The Band That Came In From The Cold
TLN July/August 1991
Almost exactly four years ago, Deacon Blue were on the front cover of NME. 'Raiders of the Lost Art' was the headline of their first major, national coverage. The crux of the article being that the band, "along with compatriots like Danny Wilson and The Bathers... represent a refreshing new mood in Scottish pop". And what was/is this mood? "An emphasis on lyrical sensitivity and sophisticated musical resonances..." Anything else? "...a love of classic songwriting"
Way back in the glory days of '87, the front page claim was "Deacon Blue Lead The Scottish Invasion." Four years on, well... Namechecked contemporaries Danny Wilson went the way of all flesh before living up to their true potential - although their spectre will return this summer in the shape of a 'Best Of' compilation. The Bathers - they were always too wilfully obtuse and Chris Thomson too off-kilter to ever hope of being anything other than a left-field cult option. As for Deacon Blue, our heroes have slipped into the pop life jetstream almost by accident. Days of workers for councils and ships up the west coast seem a lifetime away. From a helpful boot up the charts from a Bob Clearmountain remix, to a battle cry recognised the world's theatres over ("wooh wooh wooh!"), Deacon Blue suddenly became, last August, the kind of band who could punt a collection of four covers straight in to the charts at Number Eleven (and ultimately climb to Number Two.) Now what was the last Scottish band to do anything like that. As Kerr and co. had drifted into a visionary hinterland, Messrs, Ross, Kelling, McIntosh, Prime, Vernal and Vipond had stepped into the big boys shoes. The biggest band to come in and come out of Scotland? Maybe.
Four years ago, Ricky Ross stated emphatically that Deacon Blue were "a rock band." A calling card he'd still stick by now?
It was always an expression that John Lennon used," says the guy with the gap between his two front teeth and a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo haircut. "When the Beatles split, he said, 'This is a rock band that's split up.' It's the first time I'd heard that expression. What I meant when I said that was that it's just a band, that's all it is.
"I remember there was an advertising campaign at the time for Prefab Sprout - and it always amazed me that people thought we were trying to be them - which I hated. It said, 'Nothing in the world sounds like Prefab Sprout.' And I thought that I would like an advertising campaign that said, 'Everything in the world sounds like Deacon Blue!' British pop music has always been obsessed with the Originality Factor. Sometimes it just gets in the way of things...."
Has Ricky Ross never heard the one about dangerous talk costing lives? To decry originality, particularly for this man's band, would appear to be wilfully reckless. Pistol seemingly aimed squarely at foot, Ross offers Deacon Blue's detractors - and these are a not inconsiderable bunch - manna from above. Like anything huge and successful - for example, America = Deacon Blue provoke extremes of reaction: boring, grown-ups' CD rock/pop music with mass appeal and integrity/ hideously catchy and commercial/classic rock 'n' roll in a rich tradition of songcrafting. Depending on your viewpoint and personal cool quotient, these are the aspects of Deacon Blue that either raise your bile or fire your spirit. To add to this the front man's implication that Deacon Blue don't give two hoots about originality is the icing on a particularly sweet cake for the bands anti-fans. These are those turned-off by the mega-success and mega-sound of the boombastic chart champion (in at Number One, toppling Madonna's Like A Prayer), the 900,000-selling When The World Knows Your Name. Commercial acclaim and its critical counterpart were a gulf apart. Ricky Ross knows this.
"Let me tell you the truth!" Ross laughs. "When The World Knows Your Name was done in very difficult circumstances. For a start, Real Gone Kid was released and a hit long before the bulk of the album was recorded. Already there was a benchmark for what the album was gonna be. It meant the album had already gone in a certain direction.
"It was a very complex album. It had all these songs written in one period mingling with songs from another period. I started the album in utter confusion. One part of me wanted to make an album that was kinda mid-eighties Scritti Politti,a 'perfect pop' record. Something that was authentic and all-conquering and big enough to stand up in a big theatre. And another part of me wanted to make a reflective album."
"Orphans (the album's 'reflective' closer) is like that. And that confusion is on the record. We went to Los Angeles and did some of these almost crafted pop singles. And it was just awful."
After the haunting subtlety and measured restraint that had made Raintown what is commonly referred to as a 'classic debut', its successor was relentless. Slip side one on the turntable and it's WHAP! Queen Of The New Year, WHAP! Wages Day, WHAP! Real Gone Kid. Ross acknowledges the gulf separating the two records.
"We went from Raintown, which was a joy to work on, I had some of the best times of my life on it... After that, When The World Knows Your Name was a misery to make, was not the album I wanted to make, and we were so conscious all the time that this was a compromise."
"But the songs that we've done for this one are the best we've ever done. I feel like we haven't compromised at all."
As much is self-evident on Fellow Hoodlums. This time round the hue is muted, the definition is fuzzy soft-focus. The theme seems to be death. Fellow Hoodlums is a record that eschews the bludgeoning clarity that came with the knock 'em dead rabble rousers of the last album (discounting the B sides 'n' all collection, Ooh Las Vegas.) As said elsewhere, this is a humble record -not a trait that could previously have been noted as part of the Deacon Blue psyche.
"One of the things with this record is death," says Ross, who as the band's main songwriter, will always set the tone of things with his lyrics. "The thing that is central to it was the death of my father-in-law, Lorraine's father. That was a year past January,and that was a big thing for me. And then there's James Joyce Soles, which is about the death of someone (a soldier - Gulf War prose?); while Your Swaying Arms is really about death and life and coping with loss, and optimism of future. The only point where I get to asking myself questions of a spiritual nature is One Day I'll Go Walking, which I can leave you to go and think about!"
The latter, the final track on the album, is a graphic incarnation of a glorious other world after life. This Heavenly picture aside, is the accent on death not, erm, all rather doom and gloomy? Ross product of a strict religious upbringing that he is, thinks nay.
"No no, I don't think there's any doom and gloom about it at all, because you have to face that kind of loss. Once it happens it's something that doesn't go away because it makes such an impact on you. Suddenly you've got to ask huge questions of yourself and other people. That's the subtext of the record."
Surprisingly,this finds echoes in the album's title, taken from a speech given by a newly-elected mayor of prohibition era Chicago. In a city and time where lawlessness was the law, civic head and gangland chief were presumably not a million miles apart. Up he gets to meet his audience, and launches in with the address, "Fellow Hoodlums...". The admittance of shady solidarity appeals to Ross.
"There's a kind of honesty about that," he says. "A 'We're all in this together' kind of thing, and I liked the idea of that. We're all in this together, none of us are going to go on forever. A track like A Brighter Star Than You Will Shine is like a personal agenda for me, as a singer in the group. Don't think you are important pal! There must be some room for destroying the star system in pop music, some way you can have good pop music but you don't need to become some big superhero...."
In a similar attempt to remain down-to-earth - again could this be the stadium rockin' Deacon Blue we love(d) to hate? - Fellow Hoodlums is firmly entrenched in the peoples mecca that is Glasgow. Nods to the likes of St Enoch's, Cowcaddens, Partick and Hampden and macaroon bars; maybe it's our closeness to the subject matter, but a chorus bearing a line about 'Going up Buchanan Street with a box of fireworks and two bottles of Tizer' (from the title track) is nothing if incongruous. Aside from the fact that not much rhymes with "Tizer" and that it's taste is far from universally appealing, the sheer cosiness of it all verges on the cloyingly parochial. Familiarity breeding contempt, I suppose. Ross remains unabashed.
"I like the idea of setting something in a place. The idea of a guy who jumps jail in Edinburgh and goes through to Glasgow (The Day That Jackie Jumped The Jail)... I'd love to be there when somebody puts that on in a bedroom in Kansas or in a car in Japan - assuming somebody buys the thing!
"There's a beauty about the place that you come from, an absolute wealth of imagery, a wealth of stories and a wealth of language. British musicians have always been intimidated by America, and I wanted to redfine that. Merge in what we've grown up with and what we know. If you start writing about things that happen in Barcelona, I think you've lost it!"
But such glorification of 'the second city of the Empire' sticks in the craw of non-Glaswegians. So it's a vibrant town and rich in character and the people are oh-so-friendly. Yet why the constant need of Glaswegians, particularly pop stars, to re-assert and re-evaluate what it means to live in the place? Nowhere else in Britain - or America for that matter - is there an urban jungle that has had so much moist-eyed pap written or said about it. Answer that and stay fashionable.
"I don't understand it," answers Ross. "There are too many things done about it, too much analysis. Too many nice couthy films going round filming tenement blocks - there is a lot of that stuff going on."
Lyrical niggles aside, Fellow Hoodlums is a Deacon Blue record destined to win over non-Deacon Blue-ers. There is no solitary track likely to beat you over the head with its own smug assurety. No obvious singles that will thump out as grandiloquently as their precursors did across the turf of some stadium...
"Urgh,please don't use that word, whatever you do!" Ricky Ross grimaces. "I always got really offended by that because I felt we didn't actually do that sort of thing. But because of the nature of the music we were doing at the time and because we were becoming successful, because we did Wembley Arena and those other places, you are open to the lowest-common-denominator factor. And I just really hated it. I actually lost friends through doing that, we all did."
And any lingering cred with the taste-shaping (hah) music weeklies, whose emnity for 'Scottish popsters' Deacon Blue only sharpened.
"That was really hurtful for a long time last year, really bad," he admits, clearly more wounded at the press reaction of his band than hitherto displayed. "I really felt that a lot of these people didn't actually know who we were. Probably people just knew us from these singles,and didn't know the other side of us. That's our own fault. But I feel that we could put this album out and we'd stand and fall on that alone."
Fellow Hoodlums, featuring Deacon Blue - most definitely not coming to a stadium near you.