Back And Blue!
Rockworld April 1993
Out with the old, in with the new! Deacon Blue have dumped the safety net of smooth productions to embrace the world of hard-edged dance styles for their new album 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing'. Colin Irwin goes to Glasgow to discover why...
I'm a big fan of Neil Young and I always remember him saying after 'Harvest'
that when people thought he was middle of the road his inclination was to
drive into the ditch. I like that maverick spirit - that ditch was very
interesting, even if it took him ten years to get out of it. I'm a great
believer that sometimes you just have to change things to create something
new..." Deacon Blue are gathered around a long table in a convivial pub in
Glasgow discussing the demons that led them to throw out tried and tested
formulas and basically start again. After a decade of regular success and
an enviable niche in the lucrative soft-rock market with reasonable expectations
of gradually carving out a Simply Red type stadium following, they decided
that safety and complacency were the enemies and they'd do whatever it took
to regain their miissing edge.
So they drew up a short list of the unlikeliest producers they could possibly work with and decided to throw themselves at their mercy. Top of that list were the gurus of British dance music, Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne, responsible for albums by Happy Mondays, Neneh Cherry, Arrested Development and Massive Attack, and a team with as much in common with Deacon Blue as Princess Diana and Axel Rose.
'We didn't know them at all, we didn't have a clue whether they'd want to
do it or not," says singer and main songwriter Ricky Ross fondly warming
to his pint and his point. 'they were literally the unlikeliest people we
could think of to go into the studio with and we wanted to do it with them
because we felt we needed that shock to the system and someone to push us
and to stretch us to new things.We didn't want to make a logical next step,
we wanted to make a bigger leap forward."
So the Osbome/Oakenfold Perfecto team were duly approached and were surprisingly receptive to the crazy idea of producing Deacon Blue. 'We thought they'd be saying things like 'It's shit, innit, it's got no tumtables!' but they weren't like that at all, they were very nice. I think they wanted to do something different themselves. They'd been bracketed in this dance thing for so long and they didn't want to do the second Happy Mondays album because they felt there weren't any songs, so they were pretty keen to hear what songs we'd come up with. So I felt they were really pushing me to come up with some really powerful material." Of course the experiment wasn't entirely painless and required the band to unlearn a lot of things and dump many existing values they'd fought long and hard to establish in the band.
Making an album with Oakenfold and Osbome was - is - a huge risk...which is exactly why they wanted to do it. 'there were a few barriers when they first came up to Glasgow. Steve would say things like 'Play like you're a bunch of 17 year-olds in the studio for the first time - pretend you're some thrashy garage band from Seattle'. I just thought what the fuck's he on about? I've been to Seattle once and I stayed in a hotel the whole time!' "So for the first couple of days we were arguing the whole time, but that was really good and we built on that. We did the album in three sessions and at the first in London Steve put his foot down and if he hadn't I think we would have fallen into the same old traps. He just said 'Let us mix a couple of tracks the way we think they should be done and if you like them we'll carry on and if you don't we'll forget it.' So we didn't even go to the mix of those tracks 'Your Town' and 'Only Tender Love' and let them get on with it. In the end we didn't think Your Town' was quite right, but the basic thrust was there and we just added a few things; but we thought 'Only Tender Love' was great and we left it exactly as they'd mixed it."
The result of this bizarre pairing is their new album 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', which should shake up a few of their old fans brought up to admire their smooth pop sensibility...and grab a few more rockier ears who previously wouldn't give them the time of day. "Obviously it's a risk, but we're excited about it, REALLY excited about it and I hope we can take our audience with us. You can't be standing still all the time....sometimes you need to change to develop. Bands need to change, they really do. Otherwise......" , He, trails off with a shrug of the shoulders, taking refuge once more in his pint, while a blast of Celtic bagpipe music in the background drowns us all out.
Certainly their enterprise and daring at a time in their lives when most bands elect for the soft option deserves our admiration and support. Various marriages and babies have been arriving in the Deacon Blue camp over the last couple of years (Ross and his amiable wife, singer Lorraine McIntosh have themselves been blessed with child) and the runaway success of lush singles like 'Real Gone Kid' and the Bacharach /David covers EP might have steered them irrevocably into Yuppiedom. 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing' should certainly change all that, although they still pride themselves on the strength and richness of their songwriting.
The quality of the songs was the ingredient that stood the band apart from the rest when Ross first got together with Ewen Vernal, Graeme Kelling, Douglas Vipond, Jim Prime and Lorraine Mclntosh to name themselves after a track on a Steely Dan album. They had their first hit 'Fergus Sings The Blues' in 1989 and have scarcely looked back since, though they say that touring around the time of their second album 'When The World Knows Your Name' was a miserable experience as they encountered the usual intemal conflicts of a band coming to terms with fame.....and one another.
They even got on the celebrity charity show circuit for a time, including an appearance on the bill of the Lennon 'Imagine' concert in Liverpool, an excruciatingly embarrassing affair rescued by the fund of anecdotes it produced. "It was awful - set up by Americans for Americans about the American John Lennon. We played 'Hard Day's Night' but it was at the time the Madchester thing was happening and we did an Inspiral Carpets version of it. But we did have a police escort to the gig and it was one of our great thrills that we got to share a minibus with Al Green. And we met Yoko!"
One of the most intriguing tracks on the album is the haunting 'Last Night I Dreamed Of Henry Thomas' and the question most regularly being asked of Ricky Ross right now is who exactly is Henry Thomas? It turns out he's an obscure blues singer from the Twenties and his voice is sampled on the track. "There was no big story about who murdered him or whatever like there is about Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith, but it's just an image, it's not really about Henry Thomas at all, it's about....er....life and death." Colin Irwin