statement a hundred times!''
The bristling Ricky Ross was born in Dundee; as a teenager he became convinced there was no job more desirable than that of singer/songwriter. His upbringing in the austere Christian Brethren, however, led him away from showbiz temptation and down the paths of righteousness -- or at least to teaching English to children with behavioral difficulties. After work he played keyboards for a go-nowhere post-punk outfit called Woza. When they split, Ricky devoted himself to writing songs, only forming a band when required by the publisher who signed him. Thus Deacon Blue, whose lineup coalesced in 1986 as Ricky, Lorraine, bassist Ewen Vernal, guitarist Graeme Kelling, keyboardist Jim Prime and drummer Dougie Vipond. The 1987 ``Raintown'' album was the band's debut; CBS Records worked out a complex sales strategy, including a healthy touring subsidy.
Though in hindsight overblown and exhausting, Deacon Blue's three-hour marathon shows sold them to the U.K. audience. ``We came out of trying to vibe up student audiences,'' Ricky recalls. ``You'd work for five songs to get them from the bar closer to the stage. If you lost them for a couple of minutes, it was over. All the skills I learned as a performer, I learned in student unions. They're all quite vulgar and brittle skills. It's like being a stand-up comic or in vaudeville. But going from those shows to the Wembley Arenas without a gap made me want to reappraise what I do. Our shows became a monster and a lot of the songs unsingable.'' In `88, the single ``Real Gone Kid'' went Top 10. Ricky confessed it was inspired by the stagecraft of Lone Justice's Maria McKee, though he also says, ``That's a bit of a myth -- it's more to do with my wife here.'' In April `89 Deacon Blue's second album, ``When the World Knows Your Name,'' supplanted Madonna's ``Like a Prayer'' at the top of the U.K. charts, in Scotland outselling the nearest rival eight to one.
According to local wits, Glasgow didn't enjoy the Swinging `60s until the `80s. Last year, a great deal of money was spent hyping it as the ``European City of Culture.'' Deacon Blue's contribution was free: headlining the so-called Big Day, where a quarter of a million young Glaswegians turned out to see the cream of the city's musical talent. ``Pop music is probably at its best when siding with people, doing benefits,'' reckons Ross, ``a bit of good rabble-rousing. I think there's a place for getting people into a common spot and saying, `We all feel bad about this, don't we, so let's have a good old moan about it.''' The band, however, resists becoming known as a pillar of Glasgow's artistic -- or even rock -- community.
``We actively seek out people not involved in bands or the music business,'' says Lorraine. ``No offense, but it's a bit unhealthy to go home and hang with Wet Wet Wet or Love & Money or Hue & Cry. It's nice when you bump into them, but the idea of these people becoming friends . . .''
``Our families live here, we're comfortable here,'' Ricky says. ``It's like Woody Allen not going to California to make his films; you could happily see another 50 Woody Allen films set in New York.'' The new album, he says, ``is very focused on this part of Scotland.'' Lorraine differs slightly: ``We've all had it up to here with Glasgow at the moment. The themes in the songs are universal: people living and dying and going to heaven. All people in Glasgow will get extra is, `Ah, I know that street.'''
And what will Americans get? After two low-key mini-tours, Deacon Blue is determined to make it this time. ```Fellow Hoodlums' is a brilliant album, and we can't keep making brilliant albums yet do nothing in America,'' Lorraine sighs. ``He's getting old -- thirty-three -- and we don't want to keep doing this forever. So if it doesn't happen this time, then fine, it wasn't meant to happen.''
``Maybe,'' muses Ricky, ``I'd better bring a flight case for my toupee.'' Mat Snow