Political Popster Lays His Soul
Bare Beyond The Blue Horizon
The Scotsman 18th May 1992
RICKY Ross never struts the streets of his adopted city without camouflage. Hats, dark glasses, big coats and mufflers shield him from attention and adoration. Standing out from the crowd is exhilarating when bathed in the detached white glow of the spotlight high above 20,000 Deacon Blue fans. Half a dozen pointing fingers in the Byres Road Safeway are more intimidating. He squirms. All the world is not a stage for Mr Ross. But sometimes humiliation is a price worth paying. On 11 April this year, Ross left his disguise at home and disrobed — politically speaking — from the sun roof of George Galloway’s estate car. Megaphone in hand, rock star mystique abandoned, he urged dejected Barras shoppers to attend the first Scotland United rally next day. His wife and partner-in-song Lorraine McIntosh, six months pregnant, joined the rest of the troops of the Hillhead Liberation Front that day delivering leaflets. “It was our worst nightmare” says Ross, who admits to a high degree of discomfort when it comes to saltire waving. “But if we’re going to get anywhere we have to swallow this enormous pride both as individuals and as a country. We must go through this humiliation, even if people might make jokes about us.”
Since forming Scotland United with Galloway and assorted artists and trade union leaders, he has spent much time deflecting barbs aimed at the soft under- belly of political popsters like himself. Six weeks on, he appears relatively unscathed. He lives in bohemian splendour in a Victorian villa in Glasgow’s West End. William Mcllvanney is descending the path bordered with raggle taggle bluebells. They have been working together on recorded messages for Scotland United. “He’s in a good mood!” cracks Mcllvanney as we pass on the stairs. Ross beams the gap-toothed grin of his publicity photographs and invites me into the kitchen. We talk in a room with walls the colour of cappuccino froth, interrupted only by Florence the cat and the sound of Lorraine’s dreamy voice wafting from the kitchen. This is the study. It is sparse but contains plenty of clues as to the man’s motivations. A Christian socialist print from El Salvador, a nursery school drawing by Caitlin, his four-year-old daughter from his first marriage, a glossy black piano. “Faith, Hope, Work,” as he sang on Dignity. Artwork from previous releases reminds of material success. Deacon Blue’s second album, When The World Knows Your Name, sold a million. The last, Fellow Hoodlums, shifted 400,000, more than enough to go platinum. “I live in a big house. I’m doing very well under the Tories,” he says, surveying the room from his Le Corbusier-style leather and chrome chair. “That’s the irony of it. But the journey which brought him to this haven of Kelvinside chic untangles that irony. Not that he was born on the wrong side of the tracks.
Broughty Ferry is the right side of Dundee if you want to grow up healthy wealthy and dull. The Rosses had their own family business, were staunchly middle class. More significantly , they were seriously religious, members of a strict evangelical Christian Brethren sect who frown on worldly indulgences such as dancing and trips to the cinema. It was not the best background from which to launch into the dangerous wild world of rock. But the teenage Ross entertained no anarchic thoughts. Passage into manhood at the age of 18 was not marked by smashing cars and guitars but getting baptised, a decision he says he does not regret. “When I was post adolescent I read Brideshead Revisited and saw themes that paralleled my own life. I grew up with a huge belief, never doubting. In Brideshead, the Charles Ryder figure asks Sebastian why he believes and he replies: I just do!’ I was like that.” He says he did not excel at school. D C Thomson turned down his application to become a journalist, a memory which brought a smile to his face as he punched out a truly tabloid piece on Scotland United for The Sun last month. Instead he went to teacher training college and became a youth worker for the church when he left. That was when the questions started.
"The late seventies were a time of high unemployment. A lot of fundamental questions poked their way into my life, which were not answered by the way our faith was taking us. The whole thing about evangelicals is to preach the gospel and seek converts. I began to think, well, maybe the gospel is something bigger than that, something more hopeful. I wanted to hold on to my faith, so I moved to the Church of Scotland.” The kids he worked with were from the Hilltown in Dundee, “A lot of them I heard, have since died from drug-related problems.” After two years in what was basically social work, he left for Glasgow where he took up a post teaching English in St Columba of Iona secondary school in Maryhill. A career in music still had not occurred to him. “Most people decide to join a band at 17. I was 21 and assumed it was all over. The next step is working life and then you retire. “Although I was interested in music, there was still a bit of the Calvinist thing there, that it’s fine, but a bit of a luxury. I still had a missionary zeal at that time to do things.” Much of his time was spent on basic one-to-one literacy teaching.
“By the end, I was doing home visits. I encountered incredibly deprived
kids. One of the saddest things about school is that you touch people’s lives
so very, very softly. There was one girl I taught to read. We spent a lot of
time together. A lovely wee lassie who had a lot of mobility in her early life
and never picked it up. Years later I learned she had gone for an operation on
her spine and had died. I couldn’t believe it. I just kept thinking, what was
the point?” Coincidentally, he met the girl’s younger sister when launching
a book on poverty last year. Now she is recording a song with them: “She comes
round here for her tea.” He did not move out of teaching until a song-writing
publishing contract was firmly in the bag in the mid Eighties. The old Scottish
habit if “wanting something to fall back on’ dies hard. Even today, despite
the platinum discs, he admits to being momentarily paralysed by responsibility
when Lorraine broke the news of their forthcoming baby.
His late entry to the business might also have been related to his religious upbringing. Not because of the conventional “No drink, no drugs, no fornicating” prescription. “These were less important than an attitude that you get on with things and don’t get above yourself. In a sense they don’t want anybody to be famous. Some extreme examples would extend that to not even voting, not speaking on world issues, like the Amish in America.” Taking to the stage, then, was a revolutionary move, even while leading an exemplary life. Sticking his head above the parapet once, as a musician, was bad enough: “But in Scotland when you step out of the particular battle area and move to another part of the wall, people don’t expect your head to be there and it’s even worse. 'Don’t push your luck pal,’ is the message.” Recently he was attacked in print by an old friend, The Scotsman's Tom Morton, who grew up with him in Dundee as a member of the same church. “Clearly it hasn’t gone without notice that the man used to be a music critic. One of his greater assaults was that politicians only use us and people only listen to us because we are pretty’ and sell records ... I think that one of the possible reasons he wrote that is that he doesn’t sell records and people don’t listen to him ...
At the same time, he accepts that mouthing practical prescriptions is perhaps not the best way for artists to use their creative energies. What they do bring to bear is idealism, a quality often absent from the world of real politics. “It’s better for pop stars to point out the negative and look for the moral high ground, not the nuts and bolts. I’m 34, 1 think I’ve lived long enough to realise we’re in a very interesting position here in Scotland. Apathy and cynicism have seeped to the core of this country — the feeling that nothing will ever change. “I did not want to speak at the STUC conference, I’d rather not do any public speaking — I’ve got an album to make.
But it was an opportunity to bring politicians and non politicians together and that’s good. We must keep a grip on the movement, the politicians let us down before and we can’t let it happen again. “We wanted to build bridges, create a democracy movement for a fairer society. If I thought we could achieve that in the British union fine, but I don’t think it will happen.” At the beginning of Lorraine’s pregnancy. they were staying in a Belfast hotel during the tour when a bomb exploded next door. The shock focused his thoughts on broader concerns. “I thought, what does being in a bomb culture do to you? We’ve got this positive democratic tradition here in Scot- land. So why can’t we get it together? When I look back on it, that’s the atmosphere in which our child was brought into the world. Where will it lead?” He cannot afford to dwell on musical mortality. Ask the usual rock star question of where he’ll be at 40 and he laughs. “That’s so soon I could almost fit the tour dates in! Although a career in music is a very defined period of time, you cannot plan it. It’s got to be song by song, album by album. Part of him keeps going out of cheek, he says. If he was still a teacher in Maryhill. and reading about Ricky Ross , rock star, telling the readers of The Scotsman how to save their country, "I would be the most scathing man alive." But that's all part of the humiliating road to salvation. Politics as penance. Joan McAlpine