4 Front January 1992
Vernal, Deacon Blue’s bassist, I slouches hack and replaces the lid of the king-sized bottle of Paracetemol he’s just raided in an attempt to allay the king-sized hang-over he’s all too obviously suffering from. “God, I needed those”. Must have been a good night. As 1991 and the Fellow Hoodlums tour both draw to a close, Deacon Blue certainly have something to celebrate. Sales of their latest album, which entered the charts at number two back in June and has already spawned four hit singles, show no signs of slowing and the tour, like all of Deacon Blue’s tours since 1988, has been sold out for months.
‘Last night was the eleventh gig of the tour” says Ewen, slowly stirring the hot, black and very expensive coffee being served-up in the lounge of Newcastle’s newest hotel, The Copthorne. “The tour finishes on New Years Eve in Glasgow. The way things are going, several other things will he finishing that night: several lives, our careers...
Careers which really began to take-off hack in 1987 with the release of the band’s brilliant debut album Raintown, a disc which set the British music press digging deep for worthy superlatives. Unfortunately Raintown proved to be something at a double-edged sword for Deacon Blue. Although responsible for winning the band masses of fans, Raintown also became the yardstick against which the music press chose to measure all of Deacon Blue’s subsequent offerings. As far as the critics were concerned, their next album When The World Knows Your Name suffered badly in comparison with Raintown. To most of the music hacks concerned, it was a case of could have tried harder’.
With their next album, Ooh Las Vegas!, being mostly made-up of B-sides and unreleased studio demos, Deacon Blue entered 1991 with the sense of promise which had been hanging over them since Raintown still unfulfilled. It has only been relatively recently, with the release of Fellow Hoodlums, that the hand themselves believe they have finally laid the ghost of their debut to rest. “Yeah, I think we’ve finally got over that problem now.” says guitarist Graeme, looking a damn-sight healthier than his companion. “Actually I went down for a swim this morning and the second album was playing throughout the whole building, which wasn’t a very pleasant thing to wake up to. Seriously though, there are a lot of things that have been said about the second album in the past by various members of the band which haven’t been that complementary, but it’s impossible to get away from the fact that it’s representative of what we were doing at the time.
“What a lot of the music press failed to realise when When The World Knows Your Name was released was that we never were going to make another Raintown at that point because so much had changed. Raintown was a collection of songs which were written over a long period of time, up to five years in some cases. After Raintown, the whole Life of the band evolved and changed. We started to get more and more involved in touring so the whole pace of life changed. In effect it meant that we had a year to write the second album, as opposed to a whole lifetime for the first.
Was it a case then of touring so much causing the band to lose touch with the subjects they were writing about “Hmm...yeah.” nods Ewen, “That might have been one of the points that made the second album not as good as it could have been. Perhaps that’s why Ricky was disappointed with it. The last album, I think we’re really pleased with the content, the lyrical content. what it said about Ricky as an individual. If we are at all closed off in any way, if there is an element of that, it’s certainly not conscious. We certainly don’t feel part of a little elite group of people who do one specific thing to the exclusion everything else.”
Fellow Hoodlums too was released at a time when much about Deacon Blue was changing. Although in 1990 they had sold out just about every huge arena/exhibition centre venue in the country, for their 1991 tour they chose to return to the smaller theatres they had worked some three years ago.
“Basically, it just wasn’t working in the arenas” says Ewen. “It certainly wouldn’t have been appropriate for us to go back to them with the material from the last album because so many elements of that kind of gig are far too impersonal. “Looking back now” he continues, “I think we did enjoy playing in those bigger places, but at the end of the day, you don’t relate to the audience in the same way, you lose something. When the back row is a quarter of a mile away from the stage it’s difficult to build-up any kind of rapport with them.”
Graeme continues: “I think there’s a definite ‘right’ number of people for us to play to, somewhere between two and three thousand. Beyond that the gestures have to start getting bigger and you lose some kind of subtlety, you lose the chance of any subtlety.”
So it was a case of not wishing to compromise the act then? “I suppose so, yeah” nods Graeme. “It wasn’t a conscious compromise, but after a period of time it’s like ‘Oh, wait a minute, something’s gone, something’s disappeared from what we were doing.’ It wasn’t so much from a sound point-of-view as people suppose, more how it felt to go on stage and actually deliver the songs. I think in the theatres there’s at least the chance of retaining some kind of subtlety throughout the show.”
With the change in venue has come a noticeable change in the whole of the set. Many of Deacon Blue’s fans were disappointed for instance that for most of their shows, they chose not to perform what to many is the band’s anthem, Dignity.
Graeme pauses. “A lot of the older stuff did go but you’ll find that it’s slowly starting to creep back in there; not to the point of saturation, but there you go. I think it’s only right that the shows — should he mainly representative of Fellow Hoodlums because it's our most recent album and it’s the one we like the best. It’s an album we’re really in love with, the music is still so so fresh to us. Perhaps a song a like Dignity isn’t quite so fresh and dear to our hearts as something like James Joyce Souls. So, as much as we enjoy playing those older songs, and the set is peppered with them, the basic idea was to go out and play Fellow Hoodlums in those theatres.
Many journalists have commented on how on the development of Deacon Blue’s style from the sometimes low, mournful sound of When The World Knows Your Name to the more upbeat, happier Fellow Hoodlums. “I’d agree with that” says Ewen. ‘The album sounds happier because we’ve never had such a good time recording an album. We spent a month in a studio just outside of Paris, this lovely picturesque town with a wee cafe across the road where you could buy the best croques in France. The studio was really good, it had all of the stuff we wanted and the people were nice, extremely professional. As a result, it really helped us to feel relaxed, and confident enough to make the album we wanted to make. I think it worked extremely well.
“There was also the added advantage of our all being together for the whole time. We decided before we started the album that we should go somewhere different as a ‘unit’ because when we work in Glasgow, there’s always the temptation to finish early and just go off home. When that happens, we don’t hang-out together so there’s no common idea, no thread running through. There’s much more of a focus if we’re all in the same place, living out of each other’s pockets.”
For a band who do a relatively large amount of touring and already spend a tot of rime together, perhaps being forced together once again to record could he a bit of a risk couldn’t it? I mean, don’t the hand find that they’re getting on each other’s nerves sometimes? It does happen to the best of us, after all. “Yeah, occasionally there’s minor conflict but they usually end-up being quite productive. If there is some kind of contentious point then inevitably the quickest way to make a decision is to discuss it collectively. We try to sit around it the beginning and talk about what our hopes are for how we’d like each album to sound. It’s like ‘Anyone for a Cajun album - little or no interest?”’
‘What we’ve always found is that if everyone is in on the decision making at that early stage, the decisions stick. Deacon Blue is definitely a democracy, although I suppose Ricky has more say than the rest of the band because he writes the lyrics. In any Democracy there has to a boss, someone who calls the shots. Whatever decisions we make, it always comes out sounding like Deacon Blue, it’s always us”.
Much of the reason for Deacon Blue’s material having such a strong identity is down to Ricky’s lyrics. Throughout the hand’s career, most of their songs have had a strong Scottish identity with allusions to life in Glasgow often creeping in. With all of the band, with the exception of Douglas who shares his time between London and New York, still living in Glasgow Deacon Blue are still very much a Scottish band. Not only are they a Scottish band, they’re a very successful Scottish band, something which for some reason seems to be coming more of a rarity these days.
“I suppose that’s true, yeah says Graeme. “There was a peak about three or four years ago when a lot of Glasgow bands in particular were all signed up at once. There was this flurry of activity which produced bands like Love and Money, Hue and Cry and The Proclaimers - scores of bands getting signed up. But just lately, they all seem to have been dropped, as if the industry’s lost interest in Scotland or something. Hopefully it’ll happen again because there are a lot of young nands up there who are immensely talented.
“The problem at the moment with Glasgow though is that when you’ve got bands the calibre of say, The Proclaimers or Hue and Cry that’ve been dropped, it means that they’re having to go in and play the smaller, grass-roots venues that the smaller, younger bands should he playing. The result is that you get guys of maybe seventeen or eighteen who’ve just picked up a guitar and can’t find anywhere to play because the ‘medium-sized’ bands are playing the pubs and cafes. It’s not a healthy situation when bands which should be successful aren’t, it creates problems for everyone.”
Ewen leans forward. “By not playing those smaller gigs, the young bands aren’t getting a chance to learn their trade” he says. “I’ve seen Young bands on TV, eighteen year olds who’ve experienced the same problems. They might he vastly successful but they haven’t got the experience to realise that the little fat guy who’s supposed to he looking after them is making so much money it isn't true. we're lucky in that respect because basically we were a bit long in the tooth to be ripped-off I guess - at least I hope we were!”
So are the band satisfied with the amount of success they’ve achieved so far or is there still some burning ambition they’ve yet to realise? “The way I see it” answers Ewen, “is that any kind of success you achieve has to he put into context with everything else that’s going on in your life. There’s no point in getting carried away with it and making wild boasts about what we are or aren’t going to do. Yeah we’re successful, but take America, for instance. Great place for a holiday but the chance of us playing huge tours in vast indoor arenas? Pretty limited at the moment! For all of our success in Europe, our US album sales are dreadful. So there you go”.
My tape clicked to a halt just as Ewen started on his third black coffee. The conversation continued, un-recorded, for a while, the boys discussing how Glasgow has changed over the last twenty years, French croques and the weather. It would have been very easy to forget exactly who was talking, here were two nice, ordinary guys. Success certainly doesn’t seem to have adversely affected Deacon Blue. “Nah” laughs Ewen, “nothing really affects us that much anymore.