Ricky Sings The Blues
The Scotsman 1st June 1991
Ricky Ross, singer and songwriter of Deacon Blue, talks to Robert Flynn about marriage, politics, and the pressures of success
ONCE upon a time in the East, a long time before the world knew his name, a young Dundonian musician gave me a ten-track demo of his solo songs. This was in 1983, when many aspiring rock stars would crowd into the dank back room of Dundee’s Tayside Bar, a tiny but well-run pub near the city’s dock- lands which had an understanding and enthusiastic proprietor who allowed the post-punks to thrash out their three chords and others like Danny Wilson to hint at greatness yet to come. The Tayside Bar is no longer there, demolished to make way for yet another road, but the young musician is now part of Scots pop stardom. About a year after I received the tape, he had moved to Glasgow and formed a band called Deacon Blue. The aspiring song- writer’s name was Ricky Ross, ironically, the tape collection was called So Long Ago. I met Ross just after the completion of Deacon Blue’s third album, Fellow Hoodlums (which is released by CBS/Sony on Monday) looking slightly haggard and sounding a little hoarse after months of studio work in Glasgow and Paris. He was in ebullient form, pleased with the new album, which is replete with ground-level Scottish references as opposed to the high-flying Californialand imagery you might expect from a band at Deacon Blue’s stage of success.
I reminded him of So Long Ago, a collection which formed the vague basis for the demo that got him a publishing deal in 1985 and led to the formation of Deacon Blue from a range of Glaswegian musicians and their signing to CBS in 1986. Their first, still resonant, single, Dignity, followed, along with the debut album, Raintown, which referred directly to Ross’s new home, Glasgow. Although generally recognised as a prototype Glaswegian rock star, Ross was born and raised in Dundee, where he spent the first 25 years of his life before moving to the West, and the rain, initially teaching English and writing songs on the side. As he came from very middle-class background, attending the fee-paying Dundee High School, I wondered why he didn’t stick with teaching or become an accountant. Where did the rock ‘n’ roll come from? “I think what unifies everybody in the band is that we are all loners, real outsiders in every sense, says Ross. “Most people in rock ‘n’ roll have been like that. It’s sometimes formed out of misery and rejection. I was the classic wimp at secondary school, my nickname was ‘Sap’ and I was literally hated. “In a sense, rock music was this world I could retreat into. I dreamed of being in a band, I dreamed of playing at the school dance with my best girl by my side saying: ‘Look, I may not be in the rugby team and I may not be able to fight you but I may be able to move you.
Later in life, Ross gained the perspective from the other side of the desks when he taught for a short period before his “sideline” took over. ‘When I was teaching in Glasgow, I would have these kids pouring Out these amazing stories that they would never have presented to their peer group but would come to me in essays. “I could completely understand that. I went to a school that was highly academically orientated, while I was interested in the arts. You burn for that period of time. It’s like the Naked Civil Servant — the guy is completely humiliated but somehow finds a world that opens up to him where he feels at home.” Now in his thirties, he was no teen pop sensation. But a determination carried him through. “I was desperate to do something that allowed me to write songs,” says Ross. “I actually thought I’d end up as a house songwriter, writing stuff for Tracy Ullman or someone. But slowly, out of all the mess, the horrible rehearsals, curries under the bed, dirty vans and gigs, there’s a world you are at home in. Founding Deacon Blue and doing this job is like finding the niche I fit into.”
BUT sometimes the dream became a nightmare. Deacon Blue toured constantly in 1987 and 1988, very much a live band, a contact band which seemed at one stage never to be off the gig circuit, and the idolatry that eventually came their way was fought hard for. Signed at a time when Glasgow clubs groaned with London A&R men, a now almost mythical period when Ross and others like Hue and Cry found themselves sifting through contracts thrown into the ring by major record labels desperate to catch the new Scots pop wave, he found the pressures mounting to breaking point. “I think I maybe tried too hard,” admits Ross. “We came up on the college circuit, which is very gruelling. It was like a bar, a free disco, and Deacon Blue and I remember getting on stage and thinking, if we don’t do an up number now, everybody’s gonna go to the bar. Even when we started getting into the theatres, headlining, I still had the same mentality and it didn’t really strike me that these people had paid £10 a ticket to see us and that they might actually stay if we did a couple of slow numbers.
“In 1987, I had to come off tour at one point. I was going through some bad personal circumstances at the time and I just came off stage one night and couldn’t go back on. I just came off and cried for about a day, everything just came away from me. I remember Lorraine and Jim standing on stage willing me to say something or start another song. And I couldn’t. But I think we felt we were buying ourselves something special, getting an audience and the right to make the next album.” The next album, When The World Knows Your Name, was released in April 1989 and was a spectacular commercial breakthrough. The audience they had nurtured over two years paid them back by putting the album at number one, replacing Madonna’s Like A Prayer.
At the beginning of that month, the band played the anti-poll tax show at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and ended the same month with two benefit gigs for the Lockerbie Disaster Fund, both events highlighting Ross’s concerns and political stance. The subsequent 22-date tour, including three shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, sold out, and Deacon Blue were a name to be reckoned with. Yet Ross did not lose his awareness of political causes or his grasp of the social climate, incorporating comments in the shows that had a strident anti-Government hue. In the title track of the new album, Fellow Hoodlums, he feels a lot of those feelings are expressed although not immediately evident to the listener; the song is littered with Glasgow place names and a chorus that includes a mention of the soft drink, Tizer, a kids’ favourite from the makers of the drink “made from girders”. “It’s only now that Deacon Blue means anything specific to me,” says Ross. “It was always a spontaneous thing with all these disparate elements coming together. I didn’t really believe in a Deacon Blue sound until this album. It’s true that on your third album you get to do what you want and everybody feels comfortable together and you don’t get pressure from the record company. Making this was a breeze compared to the first two.”
The title was taken from a speech given by a Chicago mayor at the time of prohibition when he addressed his first meeting with the words, “fellow hoodlums”. “It’s really about being all in this together, like we’re all in this band, we’re all a bit rough at the edges but what we can do as a band is bigger than anything we can do individually. “It’s also very much about Scotland, we’re all up here and nobody really understands us. It’s all about images and a feeling of being quite lost. The things that brought us together have torn us apart, the unions don’t represent us anymore, the labour movement is dead duck, it no longer represents the poor or unemployed.
“It’s almost an anarchist song. It’s like saying f*** you all, I’m going to the top of that road with two bottles of Tizer and a box of fireworks and I’m gonna let them off. After ten years of Thatcherism, that’s maybe all we’re left with, to get from one point to another for the hell of it.” The singer-songwriter does not only rail against Thatcherism. Having toured Australia and America during 1989, a period which ended with Ross’s doubts about taking on the massive international circuit , "we’re just going through motions most of the time, wringing out the last dregs of material when there was nothing really there” — the band headlined the Big Day, last year’s Glasgow rock extravaganza, where, in front of 250,000 people in Glasgow Green, he raged against Labour’s attitude to Scotland, shocking many in the crowd and the nationwide television audience.
I got into big trouble over that,” says Ross with a hint of a mischievious smile. “I met Dick Gaughan afterwards and he said, ‘I liked what you said’ but told me that Campbell Christie had said ‘I take his point but why did he have to say it there?’ I really got sick of the way that Scotland was being treated. We’re such an easy touch, like a casual girlfriend for the labour movement : anytime they get chucked by someone else they can always come back and have a shag at Scotland. It’s like, we’ll always be there for you. I realised that one of the most precious things we have is our vote and that it was almost being taken for granted.” Ross has a genuine concern with such matters which could be mistaken for a facile hook into worthy causes. Yet Ross concentrates on his home country, going beyond pure rhetoric with his support of various home-grown causes and gradually forming a network of Scottish-based artists and designers to work around the band’s business, whether making videos or album covers. Having used Oscar Marzaroli’s photographs on the covers of Raintown and the first singles, Ross is very much a leading light of the Marzaroli Trust and organised the compilation album, The Tree And The Bird And The Fish And The Bell, the proceeds of which go to the trust. "It is wrong for a pop musician to just stand up and say do this and do that,” says Ross, but I feel I have a legitimate right to ask questions. I’m a big Springsteen fan and I loved the Born In The USA album, then Reagan tried to steal the song for one of his campaigns and Springsteen said nothing.
“I was really disappointed. I mean, Reagan was a terrible man, a wholesale invader of countries, so I couldn’t understand why someone as influential as Springsteen didn’t say anything, even on a personal level. To say nothing is a real abuse of your situation, and I feel if you’re up there you should say something. This country is being systematically crushed, experimented on and taken for granted. so if you have a voice you should use it.”
Is he, then, a nationalist? “Hand on heart, I’m a republican,” says Ross. “I would like to see an independent Scotland and a united Ireland. I’d really like to see a more democratic country. I could make declarations about South Africa but it’s not valid. I’m Scottish and very concerned about my country and I feel I should at least face what’s happening here.”
Over a year ago, Ross married Lorraine McIntosh, Deacon Blue’s long-standing backing singer, who has a track to herself on the new album, the cowboy junkie-ish “Cover From The Sky”. This is Ross’s second marriage, and the couple have had to work their life around an almost unique situation in rock circles.
“It is difficult, most people wouldn’t enter into it, but we both realised that what we both wanted in life was to work together and be together. I feel it’s a real shame that so many music and film artists can’t be together with their partners for long periods. We may be on the tour bus and the stage together, but you’ve got to make time to be a married couple and have private time which we try to create while still being part of the band. It’s good for me, because I don’t get off with being laddish with the lads and I’m probably the most in danger of going off into excess.”
Ross’s family were Christian Brethren, a strong evangelical faith, which influenced him in the early days and the death of his new wife’s father inspired one of the most telling tracks on the album, ''Goodnight Jamsie”, a tribute to “a larger than life man” and subsequently led to Ross examining his own beliefs on the closing tracks, “I Will See You Tomorrow” and “One Day I Will Go Walking”. Did he still retain his Christian faith? “Yes, I do, but I feel that doubt is as an important part of the gospel as faith,” states Ross. “There is such a thing as holy doubt and I wanted to ask questions. That’s the point at which people come to religion, in doubt, they don’t come on a high, they come broken. “The final songs on this album come closer to dealing with that than any others I’ve done. I was asking questions of myself. It’s just saying, that can’t be all there is, we will meet again. And also the idea of the songs is that it’s good to doubt, it’s good to search and fumble and even get lost occasionally. But the good thing is that at least you are looking for something and you may find what you are searching for. But it’s not an easy road, never is.” Robert Flynn