The List 12th -25th March 1993
Rock is dead, long live poppy, kinda dancey Deacon Blue, making the girls
scream and the critics re-examine their prejudices with that ‘different’
fourth album. Craig McLean follows them south.
Jings baby. Ricky Ross wears chiffon and hair-gel and Ricky Ross sparkles and glitters. Round the rest of his band the hand of a stylist hangs heavy, from the crew-cuts to the flouncy shirts to the sequins. Sunglasses are de rigeur. On the stage of the Clapham Grand Deacon Blue don’t play in their shades but they play in the shade, half-lit on the platforms on which they are variously arrayed. This is a club gig for Deacon Blue, 700 capacity, a warm-up and an introduction. and the way ahead involves shadowy drama, a cheapo car mechanic’s lamp, a tentacle- sprouting microphone stand, an overhead projector, and a piano that is a cross between a candelabra and a climbing frame. The pre-show intro tape culminated with ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’. The show itself climaxed with a cover of ‘Better The Devil You Know’.
This is Deacon Blue in 1993 and, as some other band has famously remarked, everything you know is wrong. Deacon Blue now dig Kylie more than Brucie Deacon Blue now do a single that has 125bpm and is a cult club cut. Ricky Ross now appears for an interview at 10 o’clock in the morning with bits of glitter on his face and in his hair. Whatever you say, say something. . . different ‘I think it’s just a way of doing something new,’ says Ricky Ross. It is Saturday morning in Pimlico. Last night was the second of Deacon Blue’s two low-tech, hi-tack showcase. gigs in London. Former vest-wearer extraordinaire, onstage Ross played the star- spangled star to perfection — girls screamed, the glitter flew and Ross seemed born again. But then, ‘I think I’m more at ease being me than anything else.
Whenever I try to be someone else I find it very difficult to do that. I think probably most of it is just me and I’m just a natural show-off and this is a new way of showing off.’ Acting a role and acting the goat. Deacon Blue, and Ricky Ross in particular, aren’t allowed to do this, because of their musical an imagical heritage and because another band beat them to it. Prior to Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, their fourth album proper, Deacon Blue’s stock-in-trade was their — and their songs’ — worthiness and plainness, betokening graft and honesty and a frill-free approach to everything they wrote, played and said. Ditto U2. Now, have Deacon Blue lost their over-worth’ pomp and their honesty with it, replacing them with a pumped-up approximation of what it means to be hip? Have Deacon Blue sought out a conferred coolness by roping in the ace, top dog, tip top Perfecto production team of Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osbourne? Last night a DJ saved their life?
Ross cackles and grins. ‘I imagined all these complete and utter cynics in the audience going, Exactly!’ Exactly! Deacon Blue are laughing at the cynics and more revelationally. lauehing at themselves. Around the time of Fellow Hoodlums Ricky Ross had said: ‘There must be some room for destroying the star system in pop music, some way you can have good pop music but you don’t need to become some big superhero.’ Now, has he embraced the gaudiness of it all, the oddity of a 35-year-old ex-teacher prancing about in strange gold shirts?
‘I’ve always been a great believer that there’s a lot of room there to do things and there’s an audience there for a lot of things and I think in a creative atmosphere there’s lots of room for different things.’ he fudges quite splendidly. Luckily, the music isn’t quite so hesitant. Were Whatever You Sax; Sax’ Nothing just a cheap exercise in hip-ifying a desperately un- hip band, the calumny surrounding the DB/Perfecto collaboration would be justified. As it is the songs stand up as the least self conscious and self-important that Ross has ever written. The band are underplaying, undersinging, economising where before aural excess ruled — ‘and that was the biggest challenge.’ Here, now, there is simple blues (‘Last Night I Dreamt Of Henry Thomas’) simple hope (‘Bethlehem’s Gate’), and not-so-simple warrant sales (‘Cut Lip’). The suggestion that the production mixing is in place to shore up flimsy empty writing and take the band to previously uncharted commercial waters carries little weight. Indeed, only the two singles, ‘Your Town’ and ‘Will We Be Lovers’ bear the blatant mark of Oakenfold and Osbourne, the dance sheen of double ‘O’ heaven. ‘If I felt there was some sense in which these weren’t the best songs I’d written, if we were tarting something up, then I think it’d be really worrying.’ says Ross.
It was the raw ingredients of Ross’s demo's that appealed to Paul Oakenfold: ‘I hadn’t really heard their stuff before and when I did I said. “No I don’t want to produce this”.’ He admits to doubts when the idea of working with Deacon Blue was first broached, but still agreed to meet Ross in December 1991 as the Fellow Hoodlums tour reached its end. ‘He had loads of songs and we said, “If we’re gonna get involved you’ve got to go all the way.” And he was really good about it. There's a lot of difference [between the old songs and the new songs], there’s a lot of balls, attitude, aggression, more in tune with what’s going on today than their old sound was.’
But why this change? Have Deacon Blue ‘done a U2’? Maybe, at a push, in the image stakes (although on a much smaller, less costly, less imaginative scale), but definitely not in the dance-remix stakes. ‘The funny thing is, I was halfway through the Deacon Blue album and I stopped to do ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’,’ Oakenfold recalls. ‘That U2 track was just dance — with Deacon Blue we were just making a good pop album, not a dance album. ‘It was never going be a dance album, it was going be a good pop album with a bit more attitude than Deacon Blue had previously. They definitely needed a change, that’s why I suppose they chose us.’ Moreover, possessed of a solid financial and fan-base, did the band veer off at a tangent for the same reason a dog licks its balls -. because it can? ‘I think that’s part of the reason, because you can do it,’ nods Ross. ‘But there’s also the whole psychology of being in a band and what it takes for a band to stay together. For some bands that might well be just keeping doing what they’re doing. But for us it’s definitely like: “Let’s actually put ourselves under some adversity!” And adversity’s always been good for us,’ he says, referring back to the struggle of their first, success-free year together and the trauma of convincing their American record company that When The World Knows Your Name just might have been a going concern.
When it came to writing this album context, not pre-planned marketing, was all. Where Fellow Hoodlums sounded humble and content, this one sounds raw, restless and shifty. The seeds of this were in part sown by Sleeper, a collection of songs that Ross wrote concurrently with Hoodlums — ‘Fellow Hoodlums was accentuating the positive, Sleeper was all the negative.’ In December 1991, playing Newcastle, Ross and Lorraine MacIntosh discovered that MacIntosh was pregnant. Over the next few months Ross became embroiled in the rising tide of Scottish nationalism in the run-up to the general election. Last June Deacon Blue headed a Scotland United rally in Edinburgh and that weekend Ross wrote the last track for Whatever..., ‘Hang Your Head’, ‘cos I was just in such despair.’ Rawness, babies, disenchantment — from this came the new Deacon Blue. ‘It’s just kind of focused now, it’s something we want to do and have fun with,’ says Ricky Ross, a writer driven by a fitful and restless energy. ‘I think because of my age — I was 28 when I did the first record — I’ve always felt like I’m running out of time!’ But not out of ideas. Whatever you say, say something... different. That, at last, is the Deacon Blue way. Craig Mclean