Silence Is Golden Spectrum 28th
Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross has never been the silent type. Love, religion, dignity, Scottish Independence......give him a topic and you'd be listening to him all night. But with a new album called 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing' has he finally decided to let the music speak for itself? Alastair McKay finds out.
FOR Ďdeaconí, the dictionary gives you an ordained minister immediately below a (Roman Catholic) priest; a lay official appointed to assist the (Protestant) minister, especially in secular affairs; or ó in a specifically Scottish context ó the president of an incorporated trade or body of craftsmen in a burgh. For Ďblueí, you get 26 different meanings, the most useful ones being: (no 1) the colour of an unclouded sky; (no 19) depressed, moody or unhappy; and (no 21) indecent, titillating or pornographic. It doesnít do to ponder the names that pop groups give to themselves. Any fan will tell you that Deacon Blue are named after a Steely Dan song. But you have to wonder, why that Steely Dan song? They might just as easily have become Pretzel Logic or Haitian Divorce. And then you wonder, why Steely Dan?
Ricky Ross has been through several incarnations. He has done the lay preacher and the man on the trade union platform, and he would now like you to believe that he doesnít put much store by what he does, that it is only pop music, and pop doesnít ó by definition ó add up to much. That point is arguable, and Ross is happy to argue it, albeit with hesitations and doubts. He seems anxious to avoid anything that might be deemed too definite. Sometimes he just seems anxious. What he says, with less than total conviction is ďItís just showbiz. Youíve just got to ... go for it.Ē Deacon Blue are one of the most successful Scottish groups of the last decade, yet they have achieved this without ever crossing into the broader consciousness, or winning critical acclaim. Ross has a notion that his success has aroused jealousy in Scotland. Yet he is hungry for views on the new album, then crestfallen at every piece of damning, faint praise. Itís easy to see why he is keen to test opinion.
Deacon Blue are a conservative group whose sales were sliding from around a million in the UK for 1989ís When the World Knows Your Name, to half that for 1991ís Fellow Hoodlums. On their current album, the group have abandoned their sound to the whims of dance producers Steve Osborne and Paul Oakenfold. The result is quite odd. Rossís vocals ó until now the spine of the sound ó are blurred and indistinct, buried under big drums and guitar which sounds like sampled Keith Richards. What they did before was a fairly straight take on adult- oriented rock, with nods to narrative-driven writers such as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. The songs on the last album were stories, here they are snapshots. To promote the package, the group have fashioned a theatrical stage show. It is expensive, but designed to look cheap. This ó and the way the albumís title, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, echoes the ironic sloganeering of U2 ó has led the unconverted to reduce Rossís project to one line: he used to want to be Springsteen, now itís Bono. The singer has heard this line many times. He didnít see U2ís Zoo TV tour, and his show is actually a steal from Tom Waits Big Time.
ďThereís two ways to do it. One, you can be the wandering troubadours and say this is how we are, or you play the game in some way. If you dabble with the media at all, you have to play the game a little bit. I used to resent that. I didnít want to do videos ... I was your wee purist, your wee Calvinist from Scotland, and I now think, well, maybe not. If youíre going to do it, letís do it with some fun.Ē The song that made Deacon Blue matter to a lot of people was a gauche thing, called Dignity, about a little man who dreams about saving all his money to buy a ship in which to sail away from his mundane life. The ship, in a laboured poetic device, is called Dignity. Though patronising to those not possessing the nerve or talent to be pop singers, Dignity has at its heart the kind of human concern which is the hallmark of Rossís songs. ďA song should have some sort of doubt in it. I was brought up in a really fundamentalist background, and thatís one thing that I wanted to move away from, because I felt that everything was so unified in that background. The questions were never asked or the uncomfortable bits were never dealt with.
So on a record like Raintown, a lot of the songs were about love and doubt and disaffection.Ē The fundamentalist background Ross talks about is the Brethren. He was raised thinking it was wrong to play football on a Sunday, and was 25 before he knew what The Golden Shot was. He has since left the sect, no longer goes to church, yet has never stopped believing. He is interested in the radical literature which came out of fundamentalist theology, and considers a book called Agenda for Prophets to be one of his major influences. ďI do think thereís some sort of sense of right and wrong, and I donít mean do this, donít do that, the small thing. I mean the bigger things. We were always taught Principalities and Powers was a devil behind the bush, dragging you into the cinema and the dance hall, but I do think, if you look at the City of London, and what goes on there ó itís these questions that you want to ask. If there is a just God, which side is he on? Heís certainly not on their side I donít think.Ē
This, and a habit of appearing on political stages, suggest that Rossís project is something less tidy than show business. Around the election he was one of the prime movers in Artists for Independence and Scotland United, and Deacon Blue have played their share of benefits. Ross has made some enemies by publicly supporting Militant campaigner Tommy Sheridan at Scotland United rallies, but also counts his local Labour MP George Galloway as ďa good guyĒ. The song Peace, Jobs and Freedom on the new LP, takes its title from the 1983 Labour manifesto (ďa good readĒ). ďI tend to vote Labour rather than SNP. But I think you can want independence and vote Labour, I donít think thatís an untenable position. ďIím 35, and my generation have this thing ó a certain set of values that weíve grown up with. We assume that somehow things are going to return to them. Iím now beginning to wonder whether that will happen. Things just seem to have moved. A lot of the things that are the sickness in western society do seem to be things beyond right and left. I think there is some sort of sense that Britain is just going down the tubes.Ē
At its simplest, Rossís view is that his generation had a sense of togetherness, which has been replaced by individualism and apathy about politics. To this sense of powerlessness, he adds the Scottish question, the- notion that democracy doesnít actually change anything. ďIím actually not that interested in the answer ó Iím more interested in talking to people about it. I donít have a line on it.Ē These, though, are the concerns of Ricky Ross the private man. Ricky Ross, the show business personality is engaged in a different project. An agenda for profits. ďWe want to make pop records, and the nature of a pop record is that itís a popular record. Itís like [William] Mcllvanney. You get good popular music and you get good popular writing. Itís success for Willie that his books end up in Safeway, and itís better that his books are there than Danielle Steeleís. Thatís the way itís got to be with Deacon Blue.Ē So is he really saying nothing? ďIf you look at an advert on telly and it looks like a really naff advert, thereís a reason for it looking like a naff advert. Itís going to hit home, and itís probably going to be more successful for that very reason. The reason that you donít like that advert is the reason that 20 million other people are going to go out and buy that.Ē He never did say what the naff advert was for. But 20 million Deacon Blue fans canít be wrong. Alastair McKay