The Re-birth Of Deacon Blue
M8 March 1993
Issue Number 48
Deacon Blue have confounded their critics with a dramatic change in sound, but it was more an accident than design as Craig Winn discovered from the normally publicity-shy lead singer Ricky Ross
When the music scribes sharpen their pencils and gleefully plunge them into your reputation, twisting the instrument viciously and tearing into the heart of a prized album you’ve slaved over for months, Scots bands usually collapse and die. Hue and Cry, Big Country, Love and Money... all have struggled to recover from that abominably received last album. Therefore it comes as something of a surprise when Deacon Blue transcend the blight inflicted on their mid-Eighties contemporaries and produce something the London critics are raving about. A smattering of the applause for the first single, Your Town, evokes the flavour of the Lazarus-like revival. “Oakenfold did it with U2 and does it again here...” said ID. The Face plopped the Deacons on the UP gauge on their Flavour of the Month barometer, noting “The new LP proves anyone can be reborn. Does that mean producer Paul Oakenfold is God?”
Well, if he is then God’s easier to talk to than Ricky Ross! For over a year M8 has tried vainly to tempt the notoriously reluctant interviewee to strut his wit and wisdom before our readers, but to no avail. Then out of the blue came the call, courtesy of a delayed holiday flight, Ricky scouring the airport newsagent’s for something to read and happening across a humorous interview with ace remixer Paul Oakenfold in January’s M8, on the revamping of the Deacon Blue sound. Suddenly ol’ Ricky’s forsaken the chore of packing the suitcases for next morning’s promotional trip to Italy and Germany, to nip down to a local pub for a quick chin wag with M8’s partners in criminal journalism, Winn and Graham. The pub, a quaint Glasgow howff, wasn’t Ricky’s first choice, the Holiday Inn being in closer proximity to his rehearsal studios. And therein lies a tale.
Deacon Blue’s press people, Partridge and Storey, form a sort of Praetorian Guard around the band and must be satisfied in triplicate before any miserable journo is allowed through the protective cordon. Who’s doing the interview? they inquire, (stopping just short of demanding birth certificates and passport sized photographs). What’s he written? Where is the interview to take place? What do you mean you want to bring a photographer along? Finally, on the afternoon of the interview, the pub location is compromised on, but no photographer. Will he recognise you? Will you recognise him? No problem, seen his picture. Thirty minutes after the allotted time of interview Bill and I vainly scan every stranger who enters the pub, suspecting a radical change of image or a complete non-appearance. When Ricky Ross does bound in and heads off in the other direction, he’s barely recognisable, concealed beneath a mop of faintly curly hair and John Lennon spectacles, a donkey jacket concealing a red polo neck, with ski pants and baseball boots covering his nether regions. Radical Ricky!
Introductions over, we seat ourselves in a deserted part of the bar where only a few months ago The Frank and Walters gladly posed for pics. (They’ll come back to haunt you one day lads!) Beers ordered, Ricky offers up Henry Winterman cigarillos, the sort one suspects Norman Lamont purchased in that off-license in seedy Soho. But I digress. Ricky doesn’t like interviews. “I just think they’re a waste of time. I don’t think there’s any information that’s important,” he laughs, possibly reflecting that the new album’s called Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.
So I thought, let’s approach this carefully, lull the bugger into a false sense of security with some easy questions, get him drunk and he’ll spill the beans. (Well, not quite, but it sounds devious enough for a journo!). So I throw a soft ball. Just off the top of your head, what film, book, and album would you recommend to someone? A film? “I haven’t seen any recently.” Just a film that sticks out in your mind, that evokes some emotions... “A film that... em... em... I suppose you mean the sort of film you would quite enjoy watching again and again (pause)... Well, I don’t know if I would actually (laughs and pauses)... I’m terrible at these things, I never go out... em... em... I never wholly enjoy films either to be honest with you (pause)... I honestly can’t think of one, hand on heart.” What about a book? (Pause)... What kind of book? You mean a novel?... Em...” What did you recommend when you were an English teacher? “Em (pause)... I’m just trying to think of a novel I’ve read and enjoyed (pause)... I don’t actually read a lot of fiction.”
And so, with all the success of a door-to- door salesman flogging a Betamax video recorder, I don size 10 Doc Martens arid jump right into the fray with the Big Q, the reason behind the apparent change in direction since Fellow Hoodlums. No doubt there’s some dark record company conspiracy behind it all. Ricky considers his answer carefully before replying. “Fellow Hoodlums was an album that people would really like if they like Raintown, people who felt kinda let down by our second album. I love Fellow Hoodlums, it’s the best album we’ve ever made, a return song-wise and sound-wise. At that point most bands have established their sound. I think Fellow Hoodlums would have done that for us for a lot of people, whereas what we’re doing now might a) drop some people that liked us, and b) bring in some new people. Ah, the need to attract a new audience is an interesting reason which fuels my conspiratorial notions. Wet Wet Wet were being written off prior to their last album because of their predominantly teenage appeal. They produced a mature album, made new fans and were flavour of the month again.
Deacon Blue had the opposite problem, a maturing audience. Fellow Hoodlums sold half as many as When The World Knows Your Name and attracted a considerable barrage of criticism from the music press. What was the impetus for the change in sound? The need to attract a younger audience? The need to sell more records? A bit of both? “I think most people are quite ambitious in certain ways,” he reflects, lighting up another Henry Winterman cigarillo. “Most people who join a band want to make a record and get on Top Of The Pops. Sooner or later most people do that. And then you think, well, where does that leave you? And I think you realise you’re actually quite ambitious and you want to take it somewhere you hadn’t imagined possible, to places where you think you’re pushing your luck a little bit, like America, all over Europe and so on. That’s one side of things. I think the other is the boredom factor, which is you get into a band because it was an interesting thing to do - for me quite a dangerous thing to do because I was older and essentially a songwriter; I didn’t really want to form a band. And I kind of realised one day I was pushing my luck anyway, being in a band and not being a particularly good musician. I’m pushing it having done three albums and trying to do four. So you may as well push your luck the whole way and make a fourth album that is actually quite adventurous.’
But this doesn’t satisfy my curiosity and I continue to press the point. Was the decision to attract new people by changing the sound purely a commercial one? “People are going to say that and subliminally it could be that that’s exactly what was happening. I don’t think that’s what happened. You don’t think of things as clearly as that at the time. I was more concerned with us being a band and staying a band and having fun being in a band. Points come along the way and you think ‘Is this fun? Is this what you thought being in a band was going to be like?’ And if the answer to that is No, then the time is really to get out of it. And if it’s not a big, big No, there’s something you can do about it. I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve done recently. It’s not just to do with enjoyment, it’s about really sparking and really pushing yourself hard because you just get lazy.
In choosing Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne, were you in anyway influenced by their work with U2? No. The only thing I knew they’d done was an INXS song which I’d heard, but I was so out of touch at the time. I had a chat with an A&R guy and we just piled a whole lot of names on a bit of paper that were kind of oddball names, David Byrne amongst them. We just wanted Someone to visit the studio every two weeks and be a kind of upsetting factor in the whole thing. So it came down to these two names and I vaguely knew that Paul Oakenfold was a DJ who had done things before. “With no slight on Paul, I wouldn’t see him as being the main influence on the record either, I think Steve’s input was 75% and Paul’s 25%. Steve’s a huge part of the deal. Paul’s very good at coming in and going ‘Yeah, I know’ to things, and they work together as a team. I think the logic of why they worked together as a team defied some of the band at the time because of how little Paul’s input was on anything.”
Persisting with that ‘change the sound, attract a younger audience and sell more records’ conspiracy theory, was the dance angle important? “You seem to work from the stand point that we set out to make a dance record, and the only thing we wanted to make was the next record. The Only reason that Your Town happened was because it was l25bpm and Steve said to me one night ‘We could do an interesting scam on this because I bet you people would never think in their lives that we’d dance-up a Deacon Blue record, and it’ll work.’ And that’s how we got into putting the club mix out.”
And so the big musical surprise of the year’s end amounts to nothing more than a Steve Osborne scam and not some dark, insidious conspiracy to repackage a middle-of-the-road Scots band with a declining fan base for a new generation of clubbies. Well, maybe Lee Harvey Oswald did kill JFK! But what will gob smack those fresh-faced raw recruits to Deacon Blue - drummed into line by Your Town - is Ricky’s opinion of said single: “On the Thursday of rehearsal I went in and I said 'Look, what we’ll do is work the songs in reverse. Here’s the worst song ‘cause I don’t think this song will work very well and I don’t know what to do with it. Let’s see if we can make something of this.’ And that was Your Town.” Hardened squaddies of Deacon Blue will be further gob smacked by the radical change in image: predominantly U2-inspired, a gold lame jacket adorning Ricky Ross who looks about as comfortable as big Justin Currie in a pair of girlie’s undies!
Previously Ross has obdurately resisted the promotional paraphernalia, proclaiming “In a perfect world I wouldn’t make videos, wouldn’t do interviews and I wouldn’t do photo shoots,” and only participated “literally kicking and screaming.” With the video, photo shoot and interview now out of the way, keen students of psychology may discern a persistent character trait in Mr Ross, that of refusing to do one thing for reasons of conscience or good taste, but over time, for one reason or another, doing just that. For if, as Oscar Wilde believed “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” Ricky Ross is neither unimaginative nor consistent. When Ricky says 'No’ he means ‘Maybe’. Example 1: A member of The Scottish National Party at 16 (though no longer), he supports independence, is a persistent critic of the Labour Party yet voted for the thorny Red Rose at last year’s General Election. Example 2: A few years ago he excoriated the SNP’s Jim Sillars and former Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ leader Jimmy Read for taking the tabloid shilling and contributing weekly columns to the Sun, yet last year Ross penned an article for the despised tabloid. Example 3: He has persistently vowed never to poke his head above the political parapet; but a month prior to last year’s general election, Ross, along with fellow muso turned politico Pat Kane, began informal discussions with Labour and SNP members to lay the foundations for a cross-party pressure group to commence the big push for a Scottish parliament after the (hoped for) Labour victory. Scotland United emerged from the ashes of the election debacle, committed to a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future.
Ross confirms the tendency to say one thing and do another when I enquire about how reluctant he was to get involved. ‘Very, really. It comes down to the whole thing, someone phones you up or you get involved in a situation and you think ( he emits a groaning noise). And then people say to you ‘But if you actually come along with us it’ll help.’ I’ve done it so many times in different situations and afterwards I’ve thought ‘I wonder if that’s true or not?”’ How much did the unprecedented interest and support for independence - 50% of the Scottish people at one point, according to the Sun - influence your decision? The old cliché goes “Politics is the art of the possible’ and that’s simply it,” he says, explaining his motivation. “That, combined with the Scots’ eye for the main chance. You have to find the moment and once the moment’s there try and use it.” Has it pissed you off that the Labour Party in London has absorbed the momentum created by Scotland United and vampirically sucked the life from the movement? “Yeah. I think both sides have. I don’t really think that either party has got a grasp on the amount of frustration and cynicism.
The Irish, they’re very cynical about their government. But the level of cynicism beginning to grow now in Scotland is astonishing. Cynicism doesn’t gain anything. Cynicism’s an indulgence, it’s not a movement, it’s something which disaffects people and people just drop out and that’s why it’s so dangerous. There’s nothing that the Labour Party or the SNP are doing that’s encouraging people to get involved in politics. “I’ve been, all be it a fairly well off one, but I still believe I’m a Socialist in my heart because I do believe if you go on television and the papers and actually argue Socialism it is a very palatable thing. I don’t have any problem with the fact that I might have to pay more tax. And I think the same goes for independence; you can sit down and argue it out, but if you start to present it as something which will benefit you and try and con people into it, then I don’t think it will happen.’
He is worried by the ‘Clintonisation’ of the Labour Party. “The idea that we can become what they have become, which is nothing, is ludicrous. That is a government elected to do nothing.” I point out, though, the astonishing optimism that Clinton has aroused amongst Americans right across the political spectrum, but before I can finish my point Ricky interrupts, almost speechless with indignation at my apparently ignorant observation, and reveals the passion that burns beneath the exterior. “See, that’s a classic media quote,” he jabs angrily. ‘you’ve read the papers and you’ve seen the TV: what Americans have you spoken to?” I reply slowly that I’d spent a month in the States at Christmas (though modesty prevents my mentioning the possession of a Masters degree in American Diplomatic History from an American university - no narrow minded rock journo me!!) and have left wing friends who hated Bush yet have been seduced by the apparent liberalism’ - the wind of change - promulgated by Clinton. The vested interests, the real movers and shakers, I argue, will continue to remain in control and there will be little change. Ricky rapidly backtracks. I take it back,’ he apologises sincerely. It’s the same thing with John Smith, who thinks that because he gets a polite round of applause at the City dinner, and the Bank of England applaud him, that suddenly he’s been accepted. As soon as he goes out the room, they know exactly what they’re going to do if this lot get into power. Yeah, I take it back, you’re right, I’m sure there are people who believe that because they see it on the TV in black and white, people dancing on the White House stage, that somehow it’s something else.”
He envisages a way forward for Scots through a combination of politicisation of the people and agitation. “And that’s why I think that Militant probably generate a lot of support because they actually involve people in the process of politics, which the Labour Party and other parties are not prepared to do. I have a lot of criticism of Militant and I don’t like the way they do things, but I wrote to Tommy (Sheridan) in jail and he used to write back, because I think that at the end of the day it brought home to people the lack of leadership they had. People want to see clear leadership, they want to see examples, a non-career leadership.” Standing down from the soapbox and putting away the political manifesto, we touch on matters spiritual and life-affirming.
“It’s a great time in my life,” he proclaims, and fatherhood is the reason why. His wife, Lorraine McIntosh, recently gave birth to a daughter, his second (he has a four-year- old by a previous marriage) and this has changed his outlook and approach to life “in ways you don’t expect,” for example filtering into his work as old songs, long discarded, are reappraised in a fresh light. If he has any regrets they are but slight. ‘I do wish I could do my career again, or a chance to do another job very quickly; do this for five years and try another job.’ One would presume that working with the trouble and strife would lead to just that, but apparently not. “It’s not what you set out to do, you think it’s probably not a very good idea to work with the person you live with.” He pauses to reconsider. “It’s funny, I used to answer this question by saying we go home and switch off, but we don’t actually. We often go home and talk a lot about what happened.” Ricky’s in such a relaxed mood that he doesn’t blow a gasket when the perennial criticism of his wife’s singing is alluded to. He laughs this off by pointing out that the critics formerly identified Lorraine McIntosh as the best thing in the band and suggested she leave and go solo! (Ironically, in an otherwise critical review of Deacon Blue’s new album in Q, Lorraine is singled out as consistently excellent’.)
A lot of the music criticism, especially in this country, is very immature, it’s written by a very young group of people who, sad to say, move on very quickly from music. A lot of people who were writing about pop music during the late ‘70s, early 80’s, they move on and don’t write about it anymore. And that’s a side of things you don’t get when you move out of this country. In America, for example, big, old wizened rock critics have been doing it for years. I’m not saying that’s necessarily good; a lot of them are so full of themselves that they’re damn sure that they’re right. Sometimes it’s good having young upstarts who think ‘I’ve just come off the streets and I’ll tell you what I think.”’ He wrote back to one critic, a friend, who penned a very vitriolic review of Fellow Hoodlums. “I’m glad I wrote it. I wrote the letter not in haste; I kinda sat down and thought about it because it was quite a hard thing to do and the guy had been a friend.
“Pop music is just another outlet of the Media. People see the Media as a warm swimming pool and it must be dived into and enjoyed. And I think you’ve got to be kind of wary. When all sorts of things open up to you there’s more of a sense of self- restraint and I think you’ve got to step back from things. I’m talking about the whole notion of the Media as a kind of animal. Suddenly you become a footballer, therefore you become a media star; you’re a DJ, therefore you can do a game show. If you switch on TV between the hours of 9 and 12 in the morning you have people discussing TV programmes and they have guest stars from other TV programmes comin’ in.” He laughs, “It’s like self-imploding, it’s this beast that needs to consume and consume and consume. And I tend to be quite sceptical about that and think that’s not my area, my area’s to be a singer and songwriter and to perform and make records.”
Two hours after the interview began, with Bill almost reduced to enquiring ‘What do you think the weather will be like tomorrow, Ricky?”, Mr Ross finally bids his farewells and vanishes through a back exit with a parting wave of the hand. His press people are gob smacked to discover that their reluctant interviewee had spent anymore than a few minutes beyond the allotted one hour slot. What do you think?” Bill enquires. Dry and sunny, I reply. But beyond that one final observation. A very passionate man lurks beneath the controlled exterior and this, I guess, is why he’s inconsistent because when the issue matters deeply- as in the case of Scottish independence - he allows his heart to rule his head. The pity is that too few politicians follow his example.
U2 flew into Dublin last year for the culmination of their Achtung Baby tour and proclaimed that they were ready to form a government and that the current Irish ministers should go on and form rock bands! If you had to form a Scottish government from pop stars, who would you choose for each position?
“People I could dominate! I’d be Prime Minister, obviously!!” Rod Stewart as Minster of Foreign Affairs? Ricky laughs and suggests an alternative position - “Sexual politics! I think Sheena Easton would be Chancellor of the Exchequer ‘cause she seems to have more dough than everyone else put together. I think the Blue Nile should have something to do with the People’s Charter because they are never here.
That piece of legislation doesn’t make any sense anyway and so it’s good the band are never here to listen to people.” What about Big Country? “Defense!” Runrig? “Gaelic Affairs. Mick Slaven, who plays the guitar very loud, should be Minister for the Environment.” Any other suggestions for Prime Minister? ‘I think in terms of vagueness, the vagueness of John Major, then Eddi Reader. Eddi must be one of the vaguest people I know.”