Work Rest And
Vox May 1991
Deacon Blue returned from gay Paris to their Big Yin Glaswegian roots to finish their latest sonic cathedral of sound (it says here) in a church vault.
The Hebrew inscription on the wall of the former Kelvingrove church in Glasgow reads: "He who winneth souls is wise..."it's a sentiment that Deacon Blue might not necessarily agree with. For having wonneth nearly a million souls with their last LP, When The World Knows Your Name, they're back at Kelvingrove church - now known, in its de-consecrated form as cava studios - recording a completely different sort of album...
"There was certainly a sense of disappointment about that last LP," says singer and band leader Ricky Ross. "The record did really well.People bought it and we became a rocky singles sort of band - bright-sounding young things! - but the magical side of our first album, Raintown... somehow that was missing".in order to re-capture some of that magic,of course, there's no harm in being back in Raintown itself - "it's nice finishing your album at home," grins Ross - but the bulk of the new record was recorded in Paris at the studio Guillaume Tell - that's William Tell to all you out there who palare Piccadilly, but don't parler French. Ross stresses that it wasn't any sudden detachment from his scots roots which made the last album seem a bit flat. It's just that they planned it to sound a certain way ,and it turned out to be the wrong way.
"Up to the point of making the When The World...LP, and probably beyond it, we were still touring in student unions and clubs," he explains. "And when you're touring in that situation you still get onstage and wonder if everyone is actually going to stay at the front of the hall. So the idea of playing a concert hall tour, where people paid for their tickets and actually stayed to watch, that seemed strange to me. I felt I needed a way of keeping them there..."
In Ross' mind the way to keep the audience there was to create a new set of songs that were far more obvious and up-front than the rather more reflective pieces on Raintown."We were pushing it to go very rock'n'roll, and we were pushing it to go very pop," explains Ross, who, along with the rest of the band, was caught on the horns of a classic rock'n'roll dilemma.
"In the end," admits Ross, "we just lost a lot of cohesion..."which brings us to cava studios and the creation of a brand new Deacon Blue LP to be entitled Fellow Hoodlums.
On the morning we visit, Ricky and Mrs Ricky Ross - the band's second singer, luscious Lorraine McIintosh - are due to finish off vocals in the main studio with producer Jon Kelly (best known for his work with Kate Bush and Chris Rea). Meanwhile, down in the church crypt, in the cunningly named Studio 3, the rest of the band will be polishing up a brand new selection of B-sides, among them arguably the most startling track they've ever created.
Ross is first to arrive. Swaying into the rest room of cava, through a heavy oak door marked 'vestry', he's a tall, pencil-thin figure, pale as flour, with a huge grin scored across his mouth as if a child had drawn it there. His small, beady eyes glitter below carelessly cropped hair.
Ross's sheer enthusiasm for Deacon Blue has gone a long way towards driving the band from their humble beginnings, in Glasgow, during 1985 and '86. The band's keyboard-player James Prime,whose past playing credits range from John Martyn to Altered Images, linked up with Ross back in '85, admiring the singer's spontaneity. "Ricky likes instinctive things," says Prime."Songs that are rough and ready, warts and all - it doesn't matter as long as they're fresh. "
What the last LP taught the band is that spontaneity and enthusiasm are not enough to create a strong album - they also need a firm structure in which to work: a clear idea of what they're creating. That structure started coming together with Orphans, the album's last song.
"A lot of the time during that last album I would come into the studio and feel, 'well I don't really like this but I have to go along with it' - and I think we all felt that way," says Ricky. "The recording of the LP had ended up strung out over a whole year because we were touring so much and because the producer,Wame Livesy, fell ill. Even the original title of the album, Ooh Las Vegas, ended up getting lost somewhere along the way in America. So we ended up not even having a title; we didn't have a running order.
"All the things I like to have," laughs Ricky,"they just weren't there. "But that track, 'orphans', was the one glimmer at the end of the tunnel for me. "I remember that Ewen and I had been in that little studio downstairs and we'd done that track in just one day, and it was really 'Deacon Blue'... Jon Kelly has just started using this phrase a lot - 'what is and what isn't Deacon Blue?' It hadn't really occurred to me that we sounded like a certain thing, that there could be a 'Deacon Blue Sound', but I think there is and I think it's summed up on 'orphans'..."
Drummer Dougie (pronounced Doo-gee) Vipond agrees: "I think for me," he says, "'orphans' was the one hang-over from Raintown, spirit-wise. It was the one saving grace for me on that last album."The task, then, was to try to build from 'orphans' - to shape a brand new album from the elusive sound of that track. This required a little time for thinking and as Ross puts it "re-assessment". But as luck would have it, Deacon Blue earned themselves that breathing space with a double-album of out-takes - the recipient, finally, of that 'lost' Oob Las Vegas title - and an EP of Burt Bacharach songs, released last August, which shot meteorically to number.2 in the charts.
The EP came about, quite simply, as a way for the band to cheer themselves up. They'd had to cancel two tours because of illness - the second one after Lorraine contracted appendicitis - and James Prime suggested, out of the blue, that they record a selection of the Bacharach songs, one or two of which they'd already featured in live concerts.
"I thought, 'great, let's do something that we actually want to do and can actually enjoy', " says Ricky, "but the record company couldn't understand it at all. They didn't think there was a hit single on it."
Because the single was recorded for fun,and because they quite genuinely were not looking for a hit, the band actually refused to promote the record, or to appear on Top Of The Pops behind it, or (shock, horror) take up the offer of a Wogan interview.
But it allowed them a vital two-month break to do some serious planning. "There were lots of little bits of paper lying around, " says Ricky. "Little ideas for lyrics and songs...I wanted to sit down, get them typed up and actually review what I was doing.
"And the result was, that in Decemher,when I walked into this studio, I could hand everyone sheets of lyrics and feel, 'we really know where we're going here'. Because when you're not ready and prepared for something, that's when things can take a wrong turn..."
In a sound-booth in Cava's main studio,headphones clamped to his ears, Ross is re-doing a couple of verses of a new song, 'Your Swaying Arms'. Under-pinned by one of the catchiest bass-lines you're likely to hear all year it has a rhythm and a tempo to match its title.As Jon Kelly and his assistant periodically switch off the instrumental monitors, Ross's voice rings out across the studio, harsh, scraped and these days, highly distinctive...He lopes in from the sound-booth.
"That sounded good. very husky," says the studio assistant. "Did it ?" says Ross. "I can't tell. I always sound like that..."
'This, though, is a bit of a white lie. For downstairs, in Studio 3 - where the B-sides are created - James Prime, bass-player Ewen Vernal and guitarist Graeme Kelling are still chuckling over an extraordinary track entitled 'The Friends Of Billy Bear'. This features Ross in a roaring, bellowing impersonation of one of those big guys, beloved of Glaswegian fable, who crash through the bars of the city "giving people fear" - and are, like as not, fished out of the Clyde by a weir keeper after one-dozen too many whisky chasers. The contrast between this track and 'Swaying Arms' is readily apparent - but both are part of the same basic set of themes which run right through the twelve songs on Fellow Hoodlums.
"I wrote Fellow Hoodlums, which is a nostalgia song about a guy in Glasgow, and it caused two things to happen," explains Ricky. "First, the lyrics suggested a whole lot of other ideas - little things about Glasgow, incidents which might become songs - and I suddenly found I was getting back to being really happy here. Happy in this town, happy writing about it and getting deeper and deeper into the place and the relationships here. "I didn't want to just skin round the city or view it from a long way off, I wanted to get right under the buildings...Set the songs right in there amongst all the ebb and flow of it.
"And the second thing that happened with the Hoodlums track was that I found myself really struck by the arrangement: I started to hear the things that I liked about Richard Thompson's records in the '70s. The simplicity of it. A guitar, a bass, a drum, a vocal. I thought, 'when I go out to make this record, I want it to sound Iike that'. "
But for all the richness of Glasgow life reflected on tracks like 'Billy Bear' and 'The Day Jackie Jumped Jail', Ross insists that "Hoodlums is not an album about the city."It could be about anywhere," says Ricky. "It's more to do with people and finding that if you know a city, you can understand why people do things. "
The final piece in the Hoodlum's jig-saw came last year when Lorraine's father, Ricky's father-in-law, died suddenly at the age of 61. "Lorraine was obviously really shaken by it, and although it wasn't quite the same for me because I didn't know him as well, I knew him enough for it to be a really big thing. So there's a couple of songs on the LP which I wrote for him. One called 'Goodnight Jamsie', a very short song, and another called 'I Will see You Tomorrow'. "
Sad though it is, it is this kind of direct emotional charge that the last album lacked.There were some interesting song-stories there 'Orphans', 'Circus Lights', the inevitable 'Real Gone Kid' and 'Wages Day' - but a certain nudging intimacy was missing.
"Raintown certainly contained elements that the last album didn't," says Ricky. "A little bit of looseness, a little bit of space. Jon Kelly says that what we have - which a lot of bands find it hard to create - is emptiness and space. On the last album we found that space and clotted it all up again. But I don't think we'll make that mistake again."
"After the 'World Knows Your Name', I think the whole band felt it was much stronger because we all had more input," says Dougie. "But after listening to it, we realised it wasn't a band album at all, it was everybody throwing in things trying to create a space, trying to get their own bit to be remembered by, and that was so wrong. On the new LP everyone's definitely working for the common goal..."
In 'The TV room' a narrow, a triangular space buried even deeper beneath the church than Studio 3, Graeme Kelling and Ewen Vernal are eagerly discussing the possibility of getting up on to the building's flat roof. Scaffolding currently clings to the side of its 119 year old walls, and the energetic guitarist and bass-player plan to scamper up this...Graeme and Ewen joined the band in 1985 after paying their dues in a number of Glasgow outfits, but both agree it's taken till now for the whole group to really get to know each other.
"I think the new LP is far more assertive and confident as a result," says Graeme."There's a very healthy exchange of ideas whenever a song comes up, and occasionally it can get quite heated. Someone wants to go in one direction, Ricky wants to go in another, but eventually it comes out sounding like Deacon Blue anyway..."
Did they feel dominated by Ricky ? "Not particularly, no," says Ewen. "it's good to have someone like that, someone who has a clear direction about what he wants to do,musically. And Ricky's got so much energy, buzzing around saying, 'try this, try that' - he's not afraid of trying different things, you know?" Ironically, it's Ricky Ross himself who appears most keenly aware of the charge that he might cast too long a shadow over the band's albums.
An ex-English teacher and social worker, born into a strict Christian Brethren family in a middle-class area of Dundee, there's a sense of discipline and fair play about Ross which seems to have prevented him from launching off into any pop-star ego-trips and left him with a well-defined sense of fair play. He established official once-monthly band- meetings for Deacon Blue eighteen months ago because he was fed up with record company and management asking only his opinion and insists that the band is unique in that no-one is "held back".
"I think we're plodders," laughs Ricky, "in the sense that, as individuals, as people, as a band, we get there...There are one or two people in the band where there's absolutely no doubt about their talent and the fact that they could do things on their own. But what Deacon Blue are good at, and what I'm good at, is working together and creating something that's bigger than the sum of its parts. "
"I think we're all just dead proud of what we're capable of doing," adds Lorraine. "I remember we were in Paris and everyone was playing this new song in the studio, live, and it was just some of the best times we'd had all year. I mean you don't think about it. You don't think, 'will this be a hit single ?' or 'what will this be like at a gig ?' You're so into what. you're doing, you don't care.".
Mention of hit singles brings the chatter round, inevitably, to 'Real Gone Kid' - a single which only reached number 8 but must rank as one of the most memorable and most-played records of 1989...
"Well, one bit of it was memorable," says Doogie.
"Yeah, that'ooh-ooh-ooh' bit," frowns Lorraine. "My niece always sings it to me down the phone..."The band can't escape it, whereever they go, even in Australia...
"I don't know if you've ever been there," says Ricky. "But Perth, Australia, is one of the most cut-off places in the world. You've got to go miles before you reach any other town. Well we'd been there for about two days, we were just getting over the jet-lag and we decided to go out for a meal... suddenly down the.street came, 'ooh-ooh,ooh-ooh,ooh-ooh. I thought, 'oh no, not that, not here - we've spawned a monster..."
Article By Martin Townsend
Pictures by Ian Dickson